For audiences in the multiplex, it’s all about the actors. While invested in the cult of the director, entertainment journalists do admit that directors of photography are also important though they tend to dwell on the work of only a few elite cinematographers. In the crowded ecology of cinema, production designers are among the unsung heroes.
That said, people outside the film industry may have heard of Eugenio Caballero, thanks to his work on so many award-winning films.
His most-recent title, “Roma,” just won Alfonso Cuaron the Academy Award for best foreign language film. Caballero himself won an Oscar for his work on Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 film “Pan’s Labyrinth,” which has since become something like a cult classic.
Between those two projects, he’s been feted for his work on several films, including Jim Jarmusch’s 2009 “The Limits of Control,” J. A. Bayona’s “The Impossible” and “A Monster Calls,” from 2012 and 2016 respectively.
Caballero is among the five distinguished talents headlining the fifth edition of Qumra, the Doha Film Institute’s film incubation platform for filmmakers working on their first and second projects.
In addition to lending some of their expertise to the projects of DFI grant winners, the Qumra “masters” present public master classes at Doha’s Museum of Islamic Art.
The second such talk of Qumra 2019 – the first to have the master present, as Agnes Varda backed out due to illness – and the first ever to feature a production designer, Caballero’s master class was among Qumra 2019’s highlights.
Perhaps aware of the innocence of some in the audience, Richard Pena, the American film scholar who moderates most of Qumra’s master classes, began the conversation by asking Caballero to describe how he sees his work.
“A production designer’s role is to realize the director’s vision,” Caballero told his MIA audience, anticipating the work of the cinematographer. While the DP is concerned with nonmaterial aspects of what audiences see, he said, as production designer he’s responsible for providing the material substance that the DP photographs – from exterior locations to the minute details of interior set design to the construction of exterior sets that can’t be found in production.
“You need to conceptualize and contribute your artistic ideas and creativity to the unique world of the film,” he continued. “To do this well, you need to be brave and really embrace your own storytelling abilities. It’s vital that you believe in what you are doing.”
Punctuated by clips from his best-known titles, Caballero’s master class elaborated upon the practice that unifies films that look vastly different: from the stylized depiction of Civil War-era Spain (and the fantastical adventures of a young protagonist), to the realistic recreation of early-1970s Mexico City; from the mammoth restaging of the impact of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in a Thai resort, to the declensions of color saturation that accompany the prehit scavenger hunt of an American contract killer.
At the MIA Caballero joked that, while “The Impossible” and “A Monster Calls” required high-tech solutions, much of his work was neither high-tech nor low-tech but “Aztec,” suggesting ad hoc on-set fixes. Sitting with a pair of journalists later, he elaborated upon the impact of the digital revolution upon his work.
“You know … with CGI there’s so many things coming every day, so many tools, that you have to understand … what to use,” he mused.
“I’ve done some films in the past [that] really abused CGI. Then 10 years later they’re impossible to watch. … You must be very careful [to use CGI] behind the story, in a narrative way. If not, then you run the risk that your film will look old very soon. That’s why I try to combine, to salt-and-pepper CGI with old techniques of construction that were used in the ’20s.”
He recalled how one eminent director (either Cuaron or “Cold War” director Pawel Pawlikowski) once remarked that the best digital effects director was Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan, whose notably realistic work uses computer-generated imagery very precisely.
“‘Roma’ is full of those little [digital] tricks,” he said, “but again it’s a very naturalistic film. You can imagine, if we build six blocks of Roma’s main avenue, then there’s a lot of little moments in which you use digital techniques to delicately shape your frame. [CGI is] another brush and, for me, that brush can have a deep stroke or a fine one. It can provoke poetry or destroy worlds.”
Caballero’s precise, textured deployment of objects in space approaches the quality of architecture or installation art.
His primary influence has always been cinema itself, he demurred, though he listed architecture and visual art among his several sources of inspiration – including art history (the discipline he studied in university), literature, music, cooking and photography.
“I like the idea of mixing disciplines in filmmaking,” he told The Daily Star. “You must have that collaborative spirit for making film. If you don’t have that then you’re in the wrong profession.”
He said manipulation of space was something he learned on the job.
“I really started working with friends’ film school exercises, then shorts and music videos, [and this work] really shaped my relationship with space. Then you start learning rules. My father is an architect and I promised him that I would never do the same,” he laughed, “but I end up doing something really similar. He used to say, ‘You’re doing this fake architecture. You don’t really have to think about materials.’ I said, ‘Well I can make things that you’ll never be able to create in terms of period things or disasters, or building a tree.”
Caballero’s diverse interests are reflected in his various non-cinema projects. He’s proud of his stage design for Cirque du Soleil’s Mexico-inspired show “Luzia.” He designed the opening ceremonies of the 2014 Paralympic Games in Sochi and said he just finished designing an open-air theater space in the middle of the Mexican jungle.
He’s also curated an art exhibition, opening this May in Guadalajara, that places 50 pieces from del Toro’s collection of macabre objects (shown in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s 2016 show “At Home with Monsters”) in dialogue with 300 works of Mexican art.
Like all the Qumra masters, Caballero preferred to keep his next film project under wraps, though he said he was interested in exploring animation. “The way things are progressing, it seems like animation and production design have a lot of touching points,” he reflected.
“Animation can be done in different ways by directors like Guillermo, who’s now directing an animated version of ‘Pinocchio.’”
It’ll be interesting to see how that compares to the Disney version.