Rey Villalobos is an award winning cinematographer and director. As a cinematographer he has filmed such movies as Urban Cowboy, Nine to Five, The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, A Bronx Tale, American Me and Bordertown as well as numerous television dramas. He has worked with actors such as John Travolta, Jane Fonda, Debra Winger, Charlie Sheen, Wesley Snipes, Michael Caine, Demi Moore and Lily Tomlin, and with directors such as James Bridges, Robert De Niro, Gregory Nava and Edward James Olmos. Latinopia wonder what it was like to work with so many different actors and directors and whether his approach as a cinematographer has changed  much over the years.


Rey Villalobos, Cinematographer & Director



How I deal with actors and directors over the years hasn’t changed one bit. I don’t think about it. I am in the moment of the scene we are doing, and I am thinking just about that scene. I try to be respectful to everybody on the crew, and the actors and the director.

You have the hierarchy on the movie set but to me there is no hierarchy. Everybody was born, everybody has a story, everybody has problems,. So I treat everybody the same,.With respect and I listen to them. I don’t think I have changed over the years. I try to treat everyone as a human being.

How do I light a scene? When I am lighting a scene, I read the screenplay, I think about it, When I first get the script, the first time, I am “shooting” that movie and thinking, Oh, they’re going down this dark alley, a chase, I can just see it. Almost like an idiot savant. I can be on a set and I can be talking to the director. I’ll say, look why don’t we put a 35 over here and a 50 over there and an 85 over there. And I see the images in my head. I can be sitting here and say if I had a 100 mm lense through that doorway I’d have this. I’d have a hot background. I just see it. So when I read the script I really “see” the movie.

When I first became a cameraman, I’d be talking to a director and I’d say we can do this, this, this and this. And they would blank on me and I’d realize I was going too fast. Because I am seeing it like three-D chess. I am seeing it all at once. So I had to slow down and say, look, I think we can do this. And what do you think about putting a camera up high over here. So when I am reading the script I am seeing the perfect lighting, the perfect location. Then you get on the location and it changes.

I  try to set the tone for the actors. I remember working on a film and the actress said, oh my god, the lighting is so good I don’t have to do any acting! You’re setting it all up. I remember I did a train shot in Gregorio Cortez and someone told me, Oh, that looks so good. You didn’t have to light it, uh? And , of course, I did!  I had a generator, I had lights through windows and every where, but you try to make it look like there is no lighting, so it looks normal and natural.

So my style would be, “hey, were just shooting we just came upon this scene. There is no lighting, Wow, More naturalistic.I sometimes go on a scene and I say, Oh, I only need one light here. Or other times, I’ll say we could be here for hours. I’d better put a light through the window, because the sun is going to change. I try to make my lighting look as normal and natural, like you are eavesdropping,  making it as natural and normal as possible. To set the tone for the actors, for the piece. What the scene means.

Should the audience be uncomfortable? Maybe they should feel uncomfortable. Okay, then I’m going to put the camera a little off level, maybe I am going to put a sharp point of a plant so that when the actors turns around. Oh that’s almost going to hit him in the eye. But these are all subtle things I am doing. Sometime I will talk to the director and sometimes I will just do it.

My way of lighting is minimal lighting which works out on high def. I’ll use candles and such. I’ll only use the lighting that I need. If I don’t need a light, I don’t use it, if I only need one light, then I’ll just use that one light. If I use more than three lights then I tell the gaffer. Tell me that I am using too many lights.

How is it different lighting for a play versus a film? In Roosters, which I shot with Bob Young and Eddie Olmos. They came to me as a cameraman. I had been approached earlier to direct it, so I already knew what the story was. So I told them it is too much of a play, it’s not really a film. So you’re going to have to change it to make a film.

So what happened is that they had already started shooting with another cameraman and another director for a week and it hadn’t worked out. So Edward James Olmos called me on the phone and said Ray I need help. I said when and where?  I went to the location. I read the script I said okay here are the problems. Then I said what’s the scene? And then I said,. O.K. let’s put a light here, and there, and there. And the crew was surprised. So it wasn’t that much different from the other films we have worked on. We’re making a film. We light the scene and we just do it.

You use all of your experiences from the past, all that you have lived. On this film the was no prep , its like we landed on parachutes and started filming immediately. Put the camera over here and we are off and running.

Working with different directors. It’s a marriage Each one is different; Gregory Nava is very talented. And he is very intellectual in his approach. He’ll talk about artists and that look and I can relate to that. He lets you go and set the camera and ths shots. He is very giving in that way.
But everyone is different. And that is what makes it interesting.

Shooting for TV and feature films. I don’t do anything different. I just do it a lot faster for television and the actors come out of their trailers a lot faster for a television shoot. In a feature film, you have to go get them! In TV when I know I am going to be ready in fifteen minutes, I tell them, go get the actors in ten minutes. So everything gels and overlaps.

In a feature, you say fifteen minutes and then it takes another fifteen minutes to get them on the set. I don’t light any differently . A lot of times you don’t have as much time to light as in a feature. But I tend to light simply, so that doesn’t change so much. TV is different also because a director in a feature film has more say so and more power and more of the vision than in TV. In TV it is run by the producer/writers, the directors come and go so there are more people involved so that makes
it harder.