Conversation

with cinematographer

about the television series Gli Orologi del Diavolo

Nicola Saraval

The cinematographer Nicola Saraval works again with the director Alessandro Angelini in this crime drama television series based on the true story of Gianni Franciosi. Gianni is a young naval mechanic whose talent leads him to become an infiltrated agent in drug trafficking operations. In order to achieve the cinematic atmosphere that Alessandro and Nicola wanted for the project they chose locations from different European countries. 

We had this conversation with Nicola during lunch break, over a coffee at an improvised table in the camera truck. Nicola normally likes to glue himself to the eyepiece once he is done with the lighting. However, in a two cameras project like this one, he prefers to stay near the DIT station and not to draw too much attention on set, only when necessary. That is why he makes sure to be surrounded by very efficient camera operators. But when he leaves his tent, he always has the grimace of an Italian-American kingpin deciding who is going to live, and who is going to die next. Of course it is just a look. Perhaps he is just blinded by the annoying lighting brightness outside the dark tent. Because of this, in a hypothetical fiction of his life, his character could not be performed by anyone else but by a shady Robert De Niro. But as you will agree after reading the interview, we found Nicola to be a very charming person, and working with him is always a rewarding experience.

Beppe Fiorello plays the main character in this Italian TV Series

Mario Oliva: For those who doesn’t know you, could you please introduce yourself? Did you do the long career to become a DP through the camera or lighting department?

Nicola Saraval: It was a long career because I did all the steps. I started as video-assist, then camera loader. When I started we used to shoot on film, not digital. That was in 1995, when I started to work. After loader I spent fifteen years as focus puller. And then I operate the camera for a short period of time and right away after that, DP. I studied cinematography in a film school in Milan. So I started in Milan, where I was born. Most of the work in Milan is shooting commercials, so that is why I worked mostly in that field. I worked with people from all around the world, which was very useful for my learning process and was very interesting too. People were coming from Sweden, USA, Spain… from everywhere in the world. That was my real school, because at school you study theory, you do not really practice. And I could say that most of my knowledge comes from working as a focus puller in Milan shooting commercials about fashion, cars, food. I had the chance as well of working in countries like Morocco, Emirates and different places around Europe.

Now that you are working as a DP, are you still focusing in TVC or you do more fiction projects?

No, I started working as camera operator in TV series around 2008/9 and then I started doing second unit DP for that. I have worked a lot in TV Series since then. I have done some feature films but just independent movies, not big productions. So most of my work are TV series and commercials, music videos as well, and documentaries. I really enjoy shooting documentaries.

Trailer de la serie de televisión Malaka

Gli Orologi del Diavolo Teaser

How did you get involved in this project?

I was involved by Alessandro, the director. This is my fifth work with him. We know each other since 8 years ago. So he usually calls me to work together.

And how is your creative relationship with him? Does he get involved in the visual aspect of the project or he gives you more freedom?

He normally gives references to me from other movies or TV series that he likes and that he thinks that will work well for the story. So there are some references from him, but apart from that I am really free to get creative. He trusts me so he wants me to have freedom, because he likes the way I work. And usually I do the same with him. I let him free to move the actors as he likes, because he changes his mind very often. He does not come on set with a storyboard or clear frames in his mind. He usually decides on set, on the spot, so I have to be very fast in order to let him have freedom. That is why I try to put just as few things as I can and I move them as little as possible so we have more time for shooting and framing. In this way he has more material for editing.

 

Obviously, it depends on the scenes. There are scenes in which I ask more time depending on what I need or what he asks. So when I need something I take my time to do it. In this specific project we are working towards a naturalistic look, apart from some scenes in which I like to have a particular colour or a particular kind of light. Then I work to make it different. This happened in different locations like the prison, where we wanted the light to have a greenish dominant. Actually we put on every daylight HMI Plus Green gel filter and after that we enhance it on the grading.

Frame from the TV Series

Do you like to work always with a colour grading DIT station on set to have a previous idea of how it will look like?

I do that just to have a reference, because the colour grading will be in around four months. I get this reference to remember what we are trying to get. It is a reference for my and for the lab. I do not need to do it on set, but it is a better way of working. And it is always an advantage to have the right look for the director. There are situations in which I have to show him a specific look, because sometimes you do not see the right picture. It happens with the Blackmagic monitor we are using. You see the picture on that monitor and it may be overexposed or it looks too cold or too warm. It is not the right picture, so we, the DIT and I, pull some references about saturation, contrast, colour…  in order to have my references for the colour grading after the editing.

Coming back to what you were saying about the freedom you like to give to Alessandro. Is that why you choose to use Steadicam, Ronin and all these very versatile camera setups? Is this one of the main reasons for using these setups or there are strong esthetical reasons behind these choices?

Both actually. Ricardo, one of our camera operators, is comfortable using this equipment and that let us to move faster. For example, when shooting at the beach, it is handy to have the Ronin stabilizer to move fluidly with the camera when it is too windy for the Steadicam. However, I tend to prefer the Steadicam in these specific cases. We use the Ronin, most of the time, on hot head for crane movements or on black arms when shooting on boats. And sometimes we have a practical motivation and sometimes it is stylistic.

Another example would be the jail. Almost everything we shoot there was handheld because we wanted that look in the jail. So it depends on the scenes. Sometimes, for practical motivations, we can use the track, but other times, for speed, we use the Steadicam.

Alessandro uses the Steadicam because he can do a master shot of everything that happens on the scene. He likes to move all around. In this way he stablishes the geography of everything and then he decides how to cut and to insert shots inside. That is, in my opinion, a fast way to start setting up the scene. However, it is not always about speed. We prefer to consider what works better in each specific situation, so if needed we take the time to build the crane or go handheld or whatever it takes to get the right shot. 

That is for sure a more powerful way of stablishing a scene than a static shot. You were talking before about some references that Alessandro gave to you during preproduction. Which were these references?

The first one is Marshland, La isla minima in Spanish. There is a French television series as well called Black Spot which I have to say that is completely different to Marshland, especially in terms of locations. It happens in the mountain, in winter. It is very interesting because the atmosphere and the colours are very particular. The exteriors are very cold, interiors are warm, and Alessandro stressed his interest in this kind of colour contrast. So this was a reference about the fact of having different colours in different situations. We wanted a cold atmosphere for the police office and for the jail. Exterior locations in Spain would be warm by contrast. We took inspiration for this contrast from the references but the story is completely different in this case.

Trailer de la película Perros Callejeros

Black Spot, a french television series used as a reference because of its stunning cinematography 

What about Marshland? Did you use this reference for the story or for the visual aspect of the project?

Definitely for the visual aspect. The atmosphere of the wetlands, the water and its reflections, what you call La Marisma. That is why we were looking for this kind of location, the one we found here in Barbate.

Trailer de la película Un Profeta

Marshland official trailer, one of the main references for this project

True detective (season 1) was released more or less at the same time and it has some common points with La Isla Minima and this wetlands sordid vibe we are talking about. In the visuals they both have some similarities as well, like those aerial shots that turn a top perspective into an abstract image.

Yes, actually we have done as well some aerial shots of the wetlands with the drone. We did them as well in the sea in Italy showing boats going out of the river and into the sea. Because the main character of the story works next to a river mouth, and we wanted to show the strong relationship between the river and the sea.

Is there any element, anything essential, that you like to use often to keep the coherence of the visual style you are creating? What do you feel is the more important thing that characterizes your visual style for this project?

It changes depending of the situation. I don´t like to have anything fixed in my mind and that I would have to impose in all the cases. Situations are different all the time. Every location is distinct. For example, at the warehouse, where the main character works, I chose to have specific lights for the exterior, so the lighting and the art department worked together to put these lamps with a specific colour. I try to use that colour for my lighting frequently to have that domination of colour. In this case the colour of the lighting outside of the warehouse is amber, and it is green inside. I think it works for that location because the lighting inside was coming from neon lights, that are a bit greenish, and I was looking for this colour contrast between interior and exterior. 

Do you normally work together with the art department?

I work much with the art department. In this project I am asking all the time to have lights in frame, especially when we are doing 360 degrees. Then I need to light the scene, the cast, with these practical lamps. So we put all them with dimmer and my gaffer have several tungsten lamps to replace the bulbs of these practical lights.

 

How is your process working with the art and costume departments to create the colour palette? Are you a person that tries to get involved in these choices?

In this project the conversations with the costume department have not been very specific. Caused as well because we have not had enough time in preparation to have these conversations. It was more like last moment decisions. I like to get involved in these things but it is true that sometimes it does not happen. It is great to make all work together to create a coherence between the scenography, the costumes and the cinematography but it is not always like that. In this case I have to say that the choices were pretty casual. The preparation of this project was very short. I was doing location scouts here in south Spain this June (to start shooting in Spain mid-September) just for three days. I just saw a few locations personally and I saw many of them just through videos or pictures. We only saw a small part of the locations so you make most of the decisions when you arrive there, on the spot.

Nicola Saraval shaping the light on the location that was used as the jail                                                                                                       Photography by Antonio Serrano Nieto          

What are your requirements when someone show you a video for example of a specific location and ask you if it works for you?

Sometimes I do not have much choice. For example, for the river scene we shot today we came to see the location a couple days ago, and we were in a rush. So more than having a few locations to choose, what I get from a location scout like this is information to make a plan. In this case I asked Alessandro to wait until the sun was lower in the back of the character, so we have the reflections in the water. But this afternoon we have the boat scene, so we are going to try to have the sun as a backlight, and for that I am going to get one camera from another boat to make it possible. The choices I can make here are about moving in the space to have the better angle for lighting, having the sun as a side or backlight. Sometimes I like as well to have the sun in the same axis of the camera, like more frontal, but it depends on the case. Today, for example, we did that long dolly shot that ends with Alvaro Cervantes in a parked car. In that last position the sun was almost completely frontal, but just because I liked a shadow that the sun was doing in his face. I love making shadows on actor faces. I have done a few in this project when we were shooting in Italy. I remember, for example, a phone conversation in which one of the characters is lying, so when the guy is lying his face is in the dark, but just when he was lying. The light cut was done in a way that allows the character to move himself from the light to the shadow with a slight movement. At first, when we starting doing that shot a few people told me that they could not see his face. The director and the actor came to tell me that, so I had to explain the reason behind and only then they accepted that lighting effect. And I was lucky because they do not always accept.

Nicola Saraval together with one of his camera operator, the master Simone Trecca. Photo by Antonio Serrano N.

That is interesting, like in the opening scene of The Godfather. Is there any other situation in which you remember you used the lighting to reinforce an aspect of the story like in this case?

I have done this two or three times in this project. I like when the light is not just where it is supposed to be, I think it looks more natural. When you are in a house, normally, the sunlight does not hit your face directly. Windows make it to come from a lower angle. So for me it is a common practice to put a strong 4K from outside bouncing in the ground by the actor. We have done that very often.

Yes, I remember you saying “hey, you are stepping on the main light, don´t you see that it is on the ground?”

It is very natural the way the light bounces on the ground. Sometimes I use different materials to bounce the light like silver-matte reflector. I asked the grip department to make several bouncing boards for this project. They create that special shine in the eyes of the cast. These are little things but they work fine for me.

Do you try always to go for the realistic way of lighting, justifying every source? It is any time when you decide to be less naturalistic?

It depends on the story. For example, there was a dream scene when we were shooting in the jail. We used a spotlight through an eye hole on the door, and that was the only light on the room. That effect was not very naturalistic. Because to me, the goal when trying to be naturalistic is make the viewer not seeing or thinking where the light is coming from.

Alessandro Angelini, directing in one of the most iconic locations in Tarifa, Spain. Photo by Antonio Serrano N.

Mario Oliva