The question of art imitating life or if life now imitates art is a quandary explored in “A Series of Unfortunate Dates.” Society has become so aware of how the “self” is presented publicly that presenting the desired image or experience has become the goal rather than exhibiting an insightful view of reality. “A Series of Unfortunate Dates” presents this and it was the task of Colombian cinematographer Jose Andres Cortes to manifest the imagery for this amusing mockumentary. Handpicked by director Aleix Massot because of his previous work and strong photography background, Cortes worked with the director to create a plan to heighten the comedic moments of the story. Aleix has a special sensibility with the camera and was very demanding and detailed about what he required from his DP on this project. Confident directors who are open to collaboration make for happy DPs. Jose was not only able to realize and capture the precise look his director wanted but also gain recognition from his peers in the film community in so doing.
The look of “A Series of Unfortunate Dates” was a planned collaboration of Cortes and Aleix which was quickly agreed upon. Due to his strong photography background, it was agreed that Jose would serve as both DP and colorist on this production. It’s a dual role which Cortes has served on in a number of films and one which he finds intuitive. Allowing him to do this ensured that the agreed upon look would easily retain a continuity throughout the entire process. Being in control of this process from the shoot all the way through to the final color grading is a role which this DP finds reassuring rather than cumbersome.
While the duality of his work on “A Series of Unfortunate Dates” called for Jose to be thoroughly planned out and vigilant, other aspects necessitated him being improvisational and flexible. A key to the success of a mockumentary is that it appears as loose and real as an actual documentary. This is much easier said than done. The façade of a casual nature takes a great deal of talent. In terms of filming, Cortes explains, “In order to make a mockumentary work it needs to look as natural and spontaneous as possible. Everything happens quickly when you shoot a documentary. You don’t have time to plan your shots very well. Literally anything can happen once you start rolling the camera; that’s the essence of the documentary. it’s raw and real. A mockumentary must also feel this way, meaning at some point you have to just let the camera flow by itself and follow the action as one would when filming an actual documentary. Mockumentaries are a fun genre to work with, very dynamic. We only use one camera and try to follow the action as it is happening, except for the interview parts where it was a regular lighting and camera set up. Of course, when you are following the action and giving some room for improvisation it becomes really hard to keep the continuity between takes.
“A Series of Unfortunate Dates” follows Sarah, a girl who participates in a “reality show” that helps people to find “true love” based on a very complex algorithm. With this algorithm they can “select” or narrow down the options of who is the best match for Sarah.
The film begins with the production crew arriving at Sarah’s house where the Host explains to the audience what the show is about and explaining how the algorithm works. We meet Sarah, a young beautiful girl who is enthusiastic about meeting her true love. Viewers accompany Sarah on three dates, the first of which is a very laidback guy who always talks about how efficient and fast he can be when moving around in LA traffic. Although nice at first, he says something inappropriate for a romantic date. Next is a very innocent and awkward/nerdy guy. Not aligned with Sarah’s interests, we become aware of the flaws of the algorithm. Sarah’s final date is with a man who exhibits a strong presence, is sexy & self-confident; seemingly a great catch. Sarah leans in for the kiss which will confirm the algorithm was correct all along when…well, you’ll just have to watch to discover what happens. While the story is engaging and very funny, the fact that it uses the pervasiveness of documentaries and Reality TV to cash in on our tendency to buy into the story and suspend reality is masterful.
Creating the perception of reality without actually using reality also becomes difficult when it comes to the look of a production such as this. Jose wanted everything to be clear and well defined onscreen but not so perfect as to reminded the viewer that this was as perfectly articulated as the scripted films he has worked on. He chose to utilize primarily natural lighting with reflectors for exteriors to create a non-controlled lighting design. The interview segments were lit and shot to appear very professional in contrast. His dual role as DP and colorist on this mockumentary allowed him to fix up problems which had occurred with weather issues in the post production color grading.
For Jose Andres Cortes, cinematography is focused on the same intent regardless of the type of production or genre. He relates, “It might be really common for the general public to think that the DP is just the guy who knows how to use the camera and manage a bunch of “technical stuff. It can sometimes be a very technical job but for me it’s all about being creative and using the tools technology has to offer in order to create beautiful images that will help to tell the story. Framing is all about perception, subtext, psychology and creativity. It’s a job that unifies the best of both worlds, technology and art.”