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Industry Interview: Behind the Lens with Filmmaker Carolina Costa

Paula Goldberg

PremiumBeat spoke with Brazilian filmmaker Carolina Costa about her path to success, her approach to the work, and her creative direction.

Being named one of American Cinematographer’s rising stars of 2018 is just one of the many accomplishments Brazilian DP Carolina Costa has achieved this past year. Costa most recently shot director Minhal Baig and executive producer Jada Pinkett Smith’s coming-of-age story Hala, which premiered at Sundance before being picked up by Apple.

PremiumBeat spoke to Costa about her path to success, her approach to the work, and her creative direction.

Geraldine Viswanathan in Hala.

PremiumBeat: There are so many people that desire to make the leap from operator, assistant, or grip to DP.  It’s obviously not a straight line, but how did you manage to make the transition? Skill? Relationships? Determination?

Carolina Costa: It is definitely not a straight line. When I first started, everybody said it would be impossible to be a DP before going through all the ranks in the camera department. I started as a trainee and then moved to clapper/loader. Worked in the camera department for many years and always kept trying to shoot little things on the side. I was very lucky to work for DPs that were generous, and they kept the job interesting, because camera assisting can get tedious and you don’t necessarily learn the skills to be a cinematographer.

The DPs I worked for would give me homework sometimes — like how would I light this scene if I were the DoP. The next day, I would discuss it with them, and they always allowed me to talk to the gaffers, ask them technical questions. I was also lucky to know a very talented group of gaffers and electricians at the beginning of my career — and I learned how to light from them.

When I decided to stop assisting and wanted to be the head of the department, I was out of work for months. Nobody called me. Then the AC jobs stopped coming my way, and I thought about giving up many times but stuck with my determination to make the transition. I kept going. I would apply for anything I saw on the internet. I reached out to all my friends with bands or actors. I just kept shooting. Then people started giving me a break, and I started my career, mostly on shorts, documentaries, and a lot of corporate videos. Eventually, I realized nobody was going to give me a big break to shoot a feature, and that’s where my eyes were always set — shooting narrative.

That is when I realized I needed to improve my tools, so I applied for AFI. It was only when I left AFI that I saw myself as a director of photography. I was ready. I shot a short with fellows from AFI, and that short traveled, and it landed me my first feature. I’m glad that Las Elegidas/ The Chosen Ones was my first feature. I really waited for something special, and it paid off.

PB: You are incredibly versatile, having shot documentaries, shorts, TV, and features. How is the role of the cinematographer different based on the medium?

CC: I try to see it as the same. Each job will have their own specificities, independent of the medium, and I treat each one with the same respect and set of rules. Then, I have to adapt myself to that director and that project.

Industry Interview: Behind the Lens with Filmmaker Carolina Costa — Costa and Baig


PB: What is your preferred process when working with a new director? What are your initial discussions? What do you feel are the best working conditions and results?

CC: I always like to start from a big psychological breakdown of the script, pointing out what each scene is about from an emotional standpoint. I like to understand who the characters are and why they made these choices. So, I guess it always starts from the text and the script.

After that, I like to dive into the mind of the director — what are their references, what movies they like, where do they come from. From then on, the collaboration starts. I like the directors I work with to know that I will always be there, every step of the way. Most directors I work with are generous and great collaborators, so I feel part of the whole creative process, but independently I have to adapt myself to their methods.

I like to think that I am their support through their process. Some folks are more communicative and verbal about their thoughts and processes, and others aren’t. It’s really up to me to figure that out and mold myself to it.

Hala actors Sam Straley, Taylor Blim; cinematographer Carolina Costa and actor Azad Khan.

PB: Minhal Baig recently took Hala to Sundance, which you shot. This was a project that evolved from a short film. Often, artists don’t want to be influenced by source material. Did you watch the short and did it impact the work at all?

CC: I watched the short when it first came out, which was a couple of years before we shot the feature. Since I wasn’t the DP on the short, and I truly respected the work from another fellow cinematographer, I didn’t want to be influenced by his work. I felt it would be like cheating or copying someone’s approach. So no, it didn’t really impact my work on the feature version.

Industry Interview: Behind the Lens with Filmmaker Carolina Costa — AFI Panel

AFI Panel at Sundance Canon Creative Studio. (Image by Michael Ori.)

PB: It’s getting better, but women are woefully underrepresented in our industry. Does gender play a role in the way you work, are respected, or heard?  Having worked with male and female directors, how are the dynamics different? Or have your interactions been with perhaps a predominately male crew?

CC: It’s definitely getting better. I can see big changes in the 15 years I have in our industry, but we still have a ways to go. It’s funny to answer this question today because just two weeks ago, I was mentoring a young woman and was mentioning that my gender was a much bigger issue at the beginning of my career than it is now. Cut to two days later, on the film I am shooting right now, and some technical crew that came with a crane were mansplaining to me how a crane worked — I was baffled. And this was to make an excuse why they couldn’t execute with precision the shot I had requested.

A few days after, I was interviewing MOVI operators for the same job, and I can’t get off my mind the face of disgust that this one guy had once he realized I was going to be his boss. That being said, both my producer and my director, who are males, were also shocked by the situation.

I don’t feel that my gender plays a role on my working methods, to be honest. I don’t think of myself as a female cinematographer when I’m lighting, I just see myself as a cinematographer, full stop. And I hope that the industry really changes and that this distinction gets forgotten, that it feels like the right person for the right job instead.

When I first started I was always the only woman in the camera department, and people would treat me differently, but as I progressed in my career, and made a name for myself, that felt like something in the past for a while. And there has been a great change, obviously, but when I’m faced with these circumstances, I remember that we have taken just baby steps.

Industry Interview: Behind the Lens with Filmmaker Carolina Costa — Costa on a Panel

DP Carolina Costa on an AFI Panel at the Sundance Canon Creative Studio. (Photo by Canon.)

PB: If budget were not a concern, what would be your ideal camera, lens, and gear to have at your disposal?  Likewise, while working within a tight budget, where would you spend the money to get the look you want, or does either scenario really depend on the script and director’s vision?

CC: That is a hard one to answer. I feel the tools chosen for a project come from what the project is about and how we will approach the visual language for it. Obviously, the budget will dictate what can be done or not.

Industry Interview: Behind the Lens with Filmmaker Carolina Costa — Carolina with Camera

Carolina Costa (Image via IMDB).

PB: What is your relationship to operating and lighting? What determines your approach?

CC: The visual language created for each film is unique to each project. Though I operate from instinct and my own experience, I like to feel I’m starting fresh for each project, not taking vices from the previous one. I mostly don’t operate the camera — preferably, I would have an operator. I like to have that collaborator on set, and it gives me much more freedom and time for lighting. That being said, sometimes I might operate, and it can be for many reasons — once it was because I didn’t speak the language of that country; another time was because it was an intimate story and a tiny space, etc.

The same way that I involve my operators on the language we are creating for a film, I do with my gaffers. I like people to have opinions, ideas, and be invested, at all times. The collaboration with my gaffers is always special to me — I love it!

In terms of the style of a film, I feel that both the camera and the lighting have to be honest to that story, and, in general, I don’t like them to go on the same tracks. If the camera will take a more stylized approach, per se, then I feel the lighting should fall into a more naturalistic approach.

Industry Interview: Behind the Lens with Filmmaker Carolina Costa — Carolina at Work

Image via IMDB.

PB: Finally, is there anything you are dying to test out on set? Any new, cutting-edge technology? Or maybe some trick with all natural lighting?

CC: I don’t think I have any toys in particular I want to try, but, instead, I would love to experiment with genres. Right now, I’m shooting my first horror film. Later this year, I will shoot a period piece, and now I’m looking for sci-fi scripts for next year. I don’t want to be boxed, I want to be able to shoot any genre of film.

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