Without the availability of Alfonso Cuarón’s go-to cinematographer, three-time Oscar winner, Chivo Lubezki, he was truly left to his own devices when shooting his childhood memory film, “Roma.” But it turned out to be a blessing because it forced the director to confront the past by himself. And Cuarón made the bold, experimental choice of shooting in color with the Alexa 65, but then sculpting in black-and-white like a photo-realistic painter.
The result was a cinematic masterstroke, as the director meticulously recreated the past through stream of consciousness recollections of his family, his house, and his neighborhood during the turbulent ’70s in Mexico City. “There is a tendency to use digital to create a filmic look, and I have done this, but, on this one, we didn’t want to emulate film, we wanted to embrace digital,” said Cuarón, who refrained from dreamy nostalgia. “The amazing dynamic range and resolution, the crisp, grain-less quality, I wanted to be unapologetic,” he added. “And to be able to do the layering and have these amazing backgrounds with a combination of wide angles with shutters closed, more like what the eye would see.”
Cuarón collaborated with Technicolor on the aesthetically complex black-and-white finishing (using Autodesk Lustre and Flame). Together, they isolated areas of the frame and manipulated color and tonal values to achieve the precise monochromatic look the director desired. “He wanted to break down the black-and-white image and have such incredible control over every minute detail,” said Steve Scott, Technicolor supervising finishing artist.
“It sets a mood and an ambiance that’s evocative of memory by taking full advantage of modern technology. It’s a very nice combination of the clarity and the recollection,” Scott added. “When we panned to adjoining walls in the house, he wanted to see brightness in some areas but not in the very back. He wanted to bring that down and see Cleo’s face [the housekeeper protagonist played by Yalitza Aparicio], but only when she steps forward and walks under the shadow, giving her a unique look.”
Color was forbidden on set to get cast and crew in the proper black-and-white mindset. And colors were chosen in the art direction and wardrobes so they didn’t clash in the monochromatic world. “Like the downstairs tiled floor of the house,” Cuarón said. “The original floor was yellow, but that read too brightly, so they had to make green tiles.”
Cuarón wanted lots of naturalistic light filtering in through the windows, but he quickly had to change course when the results were unsatisfying. “Everything’s shot with very wide angles but at the same time you’re shooting with 65mm in which you have longer and faster lenses,” he said. “But our sources were so far away and the fall off was very fast. We needed a lot of bounces and filters to create the softness and to get to the place that we were.”
Cuarón said the eye is very magical, always adapting to lighting conditions. “But the camera only has one exposure and it starts looking really crappy when you show it going up and down. So sometimes we had to complement the light, and the only way to do that was inside the shot. And then we would erase that later on with visual effects [from MPC]. And we also had removable walls for greater flexibility.”
The conceit was shooting in sequence and placing us as objective observers in the narrative flow through the use of horizontal pans inside the house and on the rooftop, and then tracking shots in the neighborhood outside. It opens with the stunning four-minute courtyard sequence in which Cleo mops the floor. “The whole idea was the film begins by looking at the floor that is the earth, in which water begins to flow, cleaning but getting murkier and murkier, with all this foam (which is an obvious reference to the waves later on),” Cuarón said.
“But also with this sense of the cleansing of things. And only through the reflection of water do you see the plane in the sky. A special effects crew did the choreography of adding sources of water and then holding the water so it could bounce back.”
Additionally, MPC did elaborate VFX removal from the reflections. “A plate where everything is moving and morphing and water is unpredictable, and they did more passes in the history of MPC,” added Cuarón.
In reflecting on “Roma,” the director admitted that it has now corrupted the memory of his house. The set that they built, a house within a house, was architecturally similar but an inversion of the real one. “We are a product of the bonds of affection around us, but at the same time, we are a product of the time in which we flow,” he said. “And with time comes a sense of space and those things are an attempt to register a memory as pure as I had it.”