Over the course of his 40-year career, Eduardo Serra, ASC, AFC, has shot an extraordinary range of films in many different languages and countries, proving he is equally at ease working alongside American and European directors. Through all this varied output, his dedication to a soft, simple lighting style that aims purely to serve the story has won him the admiration of peers on both sides of the Atlantic, and this month, the ASC will honor him with its International Award.
Born in Portugal in 1943, Serra was first exposed to moving pictures at age 4, when his parents started taking him to see Disney cartoons at an ornate Italian theater in Lisbon. As he grew older, he watched the limited feature films that passed the strict Portuguese censorship of the time: some American pictures, the British Rank productions, and certain Italian and French comedies. After briefly considering a career in engineering, he followed his primary interests in politics and film, getting involved in film clubs at his university and writing a weekly column for a newspaper opposed to Salazar’s dictatorship. At age 19, he fled Portugal for Paris, partly to avoid political persecution, partly to avoid being drafted to fight in the colonial war, but most importantly to pursue a life in film. From its very beginnings, his career would have to be an international one.
In Paris, Serra devoured the films he had not had access to in Lisbon. During the first month he arrived, in 1963, he saw more than 100 movies, virtually taking up residence at the Cinémathèque and spending every minute he could there for the next two years. “I’ve probably seen about 95 percent of everything important made between 1895 and 1955,” he says. “My favorite period is the end of the silent era, from 1927 to 1929. I still think that films like Sunrise, The Crowd, The Wind, Lonesome and Wedding March are unmatched achievements. I am fascinated by the fact that they were the fruit of a dying art form.”
Serra was initially drawn to directing, but the first film school to accept him in Paris was the Vaugirard (now the Louis-Lumière), which trained cinematographers rather than directors. His path was set. He was still a foreigner in France, however, and had few connections, so work was sparse for the first few years after graduation. To fill his time, he enrolled at the Sorbonne and earned degrees in art history and archeology, a diversion he looks back on with affection and gratitude.
Serra finally found work on a film set as a loader for the great French cinematographer Pierre Lhomme, AFC. “Pierre was the father of modern French cinematography, because he made the transition from old to new,” says Serra. “Even though he started from a classical background, he was also involved in the Nouvelle Vague, and he always managed to do something different and unexpected. I learned from Pierre that traditional tools and ways of working are not always the only choice. I also observed his use of natural light and its reproduction by artificial means.”
Before long, Serra was pulling focus and working with such cinematographers as Claude Renoir; Bernard Zitzermann; Jean Boffety; Jean-François Robin, AFC; and Claude Agostini. After gaining experience on roughly 30 productions as a first assistant cameraman, he started shooting films himself, though it took him awhile to properly heed Lhomme’s example and stop doing things the way they were normally done. He notes, “I remember using strong, blue backlight for night exteriors until, after a few films, I asked myself why I was doing that, because I didn’t even like it. On one film, the production designer built some catwalks, and the gaffer said we could put various lights up there. I went along with it, but then in the dailies I had this horrendous toplighting that looked 30 years out of date. The point is that things can just happen by themselves; you need a clear vision to know what you want and how to stop the machine. It takes a few years and a few films to be able to say, ‘No, that is not what I want. I want it this way.’”
Early on, he formed a special connection with director Patrice Leconte, and the two have worked together many times throughout their careers. “Patrice and I share an emotional relationship with light,” says Serra. “He is as fast as he is precise; he lays down the rules for a film from the beginning and doesn’t change them. At the start of The Hairdresser’s Husband , he told me, ‘South of France, summer, all the light is coming from the window,’ adding that he wanted to catch the moment ‘just before perspiration begins to appear on the skin.’ On The Widow of Saint Pierre , I knew a few basic things: it had to be cold, with light coming from one direction; I had to avoid blue skies and postcard views; and I had to have a bit more contrast than usual. With Patrice, [the visual style] can be set within 10 minutes.”
Serra’s work with Leconte was a crucial step toward his lifelong preference for single soft sources, and led him to become one of the first cinematographers to work with fluorescent fixtures. He explains, “I became interested in fluorescents because they are a light that has a shape. If you change their orientation from vertical to horizontal, they change the look of a nose — they change the face. I first used them on Les Spécialistes, in 1983. I had to import the lights from the United States because I couldn’t find any good fluorescent tubes in France. Then, on The Hairdresser’s Husband, I used 400 of them as a skylight instead of space lights, which was rather a new idea.” For his work on the picture, Serra was nominated for a César Award.
The lighting style Serra was developing attracted the attention of other cinematographers, with whom he has always been happy to share his knowledge and experience. An early beneficiary of his kindness was Darius Khondji, ASC, AFC, who recalls, “I first met Eduardo as a teenager because he was a good friend of my sister. I became interested in cameras and film, and went to study at New York University. When I came back to France, Eduardo was the first person to help me work in the film industry; I visited some of his sets when he was just starting as a cinematographer. He was very generous and taught me a few things when I really didn’t know anything.
“Then I started to see his work, which had a wonderful softness to it,” Khondji continues. “At a time when everybody was going for sharp and contrasty images, he was maybe the only one, except for Philippe Rousselot [ASC, AFC], to go for something softer. When I look back now, I think what he was doing was quite groundbreaking.”
Having already worked on French, Portuguese, Brazilian and German productions, Serra began to shoot English-language films as well, with early examples including Tropical Snow (1988) and Lapse of Memory (1992). He notes, “Every change of country for a movie can be an enriching experience for any member of a cinema crew, even for technicians. I found I could adapt myself to different ways of working while maintaining the same direction in terms of my aesthetic choices.”
On Vincent Ward’s Map of the Human Heart (1992), Serra’s camera crew included a young loader named Seamus McGarvey, a future member of both the ASC and BSC. McGarvey recalls, “Seeing how Eduardo worked [with] his wonderful eye and sensibility showed me a whole different approach to lighting, one that technically — on the face of it — was very simple. He didn’t use a huge amount of light, but he used it very well, and I had never seen that degree of underexposure before. I was a young clapper loader coming out of film school, and his bravery with darkness was a revelation to me.”