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An Interview with Luciana Riso

Luciana Riso is a cinematographer. Having worked on the acclaimed series, Green Frontier, Luciana has also worked on projects for companies such as, BBC, Netflix, Channel 4, The Guardian and Disney. I spoke with Luciana about growing up in Colombia in the 90s, cinematographers who have influenced her work, and working on Green Frontier.

Did you always think you would go into cinematography? What was your first experience in this line?

I grew up in Medellin, Colombia in the 90’s. Films were made on another planet. What we saw and how they were made were miles away from my reality. Maybe that’s why I loved it so much. My dad used to pick us up on Wednesday’s and would take us to the cinema, it was his day as in the modern-family-divorce rules. Wednesday’s were half-price. So yes, we used to watch 3 films in a row. Blockbusters mainly, and later some Argentinian and Italian films, as they were the only bridge to the family my dad had left behind in Argentina, the same way his dad had left Naples behind. There was a sense of melancholy. And for me a sense of thirst and of curiosity for the world. I knew I wanted to make films. This was 2001. The internet was not what it is today. I had ICQ, and hotmail, the same email I have today. And I didn’t know anything about films.

So with my Italian passport in hand I left to Barcelona to study filmmaking without yet knowing that cinematography was what I was going to do. It was a three year course and I learnt early on that being behind the camera is all I wanted. We shot on film and on HDV camcorders. It overwhelmed me. I hadn’t grasped film completely when all the digital boom came in. I wanted to get the technical side of things in order to be able to create. In Barcelona the tradition was to work your way up the ladder and it was common that the first step was to work in a rental house. So I volunteered for a year in Service Vision and learnt how to load all the different magazines for 16mm and 35mm and got very comfortable with building and un-building cameras. I learnt how to use the video assistant systems and started to work on the ground in advertisement sets. I got to see very skilled craftsmen at work. And learnt the Catalan way on set, methodic and professional. Invaluable. On the side I was shooting my own personal projects, I was doing everything myself and I was missing the collaboration with a director. I reached an over-comfortable point doing the technical job, for maybe too long. I felt ready to shoot. I decided to go back to Colombia and make films. I met up with friends that were also coming back after having had their own experiences abroad.

Through the years of my experience in Barcelona I had shot a bunch of random stuff, but not until I shot the short film Salome, I had the complete experience of being a cinematographer. I mean “complete” because in a way it is a very malleable roll and it’s not absolute or defined within a limit. But because I had an absolute boss lady director-collaborator my experience as a director of photography was different and a leap in my career. This short film was shot in 2011 in Medellin. My friend and director Laura Mora wrote it and earned a grant to shoot it. We were both so passionate and eager and determined to shot it on film! So we did. All labs were closing in Latin America but we found the money and flew over to Mexico to process the film. The making of this film was a lesson in so many aspects; communication, creativity, respect, managing friendship and creative relationship, expectations. And technically and creatively we achieved something beautiful and heart-felt. I learnt blindly how to expose the negative, Salome was quite a safe approach. After seeing the results I just knew I wanted to start taking more risks and for that I needed to understand better. With the making of this film some questions had been answered and some new ones had arisen. Soon after I applied to NFTS. That’s why I’m here. Cinematography is an ongoing process. And it’s very competitive and demanding.

Cinematography is an ongoing journey, we have grown together. As a person I’d matured, I comprehend life differently and so I’ve learnt to see cinematography differently too. I’ve learnt that both avenues are really the same and that relationships are the core of it all. Language and communication, listening, asking, not assuming, not taking things personally are as important as the creative side of things when you are a cinematographer.

Are there any particular films, or cinematographers who have really inspired your work?

Absolutely. All the history of cinema has inspired me! The first time I saw films that weren’t blockbusters was long overdue. The first film I saw that was out of the norm was Argentinean, Eliseo Zubiela’s, The Dark Side of the Heart. Soon after I saw Spanish cinema, Almodovar, Julio Menem. But most influential was local filmmaker Victor Gaviria (La Vendedora de Rosas), from Medellin. So let’s say these were the initial films that triggered the curiosity for other cinema forms. Then came Italian Neorealism, Nouvelle Vague, Cassavetes, Ingmar Bergman.

When I first started reflecting on directors of photography’s work I remember being fascinated by Christopher Doyle’s, Chungking Express and soon after Rodrigo Prieto’s Amores Perros. Undeniably, Christopher Doyle has influenced the generation of filmmakers working today. I was mesmerised for the use of colour applied to the form itself rather than thinking of how was it done (nowadays I think more of the making). Amores Perros was, and is still, a continuous referent for me when thinking about hand-held camera work. This bold film and handheld camera work not only spoke to me, but also clearly to the best directors in the world as the collaboration of Prieto with Scorsese proves. But I’d say that when I finally bumped into Jim Jarmusch and Robby Müller’s work filmmaking spoke differently to me. Robby Muller’s work with all his collaborators was and still speaks to me; it looks simple -that I like- and I’ve been understanding since that simplicity requires loads of work. The beginning of a visual grammar exploration has since motored my craft.

You worked as cinematographer and as a camera operator on Green Frontier. Can you tell me more about this experience, and how the opportunity came about?

Laura Mora, who I had shot Salome with, was directing some of the episodes. I think my name came in the conversation when discussing the need of a splinter unit/camera operator. Their team was already built, I came in half way through the shoot and the splinter unit ran for a couple of weeks, then I joined the main unit and finished the show operating camera. I had the pleasure to work with director Jacques Toulemonde on the splinter unit and with Laura Mora in the main unit.

Paulo Perez, the cinematographer of the show has been someone I’ve kept my eye on. His work is beautiful and sensitive and I respect and admire him as a human and as an artist. His films include Los Viajes del Viento, Chocó, Anna, and most recently Shadows of History directed by Peter Webber for the Qatar National Museum.

Paulo’s approach to the show was aligned with my own interests so it was very exciting to see how he was pushing it. We had the very new Venice and Sigma 6K lenses. We weren’t shooting 6K so we had to consider a crop factor. Paulo wanted us to shoot in a documentary way, meaning using available light and shaping it. Just up my road. The real challenge lied on us being able to shoot many scenes in one day: deciding the shots, being creative with economical language. Paulo didn’t want a moon-light and instead used loads of real fire to light some scenes, we were occasionally using 2500ISO. Simple, fast and looking appropriate for the story, that was our north.

Do you have a preferred camera/kit?

I feel very comfortable with the Arri Alexa as I’ve used it many times. Knowing the camera well enough allows me to concentrate in the design of the shot and to work faster. At the end of the day, TV is how fast you can work and how good are the images you create in that time frame. That was my first experience as DP on a TV-“fast-pace” -set.

What is the most challenging, and also most enjoyable aspect of your work?

It’s challenging as it’s never stable, always changing. But that same thing is what’s most exciting about it.

Can you tell me about any projects you’re currently working on?

During lockdown I’ve been prepping for a few shorts that were due to be shot before lockdown which now have more time to prep and I’m hoping to shoot soon. I’ve had the time to reflect on the scripts more deeply and come up with more detailed approaches. Mostly narrative.

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