Lights Film School Online was recently fortunate enough to interview Christian Cavazos who shot the short film entitled “Nuevo Mexico” on the Canon 5D Mark II. The result is an impressively cinematic short film. Watch the short film and then read our interview and go through our film deconstruction with Christian below.
Hello Christian and thank you for taking the time to sit down with Lights Film School blog readers. Can you start by telling us where the inspiration for the story came from?
It’s easy to get this kind of inspiration living in Mexico. The newspapers alone are a huge source of stories like this one. Originally it had many more details, characters and shots, but technical and budget reasons brought it back to what you guys saw. Fortunately the essence of the story remained the same.
How many people were involved in this film behind the camera?
A total of five people where involved behind the camera and the three actors you see on screen.
You spent a few weeks in pre-production for this shoot. Can you tell us a bit more about what your pre-production schedule looked like? What did you spend those three weeks doing?
Actually, we were working previously for about a month on pre-production. We worked primarily on the story, the script and storyboard. At the same time we rehearsed with the actors and looked for all the props necessary for the shoot.
Tell us about the location scouting process for this film.
I’d been to the main location a long time ago, and remembered it vividly. It’s near a town called San Felipe. We scouted other areas via Google Earth, which was very helpful, allowing us to check sun orientation and lighting among other details. We decided it was the best option considering that it looked so lonely and the esthetics of the place were perfect. The only parts that were not shot there were shot in El Centro California, a very small town with an old and interesting look. It’s a place we frequently visit, so scouting in that area was fairly easy.
Do you get permits to shoot outdoors or did you just run and gun it?
In Mexico we got in touch with the Mexican Highway Patrol and got a permit to shoot on the road. In El Centro there wasn’t really any need it was a very short shot, just the opening scene with the phone so we went guerilla style on that shot.
Tell us about the casting process for the film. Where did you find your actors?
The main actor is called Jung Sing, he’s a musician and has a lot of performing experience. He’s not an actor, but has innate talent. The older character is an actor called Heriberto Norzagaray, he’s a professional actor with tons of experience in theatre who liked the project and helped us out for free. The girl is Fernanda Díaz. We share a mutual friend who thought she might be interested and she was. So we worked during the rehearsals and got what you saw.
Tell us a little bit about the idea behind the design of the film (the wardrobe, the car, the chair etc).
The furniture in the desert had the intention of looking awkward, it was an obviously unreal image that backed up the older character. The car and wardrobe of the main character intended to determine that he was a careless and violent bad boy. The girl’s outfit was planned both on the color standing out visually and the fact that she obviously came from somewhere else.
You decided to shoot this short film on the Canon 5D Mark II. Can you tell me about your decision to use that camera?
The Canon 5D is a great camera, also it’s the only type we have! If the budget had been unlimited I would have asked for a RED hahaha. We actually considered using 16mm film (bolex) but since we don’t really have much experience with it, or enough money, we decided to go with what we knew and had.
What was the budget for the film?
There was no budget per say, but we spent a total of 700 dollars. Everybody who participated worked for free, the only thing we payed was gas, food and cheap hotel rooms.
How did you stabilize the camera on exterior shots outside of the car such as at 2:24 (above)?
We used a Rig called Mathews Mastermount Car Mount System for all the exterior shots. It was really sturdy and totally solid.
You have really good footage in the moving car (above). How did you stabilize the camera in the car?
Inside the car we used a simple tripod, I found a way to make it sturdy and gave it as much stability as possible.
It took you two and a half days to shoot this film. Can you tell me what each shooting day entailed? I’m assuming you only wanted to shoot outdoors when the sun was hanging really low in the sky. So you wouldn’t have had much time to shoot before you lost your light.
Exactly, we always shot outdoors when the sun was hanging really low. The first day we had so many problems with the car that we ended shooting only the scene with Norzagaray sitting and reacting in the desert. We slept there and started the next day at 5am and got all the shots of the car moving, from the inside and the outside. We took a break precisely because of the position of the afternoon sunlight and then started again at 3pm. That afternoon we shot until sundown, getting everything that involved the actor outside the car. We had scheduled to finish all our scenes that day but where unable to. So at a later date, we shot the ending (just the running over) near El Centinela and the intro in El Centro. The running over location was chosen basically because of its similarity with the original location and the fact that it was so much closer to home.
How did you plan your shots around the position of the sun? Tell about your approach to outdoor lighting.
The sun positioning was the most important element in our scouting process. We always want the sun to be on the side as kind of a back light. Never in front! This is a personal preference, I just hate the way it looks! hahaha. Obviously we used some reflectors as fill lights. We found it pretty hard to shoot outside, the sun is always moving and doesn’t care that you need to reshoot a scene, anyway I guess it’s part of the job.
Did you use any artificial lighting for your outdoor shots?
We used no artificial lighting, all we used was reflectors.
At 1:47 (above) it seems as though the sun is almost in the frame. With the sun hanging so low in the sky, how did you make sure you didn’t blow out any of your highlights? Did you use ND filters at all?
Yes, we used the ND filters on almost everything, but only to reduce the Depth of Field. We shot in an aperture of 4-6 which can’t be done without them in the sunlight. To prevent from overexposing, we shot one stop underexposed just to make sure we didn’t loose details in the highlights.
Did you shoot Heriberto Norzagaray with the cigar on a different day than your other two actors? I noticed that not all three of the actors appear in the same scene together. Although you do have one little shot around 3:59 (above) where we see a piece of tape on an arm (in the foreground) and him in the background? Did you cheat this? Was this just to create the illusion of them being together?
Yes, Norzagaray had very little spare time, he could only help us on the first day. We decided to start of with his scenes. Time ran out and I did have to cheat the scene where they appear to be together.
The image looks anamorphic even though you shot 16:9 on the 5D. Did you use Magic Lantern to see your crop marks in camera? Did you tape your monitor? Or did you just wing it and figure it out in post?
Yes… Magic Lantern is a great tool!! I use to tape the monitor but when I found magic Lantern and its many tools, I started using it and haven’t stopped since.
Let’s talk about lenses a little more. I know you used Sigma lenses for your shoot. You used a 24-70, 70-200 and a 10-24. These were all Sigma lenses right?
Why did you choose to use telephoto lenses over prime lenses?
Because of the possibility of zooming in and out and framing without having to switch lenses.
Let’s talk a bit more about what lenses you used for particular shots.
What lens are you using at 0:28 (above)?
The 24-70 at 65mm. I like the aesthetics of a narrow lense. The background elements look bigger and harder to identify. This makes the main subject of the frame stand out.
Shot from 0:46
Shot from 1:16
What lens are you using at 0:46 (above) and 1:16 (above)?
In 0:46 I used 24-70 but at 24mm to get a more angular frame. And at 1:16 the same but at 70mm. to give it a more distant feel.
How did you stabilize your shot of the moving car at 1:57 (above)? Do you have behind the scenes images of this setup?
In the shots where you can see the whole car from the back or front, we shot from an SUV with an open trunk window using the same simple tripod. I guess that’s something that’s only “allowed” in Mexico… hahaha. Afterwards, in those specific shots, we used Final Cut’s “Smooth Cam”, but there really was almost no need. I have no behind the scenes images! That skipped my mind and I regret it.
What lens are you using at 1:29 inside the car (above)?
A 24-70 at 70mm
What lens are you using at 2:52 (above)?
A 24-70 at 70mm, I prefer to stand further away and zoom in rather than use it at 24 and stand nearer. The images are very different.
How did you shoot the last shot of the girl getting hit by the car?
We setup the camera and shot the girl reacting. Then without moving the camera, we shot the car passing by. In post production using After Effects we merged both of the images.
You used the Technicolor Cinestyle picture profile in the canon 5D. Do you love this picture profile?
Yes, I love it, but it makes a lot of noise when you are color grading. In this case that noise worked well with the concept. We also used a picture style called Cinema which I really recommend, its not as flat as the other one but it’s still great.
You also used Magic Bullet’s Colorista II to color grade your film. Can you tell us a bit more about your decision to use that program?
It was a plugin we had, and since we were using After Effects for all the coloring and FX, is was pretty convenient.
Do you export in Magic Bullet as well? Or did you use another program to export the film as a final digital file?
It was great to use a plugin that includes everything you need to do a good color grading and not have to send it to another software.
The resolution of the film is incredible. What are your output settings? Did you export using Compressor or another program?
I always render in ProRess at maximum resolution (1080p) and then I convert it to h.264 to upload or send it. The setting of the h.264 are at the highest quality with the ACC audio.
Thank you GREATLY Christian for sharing your insights with Lights Film School Online blog readers and thank you for going into so much detail. I know I speak for us all when I say “thank you” for allowing us to pick your brain. We’ll be following your next film! Can’t wait to see it
I am really very happy to share. I had a very hard and long journey trying to find out everything you need to know to do what we are doing. Please excuse my English, its my second language and sometimes I’m not sure I explain myself at best. Im honored that Lights Film School was interested in sharing my film and I’m also hoping to share whatever comes next!