It’s always a pleasure chatting with the courtly Gabriel Beristain, ASC, BSC, and our recent conversation was no exception. Gabby has a number of very interesting irons in the fire, including two recent television productions — The Strain and Magic City — as well as a feature film about a Welsh coal mining tragedy in development which he hopes to direct if everything comes together. He’s also busy shooting pickups for a big project he’s not allowed to talk about quite yet.
The television projects were diametrically opposed in many ways. Magic City depicted Miami mobsters in 1959, just after the Cuban revolution. The camera movement was spare and elegant, with no Steadicam, and vintage Super Baltar lenses helped create the look. The cameras were Arri Alexas.
On The Strain, an upcoming vampire horror series for FX, Gabby shot the first four episodes for creator Guillermo del Toro in Toronto. Del Toro had originally conceived the project as a series, but ended up co-writing a series of novellas with co-writer Chuck Hogan. Eventually the project came full circle, and was developed into a television series.
Del Toro, whom Gabby had previously worked with on Blade II, also directed the pilot, which was shot by Checco Varese, ASC. Of the look, Del Toro has been quoted as saying, ”It’s not like CSI or The Wire. It’s real but it feels a little stylized. But the camera work will be very realistic. We want to keep the camera very documentary, even if the look of the show is not. The look of the show is very designed. The style of the camera and the storytelling will be very loose. It will evolve from that feel of reality, and little by little we want to evolve into a more stylish, horror feel that requires smoother camera moves, more suspense and atmosphere-driven moments. So it will be a mixture. I don’t think that mixture has been seen a lot on TV.”
Peter Weller directed one of Gabby’s episodes. Gabby says that the look included sharp, modern lenses, silhouettes and a more active camera.
“The pilot took place almost completely at night,” says Gabby. “It was a moody and powerful piece. In the episodes, we had to create a daylight look, which Guillermo, Checco and I collaborated on. The daylight cinematography in The Strain had to work with the very creative use of silhouettes and darkening a lot of the interiors. Every time, even with clear daylight, it had to be very moody and very atmospheric. And that required the very creative use of exposure. You know, in digital, it’s very difficult because you are not in full control of everything. So for me, it was very important to have very good communication with the DIT and with the lab, so that the dailies reflected that strong, harder look, that very atmospheric daylight.”
Between cinematography assignments, Gabby has been helping to develop The House of Abraham Phillips, a project based on a book by Norma Procter that aims to maintain Welsh mining heritage and history. Set in Wales in 1875, the story is a fictitious interpretation of one family’s experience of a mine disaster that actually occurred at that time in which 16 miners died. The incident was part of the impetus for the union movement in Britain. See more information at the project’s website: The House of Abraham Phillips
Friends of Gabby know he has a strong connection with the UK. The son of renowned actor Luis Beristain (Exterminating Angel, and many others), Gabby followed his own path from his native Mexico to Europe, where he worked in documentary and newsreels before attending the National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield, England. He became a proud member of the British Society of Cinematographers in 1990.
“Wales is a place very close to my heart,” he says. “One of my first jobs was in Wales, and I still have many friends there, I’m happy to say. The House of Abraham Phillips is an important and wonderful book. If everything goes well, and I can take the time off from cinematography, I may be directing a little film in Wales.”
I asked Gabby for his reaction to the recent success of his fellow countrymen Alfonso Cuaron and Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, ASC, AMC whose Gravity took home seven Oscars, including awards for cinematography and directing.
“Of course I am very proud for Chivo,” said Gabby. “I think he is a man who worked very hard for it, and there’s no question that Cuaron is a skilled director and an extraordinary filmmaker. He also seems to love Britain, and does a lot of work with the British. I think their success is tremendous. I took a different path from them, and while they were struggling in Mexico, I was struggling in England. Theirs was never a group I belonged to, unfortunately. But they have put Mexico very high in the cinematic world. How could I not feel proud of them? I celebrate them.”