Costa Rican cinematographer Luis Salas Lobo spent fifteen days in the jungles of Costa Rica and Puerto Rico working on The Babymoon, an indie film about a young couple’s prenatal vacation gone awry. Lobo was kind enough to speak with us about braving the jungles, his gear preferences, and the challenges and rewards of contributing to a smaller-budget indie production.
S&P: How did you first get connected with this project, and what drew you in about it?
Luis Salas Lobo (LSL): We began shooting here in Costa Rica. When they started looking for a crew down here, they contacted a gaffer friend of mine, Julio Jimenez, and he recommended me. Then [director] Bailey [Kobe] got to see my reel, and he saw something in it that he liked. So he contacted me about the project, and I read the script. Bailey seemed like a very interesting person, and he had a very clear vision of what he wanted. Just from that initial impression of him, I was on board, right off the bat. It also seemed like the production would be quite the challenge, because going through the script, I could tell there were a lot of complex scenes there, and I was just wondering how we were going to pull it all off. I was pretty eager to go right into it and see how we would get it done.
S&P: You had the chance to work in some very cool locales. Tell us about that.
LSL: We only shot one day here in Costa Rica. After that, we went to Puerto Rico. There was a short period between when we shot here and when we shot in Puerto Rico, and that gave me time to really read over the script and get deeper into the project, mentally and emotionally. So by the time we got to Puerto Rico, it was clear to me what we would be going for. That first day we did here in Costa Rica gave me the sense of how Bailey wanted to work, so when we started in Puerto Rico, I found we could move along quickly and get a lot of shots in a short amount of time.
It more or less all took place in one big park in Puerto Rico. The park had this beautiful river, lots of trails, ziplines, and this big abandoned area. It worked out very well for us in that we had a base camp that was central to the locations we were using in the park, so that kept the travel times reasonable. It was very convenient like that, and I think it was really clever planning on Bailey’s part. There were a few locations we utilized that were further away, but not too many.
The shoot lasted about fifteen days, and that’s with very little prep. It got fairly intensive. We just had to keep on going. Working like that, we didn’t have the extra time to polish and what not. But we kept chugging along, and it all worked out really well.
S&P: Tell us about the crew you worked with.
LSL: We had a small crew, and again, everything was done in a very short amount of time. As a crew, we had to be really tight, with less equipment, and that allowed us to stay very mobile. We didn’t have very complex setups in between takes, and that helped us get a lot of shooting done, too. It was definitely beneficial not being burdened with moving a whole bunch of gear from place to place. It functioned very nicely like that, just working with what we had.
The camera team was likewise small. We had an AC named Adam Marquez, and our gaffer in Costa Rica was Alonzo Sambolin. We also had some other people who basically just carried stuff around. With a crew size like this, everyone gets a sense of pitching in and helping out. You’re not just stuck in your specific function. You have to be multifaceted. That element of collaboration and working closely with the other crew members becomes heightened when you have fewer people to help spread the duties around. When we would travel through the jungle, everyone would be hauling the gear and doing little things to assist. If something needed to be carried, then whoever would just grab it and carry it to the next location. We had to be very hands-on and make decisions quickly, and that didn’t leave us much of a chance to talk everything over thoroughly.
We didn’t have big lights, which could be tricky sometimes, with the constant light shifts of the jungle environment. We kind of had to go through each scene and each setup and try to use the locations to the best of our advantage, so that was always providing fresh challenges. It was great having the flexibility we had, so we were able to get shots and get on to the next setup and the next shot. I think that’s the way Bailey likes to work – kind of a run-and-gun style. He’s always editing in his head. He would take a look at what we got, and then we’d be moving right along to the next thing. Bailey was great to work with. He works very freely, instead of exactly blocking everything out.
It was just the gaffer, me, and the AC, on the camera side of things. I would operate camera most of the time. Sometimes Bailey would operate. I’d often be dealing with the lighting myself, which was certainly challenging, because the camera would move around a lot for many of the scenes, like the scenes at the hotel, for example. It really did help that we could move around faster. To get the most out of the location, we would see what’s available there and incorporate that. We were fortunate to have the locations that we did. The hotel we used turned out great. The room we had there has this awesome view with a lot of natural light coming in. For that scene, we used bounce light and two small battery‑operated LED units.
S&P: Tell us more about the gear you used and what you found to be the most helpful.
LSL: All in all, the camera and lighting gear we had was pretty bare bones, but we made do with what we had. I really did enjoy those light units we used. They were Astra LED panels from Litepanels — their new 1×1 bi-colored units. They were punchy and consistent and gave off beautiful light. And they survived the jungle trek, so they must be rugged. As they were battery powered, that freed us up from needing to worry about hiding extra cables and all of that. We’d just set up the lights quickly and go from there. That worked out well for us, because we typically only had a short time to shoot a scene, and as we were only going to be there for two hours or so, that meant we didn’t have to worry so much about light changes.
These lights were surprisingly bright. It was wonderful that we didn’t need a generator to plug everything in to. We could bring the lights just outside of frame, and it would help to bring out more detail. Sometimes we’d have them come through a window to reinforce the natural lighting direction. We’d often use another one as a back light. They were super light, which became important on the long walks between locations. We could have just one person carrying both lights plus the stands. That really helped move things along.
We used a Sony F55 camera. We went with 4K and we used the whole range of that camera. It has a great latitude, especially there in the jungle where there’s a range of areas, from very dark to very bright. The F55 got the highlights really well without clipping. As far as working with these newer higher resolutions, it’s a clear benefit in that if something’s a little over or under, there’s always some wiggle room where you can get some extra resolution. That definitely helps a lot, the way the camera captures the image. We worked mostly with S-Log3. We did some quick tests on skin tones that we were happy with. Bailey had mentioned specifically that he wanted the skin tones paid close attention to, and I feel that came across great with this camera.
We didn’t have the luxury of a big monitoring setup. We just had a small Atomos Samurai. When you’re in a situation like that, you have to be able to trust that what the camera’s getting is good. It helped being able to go into these situations with a camera that I knew would bring out the most of it, insofar as colors and textures. The F55 did a great job getting those extra details. The highlights especially came out very nicely. We did crunch out a lot of the blacks in some parts. We used a nice new zoom lens, an Angénieux Optimo DP 30-80mm T2.8, and that was crucial. I definitely loved the look of it, and it gave us extra speed from not having to be swapping lenses all the time. Plus, by not constantly swapping lenses, you avoid exposing the sensors, which really comes into play out there in the jungle, knee deep in the elements.
Personally, I’m fond of a more organic and natural visual aesthetic. I think the minimalist approach can come across as very pleasing to the eye. That organic feel was intrinsic to this production, I think. It was freeing for the actors, too, because they weren’t worrying about hitting lighting cues. It’s tricky for the camera guy, because we have to have a broader awareness and follow things around more than normal. But that added to the natural feel, which I hope comes across well in the final product.
I should mention the post work that went into this, as well. That was done at Wildfire Finishing. Aaron Peak and Andrew Balis knitted it all together there. We ran into some big light shifts in the jungle. Sudden rainstorms or some random shadows would regularly give us issues. I mean, you just don’t have a ton of control over that with a small crew like we had. But Wildfire did an excellent job with what we gave them. They brought out the contrast of the shadows and trees and gave a claustrophobic sense in some of the jungle scenes. In the hotel, their work accentuated the set design and natural colors. Some of the grading they did aided in emphasizing this juxtaposition between the hotel scenes at the beginning of the movie, where it feels safe and comfortable and familiar, against the jungle parts, where it’s very uncertain and there’s always constant danger lurking around every tree and shrub. Having our shoot be so on-the-go like it was helped bring out that feel. I think some projects might call for a more polished, controlled look in the jungle, like with steadier shots. But I think we were wanting to bring out the harshness of nature in those parts. So it fit what we were aiming for.
S&P: Could you elaborate more on the collaborative aspects required for this project?
LSL: Well, I’m sort of used to these small indie productions, because I mainly shoot here in Costa Rica, where some film budgets are practically nonexistent, or just very small. A lot of projects I’ve worked on here have been done with very minimal crews. Working this way, you learn to juggle the various responsibilities and be more hands on with all the departments. It helps you to understand more of the big picture, and to have more of a grip on all the different aspects of filmmaking. So now I have a better grasp on how lighting works, for instance, so I can do that myself if I need to, instead of delegating it to someone else.
It can be a double-edged sword, of course. I love to work with a big crew, and that has many benefits. But when it does have to be done like this, at least I know what to prepare for and what to keep a lookout for, and I know what I need to do to get things done. With this close collaboration, everyone’s roles really amplify. The AC has to help out a lot and be very patient, because there aren’t a lot of marks for focus. The AC we had was great and very patient. We didn’t have a lot of rehearsals, so he would have to get his marks as well as he could on the fly. It’s a difficult job for someone to pull focus on top of all of these extra responsibilities, because he didn’t have a second AC here that he could pass duties on to. He had a lot of weight on his shoulders, and he did a great job with that. Really, everyone has more responsibilities and a tougher time in general on these smaller productions. On top of all that, we all were constantly battling with the environment. We were always getting bitten by bugs, and then it would just start raining out of nowhere. It’s really rough on the crew, and it definitely will test anyone’s patience.
The sound department was just Michelle [Guasto]. She didn’t have a boom operator, so she was doing it all herself. To make things harder, the camera stayed moving around a lot. So it was often very tricky to mic properly. But I think the audio came out very well. These kinds of shoots put a lot of pressure on people, but that’s awesome because you get to see how people really rise to the occasion. Patience really is key. If you need to get something quickly, you have to do it yourself a lot of the time. I’ve found that it’s very important to develop an understanding of the other departments and what they need and to strive for the best communication with people, so everyone can understand what’s going on. It can get confusing sometimes, working how we did, and you want to minimize that confusion to the best of your ability, so everyone can put in their best work. Everyone there in Puerto Rico was really nice. Alonzo, our gaffer, was doing multiple things at a time. If he wasn’t helping us, he’d be doing something else, like helping out production. For this type of shoot, you need to have that mindset of doing many things without abandoning your main duties.
And in some cases, you wish you had something you don’t, and you just have to solve it a different way. Ingenuity becomes a big factor, and that can be exciting and fun to try to figure out creatively how to do something differently and still make it work. That applies heavily to production and direction, I think. They have some unique problems because there are many things you have to do without at this level. But we try to get what we can with what we have. It’s nice in how this can bring out a more creative and spontaneous side of filmmaking.
I perceived this spontaneity bleeding over into the actors, too, where there was more of a sense that they could improvise a little and kind of do their own things, walking in certain ways and walking around more on the set, instead of just walking in a straight line and sitting down. They had some extra liberty, which can be technically hard on someone like a boom operator or camera operator, because if they move in a direction you’re not expecting, you have to adjust right then, without warning. Then you factor in the focus pulling. So there’s a give and take, but that more free atmosphere does help to bring a natural feel to everything.
S&P: How did you get started in cinematography?
LSL: For me, it’s the typical story of when someone gives you a camera as a gift at some point when you’re younger. I started taking a lot of pictures, and I got a video camera and made stuff with my friends. I’ve always lived here in Costa Rica, and growing up, there wasn’t a good option for studying film. But then a film school opened here around 2006. I was immediately interested, even though I really didn’t know anything about filmmaking, and I went ahead and enrolled. Since the school was just starting out and everything was just beginning to build up, they’d be bringing in new gear, and you’d be the first person in the country to get hands on experience with this equipment, which was awesome. So that’s how it started out, through film school.
Then I did projects with the people I graduated with. We have a small filmmaking community here in Costa Rica, and as I was saying, most of the projects here are done in a similar way to how The Babymoon was done, with a smaller crew and budget and all. It’s always a challenge, but we get to fully put ourselves into it. We really want to get these films across and do them in the best way possible. I love working on films because it forces you to learn to work together and collaborate with the rest of the crew and get into someone else’s head, creatively, and really get into the story. That’s what I like about it, the immersive aspect. You have to put yourself in this place and get lost in it for the time it takes. So, I’ve been doing these sorts of projects, as well as music videos and smaller things like that. I try to stay moving from one project to another. And we do have projects with more people and larger budgets. It varies a lot.
S&P: What are some of your creative influences?
LSL: I really like naturalistic lighting, as I mentioned earlier, but I’m also a big fan of film noir, where it’s very contrasty. I guess those are two tendencies I’m attracted to. I’m also into studying painters, and I’m a big fan of Vittorio Storaro. I’ve always appreciated his style. His work was one of the first things that put a big artistic impression on me. Also, I love the French New Wave. That was a big breaking point in cinema. It was like a breath of fresh air, I guess, and it still feels kind of new when you watch it now. I draw a lot from classic cinema. You can find so much interesting stuff there. Studying the classics, you see how a lot of ideas have already been thought of and put into practice, and it gives you a fuller understanding of the roots of the medium. And I know it’s an obvious choice, but Gregg Toland’s cinematography on Citizen Kane is a really big one for me. It’s still a great reference point. It’s very impressive to see what they were able to pull off back then.
Learn more: www.thebabymoon.org
Images courtesy of Double Entente Films