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Starz Breaks the Mold of the Look of Latino TV with Vida and Cooke Lenses

Vida — renewed for its second season and expanded from six episodes to 10 by Starz — continues to break the mold of what many think a Latino television series should look like. This half-hour drama chronicles two Mexican-American sisters from the Eastside of Los Angeles who couldn’t be more different or distanced from each other. Circumstances force them to return to their old neighborhood, where they are confronted by the past and shocking truths about their mother’s identity. The series earned critical acclaim upon its debut, with season one holding a 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

While most people think of Latino television as being very bright and color-saturated, Cinematographer Carmen Cabana helped give Vida (Spanish for “lifetime”) a significantly different look and feel.

“The producers were looking for a female DP that was also Latina — and that’s me,” said Cabana. “I nailed the audition as my background included many of the same elements as the show, like neighborhood changes and gentrification. It was crucial that each episode showed off the diversity of characters in the colors of their skins, the realism of the environment with a “romantic” feel to it. That’s where Cooke lenses really stand out.”

Season One was character-driven. For those six episodes, Cabana selected Cooke 5/i prime lenses, with a kit containing 18/25/32/50/65/100mm focal lengths, though she relied heavily on the 25mm.

“The first season was very shallow, always filming wide open with wide lenses up close and longer lenses when we needed to accommodate two cameras. There’s just something about Cooke lenses that make me love them far above other lenses, which always look too sharp overall and contrasted. I love how Cooke lenses are warmer, they roll on the skin smoothly and at the same time the perceived sharpness is clearly defined in the selected area; Cooke lenses embrace faces very nicely with highlights and colors.”

Given the opportunity, Cabana made sure that Vida would not look the same as most Latino television. “I am a proud Latina but I dislike the esthetic of a lot of Latino shows. They’re often high key, over saturated with an undefined color palette and lacking design in the shadow areas. The camera language also falls within the traditional coverage which we wanted to avoid.

“With Vida, I could create anything I wanted, as long as I maintained respect for the skin tones and the flavor of the neighborhood,” explained Cabana. ”That opened up a lot of creative possibilities for the five directors of the first season. We’re mostly handheld, moving organically with the characters, but for specific shots we use Steadicam or specialty equipment like techno cranes, drones, raptors — pretty much any toy, as long as the movements are motivated and don’t call attention to themselves. I used a variety of gels for color contrast. I’m also big on flares and lighting artifacts, so it’s a sort of romantic lighting.”

While using a zoom lens would be more practical, they were only used for special jib and crane shots to avoid having to rebalance. “It’s the visual qualities of the primes that give Vida the esthetic it has,” said Cabana. “It’s definitely worth the time and expense. We treat Vida more like an Indie film.”

So why move from Cooke 5/i primes, which seem perfect for Vida, to Cooke S4/i primes for Season Two? The main reason was space restrictions.

“We planned this move for Season Two,” explained Cabana. “As much as I love the look of the 5/i, Vida does shoot in a lot of practical locations that involve tight spaces and with the fluid handheld style, it is important to be able to maneuver around without bumping into walls or objects. With the Alexa Mini, which we used on Season One and will use for Season Two and now with the Cooke S4/I, we can get into small spaces, move around better and still have a beautiful esthetic from an equally well-crafted lens.”

The S4/i primes are Cabana’s favorite lenses, having used them on 19 of the 24 films she’s worked on. For Season Two, she will have the full set of focal lengths at her disposal. “Now my lens choice will depend on the circumstances. Outdoors, I like the look of longer lenses; they help to focus on the characters. I rarely use the 12mm, except for shooting plates which on Season Two is very necessary, now that we moved the bar room to a stage and we have to do rear projection from the window,” she said. For Season Two, the 32mm will be her ‘go to’ lens: “The 32 is a gorgeous lens for masters, and the S4/i gives me the best of both worlds, being small and fast.”

For Cabana, Season One is a great example of the ‘Cooke Look’ that so many cinematographers talk about, but is something better understood when seen.

“While we had a beautiful bokeh throughout the entire season, episode 3 is where you can really see what Cooke lenses can do,” according to Cabana. “Two of the characters are in a car on a hill in a valley at night. For this scene, I used the 100mm on close-up, and it’s just gorgeous. The colors pop and it’s not completely out of focus, but it’s not sharp either, you can see shape. It’s a very defined look and the colors in the bokeh are very rich.”

But for Cabana, there’s one thing still missing: “I can’t wait for a project where I can explore the Cooke zooms as well.”

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