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Cinematographer Paulo Perez, ADFC, captured the wide vistas of Mexico in the new Amazon Prime Latin-Western series, La Cabeza de Joaquín Murrieta (The Head of Joaquín Murrieta). In 1851, the newly established border between Mexico and the USA became the setting for a local conflict fueled by the anger and fear arising after the Mexican-American War. A group of immigrants fostered the myth of the Latin Robin Hood, Joaquín Murrieta.

“My social conscience drives the work I do, whether it is documentary or fiction, covering stories about the environment, the climate crisis or the displacement of indigenous people,” said Paulo. “For me, cinema and TV are more than entertainment – we are writing the memory of this time so that future generations can see how we lived, or how something happened because we didn’t stop it.”

A Mexican Perspective

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Paulo became close friends with the show’s creators, Mauricio Leiva-Cock and Diego Ramírez-Schrempp, and the producer from Dynamo Productions, based in Colombia, Mexico and Spain, who shared his views. “We wanted to create a Western to tell the other side of history, the untold Mexican perspective and what happened to the indigenous people in this conflict,” Paulo said.

Writing began in 2019 and Paulo kept in close contact with the writers while working on other projects while visualising the concept. In 2021, as principal photography was about to start, cinematographer Ximena Amann joined the team and helped develop the visual narrative for the series alongside Paulo. He shot the first four episodes with director David Pablos, and Ximena went on to work with Director Humberto Hinojosa on episodes 4 to 8.

“We very much wanted to shoot anamorphically to really capture the space and the beautiful landscape. We had to fight for it because some companies don’t like the anamorphic aspect ratio, but Amazon allowed me to do it in full anamorphic,” Paulo said. “I love the compositions you can achieve, not just of vistas. You can have three, four, five people in the frame talking to each other, while framing in different layers… it’s beautiful and cinematic. If you need more choices, you only need two or three more shots, no more than that.”

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ALEXA and Cooke

The series was shot entirely on location in Durango, in the northern central area of Mexico, and since the Western genre is about territory, the land plays a key role in the show. Paulo chose to shoot the series with two ARRI ALEXA Mini LF full frame cameras. He commented, “I love the softness of the sensor and how it works with the highlights and lowlights in the desert. I also used the Schneider Hollywood Blackmagic filter for some shots.”

He used one camera for the main shots with the second camera working at the same time to find another angle that worked with the light to capture the actors.

Paulo matched the ALEXA cameras with Cooke Anamorphic/i FF lenses with the SF coating. However, he did not want to overplay the flares. “I love the special flair lenses because I like to be organic with the flare, not force it – it’s not a matter of fashion, it’s the reality of the space and how the sun naturally hits the lens. Nevertheless, the SF lenses bring a great beauty to a natural flare.

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“Using a smaller camera with the Anamorphic/i lenses also opened the way to some interesting compositions and close-ups – I sometimes used a dolly or a Steadicam to get very close to the characters,” said Paulo. “I used the 40mm lens a lot because it works so well for close-ups. It was important to us that the audience felt that they were with the characters, that they could feel what the characters were feeling. It was sometimes tricky because, of course, you can’t use two cameras for that and the schedule was tight, but we fought to do it because it was important for the story.

Light Culture

“Durango is a fantastic place to shoot Westerns – John Wayne shot here and we actually used his hacienda there as a location. The land is another character in the story, and so the writers and directors and I decided that we had to see the land all the time. It feels like a classic location-based Western with no studio work, hardly any VFX, and organic light.”

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Located in the equatorial zone, the sun is very strong, which led Paulo to always try to use the available daylight. “I think light is cultural. I understand the light from where I grew up. It is very strong and bounces up from the floor, and that informs my lighting decisions,” he said. “I also worked with the Assistant Director on the shooting schedule to try to get continuity of the light – this scene needs morning light, that scene is in the afternoon. We would save the interiors or scenes in the shadows for midday because that’s when the light turns ‘ugly’.”

No Surprises

To ensure his vision would translate all the way to the screen, Paulo insisted on having his DIT on set throughout to colour-correct the dailies. “I wanted the producers and directors to have a rendition as close as possible to what we wanted to achieve with the shoot, so they wouldn’t call me six months later to go and reshoot a scene because it was too dark! I want to have nice dailies and no more calls,” he joked.

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“These things come with experience I know that the grading might take some time after the shoot and it’s easy to forget how things looked back then. If we can do some work on the dailies, that helps us to keep as close as possible to the look we intended to achieve when we get to post production.”