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“I Would Cry Every Take We Shot”: DP Carolina Costa on Heroic

A line of Mexican soldiers in camouflage uniform stand in a neat line with an Aztec pyramid in the background.Heroic, courtesy of Sundance Institute.

The sophomore feature from writer-director Carolina Costa, Heroic examines the brutality of the Mexican military through the experiences of 18-year-old recruit Luis (Santiago Sandoval Carbajal), a cadet at the Heroic Military College located in the rolling mountainside. DP Carolina Costa talks about her experience shooting the film, which proved to be incredibly emotional.

See all responses to our annual Sundance cinematographer interviews here

Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the cinematographer of your film? What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job? 

Costa: This is the second film I shot for David Zonana [the director of Heroic]. We had the shorthand developed already and David really trusts me! David likes to create movement within a frame and most of the scenes in his scripts are designed to be shot as single shot masters. That is a hard thing to achieve, and sometimes it takes me a minute to figure it out, but David is really respectful of that process. Plus, David likes planning and thinking through every little detail which I love too. I think it felt like a natural progression in our collaboration to go from one feature to the next.

Filmmaker: What were your artistic goals on this film, and how did you realize them? How did you want your cinematography to enhance the film’s storytelling and treatment of its characters? 

Costa: In our first collaboration, we really learned how to trust the actors (and natural actors) on how to create depth within a single frame through blocking. For Heroic we expanded that language and added more movement to the camera. It was important to have precision in our frames as most of the film is single shots. 

The location was also a character and we studied that place for months — the idea was to show it as a metaphor for the conflict between man versus system. We wanted the external world to be a reflection of the interior world of the characters so lighting was a key element for that. For example, even when it’s night and the house bulbs are on, they aren’t a nice comfy feeling, they are harsh and we added some green to them too. The framing in the group shots were essential to help express the toxic masculinity in their world, so we used mostly wide angles (16mm and 18mm).

Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, or photography, or something else?

Costa: I think there were two films that were our main references — A Prophet and Full Metal Jacket.

Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?

Costa: To start, the location was hard to access and for that reason we had to stay there most of the time. Then, the weather was pretty inconsistent because it was so high up and it was the rainy season in Mexico. Then you add COVID as well as a lot of the scenes that needed a high number of background actors. But in the end, we all quickly became family and everyone worked extra hard because they believed in the film.

In terms of cinematography, it was tough because the lighting package was really small. That posed a challenge since we had so many night scenes.

Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?

Costa: We shot with the ALEXA Mini 3.2K and Zeiss Super Speeds. The camera moves not for spiritual or psychological reasons, it’s much more visceral. So, the size and weight of the ALEXA Mini really helped us move fast. Due to the fact that most scenes are single shot masters, the composition had to be extremely thoughtful and precise. We rehearsed each shot many times before doing the takes. Again being a lightweight set up gave my camera operator the chance to keep going. The speed of our lenses was essential since our lighting package was pretty small and we had about 60% of the film happening at night. We shot about 80% of the film with wide angle lenses, such as the 16mm and 18mm. I am very familiar with the ALEXA Mini and I feel comfortable shooting in higher ISO and pushing it a bit further, I really love the texture in that world. The exteriors of our location were rich but the interiors were basically bare white walls, so adding that “texture” on camera was super important. 

Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.

Costa: Heroic has a naturalistic approach to lighting, which created its own challenges; and our lighting package was really small. But instead of thinking “how can we achieve this?”, I was determined to lean into our story and world to help design the lighting style. For example, when it’s day, the daylight enters through the windows. So, we basically controlled the available light. A lot of the time, it was about negative fill instead of adding lights. At night, basically we lit the household bulbs. We had them all wired to a panel so that we could dim them up and down as the characters moved through the spaces. We then added some green into those lights — the idea was to replace the cozy warm feeling of tungsten bulbs, with a “sickening yellow”.  

Once these lights are out, the “moonlight” enters. That was really tricky to achieve as the dorm is basically just white walls. There were a lot of bouncing HMIs through white MUS breaks. As well as letting some parts of the frame go into real darkness. 

The dream sequences are a key element in the narrative and it was a fine balance shooting those, because we didn’t want them to feel like a “fantasy,” they had to feel real yet strange. One of my favorite dream sequences was when Luis shot the generals in the heads. We wanted the light to look and feel very similar to the other night scenes in the dorm, so at the beginning of the shot it looks like our moonlight that we all saw before, but as we approach the shooting moment, the light is harsh and source-y. It’s supposed to feel strange — it proved to be a challenge since it is a single shot and we used the 16mm, so I couldn’t hide lights anywhere. It took a lot of creativity and thinking on this one. I also love that you can see the other cadets coming on the edges of the frame, but it’s dark, they feel like ghosts, and that is a great metaphor for these young men.

Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?

Costa: The scene in which the main character is forced to beat up his friend is one of my favorites. It wasn’t on the script actually! But, the way we work with David is that in the last week of shooting we did re-shoots for some of the scenes and he’ll write new ones. It was a challenging scene to shoot because of what is happening to Luis — I would cry every take we shot.

Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI? 

Costa: The way we shot with a higher ISO meant that we had a certain look baked in, and we carried a few camera tests at the location to test colors and “grain.” But the DI really helped us hone in into some details, like making the warm lights feel “sickening”, the moonlight being more “silver and green” rather than “blue and purple”.


Film Title: Heroic

Camera: Alexa Mini 3.2K

Lenses: Zeiss Super Speeds

Lighting: HMIs, house bulbs, Source-4 and one DMG Dash light

Color Grading: Davinci Resolve

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