Boróka Bíró, cinematographer: “I prefer that type of image which is more sensitive”

22 July, 2020

Boróka Bíró’s name runs in the credits of several Romanian films made in recent years. She works a lot as an assistant camera (focus puller), and at the same time she collaborates as a camera operator on short films, while waiting for her big break as a director of photography on a feature film.

I got to talk to Boróka Bíró and find out more on her passion for film, her studies at UNATC and experience on set, as well as her personal view on cinematography.

Born on May 18, 1989 in Miercurea Ciuc, Boróka Bíró studied social science at the “Márton Áron” National College, which is considered the most important high school in Harghita. She kick-started with photography as a child, but only in high school did she realize that she was very interested in this field.

“In the ninth grade, I got a digital camera, which was way better than the ‘shenanigans’ I’d had before. I was taking pictures of my friends and of everything around I laid eyes on. I started to like photography very much. I studied on my own at home and then I thought it might be a good idea to go to an art college that has a photography section. But after doing some research, I didn’t find any local schools for my liking”, she remembers.

So she thought of combining photography with film, because she was quite passionate about film as well: “We would meet up, me and my friends, and I would suggest what to watch, for example Taxi Driver or Todo sobre mi madre or Kim Ki-duk’s films. Besides, I was also in the school’s theater group. There was this group of children interested in theater, and we would work together to put up small shows that we would further present to the school, but we would also participate in contests. After that I decided to continue with film.”

After some research, she discovered that she has two possibilities: either going to Sapientia University in Cluj-Napoca, the largest Hungarian private university in Romania, where many of her schoolmates went to, or going to UNATC in Bucharest.

“I was a bit afraid of applying to UNATC. Admission was quite expensive, then you had to do the training classes, which meant going to Bucharest every now and then. In the end, after seeing me bumming out, my mother encouraged me to give it a try”, Boróka Bíró also confesses.

She didn’t go to Bucharest for the training courses, but she took some physics lessons in Miercurea Ciuc, because physics was required for the entrance exam to cinematography. She also took some photography and film classes there. Moreover, she got some tips on admission and the whole system from former UNATC graduates or students.

She entered Sapientia University, where the exam was more theoretical and for which she had to watch a lot of films that proved to be helpful even to this day, as well as UNATC. It was 2008. “I decided to come to Bucharest also because it’s a state university. Then, I thought I would have more opportunities to work after graduation. The school in Cluj is also pretty good, but it’s more like a launching pad to Budapest, and I wasn’t thinking of leaving for Hungary”, explains the filmmaker.

The first half of the year was very difficult, mainly because of the language: “At first it was very difficult, because I didn’t understand even half of what was being said and I went to class carrying dictionaries with me. I had Florin Mihailescu as my teacher, and he spoke in a very philosophical, elaborate way, using words I didn’t understand. At school, we learned Romanian just enough to pass the baccalaureate exam, and at home we didn’t speak Romanian either. And then, there were these academic terms.”

There were 14 students at cinematography in her year: six girls and eight boys: “It was Florin Mihailescu’s first class with so many girls. I don’t know if the reason was that until then not many girls were interested in cinematography or that they just didn’t get in. Anyway, it was much harder. There are a lot more girls now, worldwide.”

She says that these three years in film school helped her a lot and she is grateful that she had Florin Mihailescu, one of the most important camera operators and directors of photography in Romanian cinema, as a teacher. She also has some fond memories about the other teachers, including Elisabeta Bostan: “I had her as a teacher in my first year. That short time we had with her did help us, it built a good foundation.” 

“We would also spend a lot of valuable time in the photo lab, where we would develop film and enlarge negatives, study for classes, but also play Bomberman on the super old computer they had there and talk to Mr. ‘Jorj’. The same goes for the school’s film set, which in the second and third years became my second home. When we were not filming ourselves, we would help our colleagues”, she adds.

“Florin Mihailescu insisted on building relationships with our colleagues in directing, but we didn’t take it very seriously because we were more focused on fighting for our own status, on doing something cool ourselves. We wanted to stand out too, since most of their scripts would take place in a small room, there would be a lot of dialogue and little to no action”, she recalls.

“In the beginning, due to my photography background, to me the image had to be as photogenic and poetic as possible. After that, I started to understand how important the story is and that the image has to support the narrative thread”, adds Boróka Bíró.

During her years at UNATC, where she also completed a two-year master’s degree in cinematography, between 2012 and 2014, she liked going to workshops and film camps or to cinematographers’ meetings, which were very important, especially since she had the chance to collaborate on several projects and meet other colleagues.

She started working as a camera assistant in college: “I believe in developing your skills and gaining experience by being on the set. I think it’s better to grow into a director of photography by doing different things on the set as a camera crew member. Plus, you have the chance to learn a lot from older, more experienced people. During college I really wanted to go practice on sets, so I asked Professor Florin Mihailescu to send us somewhere. He sent us to Castel Film, where an American film was being made, which I don’t even know if it ever came out, but it was directed by this man who was actually a very rich building contractor. He just wanted to make a movie. He hired Dean Cundey, who filmed Back to the Future. I did my training there. I was on a big set for the first time. It was very cool, because that was a real film shooting, with a great setup, a film about the Second World War, which included explosions, lots of extras, soldiers and tanks.”

After graduating, she worked as a camera operator on a short film directed by Diana Munteanu, Rațele și vânătorii, within the MEDIALAB script contest where she met DoP Tudor Mircea. Through him, she ended up working as a second assistant camera on a feature film, and then the projects came one after the other – Wolf (dir. Bogdan Mustata), Rocker (dir. Marian Crisan), When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism (dir. Corneliu Porumboiu) or Box (r. Florin Serban).

Then she met DoP Luchian Ciobanu, who was up for shooting Sieranevada, Cristi Puiu’s film. He asked her to be the focus puller. And even if Luchian Ciobanu didn’t continue the project and was replaced by Barbu Balasoiu, she remained. It was her first film as a first assistant camera.

“Working with Cristi Puiu was a life changing experience. It was like a two-month filmmaking masterclass. There wasn’t a day when you wouldn’t learn something. There I became friends with Barbu Balasoiu, who liked the way I worked, and so he took me on other projects as well. That’s just how it worked out”, she explains.

Since Sieranevada and until now, Boróka Bíró has worked as a first assistant camera on several films, Romanian and international, among which are worth mentioning: Marita (dir. Cristi Iftime), Touch Me Not (dir. Adina Pintilie), Soldiers. Story from Ferentari (dir. Ivana Mladenović), Monsters. (dir. Marius Olteanu) or the unreleased films Otto the Barbarian (dir. Ruxandra Ghitescu) and The Father Who Moved Mountains (dir. Daniel Sandu).

She sees this workload as very important: “When I started working as a focus puller, I started to get a different sense of the atmosphere, the framing and the camera movement, and it was a different experience. Moreover, you learn things about the organizing process, like production, people, teamwork.”

Still, all these years she continued her activity as camera operator and collaborated on several projects: commercials and short films (fiction and documentary). But she also had the chance to work as a DoP, together with Alexandra Carastoian, on a feature film, It Takes Two to Fence (2013, dir. Andrei Gheorghe). The work they’ve done on this film brought them the ‘Young Hope’ Gopo Award. “It was very nice. It was an honest, youthful film. Sometimes we didn’t even have the printed screenplay for a certain shooting day, but everything went smooth and it was very organic. The lack of budget and equipment actually helped us to create a certain style, one that had already started to develop due to the cameras that started being used on a regular basis”, she recalls.

When it comes to the relationship with the director, she rather likes those projects where she can have a bigger contribution to the visual aspect: “It depends a lot on the director. There are directors who make auteur films and know exactly what they want, which is very good. And for a camera operator it’s great when working with someone who knows exactly what it wants. And there are other directors who are expecting a lot more ideas and feedback, who want you to work more on the atmosphere of the film, on the visual concept. I prefer the option where I can have a bigger contribution, where it could lead to a special collaboration.”

“I like small cameras. ALEXA Mini is the best option, but it’s also the most popular. It has become a phenomenon since it came out on the market. Of all the cameras I worked with, I’d say ARRI is very special. And it’s not just me. Apart from a very long history, they have an optimal workflow and a very good image quality. But if it’s used a lot, it could also lead to a pattern. However, there are other ways to get an unusual look or mood, like using less popular lenses, either vintage or special, filters, shards and, of course, through lighting, movement, color grading”, when talking about technical preferences.

Boróka Bíró says that she is looking forward to making her debut in feature film as a director of photography: “2020 should have been the year for this resolution, but then the pandemic started. At the beginning of the year, my agenda until next spring included only projects where I would have worked as a camera operator. Up to this moment, things would happen this way: I would be asked for an assistant camera job and, after entering the project, someone else would call me to be a camera operator, but then it would have been difficult to accept the offer. I probably could, but I wouldn’t know how to proceed. I always thought that once I take a project, I must stay and finish it. On the other hand, I saw some cases, especially abroad, when people who wanted to be DoPs, were instead offered assistant jobs, but if they were invited to another project as DoP, they would have left the initial project. At one point, I was also offered to work on a feature film, on the B camera, and then as a second unit on another film, but I had to turn them down because I was working on something else, and I very much regretted not taking them.”

“Two years ago and last year I tried to take some free time to stay put for an operator job offer. They just didn’t come when I was free. After two months of waiting, I would take a project as an assistant, and in that instant, the phone would start ringing with offers for an operator on short film and commercial projects”, she adds.

She confesses that it’s ‘quite difficult’ to get to work as a DoP on feature films, but she wants that a lot: “I didn’t have a concrete invitation to work on a feature. I always had some hints which would disappear in thin air after that.”

She admits that there are prejudices about women working as camera operators and that she even felt it on her own skin at times, but that things are getting better: “There is still this unease. I feel like it’s much better now than ten years ago, when I arrived in Bucharest. At first, it felt like a curious thing, and male directors were very afraid of working with us, so I mostly worked with women. After that, around the second or third year, we started working together, in mixed teams. I even got rejected once on the grounds of being a woman, then again I was also asked for on the same grounds.”

“There are prejudices: if you are a woman, you don’t have enough strength to carry the heavy equipment, or you’re on your period, so you will ruin the shootings because you will be neurotic. I even noticed that between the guys kind of thing going on sometimes, and many like that atmosphere. Sometimes it does bother me, but I got used to it. Anyway, I think Romania is doing better than Hungary on this subject. Two years ago, I went to Hungary to work on a film as an assistant and they had never seen a female focus puller. And they didn’t have that many girls in the camera department”, explains the young filmmaker.

She sometimes thinks about going to Hungary to give it a try, but she believes that it would be very difficult to become a DoP there, and that’s why she hesitates: “I don’t have any contacts, I didn’t study there. The market in Hungary is rather more austere than in Romania. Here, things feel more flexible, you can also go for something else and still become a DoP, catch a wave to raise you up. That’s not the case there.”

She really likes the creative process of working on the cinematography of a film, because “you have the chance to give it that distinct feeling which couldn’t be achieved only by the script, the acting or the directing. You can add to the atmosphere in a very subtle way, you can allow a different comprehension of the film: through lighting, through camera movement and even through focus, which feels like a little act of magic in this profession.”

“I also really like teaming up for the creative process, when you are lucky enough to be in a cool project where everyone wants to pitch in. It creates a very productive atmosphere, just like in a family”, she adds.

She rather prefers the camera to be more present in the film, but admits that “it’s not necessarily a good thing, if that’s not the intention”: “When it comes to documentaries, I like it when the camera is an active observer. But, of course, it also depends on the style of the documentary. I like to be close to the character with the camera and tell stories through them. It feels like it offers more.”

She considers that great cinematography is the one that always supports the film and also manages to bring something extra: “Every story is different and needs to be approached differently. It depends on the director’s concept and the discussions you have with the director. I can come up with all sorts of ideas and directions, but they should be in line with the director’s vision, and then the production design should step in to bring them out.”
“At first, I really liked Darius Khondji, who worked on Delicatessen and Seven. I really liked that type of image. Now I rather prefer sensitive images, which can express more. Films that have more soul”, concludes Boróka Bíró.

Journalist and film critic. Curator for some film festivals in Romania. At "Films in Frame" publishes interviews with both young and established filmmakers.