The Skin I Live In is the fifth film lensed by award-winning director of photography Jose Luis Alcaine for Pedro Almodovar, Spain’s best-known director. Their collaboration now stretches over more than two decades, beginning in 1986 with Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and includes Volver, which garnered him the European Film Award for best cinematography in 2006.
In the new film, one of Almodovar’s most daring, Alcaine works his usual magic with his hallmark luminous camerawork. The bedrock of all good cinematography is “sculpting with light,” he says. “You have to bear in mind that the lighting in all my films, even though they’re very different, starts from reality. That means I like very gentle lights, but with great contrasts; and soft lighting that envelopes colors, without making them explode.”
The Skin I Live In stars Antonio Banderas as an eminent plastic surgeon with overtones of Dr. Frankenstein. He has spent years trying to develop an artificial skin, which could have saved the life of his wife who burned in an auto accident. His guinea pig is the gorgeous Vera, played by Elena Amaya, who is a captive in a room in his house. She always wears a revealing flesh-colored body stocking, as she practices yoga postures to keep her body in perfect condition. From there the film unfolds, with surprise twists, as a kind of sci-fi horror story with philosophical underpinnings.
“I think I achieved a unity in the look of the film, without any ups and downs in lighting the different sequences, and that helped Pedro’s measured direction,” Alcaine says. “Also, the photography doesn’t give any indication of where the story is going to go. That helps, at every turn in the story, to create unease in the audience members who can’t foresee what comes next.”
As for lighting Amaya, “I tried to create a certain mystery in the light she receives and also radiates,” says the DP. “I’ve always been known for my concern for the beauty of the actresses. That’s because I grew up seeing the films from the 1940s to the 1960s, in which the actresses were shot like goddesses.”
Working again with Almodovar, “we know each other well and hardly have a need to talk about his preferences,” says Alcaine. “He tends to tell me the things he doesn’t want in the image, not what to do.” During the shoot, he notes, “we try not to establish anything beforehand, but to create the scenes each day, depending on how we see the incidents in the plot developing.”
Alcaine, 72, was born in Tangiers and came to Madrid at the age of 16 to go to film school. He has shot a prodigious 127 films and received five Goya Awards, the Spanish equivalent of the Oscar, out of his 19 nominations for best cinematography. In terms of honors and recognition, 2011 has so far been a highpoint for the DP. At the Cannes Film Festival, he won the top craft award, for his lensing of Skin, the prestigious Vulcan Prize for technical achievement. He also received the gold medal for his overall career from the Spanish Film Academy, and the Malaga Film Festival held a retrospective of his work in January. His next film is La Banda Picasso, directed by Fernando Colomo, about Pablo Picasso from 1907 to 1911, during his formative years, leading up to cubism.