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“Simplicity Would Become One of Our Fundamental Rules”: DP Ximena Amann on Sujo

A young Mexican boy in a t-shirt holding a stick turns toward a snake.Still from Sundance 2024 premiere Sujo

Sujo, the Sundance 2024 World Cinema Dramatic Competition premiere directed by Astrid Rondero and Fernanda Valadez, follows the life of a Mexican boy who is orphaned when his father, a cartel gunman, is killed.

Below, cinematographer Ximena Amann, who also shot Rondero’s previous film, The Darkest Days of Us, discusses the challenges and delights of working with children and shooting in a protected natural area with minimal equipment.

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?

Amann: Astrid and I went to the same film school and have collaborated together ever since. In her graduation shot film (In Still Waters, 2011) we met Fernanda. We had a great experience together and decided then that we wanted to develop more films. I think we complement and trust each other and together we can create something we believe in and love.

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?

Amann: One of the main goals was to have a naturalistic approach to the story, with minimal use of film lighting equipment that would be perceived as artificial in the image, so our main sources of light were natural or present in the scene. We built our main location (Nemesia’s house) so we could design the positions and size of the windows and built the fireplace to use its light at night. We also needed to be flexible to react to the naturally occurring events and capture the interpretations of the children and nonprofessional actors. We wanted to create the feeling of ancient magic where nature was the main element. It was an arduous and complex process involving a lot of adaptation and understanding. Astrid and Fernanda helped me realize what was the right path for the story and came to the conclusion that simplicity would become one of our fundamental rules. It wasn’t easy because it means taking away certain tools that give you security on a set, but the final result was totally worth it.

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

Amann: We tried to stay away from “cinematic” references because we wanted to find our own path. I think the biggest influence was the painting style of Andrew Wyeth and the documentary but deeply atmospheric still photography of David Alan Harvey and Alex Webb.

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

Amann: The little children were a delightful challenge, as their naturalness and wonder took us down an endearing and beautiful path. We had to be very careful not to create too much attention around the camera or the filming process so that the children could concentrate on the scene. Another challenge was the area where we shot. We had to be as un-invasive as possible out of respect for the place (a protected natural area) and the need to preserve its atmosphere in the film.

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

Amann: Being part of a project with Astrid and Fernanda is a very close collaboration that comes from a very specific vision on their part. We talked a lot about the characteristics of the available cameras: sizes, weight, latitude, color response, etc. They are multi-task and all-terrain not only in creative areas but also in technical areas, so the dialogue with them about where we wanted to go with the image was very direct and clear. In the end we decided to use RED cameras because they fulfilled our technical demands. The V-raptor was our main camera, and the Komodo the B camera.

We used four still photography optics, one for each chapter of the film. We sought unity and cohesion between chapters but also wanted for each one to have a subtle personality and character of its own. We looked for lenses of all types until we found the ones that, due to their characteristics, seemed appropriate the chapter and for the story.

Zeiss Jena – Part I
Minolta Rokkor – Part II
Canon FD -Part III
Leica R – Part IV

Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.

Amann: We went many times to see the locations where we were going to shoot. We studied them at different times of day and decided at what precise time we were going to shoot each scene. I’m a big fan of preparation and I share that with Astrid and Fernanda. The correct time of the day was very important to capture the essence of the places and give a powerful atmosphere to the scene. I tried to use very few to no cinematographic lights at night. Lighting the nights on this film was one of the greatest challenges I have had so far in my career, it left me with many reflections and learnings.

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

Amann: I think each scene had its own level of difficulty, particularly with children, who are unpredictable but who constantly gave us ideas to incorporate into the scene. One of the scenes that I remember the most was the children’s bath. Because of its context, in the end the directors handled it like a game, and it was very beautiful.

We did it with two cameras, with a minimum of artificial lighting and only natural sources. We moved like “ninjas,” looking for the best angle without stopping the action.

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

Amann: Much of the look was given from the camera. We wanted to respect the colors of the landscapes and skin tones as can be interpreted by the lenses. That’s why we were very careful in choosing them. Most of the effects in the more abstract parts were done in camera or composed very simply in the editing. Only a few were left of VFX. We think that gives the film a feeling of closeness to some kind of magic.


Film Title: Sujo

Camera: RED V Raptor and Komodo

Lenses: Zeiss Jena, Minolta Rokkor, Canon FD, Leica R

Lighting: Astera titan, Nyx, Aputure bulbs, Light bridge.

Processing: DaVinci Resolve

Color Grading: Baselight

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