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FIGHTING PROGRESS WITH FILM NOIR IN “WHAT HAPPENED AT THE RIO”

You may not intuitively think of inclimate weather as a benefactor of the Arts but it most certainly is. Cinematographer Jose Andres Cortes grew up in Bogota, Colombia where it is cold and rainy throughout most of the year. As a result, he became fascinated with watching movies rather than playing soccer. While other children were studying passing techniques and strategizing how to best kick a goal, Cortes became aware of how camera angles, lighting, and other aspects of storytelling affected his emotions when watching films. At first he was transported into the stories and then came to understand that there was an entirely different story taking place in the art of production. Jose refers to his home of Bogotá as a city where dreamers from all over the country come to forge and transform themselves into great artists and professionals. Years later with many films to his list of credits, Cortes served as the DP for a film about a defiant dreamer in “What Happened at the Rio” which is both entertainment and a comedic warning that to deny progress is a futile path. It’s the story of Detective James Raymond and his assistant Alice, who assists one Mrs. Cheevers to solve the strange disappearance of her husband, Mr. Austin Cheevers. The detective’s stubbornness makes solving the case quite difficult. His assistant Alice is the key to solving the case and discovering a reality James has been avoiding. “What Happened at the Rio” was awarded Best Comedy at the Hollywood Now Film Festival, was an Official Selection of the Belmont Festival, and Semi-Finalist at Cine Fest.


Very often a director will work closely with the DP and lean heavily on their abilities and expertise. This was especially true with “What Happened at the Rio” and the role of Jose Andres Cortes. The schedule was curt and the director wanted to make a switch from black and white to a markedly more modern appearance near the end of the story. Jose’s talent as a colorist allowed him to serve in this capacity as well as in the role of cinematographer. Making a plan to meet the director’s desires in both aesthetics and scheduling, Cortes did a test shoot immediately before principal photography began; shooting in color, then grading it to black & white & gray scales to allow him to create a LUT that could be utilized on the production. With the director signing off on the test shoot, this process allowed Jose to sidestep numerous tweaks in the grade during post-production, saving immense time and practically grading the film before it was even shot.

This technique is vital to the film during its pivotal scene. The twist of the film happens as the detective starts to ramble about the possible location of Mr. Cheevers, a trope in any of the best “film noir” movies. His assistant, with the aid of a smartphone, discovers the location in a matter of seconds. This reveal jars both the detective and the audience back into the realization that we are in the present rather than the past. It’s also here that a more covert technique of the DP becomes realized. In order to communicate a classic film look, the film was not only graded in black and white but also utilized a 4:3 aspect ratio, a characteristic of the era. In the moment when the assistant brings out her smartphone, a break with this reality occurs by changing the aspect ratio to a current 16:9 HD format. The decision to keep the black and white scheme with this new aspect ratio emotionally reveals that the stubborn detective still doesn’t want to accept modern day.


“What Happened at the Rio” is a comedy with the visage of drama. It’s more tongue in cheek than sarcasm and pokes fun at itself rather than the genre (well, maybe it slightly pokes fun at Film Noir but in a loving way). As a cinematographer, Cortes states that he approaches the technical aspect of such differing story types the same, but notes that the final look and feel should always communicate drastically different things. You can cook meals that come from different parts of the world with the same kitchen utensils but they should not taste the same because the ingredients are very different in each. Jose communicates that the director can have a drastically different approach and create seemingly conflicting traits like dark comedy, bright horror movies, and the like. The director’s guidance is what allows the DP to exercise his/her own creativity.

The production schedule for this film was the shortest that Jose had experienced. Rather than seeing this as a restriction, he chose to view it as a learning process. Specifically, Cortes credits his experience on “What Happened at the Rio” with forcing him to put together a simple camera equipment plan that will work with almost any setup. When things move fast and you are forced to improvise and rely on your instincts, finding yourself on a regular shoot seems like an easy walk on a relaxing day. Relating this upbeat attitude, Jose states, “I learn something new from every production I work on. Each new project is a small step towards become better at what I love to do. From this project in particular I learned to follow my instincts, to believe more in my work and take more risks visually. The director gave me lot of creative freedom in order to help him bring his vision to life. The short amount of time motivated me to be more creative in the way I set up my shots in order to be more effective and save time. I can say that from now on I will have different options in my workflow, making it easy for me to adapt to the timeframe regarding the project…all thanks to this experience.”


The wisdom of Jose Andres Cortes echoes that of the film. This comes as no surprise as these ideas are what draws filmmakers to create. The nucleus of this movie is about a self-confident detective who believes he is living in a bygone era. He thinks of himself as a glorious detective coming from the best of “film noir” even though we discover that everything is actually set in the present. When blatantly confronted with proof that contradicts his view, the detective still refuses to pull himself into modern day and successfully complete his mission. A perfect analogy for a professional such as Cortes would be the prolific presentation of images and video via social platforms like Instagram and others. In direct contrast to Detective James Raymond, Jose confirms, “I’ve always seen technology as something great. I really love to read about every innovative tool that humans can build. However, you have to be aware that these things are simply a tool designed to make your life or job easier. Social platforms like Instagram and the latest camera smartphones have brought photography to a consumer level in a way never seen before. I know the many professional photographers and videographers can feel threatened by this but for me it’s a way to push ourselves to be better at what we do. Real photography/filmmaking is not only about getting a beautiful photo, it’s about the story behind that beautiful photo. It is about the ‘why’ and not about ‘what’ you use to do it.”
FIGHTING PROGRESS WITH FILM NOIR IN “WHAT HAPPENED AT THE RIO” Reviewed by My Blogger Profile on 8:36:00 AM Rating: 5
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