Guillermo Garza is a Mexican-born cinematographer based in Los Angeles specializing in Commercial and Music Video work. Throughout his career, Guillermo has shot for clients including Nike, Ford, and Reebok.
What were you roots like growing up? Was cinematography always something you had an interest in?
Very long story, but I’ll try to make it short. I was born and raised in Monterrey, Mexico, which is mainly an industrial city, Filmmaking was not something anyone would consider as a career nor was there really anywhere to study it. I remember really loving movies and being completely transported by them from a very early age. I saw all the big movies from the 80’s obsessively: E.T., The goonies, close encounters, Back to the future, Indiana jones, Star Wars etc. At some point, I was around 11 years old, and I remember watching a documentary about how they made the visual effects on Star Wars. I then understood that making films was a job somebody could have, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
I started using my mom's little Hi-8 camera doing stop motion animations, little shorts and editing tape to tape. I didn’t really have any access to anything other than popular films until further down the line. At around age 15, I saw A Clockwork Orange and Kids, which led me down a path of finding and watching underground/cult films. I found a video store near my house that had an “art film” section, and that was the end of my social life. I started noticing that I really liked how certain films looked, and how they were framed and slowly put together in my head what the role of the cinematographer was.
Later on, I read in a local newspaper an article about Alfonso Cuaron breaking into the international film scene along with his cinematographer Chivo Lubezki. That was when I thought, "hey maybe its not so far fetched that a somebody like me can eventually make movies." That's when I started considering being a filmmaker very seriously.
I found out about a group of older guys that started shooting music videos for local bands, so I started hanging out with them, and by age 18, I had a job a as a PA on music video shoots. I asked the guy who looked like the most experienced of them all (naturally he was the cinematographer) where he learned how to shoot, and he told me about these film workshops they had in a school called EICTV in Cuba. So, the next year I Went to Cuba for their cinematography workshop. Fast forward through a couple of years of odd film jobs, and I eventually signed up for film school in Madrid, Spain and graduated in 2006. I’ve been shooting ever since.
What do you think is the biggest difference between Mexican cinematography/filmmaking vs American?
The way I see it is that every individual cinematographer is vastly different. I think it would be hard to find real differences in style based on country of origin more than the individual cinematographer’s view on his craft. If I had to say a similarity, maybe it is the Mexican surreal cultural mythology that might be shared or a predisposition for melancholy, spirituality or a sensibility for infusing images with poetic subtleties. But honestly, I don’t think I can find specific similarities between the work of Rodrigo Prieto, Chivo, Guillermo Navarro, Alexis Zabe, Lorenzo hagerman or Gabriel Figueroa; at least not enough that are specific to them being Mexican. But, that’s just me. I guess Mexico is just fertile ground for cinematography as an art to develop, but so is the U.S.
Your commercial work is fantastic. What do you like about shooting commercials vs other types of content (music video, narrative)?
Commercials are great in a technical sense because you are shooting different things under different conditions and with very high visual quality expectations. It's a great platform to test gear, build relationships with your crew and directors, light all sorts of places and faces with very different budgets and within different looks. It’s also a good place to learn to work as team and to test and handle the limits of your patience. It's basically a workout for your filmmaking muscle. The harsh truth is that in the end, you are using the art of cinematography to help a brand manipulate people emotionally into buying what they are selling. But, I try not to think about that too much.
In narrative, there is such a great power, and if you can learn to harness it and use all of its elements just in the right way, you can transport people into the reality you create and you can elevate ideas into experiences of art. When a film really works, there are very few experiences that can rival it. I remember films that have changed my opinion about things, that have made me question what I think about something, or that have moved me emotionally in a very profound sense and made me more empathic. But... maybe I think about films too much.
What has been the hardest project for you to execute thus far into your career?
I shot a film last year in Turku, Finland. It's called Bayoneta, and it will be released in November. We shot during the Scandinavian winter with a lot of exteriors. The temperature hovered around -15 degrees Celcius, and it was constantly snowing. Needless to say, it was tough to operate the camera and block a scene while trying not to get frostbite on your feet, ears, and hands all at the same time. One of the local guys in the crew taught me a technique where you squeeze all of the muscles in your body as hard as you can for 15 seconds then release, then repeat until you feel warm. I don’t know if he was just making fun of me because it never felt like it worked. There were times where it was very hard to even think, but I had a great crew and we got through it.
How did you learn how to light?
I think first by watching and developing a taste for what moved me about the light in the films I liked. Then, I read all I could about it. But really, it was only until the last year of film school, when by pure luck, I had the chance to be a trainee on the set of Pan’s Labyrinth. I was very lucky to get a close look at how Guillermo Navarro ASC and his gaffer David Lee approached lighting a scene and how Guillermo Navarro talked to the director and his crew. I think that's when it really clicked, more than the technique, I think learning the philosophy of it. Then, once you have a clear path to how you want things to look and feel, it’s just trial and error and hopefully having a good crew for a few years. Then, it slowly becomes second nature.
“We The People” for Ford is one of our favorites from you. How many locations were filmed? The color and lighting is phenomenal, was it a tough project to execute lighting wise?
We shot in Salt Lake City, Los Angeles and Dallas. We shot in many places in those cities, too many to remember. I think as a cinematographer, you begin to learn that in commercial work, your work will only be as good as your director's eye. What I mean by that is that the director on a commercial will fight for the things that he likes and wants to shoot and that takes a lot of energy. If you are lucky on a commercial to have a director that has a good eye and appreciates good cinematography, he will set things up for you to create that. Then, it is up to you to push for the specific locations, gear, and specific times of day to shoot so you get those beautiful shots. In this project, Diego Contreras wanted to be able to create scenes for the actors to inhabit naturally. So, for the interiors, I lit mostly for the space or the room, not for the specific shot. We talked about the mood and on the day of shooting, I stepped in and created it. That way you can just let the scene happen and suggest to the director, "hey, what if we do this closer to this window" or "hey, what if as he is doing that, he steps into this light." Luckily, Diego has a very good eye and he looks for the same things that I do visually, which makes it very easy.
What do you hope to accomplish within the next 10 years?
I hope to keep getting better and better at this. I love my job and hope that I’m lucky enough to keep doing it for the rest of my life. I hope to keep meeting new directors with great visions who love this as much as I do and to be lucky enough to get invited to shoot the type of films that I love watching.
Any upcoming projects you would like us to know about?
Keep an eye out for a new commercial for Facebook and watch the upcoming film Bayoneta.