Andrés Gallegos is a romantic, a man who understands the rules but doesn’t necessarily stick to them, a passionate cinematographer and lifelong artist. Having just completed his Masters in Direction at San Francisco State University, Gallegos has worked as Director of Photography on many of his own short films, as well as in collaboration with other film-makers. I sat down with Andrés to talk about the keys to being a good cinematographer, empathy in documentary and the Chilean perspective.
Sophie Clement: Hi Andrés, I’ve just been watching your portfolio on Vimeo and it is beautiful. Do you have any inspirations or people that you admire?
Andrés Gallegos: Well, as a cinematographer you’re basically working for the vision of the director, right, and in that dynamic, you’re basically coming up with ideas and visual references to give them to the director and start having a conversation about that. But of course, I have my own inspiration, which are some photographers, cinematographers, or even painters that I use to inform my cinematography.
SC: Tell me your top three inspirations.
AG: I’m a big fan of the work of Vittorio Storaro… He is an Italian cinematographer who went to the U.S., and he has been working with important directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen… but there are so many cinematographers these days that are really good and they are doing really interesting stuff. For example, Emmanuel Lubezki from Mexico, he is really pushing the boundaries of cinematography, like creating new technology to create images… or [Hoyte van Hoytema], he has worked with Spike Jonze and Christopher Nolan now, he is from Europe, he is also someone that I admire. These are thenew cinematographers in the industry, but people that I use as a reference are more old school cinematographers like Raoul Coutard, Carlo di Palma… those guys were creating new language in cinematography in really early times when cinematic language was developing. For me, those guys are a good inspiration. But of course I admire the work of people from my country, I love how those filmmakers incorporate political themes to their creative decisions.
Do you find that because there are so many cinematographers, it’s difficult to have your own voice in that space?
It is, it’s hard, it takes more than talent. Because, as you said, there are so many filmmakers that are doing really nice and beautiful images, and who doesn’t want to have the “best” image right?. But when we talk about the best image and the most beautiful image, for me, I think we’re in problematic territory. Standardizing or normalizing the idea of what is good, it is not always healthy. But, because filmmaking is it also an industry, the concepts of the “best image” will be always present, creating trends, sometimes based on things not related to pure creativity, like the market itself. I think, in order to have your own voice, you need to avoid that territory. You need to really understand your creative process, and how to use the cinematic tools in order to create a piece of art. And cinema as an art form is not something distant from being complex; it has so many layers that work together in one single piece. That is why, as a DP, you need to understand what is the meaning behind camera movements, focal lengths, sensor sizes, lighting ratios, color, narrative structures, dramaturgy, characters, culture, history, and more. Also, there is a “social/anthropological” input, you need to learn about the culture, and the history, that you are going to shoot. You need to understand that you are creating a visual representation, usually, of the life of someone, and that it is usually an allegory of a community, country or region.
I think that’s the thing, if we talk about cinematography as art then it’s important to remember that art is subjective and there is no right and wrong… I can see how it would be an all-encompassing process in which you have to think about a lot of different elements.
Yes, you need to immerse in the project in order to find your own voice… but if you want to have the best looking image, that’s not your voice, that’s kind of the “industry standard” and that could be problematic… sometimes, not tasteful.
I think the most you can bring to the table in having that creative dialogue with the director, production designer, or the actors, in a collective way; I think from a visual perspective… the creation will be more consistent.
And what is your experience, working with different directors?
Well, documentary is different from fiction. From my experience, each director has a different approach for a documentary. In docs some directors could go like, we’re gonna do some interviews at this location and then we’re gonna capture some b-roll, and that’s it. Some other directors could go more narrative style, so we’re gonna stage some of the scenes. So there is a variety of different scenarios as a documentary cinematographer that you can work on, but the key thing for having a good day on a documentary film set is to prep the most you can… if you prep your day and what you know well what you are going to be doing at specific times of the day, what’s gonna be the light at a specific time of day, what needs to happen at certain time of the day… you have to plan in advance and put all factors on the table, the weather, the character, the political situation… it’s all about preparation and anticipation.
What does an average day on set look like for you?
To answer the question, it’s really hard to say what an average documentary day is like because you always have the option that things could happen and you’re not always going to get what you want. Maybe you’re going to get something you’re not expecting and that works for the film… because basically, you’re not working with actors, you’re working with people in a kind of collaboration method so it’s hard to say, and that’s why I like it, I really enjoy making documentaries because of that, because you’re working with “reality” and with the authenticity of the subjects. They’re not actors representing someone else, they’re real people and that is wonderful to experience. It is a privilege for me engaging with these people and having the access their life, and to tell their stories.
So how did you get into cinematography? What made you decide to be a cinematographer?
I am from a humble family in Chile, but I was lucky enough to have a camera at home. My father bought that camera when he migrated to the U.S. to work and he got the camera here [in America] and took it there to Chile. So when I was born the camera was already there. Eventually, when the years passed, my father bought another camera, and then a digital camera, so I always had access to a camera through my childhood. I was a creative child, I was drawing, painting, I remember making sculptures, etc…I was definitely into a creative field. I went for audio-visual degree when I was seventeen, the youngest of the whole cohort. I remember the first week of class, photography class… it opened my mind. I really started to learn how to use a camera, how to use lenses, how to see the world, and the most important thing: how to frame. Two months after that first class I decided, you know what, I want be a DP [Director of Photography]… that role had everything I wanted, creation in terms of visuals, working with light and colors, and the camera, that was always important for me. So from seventeen I have been shooting as a cinematographer all the projects I could have access to.
And how old are you now?
Wow so then, fourteen years!
Fourteen years shooting. Yep, time flies.
Do you find that your decision has changed since then? Do you ever think about doing something different?
So, after I graduated from my BA… my goal was to do my Masters in Cinematography but… I started applying and I didn’t get in, I was applying to really tough and competitive schools and I was not getting in, until I realized, you know what, I’ve been shooting for a good amount of years, I don’t think I need to learn my Masters in Cinematography. I need to bring something else to the table. So I thought maybe sociology, or anthropology, or even philosophy because I felt that I needed to get more knowledge in order to inform my practice. The bad thing of doing that is that would stop me from shooting for a good four years… so, I pulled back a bit and decided I’m not going to do my Masters in Cinematography, I’m going to do my Masters in Cinema as a Director. Why? Because basically a cinematographer works for the vision of the director and if I learnt what the directors want and what they are trying to achieve as an artist, then it will be really easy for me as a cinematographer to bring things to the table to help him or her achieve their goal. So, I went for that here at SF State, a Masters in Directing, and also because this program has a really strong theory input, and I was looking for that. And also the American educational system, what I like is that you can choose your own classes. In Latin America, or at least at the school where I was, we didn’t have that. For example, as a part of my education here, I had an oil painting class and that was kind of a revelation for me. Learning to paint with oil, working with pigments and the glazing technique, was mind-blowing.
I would say that from watching the little bit of your work that I have, the way that you’ve used color and light is very clever and reminiscent of a painter. It’s interesting that you say all these things have informed you and that you think theory is important in relation to creativity because I think there’s a divide between intellectual and creative and further we go on the more important it is to marry those two together and realize that they’re not necessarily two sides of a coin. You don’t have to be creative or intellectual, you can be both and then that produces better work.
Exactly, I think the beauty happens in between those two… You were asking me how difficult it is to get a voice right? Well, a voice is definitely related to the intellectual aspect of creativity as well, you need to understand your discipline in a deeper level and I mean in a theoretical level as well. Cinema is so complex that you need to be able to understand the most of it in order to make a statement or have a voice.
Seems like the key to success!
Yeah, the key is in the mix.
So if we’re talking about cinematography and directing then, do you have quite a close working relationship with (director) Daniel Bernardi on The American War?
We start working together on The American War which has been a really long process, we started pre-production September 2016… and since then we have been working as a collective team on all the processes like editing, sub-titling, color correction and sound mix. We have been involved as a team for most of the time. Also this last year, I worked for VDC, I was one of the directors and cinematographers that made three short films. That was a really wonderful experience; I basically had the access to tell these really touching stories.
Speaking of touching stories, The American War seems to me to be a story that hasn’t been told yet, especially not by American film-makers. How did it feel, leading up to shooting the film?
There was always excitement. I had this interview with Daniel and he said, “Andrés, I’m going to do a film about the Vietnam War, but from the Vietnamese perspective” and to me that was the click that got me interested… For me, I see it as a really strong act of empathy. In a conflict, war situation, people use the term “enemy” right, because you’re one side or the other, yet how would it be to be in the shoes of the other? So for me, it was like a gift to be part of this project.
And how were the people reacting on set?
Well, in terms of the subjects reacting to this American crew and an American director, coming to Vietnam, they were really open and receptive to this project. And I would say that Trang, the producer, she did an amazing job looking for those subjects… it is a really sensitive topic and she did a great job in finding people who had enough sensibility to want to tell their stories on camera. With that being said, the vibe or the mood on set was really special because we were in that area that the documentary becomes a therapy in a way. Art can be therapeutic, in terms of it can help and heal some wounds that you have in your life and we were doing the same thing… we’re going to talk about those traumatic episodes of their lives. It was a really intimate and fragile environment and we had an enormous amount of respect in every question that we asked, we took a lot of care, for their sake and also for the sake of the American audience.
What do you hope the American audiences take from the film?
I don’t think the American audience is expecting this type of film, so it will be really interesting to see people reacting to these stories. As an audience member, we usually don’t do the exercise of thinking of what happens after the war. So I think it will be surprising for the American audience.
Is that where the idea for the title came from?
The title is brilliant; it’s the act of empathy in the title. The American War is what the Vietnamese people called it.
So it’s an acknowledgment that the film is taking notice of the Vietnamese position?
Exactly, it’s positioning the audience in a new perspective.
As someone who is not American, do you think that brings a different perspective to the way you have interacted with this material? Do you think it has changed the way you process the story?
I think it has a different perspective, being from outside the U.S. and having an outsider’s perspective on the Vietnamese-American war. I think it adds a little neutrality in terms of having a biased view on the topic, which also is helpful for documentaries. It is more just showing a situation and making a statement on that situation, which in this case is war. So I think being from a foreign country adds to that.
It seems to me that there is a pretty diverse team working on this film!
Yep, that is all San Francisco. That’s one of the reasons I decided to come here for my education. It is so diverse and there are many approaches and points of view on different topics so it’s an amazing place to engage with film-makers and artists.
Check out Andrés’ work here: http://www.andres-gallegos.com/