DP Carolina Costa Leverages 14 Years of Cinematography Experience to Bring Sundance Films 'Fancy Dance' & 'Heroic' to Life

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

Carolina Costa recently worked as DP of Erica Trembley's Fancy Dance, which was nominated for the Sundance Grand Jury Prize, and Heroic, directed by David Zonana. These are Carolina's third and fourth films premiering at Sundance; she previously DP'd Hala, Produced by Jada Pinkett Smith's Westbrook, and Tara Miele's Lionsgate drama Wander Darkly starring Sienna Miller and Diego Luna.

Carolina was also selected as one of American Cinematographer’s Rising Stars of 2018, and her recent credits further include lensing Amazon’s High School from Director Clea Duvall and HBO's Insecure

PH: Hi Carolina! Can you share a little about yourself and your production background?

Carolina Costa: Hi I am Carolina Costa, AMC. I am a cinematographer born in Brazil and though my culture and country define me in many ways, I have been living and working all around the world for the last 20 years. Right now, I live in Mexico and work mainly between here and the US. I started in the business as a camera trainee and then moved into clapper loader in the UK. I did that for a few years and started working as a director of photography full time after I did my masters at AFI. I’m also currently working on a trilogy of shorts that I am Directing and DP’ing. We just wrapped post for the first one and just wrapped production on the second one. 

PH: What drew you to cinematography?

Carolina Costa: I studied journalism back in Brazil and worked as a photojournalist. So I think I was always close to creating images. Ultimately, storytelling is what draws me to cinematography

PH: How did you become involved with Fancy Dance?

Carolina Costa: The project came through my agent and I interviewed for it with the film’s Director Erica Tremblay. I loved the script, so I was excited to hear back from Erica offering me the job.

PH: Can you talk about your creative approach? What elements did you infuse into this project to help bring it life?

Carolina Costa: Our philosophy for shooting FANCY DANCE was “find beauty and magic in everyday life.”  In the same way that we wanted to explore Roki and Jax’s beautiful relationship, we also did not want to escape from the dark world around them, we couldn’t close an eye to the reality of indigenous women the same way the system does. A lot of the visual grammar came from conversations with Erica. I think it’s super important to mention the location scouting part of the process too, because there’s so much you learn and then add to the “logic” of the visuals.

PH: Can you talk about your use of moonlight, which was heavily important to the narrative, and how it respected the history of Indigenous people and their community?

Carolina Costa: The color blue and all the different shades of blue are a key element in the film. That’s the color for when Sapphire and Jax connect in the strip club, but also the color of the light at Jax’s porch. Since blue many times represented “safe,” we found ourselves exploring how to differentiate the interior night lighting, since it’s all lit with warm practicals. For the family home for example we filled the shadows with green and blue, and for the man camp, for example, we added red, making these spaces “dangerous,” “uncomfortable.” Blue also signified Tawi’s presence. We connected her “energy” to the moonlight. So when Roki finds the powwow DVD and her mom’s stripper clothes, the light emanating from the TV is blue, but also Tawi’s room is bathed in moonlight. Erica and myself had previously designed which scenes would have moonlight and which ones wouldn’t. The moonlight wasn't just a stylistic choice but heavily important for the narrative and even more for their community. For me, as the cinematographer, getting the lighting right was a sign of respect to their history and their ancestors. 

PH: Let's dive into directing the strip club scene. You strategically positioned the camera and steared away from the "seated man" perspective. Can you share why? 

Carolina Costa: Our philosophy for shooting the stripclub was to make it super real. And what we meant by that was that the women working there were not going to be victimized by us, neither objectified. So we never shot the women from the ‘seated man’ perspective, instead the camera is always at their eye level, looking at them as human beings instead. We looked at many scenes from different movies and shows and we were extremely vigilant when we worked there, because there is a bias for sure.

PH: Switching gears a bit, you also worked on Heroic. How did you become involved with this project?

Carolina Costa: This is the second film I shot for David Zonana [the Director of Heroic]. We had the shorthand developed already and I think it felt like a natural progression in our collaboration to go from one feature to the next.

PH: How did you navigate capturing dream sequences through a precise naturalist approach to lighting?

Carolina Costa: Heroic has a naturalistic approach to the camera and lighting. The dream sequences are a key element in the narrative and it was a fine balance shooting those, because we didn't want them to feel like a “fantasy,” they had to feel real and yet, strange. I love all of the dream sequences, but particularly the one when Luis shoots the generals in their head. We wanted the light to look and feel very similar to the other night scenes in the dorms, so at the beginning of the shot it looks like the moonlight you have seen before, but as we approach the shooting moment, the light is harsh and source-y, it feels strange. It proved to be a challenge since it is a single shot and we used the 18mm, so I couldn't hide lights anywhere. It took a lot of creativity and thinking on this one. I also love that you can see the other cadets coming on the edges of the frame, but it's dark, they feel like shadows, not real people, and that is a great metaphor for the young cadets in this place.

PH: How were you able to utilize your 14 years of cinematography experience to land challenging shots where lighting equipment couldn't be hidden? What other challenges did you encounter? 

Carolina Costa: Because most scenes are single shot masters, the composition had to be extremely thoughtful and precise. We rehearsed each shot many times before doing the take. That also helped since our cast was a mix of trained and natural actors. I think the experience helps because you can pre-visualise more and you can plan ahead for any possible hiccups. Also, I have worked in various projects in which the cast is a mix of trained and natural actors, so I always start with the thought that no one will have a mark and that the camera could look anywhere. I think the tricky part is to negotiate between that “freedom” for shooting that way and yet having a clear visual language.

PH: Can you share how you expressed the man versus system concept through the use of wide angle lenses such as the 16mm and 18mm in most of the film in order to show the gaps between spaces? 

Carolina Costa: The way we framed the group shots was always to show the rigidity of this world, but also the toxic masculinity. We also used a lot of wide angles such as the 16mm and 18mm in most of the film showing the spaces, expressing the man versus system concept even further. Some of the shots were super wide and had a cadet small in that space.

PH: What other projects do you have on the horizon? 

Carolina Costa: I have been working on a trilogy of shorts that I am directing and DP’ing. We just wrapped the post for the first one and just wrapped production on the second one. 

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