From Barcelona to Edinburgh, filmmaker Nelisa Alcalde shares her journey on how she fell in love with cinematography.
by Amber Varnado
Flying and zipping around Edinburgh, and parts of Europe, Nelisa spends most of her days on set, trying to chase the sun. If she could obtain any power for a day, she says she would want to make the ‘magic hour’ last for an entire eight hours. Or, she blurts out, to be in control of how the sun navigates around the Earth, overseeing each turn and position.
“I would just love to be in charge of how the sun moves and its quality of light whenever and wherever I want. Why? I love shooting in exteriors, but it is very very hard!” She wishes to control film, as she feels it’s synonymous with her passion for directing pictures. To be in charge of the many visuals we see is a big honor, and she’s always curating new innovative ways to do so.
Nelisa Alcalde is currently in Edinburgh studying cinematography and spending the majority of her time behind the camera. An artist, a creator, and inspired by the elements of film, she is determined to compile them into pure art of her own. She is accredited with several IMDb mentions and shorts, including a short titled Koturpuram, a sincere look at the natives of Kotturpuram, a neighborhood in Tamil Nadu, India. She dedicates the film to the families who had lost loved ones in the floods of Chennai in December of 2015.
Nelisa, like many of us, had no idea that she would be pursuing film. She accredits most of her inspiration to an old boyfriend who introduced her to photography. Nelisa says, “He put an automatic Yashica [camera] in my hands and told me to press the button whenever I saw something that caught my attention, and that is how the visual world came to captivate me. When I had the camera, I felt weirdly shy at first, but in some way it also felt really good. It’s difficult to explain, but I remember telling myself, ‘this is it; this is what I want to do.”
Cinematography wasn’t her first choice. In fact, Nelisa confessed that it was through trial-and-error that she began to find her niche. Initially undecided on where to go or what schools to apply for, she decided to pursue photography in her small town of Granada, Spain. When I asked about her decision in which school to attend, she confessed that the choice mainly pertained to a lack of money. “The university in Barcelona was too expensive, so I kind of had to make my own way. I had to work 6 months nonstop just to fund my schooling, cleaning, and everything else. But I was also bored of being in a small town. I wanted to see a bigger city.”
While photography still gives her much joy, she finds more solace in film. She recalls memories of long days on set, collaboration with other filmmakers, and even pre-production work, and considers all of it fun. After studying in Edinburgh, Nelisa’s decision to be a filmmaker was finalized.
After receiving a grant at FAMU, she began her journey as a director, though after just a few short weeks she found herself frustrated. “This course taught me how much I disliked being a director. I was a bit sad and stressful because I didn’t enjoy what I had chosen. It was hard to communicate with the actors.”
It wasn’t until she returned from a reflective trip to Cuba that Nelisa decided it wasn’t for her. She has been aspiring to be a director of photography ever since. I asked her if she had any doubts about jumping into her new self-professed career. “It is hard, though I will admit, sometimes you feel like you have to pull all these people together on set and you don’t always have the energy. A Lot of times too, they just want the credit for the film and they don’t actually have a passion for what it is they are creating. That’s the only time when things get weary for me.”
Her next big project Persephone centers around young adolescent Marie, and her journey progressing into a woman. “The basic idea came from the director. It’s all about a teenage girl blooming, and having her first period. Together, we wrote a little script by exchanging ideas. I really do enjoy the pre-production stage. The director had two very strong film references: Valerie and Her Week of Wonder and Picnic in the Hanging Mountain. So we used these films as references along with a commercial directed by Sofia Coppola, Daisies, to construct a blueprint of a script.” The cinematography, however, was the most complex part to execute. Nelisa admits that “as it was a very low budget student short, we didn’t have many options for resources.” This challenge was nothing more than a mere obstacle though, and Nelisa soon found resourceful ways to portray her vision. Letting little stop her is an attitude Nelisa shares not only in her art, but also in life.
One of her biggest obstacles and one shared by many other filmmakers is the hassle of trying to secure an aesthetically pleasing and fair priced location. For Nelisa, it was extremely difficult navigating around Prague trying to secure a safe private location. She admits that finding a location on your own is horrible.
The last topic we discussed was femininity in the workforce. Nelisa tells me that initially being a woman in the field frightened her. Upon her first day on set as one of the only female camera ops on a project, she was nervous, but also anxious to prove herself. But she is often reminded of the inequality when working on big sets. “I still feel very emotional on projects. I’m still the only woman on set. I arrive at 7 am on time, just as anyone else. Once, however, I arrived to a group of guys and immediately felt uncomfortable glances shot my way. I could feel their gaze, and hear their whispers of ‘why is she here?’ I vaguely remember one of the guys saying, ‘I know you’re supposed to be an A.C. but you’re still a woman.’”
She was shocked at this, but never lets it phase her or distract her from her work. “They will know me by the end of the day, and surely they will see I am a person, rather than just a woman.”
We agree that there is much to be endured in her pathway as a female cinematographer or any job relative to film. From what I’ve gathered, she’s not overwhelmed with the challenge. Working from the ground up is what Nelisa says keeps her passionate and eager to create, which we both understand is necessary in this kind of field. She said after the grit and hard work is all said and done, she feels happy and productive with her projects knowing she had little to work with. It fuels her innovation to look outside the box in regards to sampling new styles and curating her own theme as an artist.
After a brief holiday, she is excited to get to work on a documentary project about a Czech Boxer. I am excited to see what’s in store.