Reading: Interview with cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine

Notes from an interview with cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine, published in ‘The Light We Live In’ by Manu Yanez Murillo.

Jose Luis Alcaine has over 100 film credits, including ‘El Sur’ (1983) dir. Victor Erice, and ‘Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’ (1989) dir. Pedro Almodovar.

  • Regarding Asghar Farhadi’s vision of Spain in ‘Everybody Knows’ (2018) – he was ‘focused on doing justice to the narrative complexity and the choral structure of the film through the image, something that is not very common in contemporary cinema’ (Murillo, 2018).
  • He says many film directors today ‘come from the advertising or television worlds, and when they shoot, they are thinking in small-screen terms. They tend to employ only open diaphragms that drive the viewer’s attention toward one character, leaving everything out of focus.’ – although this can be beautiful and impressionistic, he thinks it is ‘stealing something from the viewer.’
  • He believes ‘cinema should invite the audience to embark on an active experience’ – too many films today are over simplified and spoon-feed the viewer.
  • In ‘Everybody Knows’ there are many shots of an entire family sitting at a table or at a party, ‘with all the characters in focus, so the viewer can choose who and what sub-plot to focus on.’
  • In the book Hitchcock/Truffaut, Hitchcock claims he has the entire movie visualised in his head before shooting the film.
  • Alcaine believes ‘that presupposes that the movie has no life of its own’ – he thinks ‘when dealing with emotions, some movies…find their form along the way thanks to the collaboration between the director, the actors, the DP, and the rest of the crew. That’s the life of a film.’
  • Alcaine says ‘people associate the quality of a film’s photography with the number of beautiful sunsets. Those sunsets have no narrative value.’
  • He believes that it’s important to ‘avoid indulging in landscape vistas’ and focus on ‘capturing the expressions of the actors.’
  • ‘When lighting a face, the goal is simple: to make visible the emotions of the actor or actress is trying to convey.’
  • ‘In theatre, acting starts with the power of the voice and the body, but in cinema the main source of expression is the transparency and subtlety of the actor’s gaze.’
  • Before starting work on a film, he asks the director the exact time at which each scene in the script occurs – ‘This should translate to the screen the feeling of a story that unfolds through time, of lives lived.’


Key points for me

A film has a life of its own. Rather than being over prescriptive and forcing predefined, rigid ideas upon a film, it’s important to collaborate with the creative team with which you are working, to be open to ideas as and when they happen during the filming process. One of my aims is to work towards making films that show a story unfolding through time and in which we see lives being lived.

Watching a film is a very personal experience. Although we may be surrounded by many people in a cinema, it is on a one-to-one basis that a film communicates the most. Often the films I have enjoyed the most are those in which I feel as though I have actively experienced the story. I don’t like being spoon-fed. Photography plays a major role in how the viewer experiences a film. As our attention is mainly on the characters and how they respond to each other, lighting the actor’s face and capturing the subtlety of their gaze is crucial to good filmmaking.


List of references

Murillo, M. (2018) ‘The Light We Live In’ In: Film Comment 54 (4) pp.16-17.