Albert Salas is a Spanish-born cinematographer based in New York City. Albert's work is known for its pure, honest, and timeless character.
Being born in Spain, what were your roots like growing up? Was filmmaking a part of your upbringing?
I was born in a small city called Granollers, 20km away from Barcelona (Spain). My father was a photographer, and my brother also became one. Unfortunately, when I was little, my father had to switch jobs and start working in a factory. My father kept a darkroom at home and I’ve seen him and my brother making prints and processing film since I was a kid. My brother is truly an inspiration for me.
I wasn’t a very good student, a little bit of a rebel. I stopped studying and worked as a gardener and many other jobs for a little while, but wasn’t happy at all. I didn’t know what to do with my life, so I left everything behind, and I moved to Scotland alone. I was 19 years old with a couple hundred euros in my pocket. I washed dishes and bar tended for a year. This adventure was an awakening. I realized how important it is to work on what you love. I came back to Spain and decided to focus on an artistic field.
I guess If you want to work in filmmaking, you have to learn how to fight. The anger will help you to keep moving and push your boundaries. Coming from a working class family, I understood that no one will help me achieve what I want to be.
What was your early career like as a cinematographer?
I started working in a production company programming websites and shooting corporate videos. In the beginning, my rate was 50 dollars a day. I had to combine it with other jobs. That was a pretty funny period. I learned a lot shooting corporate videos, especially how to shoot in different types of conditions with little to no resources.
Five years later, I joined a film school. I was pretty good on cameras from shooting corporate videos but I didn’t know anything about cinema. I had a very good professor who helped me discover cinema and its language. This was a huge turning point for my understanding of cinematography. I started working as a video assistant and 2nd assistant camera, but quit after a few years.
Being able to work in a camera department in feature films taught me how to be on set, its structure, and about the different departments involved in a production. Filmmaking is a lifestyle. That was my first real attempt, and from then on, I knew I wanted to be part of it. When I stopped assisting camera, I tried to put all my energy into becoming a cinematographer. It was very hard, and I had to shoot everything you can imagine...That’s a very difficult moment for any aspiring cinematographer. You are on your own, empty pockets, and struggling to find a good opportunity to show what you are capable of.
Luckily, after a few years, I got involved in bigger projects and continued to craft my cinematography. It takes years to accept yourself as a cinematographer. It took me years. It’s such an important and respected position in filmmaking, truly.
Being based in NYC, what’s the biggest difference you see between working in New York vs Hollywood?
I haven’t worked in a proper Hollywood production yet to be able to compare.
You take great stills as well. How do you think still photography influences your cinematography? Do you view them as intertwined or separate entities?
Thanks! Both are coming from the same eye, but they have different looks and meanings in the moment.
For me, photography means freedom. I don’t make money out of it. I’m the only creator. There is no script, director, agency, client, or producer. I always carry a camera with me. I love shooting on 35mm film cameras. I love the quality of the film, the texture, and the imperfections. Half of my photography work comes from the streets and my trips. The other half are portraits lighting studies. I like to create little lighting setups in my apartment. I refine my lighting skills and try new things.
My cinematography still struggles to achieve that level of freedom. I guess it takes time. At the moment I’m shooting mostly commercials. You have a lot of restrictions and there are usually too many people involved in the creative process, sometimes you end up losing control of your own work. It’s very tricky and you have to fight a lot for your idea to be respected.
Is there any particular piece of work that you are most proud of thus point into your career?
There are many, many things to be learned still. Although I’m very proud of my first feature film “Obey” which recently won the best cinematography in Tribeca. Shooting a 300k feature film is a challenge. It was a fantastic experience though.
What’s your favorite type of work to make: narrative, commercial, or music video?
Definitely narrative. I love storytelling. For me, it’s the perfect art among the 6 other arts from Hegel’s list. Cinema is the only art that allows you to encapsulate time because it has been conceived to be a recording in order to be able to put the concept of time on it. Music would be the other one, but music existed way before technology allowed it to be recorded.
Cinema is such a powerful tool, you can tell stories and show them to the world. It’s like putting a dream into an empty bottle and throwing it into the ocean. Usually, I watch a lot of cinema. I like to stay at home, turn on my projector, and watch other types of films. Some of my favorite directors are Bela Tarr, Kurosawa, Dreyer, Melville, Ghobadi, Buñuel, etc...
You’ve done some nice documentary (portrait) work lately. In your experience, what does documentary cinematography allow you to achieve vs music videos or scripted work? What’s the main difference you see?
Documentaries are fantastic. It’s a two way street. You give your knowledge to create a film, but at the same time, you receive and learn so much from the story. Diving into people lives and their experiences helps to empower your sense of empathy and to grow up on values as a person.
In terms of cinematography, documentaries are great because you have very limited resources and you don’t have that much time or many takes for each scene. It’s a challenge, and the most important tool you have is your eye. You have to trust it. Also, working with available light is a beautiful experience. It can be transformed easily with very basic tools. I use windows and practicals as my best allies. For example, I can decide the amount of light filling up the area by closing or opening the curtains in the room. I can also choose the color of the curtains and get a general color tone in the room, or I can add a sheer fabric to diffuse the light. It’s very important to tech scout and schedule the shoot at the right time of the day depending of the position of the sun. It’s important to bring a variety of lamps and dimmers to set as well.
Documentaries are a wonderful school for cinematography. This is why Nestor Almendros became such a great cinematographer. He understood the fundamentals of available light during his time in Cuba and then used this knowledge in a bigger scale for lighting beautiful film sets.
If you had to choose one lens to shoot on for the rest of your career what would it be and why?
Probably a 55mm from K-35 lenses.
Any upcoming work you would like us to know about?
I’ve been reading a few scripts for narrative projects to shoot this summer. I’m very excited.