Cinematographer Cesar Salmeron on gritty frames, hairs in the gate and a cross-continental Covid-safe collaborations – by Iain Jones
At the end of 2020, cinematographer Cesar Salmeron was approached by the team behind German rap artist Zachari to collaborate on creating the vision for their new music video ‘So Fresh’. Ongoing global travel restrictions threatened to scuttle the project from the outset. Undeterred, Salmeron put forward a treatment that proposed the project be shot on his home soil, suburban Melbourne.
The music video follows the narrative of the hapless protagonist in a drug deal gone wrong. A fast-paced giddy thrill ride that pays homage to 1990s gangster films. Swagger are on display here, albeit Aussie-style, but the expectations of typical flashy over-the-top finger flapping rap video clichés are ignored in favour of an original gritty and parochial Australian treatment while serving it on a ‘thug life’ platter.
“I believe working with restrictions pushes me to think outside the box and come up with approaches I wouldn’t have previously considered,” explains Salmeron. “I was fortunate to have the freedom to film a European rap video in convenient and familiar locations in my own hometown. Ironically, the unfamiliar environment helped create a unique backdrop for the artist and his European audience.”
Being a European kid of the 1990s and a big fan of French director Mathieu Kassovitz’s Le Haine (1995, cinematography by Pierre Aïm AFC), Salmeron didn’t hesitate to sneak in an Easter egg as a nod to the great mirror scene created by Aïm. “When coming up with the overall look, I also really loved the style of Amor es Perros (2000, cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto ASC AMC) and the energetic combination of soft and contrasty frames the created by Prieto.”
As the narrative concludes to a dream sequence, it was important for Salmeron to introduce a number of visual signposts along the way. Introducing wide-angle optical distortions helped accentuate perspectives and place the audience in less anticipated situations. “I wanted to create a music video that didn’t take itself too serious and have some fun with the story and especially the audience. Evoking the pleasingly disorientating joy of watching overdubbed Spaghetti Westerns and Hong Kong action flicks when the sound and vision is slightly out-of-step,” says the cinematographer.
Whilst wearing both cinematographer and director hats, this project provided the perfect opportunity to hand some of the smooth operating over to close friend and collaborator Shyam Ediriweera. The camera department was backed by assistant camera Cameron Morley and second assistant camera Lucy Pijnenburg.
“When working on music videos, it’s also the subversion from the normal and juxtaposition of ideas between artistic collaborators that ultimately makes this experiment work,” says Salmeron. “I think every cinematographer at some stage becomes somewhat involved in direction because we are mostly the closest person to the talent and they can read our energy and incorporate that into their performance. Actors can feed off the cinematographer in close proximity and vice-versa, and sometimes the scene moves into a different direction than planned and that’s the organic nature of our work.”
To create a somewhat warped and distorted perspective, Salmeron used a 24mm probe lens at close proximity. This also helped give the film its off-kilter style and introduces the tone of the film from the start. To push the grittiness even further, he decided to sprinkle dust particles onto the sensor. “Morley had a near heart attack but it really helped pull off the mouldy look and added a third layer of texture to some of the scenes,” he explains. “Hair in the gate…moving on!”
A majority of the clip was shot on a Red Gemini. As a lot of the scenes were planned to be shot in low light, and being able to push ISO meant that shadows were safe. For filtration, the cinematographer dug up a number of old school ‘mist-filters,’ which added just the right amount of ‘bloom’ for buck. To end on a visual crescendo, Salmeron decided to shoot the closing scene underwater with help of aquaman Sam O’Reilly and extra bonus points if anyone spots him providing more than just underwater photography. His subsurface arsenal consisted of a well-equipped Nauticam housing, armed with a Canon R5.
“This particular set-up was great and easy to use, compact and a breeze to manoeuvre above and below the surface. The camera gave us the ability to shoot C-Log 4K at 100fps and held up great when pushing it through the post pipeline,” says Salmeron.
The cinematographer blacked out the pool and used a number of hard light sources overhead, which helped give the scene its eerie and disorientated feel. Having shot numerous commercial projects with the Laowa 24mm probe, he was well familiar where this lens would shine and didn’t hesitate to stick it into all sorts of weird and wonderful places.
For the colour tone of the film he worked closely with colourist CJ Dobson, to create a highly stylised look. The film is split into two distinctive colour tones to help accentuate visual change in the narrative. Salmeron proves there are truly no rules when it comes to shooting a music video for a particular musical genre.
Intriguingly, the stylised cinematic flow combined with an unflinching hyper-realistic ‘Underbelly’ suburban setting, both compliments and contrasts with the German soundtrack to deliver a delightfully strange, hallucinatory and off-kilter experience. This clip works as a compelling cinematic experience, combining gritty and stylised cinematic frames, spectacle, beauty, with a sublime dream climax.
Cesar Salmeron is a multi-award winning cinematographer working locally out of Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.
Iain Jones is a writer based in Melbourne.