Frame & Reference is a conversation between Cinematographers hosted by Kenny McMillan of OWL BOT. Each episode dives into the respective DP’s current and past work, as well as what influences and inspires them. These discussions are an entertaining and informative look in to the world making films through the lens of the people who shoot them. You can listen to Frame & Reference where all the best podcasts are listened to like Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and Google Podcasts. Each episode can also be found in video form on YouTube. Follow Frame & Reference on Twitter and Instagram for more content, and check your favorite app every Thursday for new episodes.
Enchanted by the monarch butterflies of Michoacán, Mexico, since he was a child, Mendel dedicates his career as a scientist in New York to mapping out the monarch’s genetics. But he is haunted by flashbacks of being orphaned alongside his older brother, Simon, when their parents died in a flood. When Mendel travels home to attend the funeral of his grandmother, it’s clear Simon harbors deep resentment toward him for having left. Migrating back and forth between Mexico and New York, Mendel starts to neglect his new girlfriend and grows spiritually restless as he obsesses over the iconic butterfly. Then he confronts his brother about what really happened the night their parents died.
Tenoch Huerta delivers a soul-searing performance in this transformative drama by director Alexis Gambis. The film viscerally captures the scientific marvel and splendor of the butterfly, which in turn creates a mythic parallel to Mendel’s primal fears. Son of Monarchs is at once a spiritual and biological quest of the next generation—fulfilling its destiny by never losing sight of ancestral ties.
I watched the film last night and buddy… Gorgeous, gorgeous work. I was really impressed. Talk to me about what your approach was to lighting outdoors, especially, but then also obviously indoors.
Yeah. I mean that, I think for me, it was very important to respect the natural locations. I I’m coming from a still photography background. So I think, and then I switched sometimes between documentary and fiction film. And especially from this one, I was coming from 499, which is another future film. I show that is a hybrid that I got the best cinematography at Tribeca last year and I was jumping away. Yeah. I was jumping gears from that project to this one. So I think I was carrying that influence. And 499, I didn’t use any like artificial light or film light. It was all available light. So I think, especially in the natural light, I feel very like confident of like observing and controlling and trying to show that the hours, or like moving the characters in a zone where I can have a little more control. And another thing is Alexis, the director, he was very specific chill indoors with a lab that everything needs to be accurate in the way they put the microscope. They use this, that light, how it is. So that was I, I will tell you at the end he was respecting the, the natural of the relocations.
So it was mostly a grip show, like a lot of diffusion and neg and the like?
I mean, outside, I was using I use like the negative on one side, like 12×12, 20×20 when we’re in exteriors. And I like to use also like some diffusion as a bounce. It’s not too hard. And sometimes I put also the black fabric on the floor, and it depends. But for example, in the butterflies, I was not able to do that. That was all like camera lenses, because we have to be very respectful with the colonies of butterflies there. So no reflectors, no nothing. It was just like camera and lenses.
What was your camera and lens package? I assumed the anamorphics, they were real beautiful, fudgy around the edges, real classic vintage look… Hawks? That was my guess.
No it was the Lomo round front, the Russian ones, and Alexa Mini, that’s one package that I use a lot. “499” I shot with also anamorphic lenses, but the Kowa, the Japanese ones, on this one, I switched to the Russian look and yeah, and I was doing some tests and I think my F-stop was around 4, 5.6, where that’s sort of the sweet spot of the lens. And also combining with these steady cam movements, we were a lot like that, like kind of floating as a butterfly kind of thing around the character, that was kind of our approach in that sense.
I’ve always said that the first scene of any movie really dictates, you know, it tells the audience what we’re going to be doing here and that, that opening scene, just like… the shots of the butterflies are really just beautiful and sort of, um ethereal almost, and then the dissection thing, just, you know… man, you are the King of backlight [laughs]
I love back light. I think for me that I always start that, that way, no? I put a black light and then from there I’m like, okay, then I need, or I don’t need, and I also love to use the ND filters of course, in the camera and the, and the Polarizer. That was my package and filters. It’s funny because these lenses, the Lomos, you cannot use a matte box because the focus moves with the matte box. My AC made like a little arm that we were putting, like in front of the lens, especially in interiors. And then we use diopters for all these shots… actually not in the disection, but on the tattoo I used the, um the Master Prime 100mm macro lens. That was the only difference. And we connected the Canon C300 to the microscope directly. There’s an adapter. And you connect that and then you have all these, like new worlds in front of you.
Oh! I was going to ask is the microscope shots are very, like, they fit exactly with the look of the rest of the film, which I wasn’t… I was like, “either this is being faked somehow, or…” [laughs] you know, something, but yeah, those, those were obviously you did that with a C300?
[laughs] Yeah. And that’s one sometimes I think, yeah, the C300 is a good combination with the ARRI, kind of a good B-Cam. You can like kind of make it look alike. And of course, that was the good work of the colorist Elie Akoka, who is in France, he’s famous, he’s the colorist of a Blue is the Warmest Color. And his dad is also the colorist of Amelie. So I was able to work with him on this one. And I think he really did a good job. I think it’s essential also that part, no? Like the colorist and understanding coloring, especially now that we have to be distanced with the pandemic, which has been crazy.
What was the look in camera that you were getting, like, how are you exposing your image versus what the colorist did?
I developed a LUT where I was more than “a look” for the movie, I was controlling the highlights, especially in Mexico, because the light there moves faster. And it’s brighter especially like now in the winter. Here in New York, in the winter, you have this more like sidelight that stays there longer. So it was easier to control in that sense, but then I built this LUT for Mexico to control the highlights that I was always like, “Oh, I’m not gonna like, cross that border.” And respecting, like, in terms of the look was a little bit desaturated because just because I don’t like the, the Rec709, which looks like so TV for me, but it was just as a reference. Then after that, we were checking and talking with the colorist and he totally understood that it was like a very naturalistic look that we were trying to get. And then we start to share references. And like, I was working a little bit on Photoshop, like sending him just mini corrections. And then from there also, we decide how to differentiate the present and the past, which was the other thing we were like, “no, we don’t want to go black and white. We don’t want to get crazy with that.” It’s like a very subtle, a little, two or three points less saturation on that one in the past than the present. And that, that was it.
Were there other films that you were kind of looking at that, that informed the look?
I usually love to get references from like, photo books. I have a big collection. I’m coming as I said before from the still photography world. And I find always there more inspiration than in other movies, because movies, I sometimes I feel like, “Oh, we’re going to copy.” And I feel not really comfortable getting into that world. So in this sense we were exploring like Alex Webb, the famous photographer that he, he has like books about Mexico as these like strong colors and compositions. I also had the chance, like back in the days to have Graciela Iturbide as a mentor, who is also a Mexican, famous photographer, more black and white, but all of these, like, Day of the Dead and like small town vibes coming from her. And then for, for the macro world, we were like, Alexis, the director has a colleague who is also a French guy that he was doing a conference. I forgot his name now, but he was making these transforming genetically the butterfly wings. And he built like an alphabet for that. So I was in this conference and all these like slides, and then he shared those with me by email, which was a completely new world for me. But yeah, we were kind of respecting also the locations. When I went the first time to the lab and I saw these like, pink and purple lights where it was like one scientist working, I was like, “wow, this is the way they work. That’s kind of creepy.” [laughs] And they were like, “yeah!” So then I was like, okay, so I took pictures and I was trying to replicate as much as I could, like the real light, because Alexis was very precise on that. Like, the lab needs to be exactly the same. I don’t want the scientists telling me like “that microscope is wrong!” which happens all the time in these kind of films. And so we were respecting and, and finding also that the scientists world is kind of very similar to the art world in that sense. Like, they are like more introspective people getting in their own offices and like, the creation. So we were like, kind of like influenced by that.
That’s funny you bring up the colored lighting because there’s a scene kind of halfway, maybe, through the movie where he’s just completely lit by purple. And I did have the thought, I was like, “all right, getting a little getting a little creative here!” but you’re saying that was just what it looked like there?
Yeah. Yeah. That’s the same with Mexico. A lot of people say to me like, “Oh, I didn’t know that Mexico looks like that!” And I was like, yeah. Cause we always have the idea that it looks like in Sicario or all these movies, all sepia and dusty and like creamy. I think also a new place for all of us, this little town in the middle of Michoacan where all the butterflies come in the winter and we discover that place. For me, it was like a little town of Europe kind of that vibe with all these, like colors and, and then the forest by itself, it’s a big source of inspiration.
Yeah. That Valley was just beautiful. Those landscapes you got were awesome. Oh, I wanted to ask about the car scene: There’s a car scene where you’re getting these sort of overs while they’re driving. How was that rigged up?
Yeah. That was like the classic rig from the window like that you put the camera… actually, they cut it in the film, but, but it was like a big sequence where he comes out of the bus and then he’s walking towards the truck and we were not cutting. And I was like, kind of panning. And then the car was leaving with a camera there…
Yeah! And I was like “Oh, damn, that was not on the film!” I mean, they cut it because it was too long, but sometimes I like to do these kind of magic things where you are like, “Oh, how?!” but then, yeah, it was like the classic rig outside, like side. And then the other one, just trying to combine… sometimes I was putting a little light, a little, I think an Astera just to have a little like feel there because like the forest is a big contrast and these lenses, I think that one of the characteristics is like they’re a little contrasty, for example, the Kowas are more soft in the contrast, more creamy, but these ones they’re already like… especially in Mexico where the light is very hard, you have to be careful with that and not get too crazy.
What was the reasoning behind switching to the Lomos if you were already comfortable with the Kowas?
I always try to be open and experiment in new projects because I think I don’t like to be in a comfort zone where it’s like, “Oh, I find my Cooke S4 looks amazing with the Alexa Mini and I’m just going to go that way” because for me, it’s kind of boring and I need this challenge when I’m shooting like how I’m gonna solve this? And that was the example in 499 that I didn’t use any light. It was all available light. I was on anamorphic lenses shooting this hybrid documentary fiction film. And I was very focused. Like every frame, I was really thinking how I can make it look poetic without having even a gaffer. So on this project, I was like, “okay, I cannot repeat myself” And then and I have to experiment with these other lenses. I was like, sure that I want to keep shooting on anamorphic. I mean, of course I have previous experience on short films with both, but it’s not the same when you’re like, on a long-term project. But I’m very happy with that decision because I think for the character it was good. He’s an amazing actor, Tenoch, and I think we kind of really connect visually and personally with him in the film with these lenses.
Oh absolutely, no again, I could say how much I loved the film over and over and over again, trust me [laughs].
[laughs] Thank you.
Talk to me to me about your transition from being a photographer into a cinematographer. How’d that happen?
That happened when like the digital world came. I was studying photography when I was 17, like with film photography. I went to Norway as an exchange student and I had the chance to work with a photographer there, Leif Gabrielsen, and also see this like, minimalism in the maximum expression there in Norway, you know? And so when I went back to Mexico I was doing these little projects with some governmental grants. And then when the digital cameras came out and I started to feel like, “Oh, I’m losing something.” But at the same time, when I was still doing still photography, I was always bringing my audio recorder. Then I switched to a Handicam always shooting my friends and things like that. So then I went to the Visual Arts School and I started to do my practice in a production company in Mexico City. It was like one hour away, I was growing up one hour outside of Mexico city. So then I started to get more and more involved into that. And then there was this art exhibition that I got into in Columbus, Ohio. And I remember on the plane back to Mexico that I was like, “this is it. I think from here, I’m gonna switch into film and, and try to do something there.” But yeah, it’s, it’s not easy as, as of course as a Mexican, I got so many “no”s and finally I can say, yeah, the last three, four years, it’s been amazing. With like the awards and the people reaching out and yeah, that’s kind of awesome.
I’m definitely going to have to check out your other stuff, but based on this you deserve it, man. I noticed a lot of top light, are you a big top light guy? I noticed indoors, it seemed kind of toppy, which I’m personally a fan of. How are you setting those shots up?
Yeah I think I use top light most of the time. I like to light more spaces than people you know, because for me it’s about atmosphere. And also, I grew up (like, film wise) with this mentor from Hong Kong that came to Mexico and he was always not telling us like, “Less is more. And if you use one light, it’s one problem, two lights is two problems”. I know also that he was like “respect the location. Feel it.” I think also Christopher Doyle, he says that a lot. I took a workshop with him in Mexico as well. And there we talked about location feeling, no? Like, the texture of the walls… So since then I come with the idea of like, if I’m going to use any light needs to go from the top that is in this space where the actors can move freely and doesn’t matter if sometimes they go out… and of course it depends on the project because I mean there are projects where the director is like, “No, no, I need the light, I need to see the face.” But in this one I had the freedom to be more realistic. I think that Cinema is going in that direction. Now we’re more like, hyper-realistic. When I grew up in the 80s, it was more like Top Gun and these like pink lights from the window, or purple, and it was more like effects. And now I think that we learn with like, Rodrigo Prieto’s Amorres Perros. Like that movie, I think showed us like this kind of handheld, dark but powerful, dramatic story… it looks like real life. So I always try to do that, like that you don’t notice exactly where the light is coming from. Of course sometimes it’s easier sometimes it’s not because it depends on time, budget, but yeah, I love using top light.
What fixtures were you using for that? Just like led panels of some kind?
Yeah. Pretty much the Litemat. That’s one light that I really like. The Litemat 4 Spectrum that you have the colors that also there, I really like that. I use also the Quasar on that movie a lot. For example, these shot where he is like dreaming that is blue light with the flies that like a lot of people like stands out with that. And it’s just like one bulb of Quasar blue light with diffusion. And that was it. It’s very simple, but I like the quality. Asteras are very practical, it’s like, you just put it there, you have the app, and Quasar you have to cable them, but the quality is much better with Quasar in that sense.
Yeah I mean, every DP I’ve ever talked to is always talking about the Astera tubes. They changed the game. I do love the Quasars though. I noticed there was a lot of really good just simple white balance-type color contrast in the film. How were you approaching that? Like, what were you rating the camera at versus what the light, obviously, you know, you had natural daylight, but you know, indoors and stuff. What was your approach there?
Yeah, indoors I usually, I go for like 4300K and sometimes I maintain that outside. I think in New York, I was like mainly 43 outside. I like to play more in that. I think that color temperature, it’s less saturated in color. I don’t remember in Mexico now, but if it was like maybe yeah, 5600 or I was like, kind of there, but yeah, but I tried to go a little bit less than 56 in general. Like sometimes I balanced with the wall or I’d just do it by my eye. I usually have my monitor, the Flanders 17 that I trust and I go there and I’m like, okay, I manipulate with that.
When you were growing up, or even now, what were some films that you were drawn to?
I really love the work of Gabrielle Figueroa, which is this old school Mexican Cinematographer that I invite all the people to check out his work. He was doing a lot of movies with Emilio Fernandez that is a Mexican director from the 40’s, 50’s… And of course I admire the work of Iñárritu, all these Hong Kong people… I will say lately I think Mother of George is one movie that I really like from Bradford Young. I love a lot of Asian cinema that’s kind of, but I try to watch, like, art films. Those are more like my vibe for sure.
Totally. I’m kind of the opposite. I came up, you know, my favorite films were like Men in Black, you know, The Matrix [laughs].
But that’s good! [laughs] I don’t know if, I mean, I could do a film like that, because I have no idea. Like, talking with my publicist about that, she’s like, “Oh what projects can you can see yourself doing?” And I’m like, “yeah, like dramas are easy for me, with all this naturalistic style, yeah, I can do that easily [laughs].” But a horror film or like a science fiction, I mean… I made a couple of science fiction short films, and it’s always very interesting to explore new ways, but yeah. I remember when they were shooting Men in Black III here around the corner [in New York].
I gotta let you go here soon, but two last two questions, was there anything on this film that you learned that you think would be good advice for Cinematographers listening and also, are there any personal projects that you’re working on?
I think we have to keep fighting and be disciplined. And, and for me, the most important thing is like to find your own voice. Have a signature and style, and as Christopher Doyle was saying at Camera Image last time he was like, “I’m tired of seeing In the Mood for Love on any mood board of any project.” So we have to experiment through our personnel life. I think that’s the best advice. More observation, less phone. I think that’s where we are going to learn so many things through that. To observe like people eating, people dancing, or landscapes more than Instagram or Netflix or these other things, no?
With projects, right now I’m on standby with the pandemic, but I’m still attached to a project with Nanfu Wang, the director of One Child Nation to do a series with her, but we still don’t know when. I’m also preparing a new feature film with the actor, with Tenoch. We became really good friends and we’re gonna shoot… we were supposed to be shooting in in January, but also the pandemic pushed that. That’s is in Mexico, but hopefully in April, we’re going to be able to start. We have already a second project in the, in the developing stage. So hopefully you can check it out soon.
Yeah. Are you still taking photos?
Yeah, I mean now with my phone every day, there was that big snow storm here in New York. And I cannot wait to go outside and do some pictures of that, but yeah, I have my small Fuji camera…
Oh I love my Fuji, I have an X-T3!
I actually have mine right here! It’s the X-T30. Same sensor. And sometimes I do some medium format. This [Rolliflex] is also my favorite. It’s nice. I really love this camera.
Oh nice! I’ve got an RZ67 but you can’t… it’s just so hard to just walk around with.
[laughs] Yeah. And, and where, where are you based? Kenny?
Okay, cool. And there’s like a snowboard on your back wall or what is that?
Yeah, yeah. I’ve been a snowboarder my whole life, so I’ve got a couple back there in my office. I have an office now, so I got to decorate it. But yeah! Thank you so much for spending this time with me. I really, really appreciate it. And again, the film is beautiful, so really well done.
No, thank you very much. And I will check your podcast and yeah, thanks a lot. Appreciate it, man.