Cinematographer Azul Serra Shoots Netflix Series ‘Boca a Boca’

For our ‘Spotlight on Brazil’ section, we talk to cinematographer Azul Serra (The Mechanism, Liquid Truth) about shooting the groundbreaking series Boca a Boca for Netflixby James Cunningham

Iza Moreira, Michel Joelsas, and Caio Horowicz in Netflix series ‘Boca a Boca’ – DOP Azul Serra, PHOTO Vanessa Bumbeers

In a cattle-ranching town in Brazil’s countryside, adolescents panic when they are threatened by the outbreak of a contagious infection transmitted by kissing. In a contemporary and dark plot, the series portrays the desires of digitally connected youth within a physical reality filled with fear and mistrust. Netflix series Boca a Boca, titled Kissing Game in English, is boundary-pushing, genre defying and visually explosive.

When director and creator of Boca a Boca, Esmir Filho, invited Brazilian cinematographer Azul Serra to photograph the series their first conversations immediately led to a visceral search for textures, colours, smells, sweat, saliva and sensuality. “The series is about a sensory and intimate group of characters,” explains the cinematographer. “We began our cinematography journey with the understanding that the script presented two different worlds.

One of these worlds was the traditional city of Progresso; the school, the farm, the streets. The other world is bordered with the unknown; a place in the middle of the forest, where mysterious characters search for a different way of life, mixing hyper-technology with knowledge of nature. 

Maurílio (Tomas Aquino) in Netflix series ‘Boca a Boca’ – DOP Azul Serra, PHOTO Vanessa Bumbeers

There they have hidden parties, where the teenagers of the city feel free, explore their bodies, their emotions, their inner lives and movement,” says Serra. “My challenge was about how to create those two different approaches using camera movement, colour, density and lighting.

During pre-production Serra tested several lenses. When everybody saw the tests in high-dynamic-range (HDR), imaging it was a unanimous decision; the cinematographer would film Boca a Boca with Zeiss Supremes and RED Monster 8K. The idea of ​​following the Large Format path was consolidated when he defined his window, 2.00:1, because that way he would be able to make an almost complete use of the camera’s sensor.

We were dealing with a modern, hyperconnected world, where technology was part of the narrative,” he says. “It is important to note that for our plot, the way that the bodies of the characters related to space was crucial. I suggested to the director that we film the series in Large Format. The reason for this was that we would be able to join high definition with a spatial strangeness.

Chico (Michel Joelsas) in a scene from Netflix series ‘Boca a Boca’ – DOP Azul Serra

With the Zeiss Supremes lenses, characters in focus immediately stand out and detach from the background. This helps in the narrative of the script because we become intimately connected to the characters; we could feel their breath, skin texture and sweat. “This characteristic of Supreme Primes extends even in open lenses,” explains Serra. “The most used lenses were 29mm and 35mm precisely because they brought this strangeness of depth-of-field.

One crucial visual aspect that Serra fought for was the choice of a bold colour pallet throughout the series. The main colours of Serra’s palette were pink and blue. These colours feature very prominently throughout the series. Production design and art direction brought surgical control over the colours in every frame. “Our idea was that the presence of pink and blue would be our ‘photographic paper’, the basis of our home,” says Serra. “We wanted to convey that everything was seeped in these colours, without it being overt.

Some of the most striking shots in the series involve digital projection onto trees, at various dance parties in the forrest at night. In the story, when the characters cross the border with the unknown, they encounter other mysterious characters that inhabit the forest. Here the camera is released and then floats. “Everything is about lightness and fluidity,” says Serra. “It was important that it be extreme. We wanted to explore new angles and oddities, strong pulsating colours. The camera had to become one of the teenagers. It was glued to the characters’ faces, moving intimately with them.

Alex (Caio Horowicz) in a scene from Netflix series ‘Boca a Boca’ – DOP Azul Serra

The production saw visual artists Bianca Turner and Felipe Craca create all the projections in the background of these scenes. Serra and Filho conducted tests with different projections and we decided to use three projectors, each consisting of  20,000 lumens. “Each was positioned in a ‘half moon’ angle related to the trees, so in that way we could have depth,” says Serra. “Projections are tricky. Sometimes you find good exposure, but colours don’t respond well. We did many tests before the shoot and we found out that we would have to push colours and some contrast during post production.

In the traditional town of Progresso, Serra’s camera was stable. It moved only when the cinematographer wanted to accentuate some emotion, in a subtle and subliminal way. “We used a lot of tracks, camera coming out from behind the walls, going through layers, acting like a mysterious guest,” says Serra. “We wanted to give a feeling of stable, rigid, solid and established compositions. A representation of social structures. Compositions using empty spaces in the frame, high ceilings, wide space between the characters, for example.” Everything was used to intensify the empty spaces that characters inhabit, and how far apart they are from each in those places. 

Serra says he is incredibly proud of his camera department. “First assistants Felipe Rodrigues and Mariana Tozzato led a tremendously talented crew,” he says. Most of the series was shot with just one camera, and Serra was operating the main camera with a second unit led by cinematographers Rodrigo Reis and Fernanda Tanaka.

 A scene from Brazilian series ‘Boca a Boca’ – DOP Azul Serra, PHOTO Netflix

Series creator and director Esmir Filho is highly connected to music and sound design, explains Serra. “On all his previous projects, soundtrack is key to intensify the narrative and give layers to the characters.Boca a Boca is no different. “Filho had his ‘wish list’ of song choices even before filming began. We used most of those tracks on the final edit. There were sequences that we played the tracks just before the camera roll, so the cast and crew could get in the right mood.

Being familiar with the music before hand helped us to understand layers, moods, atmosphere that the director was leading us to,” says Serra. “It’s a powerful instrument of communication between the director’s feeling and the rest of the crew. At the end of the day, our main role is to interpret and materialise what is inside the director’s mind and heart. What could be better than music to do so?

It’s interesting to talk about the dreaming sequences throughout the series. Due to the mysterious infection, the characters have visions. Serra decided to create a strong visual stimulus, a unique look that would always refer to that narrative space. Colours would be radically modified and the entire spectrum would be just pink and blue. 

Researching possibilities, we found references to old images that used infrared,” says Serra. “They fit perfectly with what we were looking for. So we tried to understand how to emulate this effect using digital cameras, and the best results always came from 35mm film and films. I didn’t want to do this effect in post-production because I knew it wouldn’t be as radical as I would have liked. It needed something that would actually change the colour spectrum, but that would maintain a naturalistic skin tone.

 A scene from Brazilian series ‘Boca a Boca’ – DOP Azul Serra, PHOTO Netflix

Serra discovered a specific infrared chrome filter that worked for modified still cameras, but there was still no success with sensors in digital cinema cameras. Most cinema cameras have a protection filter that filters out infrared, ultra-violet and low waves. The consequence of removing this filter is that several possibilities of imperfections present themselves. Raphael Varandas, who worked supplying camera equipment and as an image consultant during the series, brought the idea of ​​taking the low pass and replacing it with infrared chrome and letting it go full spectrum.

The result of the chromatic aberrations was so incredible that we decided to incorporate it in other moments of the script,” says Serra. “We wanted to break with moving lights and create another kind of sensation. We sought to create optical distortions, flares, mapping projections, all with the infrared effect. The result was shocking for us. Colours reacted exactly inside our palette, pink and blue.

Post-production was completed by Quanta Post in São Paulo. Serra and Filho worked with Sergio Pasqualino, the colourist behind the Academy Award-nominated film City of God (2002). “It was important for us to create a particular look for the series so we added a subtle cold bluish tone in the shadows and magenta in the middle densities,” says Serra. “During the party scenes, we created a particular look using a ‘compressed contrast’, almost scratching the images to get some weird texture.

Series creator and director Esmir Filho on set between takes, while filming Netflix series ‘Boca a Boca’ – PHOTO Vanessa Bumbeers

Looking back, Serra and the team behind Boca a Boca are all really proud of the final result. “It’s rare to work in a project that pushes all the departments to their maximum potential with freedom to create inventive solutions,” he says. “This happened with all of us, casting, direction, art direction, sound design and soundtrack and cinematography. Hope you all can see our hard work on the screen and enjoy it!

Azul Serra is an award-winning Brazilian cinematographer known for his work on the film ‘Liquid Truth‘ (2017).

‘Spotlight on Brazil’ is a initiative from Australian Cinematographer Magazine in association with the Associação Brasileira de Cinematografia (ABC).

James Cunningham is the Editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.

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