ONFILM Interview: Guillermo Navarro, ASC

Published on website: October 01, 2012
Categories: ONFILM
Guillermo Navarro, ASC Photo by D. Kirkland

There are many variables in every scene of each film, including interactions between actors. Great cinematography happens when all the variables come together. You have to be sensitive to what the space around the actors is telling you. Many times it's not about lighting. It's about taking light away, deciding what to reveal or conceal with your framing and choosing the right lens. I'm not interested in shooting pretty pictures and impressing people with aesthetics. I am constantly searching for images with the energy that serves the story. Even though you need many collaborators, filmmaking can still be a very personal process with a completely subjective outcome. It takes a lot more than mastering technology and techniques. Filmmaking is a universal language that I am continuously learning and a form of artistic expression that draws on a lifetime of visual memories.

Guillermo Navarro, ASC won an OscarĀ© in 2007 for Best Achievement in Cinematography for his work on Pan's Labyrinth. His credits include Cabeza de Vaca, Cronos, Desperado, From Dusk Till Dawn, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Jackie Brown, Stuart Little, Spy Kids, The Devil's Backbone, Hellboy, Hellboy II, Zathura, I Am Number Four, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1 and Part 2, and the upcoming Pacific Rim. Navarro also leads an effort to have film recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage.

[All these films were shot on Kodak motion picture film.]

A Conversation with Guillermo Navarro, ASC

QUESTION: Where were you born and raised?
NAVARRO: I was born and raised in Mexico City.

QUESTION: Were you always interested in photography?
NAVARRO: I started taking stills when I was 13 years old. I took a photography workshop in middle school, where we learned how to develop negatives and make prints. I had a very small darkroom at home. I took it very seriously.

QUESTION: What types of photography did you do?
NAVARRO: I did a lot of different things, and I had to learn fast, because I had to take care of myself at a very young age, 15 or 16. I was independent by then, and I was able to support myself. I shot album covers, a lot of tabletop work, and later some fashion photography. I always carried my camera with me. It was like part of me. I also did some stills for motion pictures. That triggered my interest in cinematography.

QUESTION: How did you get an opportunity to shoot movie stills?
NAVARRO: My sister was a producer. The first stills I took on movie sets were for her.

QUESTION: Did you move from stills into working on camera crews?
NAVARRO: I was a camera assistant for about a year. I was pretty bad at following focus. My attention was on capturing images in interesting ways. I decided that I wasn't going to follow the traditional way of climbing up the ladder.

QUESTION: What did you do after that year as an assistant cameraman?
NAVARRO: It was very hard to get into the industry as a cameraman. I had to find a way to do work outside the main industry. I worked on a lot of documentaries, both shooting and directing. That was my first experience with motion picture cameras. I decided to go to Europe and that became my film school. I moved to London first, but that didn't work out because of regulations that limited my chances to work. I moved on to Paris where a director of photography took me under his wing and became my mentor. His name was Ricardo Aronovich. He made a wonderful film called Missing that was shot in Mexico (in 1982). I worked with him as an apprentice and learned about everything from what to do in preproduction to timing of dailies in the lab.

QUESTION: What other work did you do in France?
NAVARRO: I shot a lot of documentaries and commercials.

QUESTION: How did you make the transition to shooting narrative films?
NAVARRO: Things were changing. Contemporaries of mine were shooting movies in Mexico. I decided that I had an obligation to go back and get involved. It took me around 10 years from shooting my first stills on a movie set to doing my first feature as a director of photography. The name of the film was Amor a la vuelta de la equina (Love Around the Corner). It was an experimental film made by a group of young filmmakers (in 1985). I got a cinematography award that triggered opportunities to work on other movies. I shot seven or eight other movies in Mexico after Around the Corner

QUESTION: Didn't you also shoot a lot of commercials?
NAVARRO: There was always a balance. There wasn't enough work in features, and commercials gave me an opportunity to work with the newest equipment, so I could continue learning and experimenting.

QUESTION : When did you move to Los Angeles?
NAVARRO: I did two movies in Mexico that were well received abroad. One was called Cabeza de Vaca (Head of the Cow) and the other one was Cronos. My first American studio picture was Desperado with Robert Rodriguez. It was shot in a Mexican border town (in 1995). Before that I hadn't intended to move to Los Angeles. What happened was that Robert got another project after Desperado that we started shooting almost immediately. We had two weeks in-between movies. The film was Four Rooms. It was my first movie on American soil. One thing led to another. There was another project and then I did From Dusk Till Dawn with Rodriguez. I started shooting commercials in the United States, as well.

QUESTION: Were commercials experimental in the use of imagery?
NAVARRO: They can be experimental, both technically and in the visual language that contributes to telling a story in 30 seconds. I remember a commercial that was shot in the mountains of the Yukon. We were so far north that dusk hours were hours not minutes long. That was us an extraordinary opportunity to dig deeper and explore the photographic variables of the location. You have to reach in and find what's beneath the surface and then the art of photography magically reveals itself.

QUESTION: When you are reading a script, do you see the images in your mind?
NAVARRO: I read the script and I can see the movie in my mind, but it becomes more specific in preproduction, and many decisions take place on the day I'm shooting. There are many variables in every scene, including the interactions between actors. It depends on what you are shooting. You have to be sensitive to what the space around the actors is telling you. Many times it's about not lighting. It's about taking light away, deciding what to reveal or conceal with your framing, and choosing the right lens.

QUESTION: Are there cinematographers whose work has influenced you?
NAVARRO: In a way most of them have. Cinematography is so much a part of our culture today that it's their cumulative body of work that influences me.

QUESTION: Do you think of cinematography as an art, a craft or something in-between?
NAVARRO: I don't think cinematography has to be classified as a craft or an art. It's a vehicle for expressing yourself in very personal ways. I think it's wrong to put it in a box. One of the beauties of what we do is that it's so vast that there is room for everything and for everyone to do things differently. There are a million ways to approach any shot. The way you choose doesn't make it better or worse than somebody else's choice.

QUESTION: How about the collaborative factor? You're working with different directors, crews and production designers on every project.
NAVARRO: Even though you need a whole group of collaborators to achieve what you're doing, it can still be a very personal process. I'm very particular about my relationship with my crew. They're my extended family. You are working with a group of people, but the outcome can be completely subjective.

QUESTION: How do you think your early still photography and documentary experiences affect your work as a cinematographer telling fiction stories?
NAVARRO: Those experiences are part of who I am and how I think. I'm continuously learning. I'm not searching for the sake of finding new things. I'm searching for the energy that I think suits the story. I'm not interested in shooting pretty pictures and impressing people with aesthetics. The images are a language for storytelling.

QUESTION: Does the fact that you grew up in Mexico City affect how you see things as a cinematographer? For instance, you saw different art and architecture.
NAVARRO: It's not just what surrounds you when you are growing up that influences you. It's also how you learn to see the world. It's a combination of where the sun is in your latitude, the architecture, how people walk in the streets and your awareness of your surroundings. We all draw on our visual memories. For many years we had very bright, blue moonlight in movies. For many years, that was a universal understanding of how moonlight should look. You have to be constantly aware of what is influencing you.

QUESTION: You have worked on a number of films for children where fantasy and reality co-exist side by side, including Stuart Little. How did you handle that?
NAVARRO: Stuart Little was interesting because of the interactions between live-action characters and a digital mouse. It was very complicated dealing with scale and depth of field issues, and it also wasn't easy for the actors to interact with a mouse that wasn't there while we were shooting. We had to define our own reality.

QUESTION: Had you ever done anything like that before?
NAVARRO: Not on that scale, though I had done a lot of visual effects on commercials.

QUESTION: You recently shot another kid's film called Zathura.
NAVARRO: Zathura is based on a children's book by Chris van Allsburg. He is the same author who wrote Jumanji and The Polar Express. The director was Jon Favreau.

QUESTION: How did you prepare to shoot a different film like that?
NAVARRO: Our preproduction was interesting. We had to resolve some very complicated questions. The story takes place in the father's house. He is played by Tim Robbins. The movie starts with a typical rivalry between two brothers. There is also a teenaged sister who is asleep for half of the movie. The kids find a game in the basement that has a little spaceship that advances on a board. They begin playing the game and suddenly the house is flying in space just like it happens in the game. You see a star field through the windows and they are off on a huge adventure. They pass through a meteor shower and come very close to a planet with a gravity field. Beyond the fantasy, there's a story about their relationships, and how the characters bond to overcome obstacles.

QUESTION: It sounds like there are a lot of visual effects.
NAVARO: We built the set for the entire house on gimbals that allowed us to create physical effects. We could actually shake the house, which helped the performances of the kids, because they were reacting to something physical. The director did a fabulous job with them. He made it all come together. We also had a very good production designer. His name is Mike Riva. The entire movie takes place in this house that he designed. There is a very strong sense of reality in contrast to the fantastic happening.

QUESTION: Is this a widescreen movie?
NAVARRO: We decided to frame in 1.85:1, so the scope is at the level of the kids. We also shot things from their height. We are experiencing the story as they see it.

QUESTION: Did you differentiate looks between reality and fantasy?
NAVARRO: In any movie, the images have to serve the story. In the beginning of Zathura, we had a very warm down to earth look that slowly transforms as things that started happening to the house. The events that take place trigger different looks. Once they are in space, there is no more daylight coming through windows. The audience and the kids both gradually realize that they are no longer on this planet. At one point, the house comes close to a ring of Saturn and a golden light starts creeping into the house. They go out a door onto the porch and see Saturn. It's an awesome feeling. We wanted to discover things as they were experiencing them. We put the camera on a Steadicam and followed the kids as they opened the door and walked onto the porch.

QUESTION: What ages were the kids?
NAVARRO: I think the youngest kid was around seven or eight, and the other boy had a little more acting experience. He was probably 12. The girl was around 14.

QUESTION: Are there other characters?
NAVARRO: In addition to Tim Robbins, there is an astronaut who comes into the house. It's revealed that he played the game in the past and got stuck in space. He has been waiting for somebody to play the game and rescue him.

QUESTION: Did you plan to take Zathura through a digital intermediate process upfront?
NAVARRO: Yes, but I didn't consider that an opportunity to reshoot the movie in postproduction. It was just a more flexible way to time this movie. It was important for us to have lighting and physical effects on the set, so that the actors could interact with the house and what was happening. For instance, the house comes near the gravity field of a sort of red planet. The gimbal moves the set and objects in the house start falling because of the gravity. There is also a very red light that gets brighter as we approach the planet. The kids and other actors were responding very naturally. There is one sequence where we had four actors crammed into a little laundry room. They were sitting on the floor arguing. There was a white washing machine behind them. It was supposed to be very dark. There was no source of light in the scene. That was a situation where I knew I could use Windows in DI and make the space around the actors darker.

QUESTION: We imagine you had to be efficient working with kids.
NAVARRO: We had them for a limited number of hours every day, so we had to have everything ready to shoot while we had them with us. We didn't stand around a lot.

QUESTION: Was the director by the camera or in the video village?
NAVARRO: A lot of times he was right next to the dolly, interacting with the kids and helping them out with their performances ? many times, he by their side, just off frame.

QUESTION: Did he use storyboards, or was it more spontaneous?
NAVARRO: There were some storyboards, but they were mainly a guideline.

QUESTION: Did you typically cover scenes with one or more than one camera?
NAVARRO: I always use more than one camera. I'm very comfortable with that, especially with kids, because you can cover their performances from different angles. That way you can get the coverage that is needed, maybe with fewer takes.

QUESTION: Does your documentary experience affect your cinematography?
NAVARRO: It does help in the sense that I know how to frame and light to make things look real. We had a few wild walls in Zathura, but we treated it like a real house.

QUESTION: Are movies pure entertainment or a reflection of our culture?
NAVARRO: I believe that cinema is one of the most important expressions of our culture. Movies are reflections of what we are going through at different times and places in history. It's a universal language. Of course, it's an industry at the same time. Movies have to be successful at the boxoffice, otherwise, they are not going to be seen. But, I think there are movies that must be made. I felt that way about El Espinazo del diablo (The Devil's Backbone) and a film that I'm shooting in Spain (Pan's Labyrinth) with (writer/director) Guillermo del Toro. It's my fourth film with him (Cronos, The Devil's Backbone and Hellboy). It's a period film set in Spain during the early years of Franco's regime. There are elements of both reality and magic.

QUESTION: How do you answer when film students and other young people ask you how they should prepare for their futures of the industry?
NAVARRO: I don't think there is a recipe for predicting success. If you want to become an engineer, you can go to school and prepare for a career in that field. It's not that simple with filmmaking. It takes a lot more than mastering technology and learning techniques. It's an art form. You have to be able to tell stories that are going to affect people in one way or another. That means you have to be in touch with what is happening in society. Young people today don't seem to read as much as I did when I was their age. They get their information visually. One of the things I suggest is that people who are interested in filmmaking should read novels. Another thing I say is that if you are going to be a filmmaker, be prepared to be completely immersed in it.

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