Brazilian cinematographer Pedro Sotero has worked as a collaborator with Kleber Mendonça and Juliano Dornelles, the co-directors of Bacurau, and Producer Emilie Lesclaux for more than ten years. He and Dornelles worked on almost all of Mendonça’s short films as well as his award-winning features Neighboring Sounds (2012) and Aquarius (2016). Sotero’s work on Aquarius earned him a nomination for Best Cinematography on a Feature Film at the Associação Brasileira de Cinematografia (ABC) Awards; the equivalent of our own National ACS Awards for Cinematography in Australia.
“I had the privilege to co-photograph the film with Fabricio Tadeu, while Dornelles did production design,” says Sotero. “During all these years we developed a real friendship and a very personal way of making films together. So I didn’t have to pitch or interview for the job.”
The film revolves around Bacurau, a small town in the Brazilian sertão or ‘outback’, which is beset by strange happenings following the death of its matriarch at the age of ninety-four.
There was not a lot of a discussion on film versus digital as, like in Australia, film labs in Brazil have all but shut down and are virtually non-existent in the country. The logistics to develop film in Mexico was not an option for the Bacurau filmmakers because of the high costs of sending the exposed film to another country.
“Having to choose a digital camera, we knew that we needed a very reliable, strong camera and a great dynamic range to face the roughness of the Sertão,” says Sotero. “A region in the Northeast of Brazil with very harsh sunlight and high temperatures throughout the entire day.” Early discussions with both directors saw a ‘classic Cinemascope look’ being the way to go for Bacurau. The filmmakers had many of the 1970s and 1980s classics such as Deliverance (1972, cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond ASC), The Thing (1982 cinematography by Dean Cundy ASC) as well as Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, cinematography by Douglas Slocombe OBE BSC ASC) as references for the look of Bacurau.
“I decided to go with a set of Panavision Anamorphic C-series lenses that shot many of these classics, along with modern the 4:3 digital sensor of the compact and reliable ARRI Alexa Mini,” says the cinematographer. “As the film title refers to the name of the city where the film plot evolves, our main challenge was to find the ideal city to shoot, that would appear ‘cinematic’, have the right size for the story and could also serve as a studio for eight weeks,” says Sotero. “We visited more than twenty small cities in the Northeast countryside to find Barra, our perfect Bacurau.”
Sotero also conducted vast research into the iconography of the historical and modern Sertão. As the film is set in the near future, production design decided to incorporate in the costumes, all colours, brands and styles that people use today; even in the smallest and isolated towns, embracing a completely free and vivid colour palette for the film.
“For the landscape, we decided on a twist to the classic way that the Sertão is normally represented in literature and cinema,” says Sotero. “As the Sertão is a drought-stricken region, it’s always pictured with a brown and grey colour palette, but never in its rainy season when in a few days the landscape changes completely to a vivid and green colour palette.” This is one of the many striking visual details that make Bacurau stand apart.
The crew shot for eight weeks in the Sertão, for twelve hours a day. The city of Barra had many locations transformed by the art department, with all scenes being shot in real locations and no studio built. “We had a lot of problems with rain, and also the access road to the main location, but we managed to shoot the whole script,” the cinematographer explains.
Sotero wanted a very warm, bright and harsh look for day time in the film as the region imposes. For the exteriors he used an 18k HMI with white and silver 6×6 bounces. For the interior daylight locations, the cinematographer decided to mainly light from outside, with large, old and classic tungsten lights. This offered Sotero great light quality as well as leaving the location free for the actors and camera.
For night scenes, after Sotero ran tests, he decided to change all 75w sodium lamps of the small city of Barra (very dark and reddish lamps even in 1600 ISO, he explains) to 150w ones. “We also decided to add some modern LED street lamps to give the film a little more modern presence in such an isolated place,” he says. For moonlight scenes, they used a cherry-picker with an 18k HMI using Rosco platinum gel and full-grid diffusion, and also a colour-corrected tungsten 20k with full-blue gel to light backgrounds.
“I believe that we were blessed with a perfectly sized crew for this project. Composed of my gaffer Marcio Lima, who has been my right hand on the last six feature films I have worked on, and his team of four electricians,” he says.
Sotero’s crew was also comprised of Carlos Tareco and Thiago Pereira, two main grips who have been collaborating with the cinematographer since Neighboring Sounds, and their team of four grip assistants. “My focus puller was the talented Nicolau Saldanha, who has been a collaborator on many others projects. The relationship of the whole crew was very respectful and smooth,” says Sotero.
Sotero was fully involved post-production and in the colour-grading process. “As the film has many practical effects blended with digital effects, since pre-production we had many conference calls with head of makeup Tayce Vale and the film’s French visual effects team so we all could be in complete consonance during post,” explains Sotero. The colour-grading process was completed in Paris using the Academy Colour Encoding System (ACES) workflow with the “amazing eyes of Cristophe Bousquet as colourist,” says Sotero. Bousquet has coloured over two-hundred films in his career and had previously collaborated with Sotero on Gabriel and the Mountain (2017).
“Mendonça and Dornelles are two amazing directors, who are always challenging me to think together the best way to shoot scenes, so it becomes very natural to have personality and voice as a cinematographer in their films,” says Sotero. “I also believe that the cinematographer has always to remind themselves to be loyal to the script, fully work toward a director’s artistic vision and never get lost in his own desires for the picture.”
Bacurau has utterly exceeded even the filmmaker’s expectations, with an outstanding reception by audience and critics’ reviews in Cannes Competition as well as Sydney Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival this year.
“I’m very anxious to know what the reception will be here in Brazil,” the cinematographer concludes. “As a film that portrays with scary accuracy the poisonous times which Brazil is living politically, with its extreme right wing government that is starting to destroy our young democracy. Troubling, with recent public declarations that will start to see censorship in our national cinema and in all of Brazil’s art.”
Pedro Sotero is an award-winning Brazilian cinematographer.
James Cunningham is the Editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.