Cinematographer John Rosario recently worked on Hulu’s new short film Starkeisha which premiered March 7th. You’ve probably seen John’s work on projects like Son of the South and Kirk Gibson Ceremonial First Pitch where he earned a 2019 Emmy Award. In addition, John recently worked on a 2022 SXSW selected film A Lot of Nothing which stars Justin Hartley and Lex Scott Davis.
The project was inspired by “Music for the Movement” which is a four-part EP series examining social injustice through music and art. The EPs will also serve as the official soundtrack for the short film which was commissioned in conjunction with both Andscape and Disney Music Group.
Starkeisha follows the story of a young woman discovering her self-identity as she’s transported through an intense journey within her subconscious. John worked closely with director Mo McRae to spearhead the storytelling aspect throughout this project. He began by experimenting with abstract lighting, unique camera-angles, and out-of-the-box design features that helped to showcase the impactful moments to not only symbolize an outlet of inspiration for the Black community, but resonate with a broader audience as well.
PH: Hi John, how are you? Can you start by sharing a bit of your background in the industry?
John Rosario: I got into film by accident really. I was going to college in NYC for civil engineering and a simple conversation with a friend changed the course of my life which motivated me to drop out and attend another college for film. I spent two incredibly important years experimenting in film school but ended up dropping out because I found increasingly more and more on-set opportunities outside of my studies. I guess I’m a double-college dropout. A lot of my earlier work was mainly music videos and documentaries with the occasional short film. I found myself getting burned out from music videos and so I decided to only focus on narrative. I spent a handful of years taking on any and every narrative that came my way, despite the story, in order to improve on my craft but also to sustain a living. Eventually, I started to feel that “burned out” sensation again and I knew I needed to change something. To me telling stories visually in narratives is the most fulfilling aspect of my craft and I could no longer take on just anything that came my way. I needed to maintain the purity and honesty of connecting with the material in order to produce my best work and seek that fulfillment. I ended up moving to Los Angeles and decided to focus on commercial work. Now there is this beautiful balance that allows me to sustain a living by doing commercial work in order to enable selectivity with the narratives that I take on.
PH: What inspired you to become a cinematographer?
John Rosario: I thought I wanted to be a director, I guess most people have that notion when they’re first introduced to film as a career. I was fortunate to have discovered that I had an affinity for the camera early on and throughout film school, cinematography was my main focus. This is where my love affair for visual storytelling started as I began to unearth other cinematographers’ work and how deep the craft went. The technical aspect of cinematography never really excited me but what inspired me the most and still does to this day, is the philosophy behind visual choices in films. You look at films directed by Michael Haneke and Andrei Tarkovsky as an example and how there is so much intent and subtext on how and where the camera is placed.
PH: What was the inspiration behind your most recent project Starkeisha? How did you become involved?
John Rosario: I shot Mo McRae’s latest feature, A Lot of Nothing, which just premiered in the Narrative Competition at the SXSW Film Festival. Towards the end of the shooting schedule, Mo tells me that he has something cooking and wants me to shoot it. At the time he didn’t say much more than that. I didn’t even know what the story was about but I knew that whatever it was I would align with it and in my heart, I was already saying yes. Sometimes you say yes to the director before reading the script because you know your tastes line up. Eventually, I read the script and it just affirmed my initial feeling. I thought the story was special and offered an opportunity for us to convey a message that inspires people to find their inner voice and have confidence in their true selves. We found inspiration in an eclectic range of sources, not just from other films but in paintings, still photography, music, sculptures and architecture; really anything was up for grabs.
PH: What are some of the differences shooting for a streaming platform like Hulu (if any)? Do you get more creative freedom?
John Rosario: I cannot speak for other projects on Hulu or other streaming platforms but the great thing about the Starkeisha project was that we had an incredibly supportive team that encouraged us to be as creative and as bold as we wanted. Mo was given the platform to write and direct this in his own unique voice and fortunately, there didn’t seem to be any creative limitations on how far we could take things. Like most things, we had a strict and finite budget and so the only real requirement was that we fit our wild ideas within those parameters. I was sure there would be some pushback but there wasn’t, we were incredibly lucky to have been given a canvas without borders.
PH: What are some determining factors when selecting your next project to work on?
John Rosario: The two most important factors when selecting the next project is the script and the director attached to it. It’s incredibly important for me that I connect with the story and the director’s vision and approach. It’s just as important that the director connects with me and my style of work. My process is very much about extracting the philosophy of the story which then helps inform the visual language. So when these elements align it allows me to give the best part of myself to the director and the project.
PH: How important is collaborating with other crew on projects like this? For example, what was your experience like working with director Mo McRae?
John Rosario: To be able to pull off a film like Starkeisha, with fantastical elements, VFX and choreography, required a lot of care, attention and collaboration from all departments. It’s super important to have open, transparent and respectful communication to avoid anything slipping through the cracks. Since our budget was finite we needed to be super specific and have the foresight to try and avoid any issues that could potentially cause delays. Like most sets, there were unforeseeable problems that arose on the day that could’ve been devastating but since we were all aligned we were able to quickly pivot and find solutions. Mo has a great saying when things like this happen, “ We were forced into the best-case scenario”. Mo is a fantastic leader, he does a great job articulating his desires and setting an environment that allows you to interpret his ideas and contribute to them in your own unique way. He creates a village of artistic and passionate folks and motivates them to be the best version of themselves.
PH: What did you shoot on and why?
John Rosario: We shot on an Arri Alexa Mini with two different sets of lenses, two different formats and three different aspect ratios. The folks over at Keslow Camera really helped us discover the right combination for the project and set us up with an eclectic range of options at our lens test. The beginning of the film, the “real world”, is shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio on Vantage T1 Spherical Lenses. At this point, Starkeisha lacks confidence in herself and her scope is limited which is why we employed this ratio and shot in a very static and basic way. The T1’s granted us the ability to introduce a shallower depth of field when appropriate and gave just enough characteristics to make the transition to anamorphic smoother while not tipping the hand of what’s to come. The magical journey Starkeisha embarks on transitions from a 4:3 to a 2.39:1 aspect ratio (which transforms live in the film ) and is shot with a combination of Hawk V and C Anamorphic lenses. At this point, Starkeisha is being introduced to more scope and “magic” so we employed a wider aspect ratio and a lot of movement from handheld, dolly, Steadicam and techno cranes. What we loved about the Hawks was that they offered the right amount of texture and softness without much distortion. Finally, when she returns from her journey back to the real world we go back to spherical but this time we transition from a 4:3 to a 2:1 aspect ratio now that she has more scope and confidence in herself.
PH: What goes on in your mind before you start shooting? What did ideation and pre-production look like?
John Rosario: I’m a big fan of preproduction, in fact, it might be my favorite phase of the process. This is where the core of the philosophy and visual language is found. On Starkeisha, Mo and I spent a lot of time together going through every scene and bit of dialogue and asked deep questions about the character and the moments they’re facing. The answers to these questions helped inform the how and why of the visual approach. It’s important to me that the visuals are layered with subtext in order to give you more than what’s just on the surface. My goal is to give the viewer a sensation or an emotional reaction from the visuals that reinforces what the character is feeling or saying.
PH: Can you talk about any of the challenges you encountered and your approach to those?
John Rosario: I think one of the biggest challenges we encountered was at the desert location. We found a remote location with an incredible arrangement of rocks that looked otherworldly and was perfect for the vibe we were going for. We arrived to set found that some vehicles became trapped in the sand and that our trucks could not make it all the way up to where we needed to film. The plan my Key Grip (Philip Collins) and I had was no longer feasible since our equipment needed to be severely reduced. Every department needed to push or carry their equipment from about a mile away in soft sand and this caused a several-hour delay. Our pivot was to use the natural daylight with a documentarian approach and rework our shooting schedule in order to constantly be in a favorable position for the sun. The most we used were a few 4×4 frames in order to shape any closeups we had but for the most part, it was all raw natural daylight. I do believe this turned out rather well and I’m pleased with the final look.
PH: After years in the industry, what are some of the biggest lesson(s) you’ve learned?
John Rosario: The biggest lesson I learned, specifically in narrative, is to choose projects that you believe in and work with people you connect with. This will allow you to give your best self in a true and honest way. When these things align you’re able to produce better images as creativity just bubbles out of you.
PH: In your opinion, a great cinematographer has to embody what characteristics/qualities?
John Rosario: I believe a great cinematographer should be an attentive listener, communicator, an encouraging leader but above all respectful to everyone on set. You can be incredibly apt with technology or a masterful creator of images but if you’re difficult to work with then it taints the process because after all, it takes a village.
PH: Would you like to share any other upcoming projects you have in the works?
John Rosario: I am currently working on a couple of super exciting projects that I, unfortunately, can’t talk about yet. What I can say is that one of them will be shooting in Northern Italy.