Visual Storytellers: Exploring the Work of Sundance's Diverse Directors of Photography

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

In this exclusive feature, we delve into the captivating world of cinematography through the lens of two remarkable films showcased at this year's Sundance Film Festival. We had the privilege of chatting with Pierce Derks, the Director of Photography for "In A Violent Nature," and Renato Borrayo Serrano, the creative eye behind "Skywalkers: A Love Story."

Through insightful interviews, they offer a behind-the-scenes look at their artistic process, the challenges they faced, and the creative decisions that shaped the visual narratives of their respective films. Join us as we uncover the stories behind the images, exploring the diverse perspectives and techniques of these talented directors of photography.

PH: Can you share some insights into the unique challenges you faced as a Director of Photography while working on SKYWALKERS featured in the Sundance Film Festival? How did you overcome these challenges?

Renato Borrayo Serrano: In this film we observe real events as the primary source material, using close-ups to establish a profound emotional connection and provide insight into the character’s inner world. Much hinged on the ability to chronicle Angela and Ivan’s evolution over time in important moments of their life, organically integrating our cameras into their lives while preserving the authenticity of each moment. This depended on big trust.

There were moments of great tension between Angela and Ivan, at some point, they had a fight. I was so immersed in their life and physically close that even for them, it was hard to acknowledge we were on no one's side, or more exactly, on both sides. When you have that kind of access, in seconds you have to make correct aesthetic decisions of framing and handle yourself correctly because an error can destroy the trust of the characters in the film, jeopardize the trust in the team, and a life-changing decision can be taken once; you either witness it with your camera authentically or not. At moments it became very hard, as it is in all human relationships, to navigate conflicts with neutrality. We felt great empathy for both of them, and they knew it. The main resource we had to navigate conflicts was the trust they had for our team. At the same time, we also all needed to keep enough professional distance to be a system of safety checks and balances under extreme conditions, where an error could mean terrible consequences. 

Another big challenge was to plan how we were going to tell the ascent to Merdeka and react immediately, keeping the communication flowing. It was a real heist against time, and we were very invested in how we would tell it in a cinematographic way and prepare the gear for a whole range of unpredictable situations. Here, the collaboration with Ivan was crucial, we joined our expertise and pushed each other boundaries. We were a small team trespassing and monitoring the situation in real-time, and having close calls with Ivan and Angela, but always sticking to a strict safety protocol that Jeff and Maria established and signed with Ivan and Angela, and their families. We always had to be thinking about safety and story and logistics all at once. 

PH: Sundance is known for showcasing innovative and groundbreaking films. How did your cinematography contribute to the overall visual storytelling of the film, especially considering the festival's emphasis on creativity and originality?

Renato Borrayo Serrano: This film depended a lot on the possibility of depicting in a precise and cinematographic visual language a story about two characters confronting their past, their context, and their own decisions. Through observation and the development of relationships of trust between the characters and the team, we were able to do what we wanted, portray with great intimacy their inner world through their actions and authentic moments. At the same time, among others, the heist of illegally climbing Merdeka Tower, the highest skyscraper on earth, was a great artistic and technical challenge. This film is innovative by mixing so many formats, from high-end cameras with different lenses to GoPro action cameras, different kinds of drones, night vision cameras, and remote mics. This is a a real-life heist movie. But I think this film is unique in the sense that it deals with the great psychological depth of Angela and Ivan and the big stakes for their relationship they take, under extreme conditions. 

PH: Sundance often celebrates films that push boundaries and explore unconventional narratives. How did you collaborate with the director and other creatives to capture the film's essence visually and contribute to its distinct style?

Renato Borrayo Serrano: After every shooting period, Jeff and Maria would lead extensive discussions about the characters' emotions and the progression of the storyline based on the review of the materials. It was evident to us that this project went beyond merely portraying extreme artists; instead, it aimed to delve into human relationships, ensuring an authentic portrayal of the depth of their personalities. we were constantly pushing ourselves further in both developing the story and figuring out solutions for producing compelling material in conditions that might seem impossible, and at the same time we needed to plan, prevent, and react to a wide range of unforeseeable situations, no spoilers ahead, it was a hell of a ride and the viewer can take part of it. 

PH: The festival places a significant focus on storytelling and authenticity. How did you approach capturing authentic moments on screen, and were there specific techniques or choices you made to enhance the film's narrative?

Renato Borrayo Serrano: We had a very specific and concrete idea of how he wanted the story to be told, using observation of real events as the main source of material and through close-ups with a strong emotional connection and access to the characters.

A lot depended on the possibility of following Angela and Ivan’s development in time and being able to show up and integrate organically into their lives, keeping the authenticity of the moment. Reviewing the material we would discuss a lot about the feelings of the characters and the development of the story. We were clear that this was not just another film about extreme artists but about human relationships, and the depth of their personalities must be depicted. 

PH: How did you adapt your cinematography style to complement the film's thematic elements and contribute to the overall emotional impact of the story?

Renato Borrayo Serrano: For me, the cinematography in documentary cinema is all about emotional connection and intimacy with the characters, how you construct this trust relationship and can make visible a view of the inner world of the characters, their emotions, and their conflicts. This is achieved on many levels, but there is one level of communication that is based on intuition and trust, people (and very sensitive artists such as Angela and Ivan even more) feel your intentions, so it is truly an art to embody this empathetic vision that can capture in-depth emotions authentically. When this is achieved, you can make the proper decisions to depict emotions and situations with precision. 

PH: Can you discuss any unique approaches or creative decisions you made as a cinematographer to enhance the film's genre or narrative structure?

Renato Borrayo Serrano: This is a love story, two characters, each with their conflicts and worlds are together in one story. For me, this duality and sense of focus on each one's story was a resource to explode, we had to envision all moments in this story from both points of view and this meant different physicality for the camera that later at some point merged in one big real-life heist. I think being able to connect with two different ways of seeing life and the world and enhancing visually these differences was both a big challenge and a big opportunity narrative-wise.

PH: Were there any particularly challenging or experimental scenes in the film where your cinematography played a crucial role, and how did you navigate those situations?

Renato Borrayo Serrano: All in this film depended on a total immersion, both physical and psychological, on three levels. First, the story had to be seen, understood and followed in detail that would help to reveal our character's inner world and be captured with our cameras artistically. On the other, we had to be a safety net with checks and balances to avoid any catastrophe or undesirable consequences. And third, we had to encourage Angela and Ivan to trust and be open, to share this story with the world, and help them dream big.  I think the cinematographical aspect of this film goes far beyond just producing images, but the building of trust and the hard balance between intimacy and a professional distance of respect and responsibility.

PH: How does it feel to have your work showcased on such a prestigious platform, and what do you hope the audience takes away from the visual elements of the film you worked on?

Renato Borrayo Serrano: I believe this is a great chance for the whole team to showcase the product of a great effort to make no concessions on how we wanted this film to happen and allow ourselves to dream big. This is the reward. We tried this film to be a thrilling experience of intimacy and empathy, and I believe the cinematography of this film can carry the viewer to experience our character’s lives and struggles on a sensorial level. 

PH: What cameras and gear did you use to shoot your project?

Renato Borrayo Serrano: I think this film is revolutionary in the wide variety of formats and storytelling resources used for it. It was clear from the beginning that we needed gear that would allow us to adapt to almost any unforeseen locations and situations without negatively interfering with the outcome of our characters' lives and art. It also shouldn't attract unnecessary attention. At the same time, we needed to achieve a cinematic feel and look, this material to work in the psychological direction and the story we were telling.

So, we ended up working mainly with Canon C300ii and C70 because of their high adaptability and the possibility of working with cinema lenses. For the climb to Merdeka tower and many other heist extreme situations, we used an incredibly wide variety of resources, spanning from GoPro action cameras to different sorts of drones, night vision cameras, and a variety of remote mics and sound recording devices. Our goal was to maximize the storytelling resources on extreme, almost impossible-to-predict conditions.

PH: Can you share how you landed your first production gig?

Renato Borrayo Serrano: I was quite lucky. I studied at Filmschool in Moscow, and when I finished I had a couple of films as a documentary director that had some exposition. I had proposals and films of my own that I wanted to make so I soon started to create them, not caring much about the career aspect of it, out of the pure desire to make the kind of cinema I imagined possible, trying to make what I was interested in. Then, suddenly productions started to notice my work and I started to get invites for gigs.

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PH: Can you share some insights into the unique challenges you faced as a Director of Photography while working on "In a Violent Nature" featured in the Sundance Film Festival? How did you overcome these challenges?

Pierce Derks: First off I just want to say it's an honor to have our film featured at Sundance along with such other talented filmmakers and cinematographers. 

Perhaps the biggest overall challenge the film presented was how do we pull off a lot of these complex and methodical set pieces Chris had envisioned in the remote woods of Northern Ontario with a small crew. 

We really had to think outside of the box with how we'd approach the production logistically. Ultimately we found the answer was to prioritize the authenticity of the locations and use gear that fit the environment rather than finding locations that worked for the usual studio rental packages.

PH: Sundance is known for showcasing innovative and groundbreaking films. How did your cinematography contribute to the overall visual storytelling of the film, especially considering the festival's emphasis on creativity and originality?

Pierce Derks: What was really exciting and simultaneously intimidating is how much of the film has to be told through solely visuals and ambience. Johnny is this silent animal we're observing, he can never directly communicate what he's thinking so  it was a fun challenge finding frames that helped imply his thoughts and motivations in context with the story that's unfolding in the background.

PH: Sundance often celebrates films that push boundaries and explore unconventional narratives. How did you collaborate with the director and other creatives to capture the film's essence visually and contribute to its distinct style?

Pierce Derks: Chris had a very clear idea of how he wanted to approach the film and worked out very early on the visual rulebook in terms of coverage. We wanted to take the concept and mythos of traditional slashers and explore those from a literal and metaphorical new angle by following the story from the ‘monster’s’ perspective.

While Chris knew what he wanted in terms of coverage he left it up to me to figure out just how we would actually shoot it. He was very open to my ideas on lighting and composition, as long as it didn't conflict with his thesis of the film in general.

PH: The festival places a significant focus on storytelling and authenticity. How did you approach capturing authentic moments on screen, and were there specific techniques or choices you made to enhance the film's narrative?

Pierce Derks: We wanted to maintain a certain level of naturalism to the image overall, but what was kind of unique to this project was capturing a sense of authentic and organic movement of the camera.

There's a lot of camera movement in the film and I was always conscious about having the camera feel like it was tethered to the environment Johnny was traversing. We didn't want the camera to be this magically floating device that was robotic but on the flip side we also committed to never going handheld. 

There are so many slick and stylized camera movements in modern cinema, but personally I find sometimes as things get too polished you start to miss the natural imperfections and the movements start to lose their weight. It was a fine line finding the right balance of movement that was evocative of the environment and the emotion of every scene.

PH: How did you adapt your cinematography style to complement the film's thematic elements and contribute to the overall emotional impact of the story?

Pierce Derks: In the past I’ve worked a lot as a second unit cinematographer filming lots of practical effects and prosthetic creatures on different genre films and shorts. You pick up a lot of tricks over the years on how to help that stuff come alive and the unique challenges that come along with that type of photography.

It was really rewarding to be able to take those skills of shooting creatures and use them not just to sell an individual effect or sequence, but to help sell the overall story of a character. 

PH: Can you discuss any unique approaches or creative decisions you made as a cinematographer to enhance the film's genre or narrative structure? 

Pierce Derks: I’m a huge fan of horror films and genre cinema in general, but it became clear pretty early on that this film shouldn’t be trying to ape the visuals of the slasher film mythos that the script was taking inspiration from. I love the look of a lot of those films, especially the works of Dean Cundey, but we didn’t want it to quite look or feel like those classics. 

We needed a lot of the scenes to showcase the beauty and brutality of nature simultaneously and let the audience decide how they feel about what's happening on their own terms. 

PH: Were there any particularly challenging or experimental scenes in the film where your cinematography played a crucial role, and how did you navigate those situations?

Pierce Derks: I think most of the film borders being a bit experimental due the way we stick with Johnny and his perspective. So much of the story is being told in the background of the shots without popping in for coverage. 

Instead of shooting your normal wide, medium and close ups for a scene a lot of the time we had to find ways to merge multiple shots worth of information into one. Some scenes we'd have action happening a few feet from the camera but then there’s also a moment happening 100 yards away that the audience needs to clock. It was challenging finding a good balance of a deep depth of field while still being able to lead to the audience's eye. 

PH: How does it feel to have your work showcased on such a prestigious platform, and what do you hope the audience takes away from the visual elements of the film you worked on?

Pierce Derks: It’s a little surreal to be honest. I don't think we ever imagined or assumed during production that we'd play a festival as influential to the film landscape as Sundance. I'm still trying to wrap my head around it and don't think it will fully sink in until I'm seated at the premiere and the lights go down. 

Overall I hope the audience appreciates the bit of grit and the beauty we sought to inject into this unconventional take on slashers. If someone walks away thinking a particular shot was beautiful while someone else found it to be disturbing I think I'll be pleased haha. 

PH: What cameras and gear did you use to shoot your project?

Pierce Derks: I chose the Canon C70 after a long search for a hybrid camera that fit our needs. I was serving as the operator too and needed something that was easy to transport and rig without compromising the image. 

For all the walking shots I put together a Frankenstein steadi rig consisting of a spring arm vest with a Glidecam and a RS2 mounted on top. There were tests of traditional stabilizer rigs and none of them quite worked for where we were shooting due to the terrain and density of the vegetation. 

Having a rig that was small enough that I could squeeze in between tree branches while following Johnny was a life saver for capturing that unique environment. 

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