“Light Cannot and Should Not Limit the Movements of the Actors”: DP Diego Romero Suarez-Llanos on Reinas
In the midst of the chaotic Alberto Fujimori dictatorship, two girls and their mother plan to leave Lima for the United States, but they first attempt to reconnect with the estranged father. Such is the premise of Reinas, the third feature film by Klaudia Reynicke (Love Me Tender, The Nest).
A proper emulation of 1992 Lima was of particular importance to the filmmakers. Below, cinematographer Diego Romero Suarez-Llanos dives deep into the lighting schemes the filmmakers used to pull it off.
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?
Romero: This is the third collaboration that I have done with Klaudia. First, we shot a film together, Love me Tender, and then we also filmed part of a TV series, La Vie Devant. l think she is one of the most interesting young voices—with a multinational background—in European cinema today. I think we got along quite well, and we share a vision both in the way of work and with our tastes regarding cinema and other arts.
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?
Romero: The most important thing for me, and I think also for Klaudia, was to transport the viewer to Peru in the ’90s. As it always happens when a story is shot that is not contemporary, the difficult thing is to find the balance between the realism of the time in which events are happening and the current techniques and aesthetics. For us it was clear that we did not want to make a film honoring or copying the aesthetics of the ’90s. Of course, there was documentation on what type of light was used in the streets and in the houses, so the idea was that it was the art direction, the costumes and the colors of the practical lights that would transport us to that Peru where the entire plot takes place, but that they would do so with the technique and aesthetics of the years in which we live—that is, 2024.
The idea that I always try to carry out to the letter is that light cannot and should not limit the movements of the actors, I hate the idea of putting marks on it (that’s where the idea of shooting the entire movie on a hand-held camera comes from, so that I can adapt myself as operator to them and not the other way around). Of course, it is not an easy task for the focus puller (especially considering the fact that I always shoot with the diaphragm quite open, between T2.8 and T4, which means that the depth of field is very shallow so that all the attention is about the characters), but I have to say that we have rarely had to repeat a shot because of the focus.
Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, of photography, or something else?
Romero: Before starting to film, in the preparation process, Klaudia sent me a mood book with visual references. Most of them were not strictly cinematographic references. Many had to do with still photography photographers like Joseph Szabo (for the frames, especially his photographs with girls in the beach) and William Eggleston (for the colors, framing and exposure).
Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?
Romero: Peru is a country where there is a film industry like in Europe (if there is one). Local producers are looking, very bravely, to be able to meet the demands of a production of this size, but the problem is that a lot of the material cannot be found and you have to create them yourself. The frames and fabrics (diffusion, black, etc.) we had to look for in local markets, and the gaffer, Kiko Boyero, that I brought with me from Spain did a great job, in combination with local electricians, to be able to have everything necessary to do the job. I think we have achieved it. Both Kiko and I could not be more grateful for the great work of the local team, both in lighting and camera and in production.
Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?
Romero: I worked with the Alexa Mini LF and with the Zeiss Supreme. I started my career shooting film, so I had to adapt to the digital world, like most cinematographers. At first I was not very convinced of the result of the new cameras until Arri came in with the Alexa, and since that moment, whenever I have been able to and they have let me (due to budget), it is the only camera with which I feel comfortable since I find very little difference between shooting in digital or on film (the dynamic range, the color, the ergonomics, etc.). I have already made 16 feature films in digital with the Arri, and this is the second one I have made with the Mini LF, and I can’t wait to work with the new Alexa 35. I am sure that it will not disappoint me.
As for lenses, I have always been a big fan of the Zeiss Ultra Prime, which I find to be very honest lenses (since I found very little difference between shooting at T2.8, T4 or T5.6 or with different focal lengths in terms of contrast and definition). But as soon as the Supreme series came onto the market and I was able to do some comparative tests, I was delighted with them. This is the second time I have used them in combination with the Mini LF, after Il Boemo by Petr Václav, which also had many scenes with candles (much more than in Reinas). And the truth is that I was delighted with the reproduction of fire. I always put a Black Pro-Mist 1/8 in front, but when there is a fire (candles or a fireplace) I take it out because I don’t like the flares they produce (but it is a characteristic of the filter, not the lens).
Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.
Romero: The idea was to create a light that was as natural as possible while always keeping in mind that there would be no shortage of poetry. In principle, the biggest challenge was to deal with the summer sun in Lima, which is practically overhead all day, and although there is a kind of haze (perhaps due to the pollution) which gives the sensation of creating a small veil, the faces had to be softened.
Outdoors, we did the wider shots with sunlight and made ourselves as close as possible with butterflies at the edge of the shot to soften or create negatives depending on the moment. With the close-ups it was much easier to control, and sometimes we used HMIs, but most of the time we used nothing more than black fabrics and white silks to soften and always kept the same feel as the wider shots. For the interior days, we used HMIs and bounce to ultra-bounce fabrics outside the windows to create a constant and soft light, and for the filling inside we used sky panels with chimeras or through small frames with 216, 250 or 251 diffusion gelatins. We also had Titan Tubes to be able to fill in and put them in small spaces, where they always come in handy.
To mark the time differences, we always had a couple of 6K HMIs outside the windows and, depending, on the effect we wanted to obtain, we put them through a frame with Grid Cloth and added 1/4 or 1/2 of straw. or nothing, depending on of the time of day that we would like to highlight.
The main idea was that the outside would not be seen since during the time where the story takes place the outside world was quite hostile (with terrorist attacks and the military presence typical of a dictatorship). My general idea was to leave the faces at least one-and-a-half stop underexposed, but in some moments I left them almost at three stops, almost practically in silhouette. To achieve this, the art department helped us a lot; as you can see in the movie, the interior rooms were all closed with quite dense curtains and, on the other hand, the rooms that overlooked the interior gardens were with curtains but almost always open, so that’s why we made the scenes that happen in those rooms brighter.
At night, we used practically the same concept as during the day but with a light that comes from outside with that dirty color that sodium lamp vapor streetlights have. Here I also have to say that the art department helped us a lot by putting practical lamps inside the rooms at our disposal, in which we used Astera bulbs, which are great since you can easily control the color and intensity. So, with
sky panels and Titan Tubes, we illuminated the interiors with a much gentler warm color for the skin tones of the actors that the light that came from outside.
For night exteriors, we used the HMI or sky panels uploaded in cherry picker to create a backlight with the color of the streetlights. For the filling, we used sky panels—warmer, but not as rough as the sodium lamp vapor. Sometimes we did create the moonlight effect with sky panels with Still Green outside some windows, as in a scene when the girls escape through the back garden, since a power outage has occurred that affects the entire city.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?
Romero: The most difficult was exactly those blackouts, which were made in a combination between the electrical team (Kiko Boyero, the gaffer, coordinated it) and the focus puller, and in the end, it was adjusted in DI. Just at the moment when the light went out, the electricians disconnected all the lights and the focus puller opened the diaphragm to full open from T2.8.
Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?
Romero: I created a dailies LUT with my DIT (Léon Orlando) that was loosely based on a Kodak film print emulation. Then, my colorist (Yves Roy Vallaster), with whom I had already worked on Love Me Tender, reviewed this LUT. Yves tweaked and improved it by managing excessive saturation values and narrowed down and fine-tuned the color palette based on the ARRIRAW captures from the first couple of shooting days. This gave us a great starting point that would not only work throughout any setup during production but also allowed me to confidently judge the image and my lighting decisions on set.
Having collaborators like Yves Roy Vallaster means that when I’m filming I can sleep peacefully at night because I know that even if he is on another continent, he is always making sure that everything is within the parameters that we have established. Before the grading started, we discussed how to achieve the best balance between the realism of the time the events took place and the current techniques and aesthetics we utilized to capture the images. We leaned on the look we had on set while implementing a softer contrast curve to retain more details in the lower shadows while keeping the lower mid-tones and deep blacks well defined. The existing color palette was further altered to a subtractive color model to get these dense primary colors. As we decided against a too-polished, modern look, we used secondaries in broader strokes, not refining and tweaking every last bit. The trick was to add the right amount of texture and balance while keeping the image sincere and natural.
The film carries a certain purity and a subtle roughness that blends well from scene to scene, crafting an atmosphere where the warmth of the family inside outshines the darker, more troublesome outside world. The grading played a pivotal role in bringing all elements together, creating a cohesive world, and contributing to the beauty of this narrative.
Film Title: Reinas
Camera: Alexa Mini LF
Lenses: Zeiss Supreme Prime
Lighting: Arri HMI, Arri Sky Panels, Titan Tubes by Astera and Astera bulbs
Processing: We processed the ARRIRAW captures in LogC, Arri Wide Gamut RGB.
Color Grading: Resolve