Jose Andrés Cardona
Jose Andrés Cardona is a cinematographer and director based out of Brooklyn, NY specializing in music video, commercial, and narrative content. His new short film titled “Sundays” recently screened at SXSW 2019.
When did you first start making movies?
I’m one of those filmmakers that started casually as a kid. My parents gave me a polaroid camera when I was around 4, and I couldn’t put it down. When I was around 8 or 9, my older brother had just gotten a video camera for Christmas. After coming across a special on the Discovery Channel about stop motion animation, we started making little movies with our legos. We didn’t know about capturing stills for animation, so we’d just press record twice to start and stop as fast as we could. Since it was tape, we’d see our animations come to life when we’d play it back. Editing meant starting over. In high school, I got a video camera of my own and started making documentaries about my friends. I finally made my first proper narrative short when I was 17 to apply to NYU film school.
What project do you think elevated you from aspiring to professional filmmaker?
I went into film school because I loved film, but I didn’t necessarily know I’d be a professional filmmaker afterward. I figured college would be my time to try things, but filmmaking as a career was so foreign to me. I didn’t grow up close to any of this stuff. I took a class at NYU my sophomore year called Sight and Sound: Film, where we’d shoot on reversal 16mm film and edit by hand on Steenbecks. It was pretty hard to nail focus and exposure, but I was able to manage alright; a lot of my peers encouraged my cinematography. Because of that encouragement, I ended up taking two cinematography courses over the summer before a semester abroad in Dublin to study music video production.
It was a tiny program, and I was the only one that had taken those cinematography courses, so I ended up shooting a bunch of my friends’ music videos. Since the program was partnered with Hot Press Magazine, we got to shoot for some pretty legitimate Irish artists, and we managed to get a lot of resources and great locations for very little money. And with music videos, the whole point was just to make something cool, to try things. The music video I shot and directed moved up to NYU’s First Run Film Festival, which didn’t happen very often. When I came back to New York, I had a bit of a cinematography reel, and I started shooting a lot of my friends’ student films. At the same time, I’d started to get little gigs shooting or AC’ing.
How did you develop the current relationships you have with your collaborators?
It all goes back to film school. Nowadays, you can kind of learn everything you need to make a film through Youtube and on set experience. The greatest gift that film school gave us was each other. You spend four years with the same people and you really get a sense of their character; you learn and fail together; you see who keeps going. Most of my professional work derives from the NYU connection in one way or another, even if it’s several degrees removed. My main collaborators for this Six Short Films project, Hunt Beaty and Wesley Wingo, are both friends from college.
Is their difference in your approach for when you’re directing a film like in “Sundays” versus just being the DP like in “F*ck Bunny?”
Well these films were pretty different than what I normally do as a DP. I was there every step of the way with pre-production through post - whereas with most of the stuff I shoot - camera and lighting is my main and often sole responsibility. With “Sundays,” I really leaned on Hunt and Wesley to help me through it. I had this idea that was pretty strange, and after the first draft which was verbose and dramatic, the two of them - along with some other trusted collaborators - gave me great notes and advice on how to pare things down, make it simpler, and tighten everything up. The biggest difference role-wise with all of these shorts as a collective is just who is talking to the actors. Outside of this specific project, when I work with a director, I’m there to challenge them in pre-production, introduce new ideas, but ultimately execute their vision as best I can. With Wes and Hunt, the best idea always wins - doesn’t matter whose it is. And we’re really just in it to make the best film possible within our means and timeline. One-track the thing, make it as good as you can, and move on.
What do you look when you compose an frame? Do you have a criteria of sorts or is it something you have to feel
It’s definitely more feeling than anything, but there’s a language of film and a precedent in place that I used to try to challenge, but now I appreciate it more and more. These rules exist for a reason, and my cinematography shouldn’t distract you or take you out of it...unless it’s supposed to. I remember starting out, I was very attracted to symmetry à la Wes Anderson. As I got older and gained more experience, I realized things like this can bring attention to themselves and should be used sparingly or as exclamation points. You’ve made a great cake, don’t oversweeten it. We’re not all Wes Anderson.
Do you intentionally focus directly on the eyes of characters at crucial moments or does that just happen?
This was kind of a happy accident that happened on “The Sound of Your Voice.” I didn’t direct it, but I was very close to that film. By far the most eye-opening (no pun intended) and educational aspect of this Six Short Films project has been the editing process for me. I’ve edited a lot over the years, but only a couple of narrative projects. Hunt was very into close-ups of eyes and shared a clip of Mulholland Drive with me as a reference for one of the inserts we wanted to do. When we were shooting this “insert” with Stacey Weckstein, she just ended up giving a really terrific, compelling performance even though it was just a shot of her eyes. I told Hunt and Wes that this was probably my favorite bit of footage, but that it didn’t fit within the film we shot. We ended up rewriting the film (since so much of it was offscreen voices), and made this shot of her eyes the climax of the piece. I went into “Sundays” knowing that we’d have a lot of extreme closeups in the opening sequence because of the mechanics of “getting comfortable” before starting to drive.
It was a given that we’d get close-ups of their eyes, but the plan was always to use them sparingly - as our exclamation points. After editing that opening sequence with standard medium close-ups, and then trying it with the extreme eye close-ups, it just felt so much better. You could connect with these characters much more quickly, and not do that “first impression sum-up” that we all do when you see an actor’s face, their clothes, the way they comb their hair. It’s just the eyes, and everyone can connect with that without letting the rest get in the way. It’s raw humanity and nothing else. After doing a cut and watching it back, I thought “What am I doing? People don’t do this; this is weird.” But then I showed it to Hunt, Wes, and some of our other collaborators, and everyone was surprisingly on board.
How do you feel coming into SXSW this year? Are you excited or nervous to show “Sundays” to this large audience?
SXSW was entirely unexpected. We made these shorts to premiere online - maybe get on Short of the Week, maybe get a Vimeo Staff Pick if we were lucky enough. The goal was to maintain momentum with the shorts and not wait around for a year or more while one short does the festival circuit. If we were able to release a short every couple months, we could maintain momentum, and hopefully continue to be a part of the conversation. There’s so much content out there these days, I think it matters less and less that you can do something great once; can you do something pretty good over and over again?
It was an honor to premiere on Short of the Week with “Sundays,” and subsequently be featured on NoBudge and Film Shortage, but I kind of thought that was the end of the road for this film. We agreed from the beginning that we’d submit to the biggest film festivals that took films that have already premiered online. We submitted the first four, and this is the one that got in. It just goes to show that everyone has different taste, and you can’t calculate what will resonate with people. Make it honest. Put your weird film out there. Anyway, it’s an honor. Especially as a Texan.
What inspires you?
Great films and filmmakers definitely inspire me; I go to the movies a lot. Even the bad ones teach me a lot; it’s easier to see what’s not working and why. Stories I read, people-watching in New York. But, probably above all else: my peers. I remember Spike Lee saying somewhere that watching Stranger than Paradise inspired him to start making movies; he had gone to film school with Jim Jarmusch; they were peers. When I watch the films of people I know or I went to school with, it’s the same thing. These are talented folks for sure, but we’ve all had the same opportunities; and they’ve paved their own way. There’s no excuse not to make your movie.
Any advice for upcoming filmmakers?
Start making the kind of stuff you want to make now. If you want to make movies, don’t spend too much time on music videos. If you want to make money and direct commercials, make your specs. The crossover in industries isn’t as much as you’d expect. The music video directors that get to make feature films are the top, most sought-after music video directors like Mark Romanek and Jonathan Glazer. The mid-tier music video directors don’t often get that opportunity, whereas the mid-tier narrative directors get to make more movies. Don’t spend a lot of money on your project, but cover all your bases. Most importantly, set goals and deadlines. If you don’t, it’ll take way too long or you’ll just never finish.
I never finished my short from college and still regret it. It’s easy to lose momentum. I hear a lot of filmmakers say, “Go out and shoot something now; do it on your iPhone.” While I agree with that sentiment to some degree, I think there’s a lot more to it. You should be planned out. Pay attention to your story and structure. I’ve done the “go out with a camera and shoot something,” thing and it never really turns out well. Latch onto one idea that you like (even if you don’t like it later), and one-track it to be the best thing you can make within your means and timeline. Finish it. If it’s not good, nobody’ll watch it and you’ll survive. Don’t be too precious. Your film will probably be 3% better if you wait another year. Is it worth it? Also, don’t forget that it’s much easier to laugh with a character after a few moments of knowing them than cry with a character after a few moments of knowing them.
Don’t skimp on sound. It’s easy to make a pretty image these days. The biggest indicator of low budget or amateur filmmaking is sound. Reach out to people that inspire you, ask questions. You’d be surprised how many people will be willing to help you out. Most people never ask. Don’t compare yourself to other people; I’m bad at this one. If you go to law school and pass the bar, you’ll be a lawyer. In filmmaking there’s no path and no guarantees. Just keep your head down and keep going. And lastly - even though I hate it sometimes - use social media. It’s a vital part of our industry now. I’m definitely not great at this, but make yourself seem busy when you’re not. These are lessons I’ve learned but always struggle to follow. It’s tough out there, y’all.
Any upcoming work you’d like for us to know about?
Our Six Short Films project is quickly coming to a close and the final film will premiere online sometime this month. I also have a feature I shot last year in post, and I’m considering several feature film opportunities with my usual co-conspirators. And shorts are always on the table. I plan on continuing to make things and put them out quickly.