Alejandro Martínez. Shooting House of the Dragon.

Alejandro Martínez was born in Mexico City to a family of filmmakers and has set his own path as a director of photography. Nominated for the Goya Awards for his work in “Autómata” and having now more than 20 years of experience, this renowned director of photography told us about his impressions on the trade and what it was like to work on the production of “House of the Dragons”.

 

Who is Alejandro Martínez and how did he get in the world of filmmaking?

I started out as a cinematographer from a very young age because of my family. My grandfather was a very profuse director of photography in the golden age of Mexican cinema. He started very young, at the age of 20, and directed the photography of all kinds of films. He made around 250, from the wrestler genre to films with Luis Buñuel. My father was a bit more into advertising, but he was also on the sets for many years. Filmmaker uncles, brothers… I grew up on sets.

Because of my grandfather’s figure, I knew I wanted to be a photography director before I knew what it really meant and, in fact, I was gradually getting into it. I completed my studies and treaded the whole path, from apprentice to cameraman, production assistant, operator, and then I went to the side of the electrics and I became head of electrics and then I started doing my own things. Those were my beginnings. It’s the family’s trade. We’ve been doing this for 100 years, it’s in family’s DNA. Some of us have been able to choose, others not so much, but we are all there.

 

You said that you have gone through different positions, from work on the set to positions of greater responsibility in filmmaking. Do you think that such experience has helped you to undertake a specific project?

Yes. I’m also a film teacher for the Mexican school, the Cinema Training Center and I always tell my students that it’s not necessary to go through all these positions to be a good director of photography, but for me it was very important to do so. Living on the different sides taught me what the work of others means, how much things cost or what each individual requires to do a different job and then be able to ask for it. Asking for a light, a camera in a certain position, how the cameras themselves work… knowing how to do it, in my opinion, gives you extra experience and knowledge. What is the downside? It takes time. One may not want to or not be interested in investing that time, and I understand that too, but for me there was no other option and I appreciate that it was that way, because I think I have a more global view of the things happening on a set.

 

Is it an usual path among other photography directors or film professionals?

It was in former times, there was no other choice. I’m from an analog generation and it wasn’t until my sixth or seventh film that we started working in digital. It was necessary to have a wealth of very particular knowledge about how the cameras were operated, how the lights were handled, what the discipline on the set was, the positions were kind of very specific. There was no other way, you had to start from the bottom. You just couldn’t go around with your camera and start shooting because there was no access to cameras.

Nowadays I don’t think it’s necessary any longer. You can grab your camera, get rolling and carry out your projects. You have many resources at your fingertips, and by doing things you can gain experience. But as I say, it was important to me. I don’t know if I would do it differently now, but that’s what happened to me, and I think it really helped me a lot.

My recommendation, when asked, is to go through other positions and go step by step, even if it takes a bit more effort, but the experience is going to be very different, the craft is going to be different and even the mastery of the profession is going to be faster. The experience of working with other people, seeing other points of view and, ultimately, doubting those points of view or developing one’s own is very important.

 

Considering what you are saying about access to technology, do you think it is easier to make it to photography director nowadays as compared to former times?

The technical part is definitely easier. Working with a digital camera, the sensitivity of the sensors or the immediate benefit of seeing what happens on a monitor, that part is easier. I don’t mean to disparage anyone by saying this, but technical knowledge is lesser nowadays. When things were photochemical and we didn’t have the technology we have today, it was like acting somewhat blindly. What made you able see through it all was knowledge. For example, seeing how a negative was being exposed was pure knowledge. Now it’s the monitor that tells you if exposure is correct. It’s different. Discipline on the set is also different, although in this case I wouldn’t say whether things easier or more difficult. The profession of cinematographer, being the tool that tells a story visually is neither easier nor more difficult, it is just the same.

This profession is on the one hand an art and on the other hand a craft and I think the art side of it will always be the same. As for the craft, it’s about how you embrace your knowledge, how you behave on a set, how you handle it, how you become an expert at it… that has definitely changed. Now for example, with the Fallout project, I’m shooting this series in 35 mm, and it means going back to a certain discipline, a certain knowledge, order and a control of your elements, because nobody’s going to tell you that what you’re doing is fine until three days later.

 

Talking to Pablo Rosso, an Argentinean director of photography, he told us that like you, he began working in analogue and also that the way of composing an image for cinema was based on the view, from the eyes, from the scene, without looking at how it was displayed on a monitor. That gave him his very own professional quality when working by looking a a scene, interpreting what could happen. Is this something common among those of you who have worked in analogue?

That’s literally what happened. Imagine today, in a digital set, that when you start shooting you turn off all the monitors. There are the cameras, the lights, but we’re not going to see anything in digital. In this case we possess a more solid knowledge. Knowing what a film emulsion gives you, how it works, what happens to whites, blacks, how temperature impacts on color when exposing that film or what can be done to it. It’s basically working in the dark.

That used to be the traditional magic from a director of photography. It was that, so to speak, “magical person who knew how all this was being interpreted in a negative”. Nowadays, having monitors to assist, it is much easier for everyone to see if something works or not. Today’s photographers at school want classes and are willing to experiment in analog, but they get to the set and everything is digital, so the rules of the game have changed a lot. I think those of us who did analog know a little more about the photographic process, although the filmmaking process has still remained the same.

 

How was your progression, where did you start and how did you get involved in larger productions?

In spite of coming from a filmmaking family, my father focused more on advertising, so I knew advertising sets. That was at the age of 14 or 15. My summer jobs were as trainee in advertising sets. From there I started to grow. I studied a degree in Communication Sciences, then I studied cinematography. I took specific courses and at the beginning of my career as a photo director I dedicated myself to advertising, since they were the contacts that I had. That was my way of being on set and making progress. It was about four or five years before gaining access to the movie industry.

My work as an advertiser connected me to very interesting film directors, including one of my great friends and among my favorite directors in Madrid, Gabe Ibañez. That’s how I started in the world of cinema. First in Mexico, I made horror movies, like in 2004 or 2005, and I did a couple of productions with Filmax in Spain. Afterwards, I made a couple of American films, also horror films. All this in traditional film, there wasn’t digital yet. After several films, mostly horror, I finally took part in a Spanish film called ‘Hierro’. Hierro was the second digital film made in Europe at that time. We shot with the first Red camera, the Red One. It was the first digital camera as such, and it would take 24 digital frames per second. I remember that the texture of “Hierro” was very interesting. Very soon afterwards did we realize that this was the future.

And then I shot another movie in film titled “Memories of my Melancholy Whores”, an adaptation from Gabriel García Márquez, but from “Hierro” onwards a radical change was felt. With the release of Red One, the industry was transformed. I continued to engage in advertising, so I interspersed advertising and cinema for many years, but I was already doing everything in digital. I made a movie called “Painless” in Barcelona and then, in 2015, I made “Automáta” with Gabe Ibañez. It was after this film that I decided, together with my family and my agents, to get into the world of television.

Television was beginning to be what it is now. Obviously, there were very famous series like “The Sopranos” or “Game of Thrones”, which was already beginning, but the platform frenzy had not started yet. We decided that it was a path that had to be tried because otherwise we would be left behind.

 

Was it that clear at the time?

You could see that something was starting to become interesting. Writers and directors began to make a move and go for streaming. What was not foreseen back in 2015 was that the tradicional cinema would have such a sharp drop, which had a lot to do with the pandemic, but it was already seen coming that the ‘middle class’ of movie making was disappearing, that either gigantic projects would be carried out, with many studio-related decisionsto be made; or small projects where there was a very marked authorship, but little money left for them. That’s when we decided to get into TV.

We started doing pilots, first smaller, then bigger, then actual episodes. This was a long journey and several stages along the way. I remember when my agents told me I had to get into all this and I didn’t want to, but then I thought that if I ended up doing something like Game of Thrones it would be fine, and I jumped in. It was a journey that involved doing increasingly interesting things and also not getting comfortable, because on television it is easy to fall into niches. If for example, I do a series that has seven seasons I would have work guaranteed, but it was exactly what I didn’t want. It has been a matter of many decisions in choosing what to do or not, about projects that you think are going to be a great success and then they don’t go that far: there has been a little bit of luck in decision-making, but basically this is how it was going until a project that I did three years ago. This project was “The Alienist”, where Juan Carlos Medina, with whom I had worked in Spain, invited me to do a couple of episodes. It was there, when I got into higher-budget television, where you can have a little more freedom on certain things like the creative level. After this, we have been able to do very interesting projects and we hope to continue like this.

 

We talked about the fact that at that time the world of television was really thriving. Do you think that those average budgets in movie making and all that creative flow moved to television?

I think so, although this is a bit of a general idea, because there are still projects of all kinds, but yes. Nowadays, post-pandemic, if you want to go to the movies it is hard to choose a movie, especially if you’re not a fan of Marvel or the horror genre. Talent has moved, writers, directors and for photo directors began to be more attractive. Nowadays, you can’t name a photo director, from a generation other than Roger Deakins, who hasn’t made television. People like Emmanuel Lubezki or many photographers have gone for this, because this is where we see talent, budgets and good projects. The power game in studios has changed a lot. Perhaps, today, you are not talking so much about Universal but rather of Netflix, Amazón or HBO, each with their niches, their work proposals. I’m not saying this is better, it is just the way it is. For me, concerning the offers I receive, the most interesting ones are for TV. It’s a different scheme, whether it’s episodes, a pilot or the whole series, but the best stories and the money for production design are now on TV.

 

 

It is commonplace to see that in the series, the work model to create episodes at a photography level, has been distributed between several professionals. What advantages or drawbacks does this bring?

It has both advantages and drawbacks. A series can be distributed in many ways. For example, making a series with a single director of photography and several directors is complicated. If that series has ten episodes, you don’t have time to prepare it by yourself. In addition, there are many things that are not known: there are scripts that are not yet written, the series usually start without having all the chapters written and to prepare a series of ten chapters, which is like preparing an eight-hour film, with a single team you would need eight months to have everything ready.

Studios prefer that directors have some control over certain episodes or over certain fragments, and it is a more convenient and practical way of working. To do this, they require different photographers, that each director has that creative contribution with a person with whom they can be with all the time.

These formats are inherited from traditional TV, but they are also a bit inevitable, because TV can have all the money in the world, but what it doesn’t have is time. If you shoot ten 50-minute epsiodes you have to shoot them in 6 months, you can’t shoot them in 2 years like in a movie. It is a new way of working which, when compared to movies, is different in many things; it is better in some and not so good in others, but if you do not compare it with cinema and compare it with TV as it had been up to now, it is much more efficient and much better.

Artistically or creatively better? From my point of view, this is not the case. The way of making cinema is a purely creative process where one takes the time one has to take. Time is the great luxury of cinema. This, on television, is replaced by other things such as having more than one director of photography do a project. It has also come to the common denominator of establishing rules, giving information so that the film feels like a visual unit, all this with a certain freedom. I can say that House of Dragons is the project where I have had the most creative freedom in my whole career, there was not a single person who told me what to do or how to do it.

One thing I like is that in the end the process is like making a movie. Some decisions, like about sets or a character’s attitudes, may be made by someone else, but there are a lot of decisions that are made in a more traditional way. I talk a lot with the other photo directors, I reach agreements with them, since we do not want the program to be different in each episode. For me, creative unity or visual unity comes from inertia or decisions made at the beginning rather than from what is done in our daily routines. If you decide that the film is going to be shot with a certain camera or with certain lenses or the choice of lights you take, that inertia that leads to a visual unit actually occurs. Therefore, in the end the projects end up looking similar and that is what works, being able to have units, working on the same page, while one works the other shoots. It’s the only way to do these big projects within such a tight time frame.

 

Speaking of House of the Dragon, when you joined the project, what stage was the production in? Were you able to give your point of view on the visual aspect in pre-production or did you adapt to an aspect that was already established?

It was a truly interesting project. I landed on Dragons thanks to a director I had worked with before, Clare Kilner, who is the director I am now with in New York. She wanted me to join the project to complete three episodes of the series. Once all the logistics with HBO was arranged, which runs under an intense screening process, this was achieved.

Dragons’ showrunners wanted us to be there during the whole process. Basically, the project began to be prepared with one of the showrunners, Miguel Sapochnik and his photo director Fabian Wagner. They were going to shoot first, but they wanted us all, so we were three photo directors doing nine chapters and then another photo director, who joined three months later, to do one. We arrived at the time in which the sets were being built, when everything was strating, and we had a lot of freedom, like being able to make all kinds of decisions about how the sets should go or the size of the windows. It was a really nice process because we were able to collaborate on everything. Being there from the beginning helped a lot because there was a very intense collaboration between all of us. Fabian is a great person and he helped us a lot. He had already done episodes in “Game of Thrones” and helped us understand the whole universe.

Everyone asks me how limited I was, and it is one of the projects in which I have had the most freedom in my entire career. No one ever told me what to do or how to do it. Keep in mind that there are many conceptual limitations: It is a medieval era in which, for example, you can only illuminate with moon, sun or fire. That’s limiting at the outset, but as I said before, it gives a visual unit to everything.

 

To develop this first season of House of the Dragon, what technical equipment has been used?

Dragons was shot in digital, with Arri cameras. We combined 65 mm Alexas and LF Alexas. The 65 mm were for more postcard-like, more impresive postcard-like takes. It was shot with a non-traditional optics, but nothing really special. They were DNA Prime lenses and the equipment was pretty straightforward, nothing out of the ordinary. The luxury was to shoot those takes in 65 mm, but no special process was used.

 

What was the biggest technical challenge you have faced at shootings this season? How was it been resolved?

For me there were two great challenges. One was how to light up these giant sets. They were huge and it was a big challenge because you had to illuminate them while bearing in mind a lot of things, like the permanence of that light, since the set could not be lighted at the desired time, but you had to leave a basis for what would follow. But the truth is that I had a superb team, I can’t say that I solved that challenge myself because without the help of the people it would not have been possible. The team that worked on that series is top notch. They are not only experienced but also willing to help you at all times. Our electrics team was very good and it was also a huge team. Whenever you asked for things, it meant having it ready in a few hours. Also, there was plenty of time to light up and then check everything out. The preparation process was long. How did you make it? It is achieved by seeing it, going to the paper, designing it, talking to the production designer or director about the needs of each scene and then talking to the technicians, suggesting to try one thing or another.

A series like Dragons has a distinctive seal in regard to how it is illuminated, from how light enters through windows to differences in color temperatures. But for me, the great value of that series is the human value. The team working on it is spectacular. That’s what makes the difference about whether projects this big are complicated or not. The key to lighting up those big sets was the people I had.

The second big challenge was my introduction to something I hadn’t done in my life, which were the LED volumes. At one of the Warner Studios forums, a volume set was built and it was a challenge because we realized that this is a new technology in which no one really is an expert. Everyone has is more or less familiar, there are people who have worked with it before, but we are all learning. It was quite an experience because I think we all learned, and we were also able to push the more technical people towards a different point of view. They told us that something could not be done, but we provided that creative vein of encouraging them to try, so and I think they themselves learned a lot from us. There were people who had made the volumes in “The Mandalorian”, people who knew more about this technology and we also took them to places where they were not so comfortable, but which in the end worked out well. We questioned things, pushed the technology to the limit, and it was good, because there was no reluctance to the new, but a very nice collaboration between the whole team.

 

What part of the footage was made with LED volumes?

Regarding percentages, not much, about 20%. I had to do like five sets in the volume. Really cool things were accomplished. Each one made like three or four sets and this is a toy for wealthy people, but if you make the most of it, with the right reasons and properly done, it works amazing.

 

Do you think this technology is here to stay. Is it today’s great revolution?

I think so. Cheaper versions are required, but it’s the best way to solve a lot of things. I hope it stays. I think the hardest part is figuring out how to do it, making it cheaper, which will be a matter of time because technology tends to get cheaper, but above all it is a matter of knowing how to use it. After that experience I feel like a lot of people will want to use the cheap version or use it for things that don’t make sense. It has to be a well thought-out, careful process. If done that way, it works very well.

It’s today’s great revolution. There are things that happen to the next level, others that don’t, and volume is one of the big investments that we have now. It is our duty as an industry to know how to take advantage of it, use it well and make it more accessible. Otherwise, it will happen as with 3D: If it becomes inaccessible and expensive it will disappear. Likewise, this is a very basic technology, it is a projection and projections exist since movies are movies. But as I say, it is something that, if the industry is clever enough, should be able to preserve and it will help us for many years to come.

 

Can you tell us something about Fallout, the project you are working on now?

What I can tell you is what is already known, even if you don’t think I know much more. It is the adaptation of the game Fallout, which is now turning 25. We are shooting in New York, although it is a series that has been shot in several locations, from Namibia in Africa to Utah or Los Angeles. It is lead by Jonathan Nolan, who has done ‘West World’ or ‘The Peripheral’ and is the same group of people from ‘West World’. I’m going to do two chapters and I think it’s going to look really cool. From what I have seen and what I have been told, I think it is a series not only for fans of the game, but in general it is going to like very much. If you know the game, you know it has very interesting visual vibes. That aesthetic of the 50s, the Happy America of that time, is being conveyed into the series and the scripts are very good.

 

Regarding the technical section, what equipment is being used?

It is being shot in 35 mm with Arri cameras, anamorphic lenses and a very traditional look, which is not usual today. ITt0s being treated like an old movie, and when you see the result, it makes perfect sense. Negative scanning will be done, but it’s being shot as if we were shooting a movie from 20 years ago. Nowadays, working in this way in a series like this is very interesting.

 

Would LED volumes fit well with a technology like this?

Precisely so, volumes are being made and no one is complaining, no one has said that it cannot be done. Obviously the chroma clippings are a little more complicated, but also once you know the rules of the game things work out. People are happy with the format and light volumes are being used. It is a great experiment, and this must be one of the first series ever to make the light volumes technology blend well with the analog side. We’ll see what happens.

 

 

 

 

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