From mid November to early December 2014, MA cinematography students from Goldsmiths, University of London, arrived in Singapore for a week-long exchange program with students from The Puttnam School of Film. They had completed their thesis films and were here to collaborate with our Level Three students on the colour grading of these films. Level One student Ho Say Peng sat down and chatted with one of the MA students, Fabio Guerreiro.
Say Peng: Hi, can you introduce yourself?
Fabio: I’m Fabio Guerreiro. I’m a cinematographer. I’m doing my Masters degree in Goldsmiths in London at the moment. My graduation is going to be next January. I’m from Portugal and I’ve been living in London for 2 years. I’m working in the film industry while I’m taking the Masters.
Say Peng: What made you want to make films?
Fabio: Well… that’s a long story. Since I’m very, very young, I always used to do small videos with my friends. And editing… and well, some things I would never do now. It’s very, very funny. It’s nice to remember. And then in 2005, I decided to move—because I’m from a small town in the south of Portugal… where the beach is very nice—I moved to Lisbon. I decided to do a course in marketing and communications. I was about nineteen, I think so. Inside the course, there was a subject that we had to do, like some advertising for marketing purposes. And I really enjoyed that because I had a background doing small videos. After 3 years in Lisbon—that was an amazing time, lovely city—I decided to take my BA in Film somewhere very close to Lisbon, at a small city as well. At the Esad Caldas da Rainha (University of Arts and Design), where I took my degree in sound and image.
In the first year, we had sound and image together. By the second year, we had to choose to go to sound or image. I chose image. We start developing our own photography, analogue photography, doing films, videos; working in TV, editing, post-production, a little bit of everything. That was when I decided to do my own first short film. And then, with my colleague, Ricardo—very nice to work with him—we decided to do a film. And we were a bit lost because we didn’t know how to start, how to raise money and to apply for the government to support us and the college to help us, and make them believe we wanted to tell that story. After that, we did the short film. And after the short film, I did an exchange program in Dublin, where I spent 6 months in the National Film School in Dublin. After Dublin, I gained a lot of experience working with other projects and I came back to Portugal and started to do an internship in a TV company as an editor and camera operator. I was usually working as a camera operator. I didn’t like it as much. Because TV is very rushed. You can’t be so creative. You don’t really have time to improve. But we did nice corporate videos as well. It was really nice. I stayed at the company for almost one year. After that I had an opportunity to work in a feature film in the south of Portugal, for a director who came from Amsterdam. I worked as an Assistant Camera. It was an amazing experience. It was one month and a half working in a proper team, in a proper film set, with famous people and actors. They were all very, very nice. That was when I decided that I really want to do this, that I want to improve and want to learn more about film.
Say Peng: You already have a Bachelors in Film and you have so much work experience. What made you think that you needed a Masters?
Fabio: Yeah, that was the choice. After the feature film, I was in Portugal where the industry is not so nice. Working as a freelancer, I had to take different jobs because, well… we need money to survive. So that film and after talking to a lot of people, they said, why don’t you go to London? There is plenty of industry there and they are doing stuff all the time. I took the chance and decided to move to London. I had some friends there already, working. Since I arrived at London, I have managed to do some small and medium projects, not the big projects. After 1 year of working in London, working on small projects, short films for graduation projects for students as well, I thought, probably if I do a Masters degree, it will better for me because it will give me more network and I can get to know more people, and I’m going to improve my knowledge in camera department and in cinematography.
Say Peng: There are so many famous film schools in London. Why Goldsmiths?
Fabio: I searched online for different schools. Goldsmiths was kind of… I read the course program and it was really, really interesting. I have worked with graduation films from London Film School, I have worked with the director of photography from there. I feel that when you go into a specific role, you do not develop projects together. You work more on your own. You develop your own project and then you have to bring people to help you. In Goldsmiths, what’s good about it is you have a team. And you work with that team for your projects. You work with the same director, the same sound person, the same editor throughout the year. You have that group. This I think is really, really good in terms of organisation for the course. It was the same team consistently throughout the year, together developing projects. The other schools… for example, you go into directing. You develop your own project. You write it, then you need to find people to help you out.
Say Peng: So it’s more collaborative in Goldsmiths?
Fabio: Yeah. Because since the beginning, you develop the same idea together. The other schools, it’s like: I’m the director, I need to do my project, then you go to a different course like cinematography and you choose a cinematographer to help you. A cinematographer comes up and he learns about the idea. In Goldsmiths, you grow up with the idea and you develop the idea with the director.
Say Peng: Can you tell us about the thesis film that you have done?
Fabio: Well… Onions. Onions is a story about a small girl, Lara. It’s a coming-of-age story. She lives with her mother and her little brother, Ben. They don’t have much money. The father doesn’t live with them anymore. The mother decides to do something bad. She steals a birthday cake to surprise Ben on his birthday. And Lara sees the bad thing that the mum did and goes through emotions that she don’t understand why the mum did that. In the end, she forgives her mum because she understands why the mum did it. Because she wants to give a surprise for the little boy. That’s the story.
Say Peng: What attracted you to this story?
Fabio: Well, I like social realism. And this is a social realist story about poor people who live in poor areas of London. But it could be a story from everywhere. In this case, it’s a story from London. Well… I didn’t choose the script. The script was chosen by the director, the editor, and the producer. There was a competition of scripts written by the MA scriptwriters. They choose the best scripts of all, and the director, the producer, the editor, they read the script and they choose the script they would like to work on. And then they come to us, okay I choose the script, and then we start to work on it, developing the script. We had so many changes to the script. It was revised like 5 times.
Say Peng: So the revision had the input of everyone, including you? Is that what you mean when you say it’s very collaborative in Goldsmiths?
Fabio: Yes. Everyone gives their ideas. For example, we change the ending of the film. We change some dialogue of the script, working with the scriptwriter, of course, because he owns the script.
Say Peng: So the revision of the script wasn’t just between the writer and the director, but between the writer and everyone else.
Fabio: The cinematographer needs to do that. Because the cinematographer is creating images to tell the story to people. You need to tell what can work or what can’t work to the director. I’m not saying that the director has to follow you. But you try to give the best advice that you can. How do you see the story? How would you like to tell the story? What is wrong about the story? You need to achieve a way to tell it, to convey the story to the audience.
Say Peng: Can I ask about your process as a cinematographer? When you read a script, how do you visualise the film?
Fabio: First I try to understand the story. For example, Onions. I try to understand the feelings of the girl. I try to understand the background of this family. Why did the mother do what she did? We went for location scouting and we talked to people who lived like this. This is a social realist film. You need to pass something real to the audience. That’s the beginning. And then, the way that you shoot, the look of the film is very, very important.
Say Peng: So the look of the film was very influenced by real places.
Fabio: Yes, definitely. Because we wanted to make it real. Sometimes just using a few lights and trying to get as much as possible from the environment to make you feel it’s actually a real picture, like a documentary. But it’s not a documentary, but it’s kind of…
Say Peng: Would you say it’s a blend between documentary and fiction? Like situating a fictional story within a very real environment.
Fabio: Yeah, I wanted to do that. This was my only concern. We didn’t achieve as much because we didn’t have much time to prepare. We had to start working on the project in May and we had to shoot the film in September. It’s not enough time. My suggestion was, to shoot a social realist film, you need to go to the right place and find the right people to work with. You go to these places and you find real people that can act. They don’t need to be an actor. You just need to take real people and put them in a film environment and make them look real. That’s what we didn’t do. We should get these people from this environment. Because we didn’t have time, we went through casting. And the acting kind of doesn’t match the film, in a way. But it’s okay.
Say Peng: I was about to ask you about the casting process. Film-makers like Jia Zhangke and Makhmalbaf, they are very social realist film-makers. Their films are very fictional and documentary. They would find actors from the place itself.
Fabio: That’s what I like to do. That’s what I wanted to do. That’s my background. That’s why the films that this guy, this Portuguese guy [João Salaviza], is really good. His short films won Cannes in 2009 and he won Berlin in 2012. He’s a social realist film director and he always get people from the real environment. He doesn’t work with “actors”. Sometimes he mix together. Sometimes he mix a good actor—a famous actor—that is very experienced but he always try to bring people from the real environment to make it real. This mixture between the real and the fiction makes the film look good. And the story is real. There’s something real there. That’s what I like about film.
Say Peng: So it was a lack of time that…
Fabio: Definitely. Lack of time and… the director, she’s from Romania. She just came to do the Masters in London. And you are not so confident because you are not from there, you don’t know the people. It’s difficult to go to these places and ask people to… But if you live there, you know where to find the people and you know where to find the places. It helps a lot.
Say Peng: I understand that for Goldsmiths, the cinematographer’s role is split into lighting and camera. Normally the cinematographer does both, as one person. What challenge did you face, as the cinematographer for camera, having to work with another person who is the cinematographer for lighting.
Fabio: Good challenges and bad challenges. But it’s always like this when you work with someone. We kind of managed to work together. We were working on the same project and we had to combine the same ideas together, to make the film work and to make the look the director wanted. It’s a collaborative process. I already did some DOPing before and I was working alone. And I actually enjoyed working with another cinematographer. I would like to have projects with a lot of money to have more cinematographers in it because when you work alone, you always miss something. And if you have someone with you that knows what you are doing and what you are trying to achieve, well, two heads think better than one. If someone brings ideas, I’m just open to listen and to make the film better.
Say Peng: This is the good part of the collaboration. But are there times when you really want to pull your hair out, when you guys really disagree?
Fabio: This is my first time working with other DOP. She was responsible for the lighting. I was responsible for camera. And then we did the floor plans together for the lighting set-ups. I had on my camera the point of view. She knew where to put the lights. It was easier for me when I said we missed something here, and she managed to do what we are looking for. So we didn’t have much problem working together.
Say Peng: How was the production? Was it challenging? Were you squeezed for time?
Fabio: Yeah, it was very challenging. In London, it’s very difficult. We had to shoot in a supermarket. So that’s challenging.
Say Peng: In terms of logistics? Getting the permit?
Fabio: A lot of logistics. Getting the permission to shoot there. Money. We basically, on this short film, most of the shots—the biggest scene in the film is the supermarket scene. And we had six hours and a half to do that scene.
Say Peng: How many pages was that scene?
Fabio: I would say 5?
Say Peng: That’s quite a lot.
Fabio: It’s half of the film. We just have 6 hours. And we had to pay $1000 pounds for 6 hours. And that was half of the budget that we had for the film. So that was the big challenge.
Say Peng: How much was the budget?
Fabio: $4000. That was the biggest. The rest was fine. The people are very friendly to shoot on a —— day. We raised money through crowd-funding, with family, friends. We did a pitch video, showing our idea, trying to bring people to believe in the message. Everything was rushed because of the little time.
Say Peng: As a camera operator, what challenge did you face?
Fabio: To try to get the best deals—to get the nice equipment to work with. Camera lenses, rig, and friends to work with me.
Say Peng: What camera did you use?
Fabio: We used a RED Epic. It was the school’s camera. We didn’t have much budget. Basically the budget went to the actors, the supermarket, stabiliser rig, and the lenses.
Say Peng: What lens did you use?
Fabio: Ultra Primes from Arri. The Carl Zeiss ones. Because they are lightweight and I had to use the lenses on this stabiliser rig.
Say Peng: You shot on the shoulder rig?
Fabio: Some. It was a mixture between hand-held and the rig. Because we wanted to always have movement. But when they are at home, we didn’t want so much movement. So it was combining both.
Say Peng: So if you could speak for your other half, your other DOP who isn’t here, what challenge did she face lighting the scene?
Fabio: Time? Because we shot this film in 3 days. And everything has to be very fast. But she was great because she knew what we wanted. When we were shooting a scene, she was already setting up the other scene. When we went to the other scene, the light was there. We just had to do small adjustments.
Say Peng: Can you give us a brief introduction of your collaborator?
Fabio: She was a singer before.
Say Peng: What’s her name?
Fabio: Georgina Pringle. She decided to do this Masters. She applied for directing, but she got the role of cinematographer. And she got interested. She was a good learner. She didn’t have any experience before, working with lights and everything. It was an amazing learning process for her. She pulled it off in the end and she did a really good job.
Say Peng: And now the film is completed, you’re here in LASALLE. Can you tell us, when you first heard of this exchange program, what were your first thoughts?
Fabio: I thought it was an amazing opportunity. I never been in Asia before. The only director I know more about is Wong Kar-wai.
Say Peng: Everyone knows him.
Fabio: Yeah, of course. But I’ve been reading a lot about him and because I really love Christopher Doyle as a cinematographer. He’s just an amazing character and an amazing cinematographer. When our lecturer told us that we had this opportunity to go Singapore and to grade your films there, I was just saying “Okay, I’m going.” I’m enjoying a lot and I think it’s a really good process. This exchange program really get you to know people from a different culture and background, from different kinds of ways to see the film.
Say Peng: Can we talk about your collaboration with Level 3 Puttnam School of Film student, Vivien Koh? How did the two of you work together on the colour grading?
Fabio: I think she’s great. She’s really good. I told her what we were looking for in the film. She has been working these few days. It’s looking great. It’s amazing. Today we are going to watch it on a bigger screen, to see if something is wrong and make the last adjustments. I think she’s really good. She’s focused and hardworking.
Say Peng: What challenges did you guys face?
Fabio: That’s a big challenge. Because I would like my director to be here. She couldn’t come because this exchange program is for cinematographers. But I feel if it was my film, I would want to come. As a director, you need to make these choices with your cinematographer. Because it’s your film. It is difficult to be here and talk with her and ask her what she thinks about it. It’s more difficult. In the end, it’s going to be her film. I know it’s my cinematography with Georgina but it’s her film. She has the last word.
Say Peng: Does your director trust you to make certain decisions without consulting her?
Fabio: Well, I always consult her. It was an amazing opportunity to work with her. Cinematographer and director’s relationships sometimes clash. Because they have different approaches. I’m happy to have met her. She was a very nice person to work with. She accepted my opinions and what I wanted to do for the film. I accepted the ideas from her as well. We manage really well. It was a very, very good process to work with her.
Say Peng: So you’ve been in Singapore for 5 days. How is Singapore?
Fabio: Well, it was very fast. I want to stay one more week. I enjoyed the culture. And I enjoyed the city. I enjoyed the food. The food is just amazing. The food market is just unbelievable. It’s cheaper and there are plenty of choices from the different cultures.
Say Peng: What’s your favourite dish?
Fabio: My favourite dish that I tried… well, I still haven’t tried the chilli crab. I’m really looking for that. I love seafood. I had plenty of seafood like prawns and clams, and very nice vegetables. I really love the seafood here. I’m from a country where the seafood is really good.
Say Peng: Would you come back again?
Fabio: Yes, of course.
Say Peng: Maybe as a closing remark, what advice would you give to aspiring cinematographers?
Fabio: Well, I am an aspiring cinematographer.
Say Peng: So from one aspiring cinematographer to another, what advice would you give?
Fabio: I don’t know… Work hard. I don’t say, to watch films. It’s good to watch films because it gives you ideas about how other people have done it. But… just live, you know. Travel. Meet people. Look around. Take pictures. That’s what a cinematographer should do.
Ho Say Peng is a Year One student at the Puttnam School of Film. He loves to watch films and aspires to be a feature film-maker.