Cinematography is an art. We should treat the camera as another character in the story because it’s essential to how we experience our characters’ emotions. Great cinematography doesn’t just display what’s happening on screen, it draws you deeper into our characters’ stories, allowing us to feel the melancholy, vibrancy, or ecstasy that our characters face. Traditional cinematography will utilize production cameras like Alexas or REDs and feature myriad angles from different types of camera mounts. With traditional cinematography, you have plenty of creative freedom to tell your story and to convey emotion.
Enter Searching, a total enigma when it comes to cinematography. Searching is the fourth of what producer Timur Bekmambetov has dubbed “Screen Life” films, films that take place from the point of view of a desktop computer. Aneesh Chaganty directs Searching, a thriller where David (John Cho) has to find his missing daughter Margot (Michelle La) by scouring the internet and social media, looking for clues as to where she could have gone. While Searching hits many fundamental story beets, technically, Chaganty veers everywhere but traditional here, showcasing a unique and emotional film shot using iPhones, GoPros, and camcorders. We spoke to cinematographer Juan Sebastián Barón about the difficulties of shooting such a unique film and the authentic storytelling that resulted from that.
Barón shot Searching using only consumer products to convey relatability and authenticity. “From the get-go, we decided that we wanted to film this movie with authentic tools, with the right cameras instead of shooting the whole thing on an Alexa and degrading the movie to fit the different looks, Barón said. That meant that we were shooting with consumer products. We were shooting with GoPros, iPhones, cameras that had been discontinued ten years ago, camcorders and still cameras.” For Barón and Chaganty, it was vital that we were fully invested in David’s experience. Everyone uses Facetime, takes selfie videos, and can remember all the times their dad tried to document family outings, so by using familiar products, we’re drawn deeper into the story because we can relate to footage shot on webcams, iPhones, or camcorders.
Shooting on consumer products brought all sorts of technical difficulties and restrained Barón from the creative freedom that he’s used to. Instead of being able to pan around, or shoot from multiple angles, Barón was often stuck with one, static angle and was forced to be creative in that space. So, instead of being creative in the traditional sense, he found creativity in lighting through which he was able to subtly add depth and emotion to the story.
As the story progresses, we learn that Margot is living through pain and is becoming increasingly more distant from her father. For Barón he thought, “How would Margot like her bedroom? What kind of lights would her dad turn on when he goes into her bedroom? What could he learn about his daughter through her light setup?” By lighting her room in a certain way, we learn more about the pain that Margot experiences and we learn how David is oblivious to the sorrow that Margot is in.
Barón doesn’t just use lighting to reflect the emotions of Margot; he also uses specific lighting to demonstrate David’s anguish as he searches for his daughter. “There are moments when David is really vulnerable, and that’s when we played around with the lights from the laptop, how that’s an element that gives you the impression that he’s suffering through the screen a little bit. The screen becomes a component that maybe you didn’t notice before.” As David is searching for Margot in a room lit only by his computer, we’re drawn to the misery in his eyes and the sadness in his face. These are the little things that draw us deeper into our characters’ pain.
Working with actors like Cho and La is probably Barón’s favorite part of cinematography. By adding to their gravitas and emotion with stellar cinematography or clever lighting, you can enhance a performance and our enjoyment of that performance. “It was fun seeing John and where he was taking David at certain points, in front of the computer or over by the lake, and figuring out how to tap into different emotional beats seeing where I could do to take it up to the next level.”
Furthermore, working on Searching taught Barón some new tricks to filmmaking. Through unique avenues of creativity, he was forced to approach Searching from a beginner’s mindset. For this film, he learned that letting go of control could produce great results.
“I knew that I had to disappear sometimes, he said. If this movie felt like it was shot by somebody, it would be alienating, which is not the point of all. I knew there were times I would have to disappear, and that’s when I realized I could give the camera to John and allow him to operate the camcorder in an intimate family moment. Sometimes, removing yourself from the process and knowing when to step back is huge, but as a cinematographer, you’re often focused on control and make everything the way you intended it to be. However, on a film like this, letting go a little bit and letting the accident happen produced powerful and magical moments.”
In the end, Searching is magical. It’s an emotional, tense film that displays incredible technical mastery while providing a breath of fresh air as we delve into the September movie season. Technical creativity is always quite impressive, so here’s hoping we get more films like Searching.