“I Am an Obsessive Collector of Photography Books”: DP Alejandro Mejia on In the Summers
Each summer, the sisters at the center of Alessandra Lacorazza’s Sundance 2024 premiere In the Summers visit their father in Las Cruces, New Mexico. The film spans several formative years of the sisters’ lives, and their father sometimes struggles to keep pace.
Below, cinematographer Alejandro Mejia, whose recent credits include Stolen Youth, discusses shooting the film, including how his love of photography books helped inform the film’s look.
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?
Mejia: I think it was my artistic and realistic approach to the story. Dan, one of the producers, saw my work in the feature film Son of Monarchs that was at Sundance 2021 and contacted me through my agent at 9AM to send me the script. I really liked the story and got together with Alessandra, the director and screenwriter. We immediately developed an interesting connection and similar visions of the project. I joined without a doubt.
Filmmaker: What were your artistic goals on this film, and how did you realize them?
Mejia: The artistic goals of this project were to give each chapter of the film the correct visual language in terms of color, camera movement and composition. We were able to achieve it with great collaboration between the production designer Estefania Larrain and my team. Larrain, the director Alessandra and I had extensive conversations about color palette, references and locations. I also want to mention my gaffer, Makoto Matsuo, who helped us create the light atmospheres necessary to tell the story.
Filmmaker: How did you want your cinematography to enhance the film’s storytelling and treatment of its characters?
Mejia: The most important thing was to help the story feel realistic and make you connect to the emotions that were described in the script. The best way to achieve this was by finding a balance between the camera movements, which varied by chapter. The selection of lenses and camera came after several tests where we found the Alexa 35 in combination with the Arri Moviecam lenses worked really well for our film. Finally, we developed the lighting style for each chapter and created the different looks with our colorist from the preproduction stage.
Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, or photography, or something else?
Mejia: It was a combination of several things. Fundamentally, we reviewed the work of various still photographers. I am an obsessive collector of photography books and I normally like to share those kinds of references with directors more than films. I remember that we reviewed the work of Michal Chelbin, specifically his book Strangely Familiar, we also reviewed the work of Esko Männikkö in his book Mexas. The atmosphere of Las Cruces, N.M. itself and our locations were also a great source of inspiration.
Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?
Mejia: One of the biggest challenges was that our story was divided into chapters that could not always be filmed in chronological order. Scenes from different chapters were filmed on the same day, which required being well prepared and in tune with all the actors and crew members. There were several scenes at night with cars and stunts involved. Those choreographies required a lot of prior preparation.
Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?
Mejia: Arri Alexa 35 with Arri Moviecam lens. The Arri Alexa 35 was our first camera choice because of the latitude and color science behind the sensor. It was the perfect tool for the conditions of the project. The lenses have an organic look and possess a nice gentle softness and, combined with the Alexa 35 soft nostalgic texture, we found a look that was perfect for our story
Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.
Mejia: Our lighting approach always came from a naturalistic standpoint and had subtle but powerful changes during the different chapters. From the beginning we wanted to incorporate hard light because of the location, time of year and the story. We normally see a tendency towards soft light, and in this case we choose to embrace what this desert place Las Cruces offered us.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?
Mejia: The most complicated scene was a car accident at night in the desert because it obviously required us to put our light sources in places where there is practically nothing, using a large softbox created by 10 sky panels mounted on a Condor crane, which we achieved thanks to the support of the incredible local New Mexico crew.
Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?
Mejia: The creative collaboration between Kath Raisch and I began in preproduction. We worked together to create a look that was the basis for the final correction. Something important for me was to avoid the classic yellowish, almost-sepia look that has been established for places bordering Mexico. In the final correction suite, our process was much more fluid, as we had already established the look. This allowed us to fine-tune the details of each chapter, and, in the end, we achieved a very solid final grade. Kath is a great artist and I feel very lucky to have collaborated with her.
Film Title: In the Summers
Camera: Arri Alexa 35
Lenses: Arri Moviecam
Lighting: Arri Skypanel 360 & 60s, Arri M18, Light Bridge Cine reflectors, Creamsource Vortex
& Micro, Astera tubes and natural light
Color Grading: Kath Raisch, Company 3, DaVinci Resolve