Another year, another Sundance Film Festival. Sundance is known “as a champion and curator of independent stories for the stage and screen, the Sundance Institute provides and preserves the space for artists in film, theatre, film composing, and digital media to create and thrive.” And this year will be no different. The festival, which took place January 28 – February 3, included 73 feature films, hosted by actor and comedian Patton Oswalt, with jurors presenting 24 prizes for feature filmmaking and seven for Short Films.
According to the Sundance website, the awards ceremony marks a key point of the 2021 Festival, where 73 feature-length and 50 short films — selected from more than 14,000 submissions — were showcased online via the Festival’s custom-built online platform, as well as in 28 Satellite Screen locations across the United States.
Alejandro Mejia, DP, Son of Monarchs talks about his work on the project and what Sundance 2021 means to him.
Stay tuned to our blog for more interviews throughout the next few weeks with other production professionals that participated in the 2021 festival.
PH: How did you get involved with this project?
Alejandro Mejia: I started talking with the director, Alexis Gambis, about this project a couple of years before filming. We shared ideas during that time, and Alexis also shot two shorts related to the movie to help visualize some interesting things about the places where we were going to film.
PH: Can you describe your approach to pre-production?
Alejandro Mejia: Alexis and myself work in a very organic way when we’re planning the look of the movie, because Alexis is familiar with my work and we share a taste for naturalism.
We were inspired by different images, such as the alphabet created through genetic manipulation with the wings of the butterfly. We are also inspired by the day of the dead in Michoacan Mexico and the colors of the monarch butterflies and those natural settings of Angangueo in addition to the cold winter in NY.
PH: What lighting choices did you make and why?
Alejandro Mejia: In terms of lighting, we worked as much as possible with available light. We also used many LEDs such as Arri Sky Panel, Litemat and Quasar. The lights helped us work quality and with quality, most of the time respecting the available light of the location.
PH: What film techniques did you use to bring this project to life?
Alejandro Mejia: One technique we used was filming using the Steadicam many times to simulate the flight of the butterfly. My Steadicam operator, Calvin Falk, was incredibly important in helping achieve the look of the film. We also used a smaller camera Canon C-300 to achieve all the microscope imagery.
PH: How has your professional experience in the industry shaped your work on this project (and in general)?
Alejandro Mejia: I have been living in New York City for almost 10 years, but I’m still very connected to my Mexican roots and culture. This movie was filmed in New York and Angangueo Michoacan, so we were back and forth between both countries, and I have experience working like that because of my background.
PH: What did you shoot on? And why?
Alejandro Mejia: In terms of the camera, we were always clear that we would do it with the Arri Alexa Mini, which is an incredible camera due to the versatility, quality and size that was perfect for our project and especially for having internal ND filters that would help us film in an organic way without wasting a lot of time changing.
We also used the Canon C-300 Mark II camera to take the microscope shots, it was the perfect tool because of its size, we connected it directly to the microscope and we were able to take incredible shots of the butterfly’s wings
We tested two sets of anamorphic lenses. On the one hand, the Lomo Round Front and on the other the Kowas. In the end, we decided that the Lomo had better characteristics for our project in terms of definition and look, and it was in an organic way that we felt and decided that they were the correct lenses for the project.
PH: Do you have a favorite/memorable scene that you can discuss?
Alejandro Mejia: The most complicated scene was a ritual that we filmed at night when it was quite cold because it was winter, in a very old hacienda almost in ruin,s and where there were many actors on set. It was was illuminated mostly by real fire torches, so we had to be very accurate with the camera movements that my steadicam operator Calvin Falk sensed wonderfully and we were able to achieve it in a few takes.
PH: Did you face any challenges while working on this project? What were they and how did you approach them?
Alejandro Mejia: Working and organizing logistics in the two countries and being able to maintain the quality and continuity of everything I think was the most important challenge in terms of production. We used our past experience with work this way to meet any challenges in logistics head on and ultimately create a cohesive and beautiful film.
PH: Now that Sundance is virtual, how do you think the experience has changed? What are some of the ways you, along with other production professionals, can still socialize and collaborate?
Alejandro Mejia: Sundance being virtual changed almost everything about the festival, except for the fact that it featured wonderful films from incredible filmmakers. I feel lucky that we were able to still have the film screened alongside our peers. Zoom and other video chatting has replaced some of the in-person socializing and collaboration.
PH: How was this experience different from past Sundance festivals (aside from just being virtual?)
Alejandro Mejia: Aside from just being virtual, I think every year Sundance has been able to increase visibility for filmmakers of color and female filmmakers. While we still have a long way to go in that regard, each year feels like we’re doing a little bit better. Also I think this year we reached out to many more people because the online screenings they were sold out. And I got some good comments and feedback from the audience.
PH: How do you think the filmmaking community reacted?
Alejandro Mejia: I think the filmmaking community is grateful to the Sundance institute for finding a way to celebrate filmmaking despite our extraordinary circumstances and I think they are going to continue with this online and in person screenings because I think its was a success but we can’t leave out the film theaters.
PH: Do you think this might be the future of film festivals? How could it improve?
Alejandro Mejia: I think it’s possible that in the future, there will be more virtual elements to in-person film festivals, based on all the skills and knowledge we have gained in this past year of social distancing. This is exciting because it allows the festivals to reach a bigger audience of people who love films. However, nothing can fully replace the experience of seeing a film in a dark theater with an excited audience. In the future, I believe people will still love the experience of seeing a movie in a theater, and might even appreciate it more.