17th Berlinale Talents | 2019
Alana Mejia Gonzalez
Alana has a strong interest for the international narrative power of images which has made her travel around the world collecting knowledge from different cultures in lighting and visual storytelling.
Hi Alana thanks for talking to TNC, you all set for the Berlinale?
Yes, at the moment I’m taking some time to have a look at the festival program, choosing some films I’d like to watch and arranging some meetings with old and new colleagues.
Are there any nerves ahead of the festival?
Not really, more than nerves there’s a lot of excitement to see what the program is like and meet all the fellow filmmakers.
What does it mean for you to be part of the 17th edition of Berlinale Talents?
For me, it means a great achievement as I remember when I applied for the program I thought I didn’t have many chances to get in just this year. I recently finished my MA in Cinematography at the National Film TV School in the UK, and some of the projects I’ve shot in the last month are still in post-production. Although it’s something I’ve always wanted to do I thought, it might be a bit earlier in my career to get in comparison to previous Cinematography talents. However, being part of the Talent Campus has made me realized how much I’ve progressed in the last years and the fact that I’m already in a step forward in my cinematography career. It means a recognition that the hard work I’ve been doing is the way to keep growing.
Also, it does mean some of my choices in the last years haven’t been mistakes (talking in this year’s Berlinale Talent Campus “language”) but on the contrary have put me in the professional path I’ve always wanted to be. The one in which I can grow as a cinematographer in the spheres of world cinema.
What do you hope to get from this experience?
As a cinematographer, Berlinale Talent Campus means a great opportunity to meet fellow filmmakers who are at similar stages in the career and with which hopefully collaborate in the future. I’m looking forward to meeting directors and producers from countries I’m interested in working in. My main aim during the program would be to be inspired by the people, the talks and the films I will be exposed to.
Can you tell me a little bit about your work, what was it about cinematography that interested you so much?
I’m a Spanish/Colombian cinematographer currently based in London but taking work anywhere. My background is in photojournalism, documentaries and video art although now I’m now focusing on fiction narrative. I’ve travelled a lot in my life and I’ve lived in many places among them, Lebanon, Turkey, Moldova, US or Italy. Definitely, all this background of travels, encounters and people I’ve met has shaped the way in which I look at the world and the way I’m interested in telling stories.
Due to my migrant upbringing images became a universal language I could develop to tell meaningful stories wherever I was going and whomever I wanted to tell them to. That combined with the fact that cinema saves my life in many ways, the cinematography craft felt it was the perfect one for me.
I believe humans spend most of their lives trying to understand who they are and why they do the things they do, and films work as same as social relationships do: reflecting back images of who we are or who we could be, and sometimes they give us some clues about what we do the things we do. Weather the most extravagant Sci-Fi or a social drama, in film we explore other lives allowing us to understand better our owns. And deep down I think this is the reason why I want to make films.
I discover what filmmaking really was when at age 14 I was cast as a protagonist actor in a small feature film in Spain. At that time, I thought actors were the main storytellers, however, through that experience, I found myself more interested in what was happening behind the camera. Then, it became easier for me to start exploring my narrative impulse through stills. However, after some time in the photography world, I realized it could be such a lonely job. I was missing the teamwork and team spirit you can only find when making movies, and that was one of the main reasons why I move to cinematography.
"There’s space for hard workers talented people."
At this early stage in my career, I feel what it’s more important for me is to work in as many different projects as I can; so I become a better cinematographer that is able to adapt her work as its best to the needs of each story. In general, I see myself as quite a passionate cinematographer who needs to feel is doing a good film more than just pretty images. I’m interested in shooting movies that leave you with questions when you watch them and inspire you to either take action or reflect on what you’ve seen, whether if it’s in a personal/intimate sphere or in a much bigger one.
I’m really interested in exploring new visual narratives that aim to be innovative and do not follow already established standards. I tent to like more films with few spoken words but at this point, I am very open to learning from all kinds of directors I come across.
What attracts you to a project?
Something I’ve learnt in the past year, it’s that the cinema world there’s never one answer. It’s always a combination of factors. I need to perceive the film talks about something important for some people in whatever way, form or genre but that the core of the story has a universal approach that anyone can connect with it. I believe that’s what makes a film good, the fact that even if it’s set in an imaginary world, action set up or intimate family drama, any audience member can connect with the fundamentals of the story.
In order to feel passionate about a project, I need to sense there’s a good story to be told and that I can bring something to the visual narrative. I need to feel connected with the script in my guts, that’s when I know I can do the best job.
Another key factor, it’s the people behind the project. Filmmaking is a very social and team-effort job, where you are going to spend so many hours with those collaborators, so you also need to make sure you connect with them in many levels and understand what’s the director’s impulse to tell that story.
If on top of this, I feel like an audience member I’d love the film, then I feel the luckiest cinematographer shooting that movie. My only problem is sometimes when I spent so long making a film it becomes very difficult to detach myself from it and see the film as if I didn’t know that much of the process. That’s probably a skill I should develop more.
What was the first film you worked on?
The first time I ever was on a film set was when at 14 I was acting on a feature film, and I completely fell in love with the madness of making movies. However, as a DOP the first proper fiction short film I photographed was a small project that I co-wrote with two good friends about the complexities of becoming an adult when you have to act as a parent for your own parents. It was a low budget production that was made thanks to the enormous support of our friends and families and was an experience with which we grew so much. But obviously, there were many things not working the way we would have liked.
Looking back would you do anything differently on this film?
Oh, yes, so many things. But at the same time, I’m glad to know there’s so much I would change now because it confirms me from that project years ago till now I’ve grown so much as a cinematographer and filmmaker.
What are some of the biggest challenges a cinematographer might face on a production?
Every production is a different battlefield. I sometimes feel that cinematography is 50% psychology with the key crew members, 40% last minute problem solving and 10% lighting and visual narrative.
Jokes apart, obviously our biggest test is to find the best narrative for that specific story, adapting your set of tools to each individual need of that film and still do a great job in every single shot. Find a way to get the most out of the (normally) limited resources you have is probably the biggest challenge we face and the best skill we can develop. When the film works, and the images are conveying the right emotion, then no one cares about what you used or how you did it, the importance is somewhere else. So, I feel the best cinematographers are those who can get the best of what they have, working as if they have all the resources available.
Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?
Yes, in a way I have. Telling stories visually have always been in my life. I grew up in a very international environment. I am the daughter, sister, aunt, granddaughter and cousin of migrants, and migrant myself. Most of my family is spread around the world and speaks different languages. Telling stories through images always felt a very natural way of communication for me, allowing me to create a universal language.
Also, I grew up in a flat above a blockbuster store, so there was a point in my early adolescence where its shelves turn into an extension of my living room and were able to watch a different film every day.
Cinema shaped so much the way I look at the world, and in many ways saved my life because it allowed me to understand how wide and diverse the world was. I’ve always felt I would like to be part of the teams making movies.
How important is the collaborative process in filmmaking for you?
Otherwise, probably I’d be doing something else. You can’t make a film on your own. Filmmaking is such a mad enterprise that it can only be developed through the energy of a team.
I conceive the creative process very much like dialogue, so I need those collaborators to bounce back ideas and get inspired by them. I like to work with directors that have a similar approach and like to bring their heads of departments together and allow their individual process to grow together with each other.
I don’t believe in a type of filmmaking where only a department works. If my cinematography is good means, behind it there’s a brilliant production designer, a smart script, a talented actor and a director who pushed me harder. I’m not that interested in just doing good cinematography, I much rather do good films.
I always find fascinating when in the morning you walk into the location and nothing tells you that’s the place where you will shoot that particular bit of the story plus everyone is rushing against time and all the odds. And by the end of the day, you actually shot an amazing scene that works perfectly for what you needed, and that empty plain space is back to be what it was. Only the collective energy of a film crew could have achieved that, only thanks to the effort of so many talents together.
How much has your approach to your work changed since you started out?
I think the main aspect that changed is that I became much more confident in being ok with not knowing, but just trying things while learning from that process. Before I used to say I can’t do this because I don’t know how to do it. Now, my approach has shifted, and I realized: when it comes to filmmaking there’s so much about not knowing but just trying and you figure it out while doing it. I guess I have become more flexible at walking in sand and more confident at knowing I have a set of skills that will allow me to make it work.
I feel I’ve also grown more flexible with approaches and learnt so many new ways of communicating with different directors according to their creative process. I’ve also become clearer about what I want professionally. And hopefully, I keep growing as a cinematographer because there’s so much to learn.
What are you currently working on?
At the moment I’m combining a few things: about to start the grade of End-O, a short film I shot at the end of 2018 directed by Alice Seabright and produced by Alex Blue and Kate Phibbs, preparing for a couple of commercial projects to be shot in late February and currently reading some scripts of shorts films to choose which projects I should jump into after Berlinale.
And finally, do you have any advice or tips for any up and coming cinematographer?
Uff, I feel sometimes I am the one that needs that advice. Still trying to figure it out myself, every day I still see how much I have to learn and think: how I would become a better cinematographer? I guess one of the things I’m realising in this last period it’s that it will always be like that. In a creative path like ours, there’s no easy guide on how to do it, there’s always that beautiful uncertainty that keeps us alive.
In my two years of MA at the NFTS I had the chance of meeting wonderfully experienced cinematographers, and It always surprises me how all the good ones had in common the fact they haven’t lost the jitters about cinematography, that fear of would I be able to face today’s shoot? Would I know how to shoot this film? Will I get that next job I’d like? How would I choose the next project? The only difference is with the experience they learn how to enjoy the jitter.
What I feel was the best advice someone ever gave me was: Be honest with yourself, if this is the job you want to do, try it but then work hard every day because every day counts. Try things, don’t be afraid of expressing your ambitious ideas, shoot as much as you can, meet people at a similar stage than yours, find a creative way to be close to the filmmakers that inspire you, start working as a camera assistant or apply to a film school -especially to the ones you never think you’ll get in because you never know (that happen to me!)
I’d especially like to encourage anyone who would really like to become a cinematographer but thinks he/she don’t come from the right background, due to gender, class, race, national film industries or whatever other challenges we sometimes face. There’s space for hard workers talented people. Good luck!