ONFILM Interview: Javier Aguirresarobe, AEC

Published on website: December 13, 2011
Categories: ONFILM
Javier Aguirresarobe, AEC - Photo by D. Kirkland

“In cinematography, texture is so important because it deeply influences all the other elements of the image. I have always preferred a simple, natural style with logical lighting that respects the actors. I hate anything artificial and I don’t like a hard, harsh look with crushed blacks. With a natural style, dramas feel more raw and real, and romantic comedies are sweeter. Risk-taking is important to my work, but I take logical risks in order to maintain the coherence of the look, and I like collaborating with those who place importance on the quality of the image.”

A native of Spain, Javier Aguirresarobe, AEC has photographed more than 100 narrative projects and dozens of documentaries, and earned six Goya Awards for Best Cinematography. His credits include the Twilight movies Eclipse and New Moon, The Road, The City of Your Final Destination, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Goya’s Ghosts, The Sea Inside, The Others and Talk to Her.

[All these films were shot on Kodak motion picture film.]

A Conversation with Javier Aguirresarobe, AEC

Javier Aguirresarobe, AEC was born in the Basque Country of Spain and studied film at La Escuela Oficial de Cine (EOC) in Madrid. He has photographed more than 100 narrative projects and dozens of documentaries, and been recognized with six Goya Awards for Best Cinematography. His feature credits include The Road with John Hillcoat, The City of Your Final Destination with James Ivory, Vicky Cristina Barcelona with director Woody Allen, Goya’s Ghosts with Milos Forman, The Sea Inside with Alejandro Amenábar, and Talk to Her with Pedro Almodóvar.

Question: How did you first become interested in photography?Aguirresarobe: My brother was a still photographer in the Basque country village where we grew up. He introduced me to photography. I was in the lab from the time I was 12 years old. I enjoyed making still photographs, but I never did it professionally, and it never crossed my mind that it will be my career.

Q: When did filmmaking first become a possibility? Aguirresarobe: Everything changed when I moved to Madrid, the capital. I decided to apply to the film school in Madrid, which was very good and very close to the Spanish film industry. It was extremely difficult to be accepted, but I got in. Almost all of my classmates had some connection to the industry, but I did not. As a result, it wasn’t until seven years after graduation that I did my first feature film.

Q: Which films inspired you to become a filmmaker?Aguirresarobe: One important film for me was Carlos Saura’s La Caza (1966). In English it is called The Hunt. Watching that movie motivated me to go into filmmaking and to try film school. At that time in Spain, there were two main influences from abroad. There was French nouvelle vague, and the Italian neo-realists. The idea of what a director of photography could be was different from the idea I got from American studio movies, although the American directors of photography were also an important influence. And these new, European ideas gained in intensity during my film school years.

Q: What do you remember from your school experience?Aguirresarobe: In the midst of the new, revolutionary influences we were soaking up, the teachers were training us in a pretty traditional, standard way of filmmaking. We had to learn these techniques in order to pass the course. It was very different from the methods we were thinking about using.

Q: What did you do for those seven years after graduation?Aguirresarobe: I wrote a technician for a photography magazine, worked in a lab, and did some industrial still photography. All the while I was trying to make a career in filmmaking.

Q: When you’re designing the look of a project, what are the important questions?Aguirresarobe: You have to decide how you are going to drive the movie, and at the same time, how you will leave your thumbprint on the movie and maintain your personality. In today’s world the technique is so advanced and so accessible, and as a result, you see a lot of people doing the same thing. The question of texture is very important to me, and what is appropriate for the story. The texture and the material depend on the story, of course. But when the story moves you, it motivates you to add your own personality to it.

Q: Do you have a style? How would you describe your approach to cinematography? Aguirresarobe: I think I have a very particular way of telling stories. There are some things I have never liked and which I never use. I feel very comfortable with my approach and I follow that. There have been some changes over the course of my career, but generally, I prefer a natural look with very simple and logical lighting. I thoroughly hate the artificial look. I feel lucky that I have found projects that drove me to this path. I feel that with natural, logical lighting, a drama will feel more raw and real, and a romantic comedy will be sweeter. I don’t like a hard, harsh image. I don’t like super deep blacks, or crushed blacks, or high contrast. I’m always running away from primary colors. I like to be in a more subtle world when it comes to color. And I am obsessed with skin tones.

Q: Are there cinematographers whose work you admire?Aguirresarobe: I follow and admire the work of Harris Savides, ASC; Emmanuel Lubezki, ASC, AMC; and Rodrigo Prieto, ASC, AMC. The final movies of Conrad L. Hall, ASC are a perfect school – the best. In that kind of movie, the texture is perfect. The actors are lit and treated in a classy, respectful way. That is important.

Q: When non-filmmakers ask you what a cinematographer does, how do you explain it?Aguirresarobe: A movie with good cinematography has images that fit the story, that work together with the story. The images that appear on screen are the responsibility of the cinematographer, and to create them, he uses lights, camera and film to create a language. That language is used to make memories, to tell the story.

Q: You mentioned texture as one of the most important aspects of the image. Can you elaborate?Aguirresarobe: It’s the texture of the film, but also the texture of the light that is projected on the screen. That is one of the main elements, and it deeply affects all the other elements. To me, texture is what makes the difference between one director of photography and another. Image making is now in the hands of everyone – even people who don’t know what they’re doing. It’s nothing that concerns me. I’m not worried about the reactions of companies or people who don’t really take care of, or place importance on, the quality of the image.

Q: Are there misunderstandings about the digital tools that you encounter?Aguirresarobe: We are living in a very complex moment. I sense the push from people at big companies. The postproduction houses are pushing for digital, too. But digital doesn’t make me sad or angry. It’s a legitimate tool. Sometimes shooting digital can be economical, but there’s really not that much of a difference. The opinions about digital seem to be completely about money. Although we are living through a convulsion now, I believe film will be with us for a long time.

Q: Where do you look for inspiration? Aguirresarobe: Movies give me a very important inspiration – but I try to forget them as soon as possible. I never want to use another movie as a reference for a film I’m working on. When Alejandro Amenábar asked me for references, I showed him a single still photograph with the appropriate concept and colors. I’m now preparing my next feature. It’s a fantasy and I want to give it a natural look, but I’m watching music videos on YouTube. Every movie is different, and I never know where I might find inspiration. I am one hundred percent aware, and my eyes are looking everywhere. The final source of inspiration is the dream world. I place great importance on the images that the mind creates. I believe that human beings are the directors of their own dreams. In a way, we edit and control the color and texture of our dreams. I have a theory that movies have to be dreamed before they are made. And if the movie doesn’t make your dream better, than you shouldn’t do it.

Q: What part does risk-taking play in your work? Aguirresarobe: I don’t like to play dangerous games with risk. But I do take risks. There must always be logic to the risk, some coherence. The Road is a movie where we used a special process in the lab, which was to pull two stops. I decided to maintain the process throughout the movie, even in the night scenes, in order to maintain this feeling. That was a risk. But it was a risk taken to maintain the coherence of the look I had created for the film.