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“It Was Essential to Offer the Cast Complete Freedom of Movement”: DP Mauro Pinheiro Jr. on Malu

A white woman with long, curly dark hair wears a white tunic and stands smiling in the sunlight.Malu,courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Pedro Freire’s feature debut, Malu is a multigenerational family drama about an actress whose relationship with both mother and daughter are strained. Set in Rio de Janeiro, the film depicts the frayed familial fabric that sees the women at once caring for and offending one another.

Mauro Pinheiro Jr. (Reaching for the Moon, Cinema, Aspirins and Vultures) served as the film’s cinematographer. Below, he explains how he fended off problems posed by inclement weather and why he favored a sparse setup that allowed the film’s performers maximum freedom.

See all responses to our annual Sundance cinematographer interviews here.

Filmmaker: How and why did you become the cinematographer for your film? What were the factors and attributes that led to your hiring for this job?

Pinheiro Jr.: Pedro and I had already collaborated on other films where he worked as a director of actors, and from that, a friendship developed. I believe our collaboration on Malu happened because we shared the common desire to uncover what is hidden behind the script’s words and because we enjoy developing work based on the actor’s craft. In this film, I closely followed the cast rehearsals during preparation, and we conducted detailed script readings. Only then did we start making decisions about lighting and framing.

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

Pinheiro Jr.: Malu is a character-driven film. The idea for the cinematography was to contribute to the development of the narrative and the emotions of the film without becoming another character. After the readings and rehearsals during the preparation, there was an effort to understand the camera’s behavior, which was handheld throughout. The concept for the camera was not to follow the actors’ bodies but the characters’ intentions. The time invested in rehearsals with the cast during preparation proved to be very valuable and allowed the camera movements to be more organic and more invisible. Similar organicity and invisibility were applied to the lighting. Instead of illuminating the actors in each shot, I generally lit the sets, creating a dynamic of brighter and darker zones according to the scene’s intentions. I am pleased to observe, upon seeing the finished film, that the cinematography and the other departments of the film managed to work cohesively, constructing the same film by balancing aesthetics, narrative and emotions.

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

Pinheiro Jr.: Perhaps the clearest influence on the cinematography of this film is the work of director John Cassavetes, precisely because of his emphasis on working with actors. Even before being invited to this film, Cassavetes was already a significant topic of conversation between us.

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

Pinheiro Jr.: The entire film was shot in three weeks at a primary location, and during the first two weeks, the weather forecast predicted heavy rain. I had already planned to cover the external area of the windows with fabric to reduce the presence of daylight and allow HMIs to stand out. However, due to the weather forecast, we had to reinforce the structure to make the material waterproof and withstand the weight of rain. The challenge was to ensure the light continuity of daylight scenes even when there were alternating moments of rain and sunshine outside.

Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera, and what lenses did you use?

Pinheiro Jr.: We filmed with an Arri Alexa Mini with a set of Cooke S4 lenses. Since the film was entirely shot with a handheld camera, I needed a small, light and reliable camera. The Cooke S4 lenses were chosen to achieve a balance of texture between definition and softness without the need for filters.

Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.

Pinheiro Jr.: In this film, there was a main location, Malu’s house, where most of the scenes took place. It was essential to offer the cast complete freedom of movement. This meant there should be no obstacles in the scene, and nothing inside the house that couldn’t be framed, not even on the ceiling. Therefore, the decision was made that in daylight scenes, all light sources would come from outside the house through the windows pretending to be an ambient light with expression. I covered the external area of the window with a large fabric to block direct sunlight and worked with HMIs positioned outside the window. This way, I could have the same desired light for long hours that seemed natural but with continuity, still offering complete freedom to the cast.

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

Pinheiro Jr.: There is a night scene where there’s a power outage in the neighborhood, and Malu and her daughter have a very intense discussion in the dark shot with a handheld camera. The biggest challenge was finding the balance between seeing and not seeing in a situation where the actresses had no marks because they needed freedom for this explosive moment. Instead of precise marks, we established two regions of movement: a table with a candle and an area near the window where there was a hint of exterior light. Pedro and I discussed the moments in the scene where it was better to see the actresses’ eyes and where it was better to see the contours of their bodies with their gestures in silhouette. While shooting, the movements of the actresses and the camera had to be in tune considering everything discussed before and at the same time everything that would happen uniquely in the moment.

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

Pinheiro Jr.: When I start lighting a scene, I imagine the final result in my head. Then, I define a stage where I can conclude the on-set lighting work because I know that from there, I can continue working on the image in color correction to achieve the desired final result. Generally, if I have extra time, I advance the lighting to reduce post-production time. But in this film, for example, I needed to have a clean set without reflectors and flags, and I didn’t want to consume time between camera setups. So, I executed the lighting planning, creating directions and contrasts on the set, and in post-production, I fine-tuned the details.


Film Title: Malu

Camera: Arri Alexa Mini

Lenses: Cooke S4

Lighting: Arri HMIs, SkyPanels and Asteras

Processing: ARRIRAW 3.4K

Color Grading: DaVinci

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