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The Cinematography of ‘Roma’

Alfonso Cuarón balances intimacy and grandeur in his most personal film to date.
By  · Published on February 15th, 2019

When Roma was first announced and still shrouded in a good deal of mystery, one of the few things that were confirmed about Alfonso Cuarón‘s next film was that it would be shot by his recurring collaborator, Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, who took home the Oscar for Best Cinematography a record three years in a row for Gravity (2013), Birdman (2014), and The Revenant (2015).

But then other commitments forced Lubezki to leave the project shortly before filming. Instead of bringing in somebody new, Cuarón, who started as a DP in film school, decided to wear another hat on the set of what was already his most personal film to date. Following a year in the life of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a live-in maid working for an upper-middle-class family in 1970s Mexico City, Roma was inspired by Cuarón’s childhood and the domestic worker who helped raise him.

Rather early in the development of Roma, Cuarón decided he wanted to film in black and white — a fitting choice for a film looking into the past — but in a way that he hadn’t seen before. He did not want a vintage feel, but a digital black-and-white that looked the part. “I would refrain from that classic, stylized look with long shadows and high contrast, and go into a more naturalistic black-and-white,” Cuarón told American Cinematographer in a recent interview. “I didn’t want to try to hide digital in a ‘cinematic’ look but rather explore a digital look and embrace the present.”

In terms of cameras, it was Lubezki who suggested Arri’s Alexa 65. Cuarón was initially skeptical about the large format but was ultimately won over by its “unbeatable” dynamic range, allowing for deep-focus wide shots in which both foreground and background could be utilized, each informing the other.

As far as inspiration is concerned, he told The Hollywood Reporter‘s Behind the Screen podcast that while he didn’t have any visual points of reference in mind when developing Roma‘s look, in terms of his working method, “the constant reference was Ansel Adams.” Specifically, Adams’ “Zone System,” a collection of principles and techniques to optimize exposure by taking into consideration all the various “scene elements” within the photographic frame.


“Every frame needs to have information in every single inch of it, meaning I want it to go into deep blacks but still have some detail, and I will go into highlights but still have detail,” Cuarón explained on the podcast. This meant re-shooting scenes (sans actors) at higher and/or lower f-stops (that is, letting less and/or more light into the camera lens) to gather all the information needed to ensure the finished film image had absolutely no clipping. Basically, in raw footage, the most extreme highlights and shadows tend to get “flattened” into pure white or black, respectively, beyond particular thresholds, and through this additional shooting, Cuarón and his team could go back in post-production and fix this clipping in the digital intermediate (DI).

While Lubezki did not technically work on Roma, his influence still lingers in a variety of ways. When discussing the film’s cinematography with Lubezki himself, Cuarón admitted that one of his mottos on set was, “What would Chivo do?” He also utilized a LUT used by Lubezki for Birdman and The Revenant for Roma (LUTs, or Look-Up Tables, basically modify the look of footage in-camera by manipulating the way a digital camera interprets what it’s “seeing” in terms of hue, brightness, and saturation). Shooting in color, this LUT “allows some contrast and the color tends to be desaturated,” Cuarón told American Cinematographer, resulting in a “melancholic naturalism.” Once converted to black-and-white, though, and modified for a little bit of additional contrast, it resulted in a “soft naturalism” that he liked.

With its long, exquisitely choreographed tracking shots, most of Roma is a single camera affair. A notable exception is a scene that takes place when Cleo accompanies Sofía (Marina de Tavira), her employer, and her children on vacation to a relative’s hacienda for the winter holidays. The group has a lakeside picnic, and several of the adults practice their shooting skills while the children — including one dressed as an astronaut, seen in the shot below — run around in the surrounding woods. (It’s also worth mentioning that this scene is also arguably among those that most recalls the work of Ansel Adams; while known for landscape photography in general, several of his most iconic works are forest images.)


This sequence of the children playing was one of the few to be shot with two cameras– to ensure the sunlight would be in the perfect position for both shots and also guarantee “perfect continuity” when cutting between the two angles in the editing room, as Cuarón told American Cinematographer.

The holiday trip also features another tricky technical challenge in the form of a forest fire. While everybody is celebrating New Year’s Eve, Cleo steps outside and notices smoke in the distance. All the partygoers hurry to try to put out the flames.


Cuarón wanted the scene to be illuminated by fire. The burning trees in the foreground of the scene were real, and the film’s special effects supervisor Alejandro Vázquez further illuminated the scene with giant gas-controlled flaming grills — the biggest was 20’x12′ in size — that were then suspended from tripods and cranes. Due to regulations, they could not burn the trees in the background, but to maintain a convincing look, LED panels projecting videos of fire were used to light these trees in a flickering way.

Another scene that presented a complicated lighting situation was Cleo’s cinema date. With a movie being projected in the background, and Cleo sitting in the audience in the foreground, achieving the shot ultimately seen in the film required the reshooting technique described earlier using different configurations of LED lights to make sure the actors, the room, and the film being projected were all properly lit in the finished version.


In terms of overall logistics, one of the most complicated — and most impressive –scenes in Roma comes around three-quarters of the way through the film, when Cleo, now heavily pregnant and shopping for a crib, finds herself a witness to the Corpus Christi massacre, in which the ruthless team of army soldiers known as Los Halcones killed around 120 student protesters. Cuarón was adamant about shooting the massacre scene in the very location it occurred, but first hundreds of extras and stunt performers ran through extensive practices on a football field. On location, they only had two days to shoot.

While the lead-up and the aftermath of the massacre are shown at street level, Cuarón made the bold choice to only film the carnage itself at a glance from a second-story window. After starting on Cleo, the camera begins to pan around the store as the noise from outside grows louder and more frenzied. Shots ring out, and store patrons rush to the window to investigate; by the time the camera reaches the window, a wave of fleeing protesters has flooded the street below.


Instead of lingering on the spectacle, the camera continues on the same trajectory until it comes all the way back around to Cleo. “Sometimes you are tempted with amazing angles, but you know you have to do only the one that is right,” Cuarón told American Cinematographer. “Part of our approach was to extend every shot through to its natural consequence, and not do long shots just for the ‘Olympics’ of it. I decided to cut from that shot before it calls attention to itself.” A herculean effort then swept over with a casual glance for a finished product that is at once convincingly organic and elegant — a sentiment which reflects not only this scene but the entire look of Roma.

Editor’s note: Film School Rejects did reach out to Alfonso Cuarón to speak with us for this series, but he was sadly unavailable.

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Ciara Wardlow is a human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes she tries to be funny on Twitter.