Documentary Serendipity—Sérgio Mendes: In The Key of Joy

Documentary Serendipity
“Sergio Mendes: In the Key of Joy,” a documentary that I shot in 2017 and 2018 just had its premiere at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

It finally happened. Director John Scheinfeld’s feature documentary about the life of Brazilian composer and musical legend Sérgio Mendes, “Sérgio Mendes: In The Key of Joy” that I served as the director of photography on all through 2017 and into 2018 is finished and had its world premiere at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival a couple of weeks ago. It’s been quite a while since I’ve seen my work projected in a theater with an audience, and if you haven’t had the privilege to experience it, it’s something special to feel their reaction as they watch the story you helped to tell.

Documentary Serendipity
Part of our wonderful crew in Brazil, our camera assistant, grip and gaffer.

During production, there were dozens of shoots here in Los Angeles, at Sérgio’s home and at multiple recording studios. In 2017, we journeyed to Brazil with Sérgio and his wife Gracinha to shoot Sérgio at his birthplace, at the first club he ever played at professionally and at various locations all around his home town of Niteroi, across the bay from Rio. We also shot studio sessions with various musicians in Rio and a song session with Soccer legend Pelé in Sao Paolo. In 2017, I flew with director John Scheinfeld and producer Dave Harding to Rio where I had my first exposure to working with Brazilian crews. My crew there was so professional, helpful and a lot of fun to work with. Visually, Brazil is a wonderful tapestry of tropical beauty mixed with the European and Portuguese influence; I’ve rarely shot in a more beautiful, spectacular location. 

Documentary Serendipity
A still from our jazz studio session we shot in a small studio in the hills above Rio.

While there, we shot Sérgio and various scenic b-roll all around Rio and Niteroi, but the highlight of the shoot for me was the day we spent in a small recording studio in the hills of Rio, almost directly in the shadow of the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue. For the session, Sérgio assembled a small jazz ensemble of bass, drums and a three-piece horn section. With Sérgio at the keyboard, the group played original jazz tunes that Sergio had written as a young composer when he was just coming onto the music scene in Brazil. These jazz tunes were written well before Sergio found worldwide acclaim for his global hit, Mas Que Nada with Brasil ’66. No vocals, no lyrics—just pure, unadulterated jazz. It was a challenging shoot, trying to light the small studio to resemble a jazz club, but the musical experience was incredible as a fan, and I kept practically pinching myself that I was getting to hear this music as I shot that nobody else had heard played for more than 60 years. It was a magical experience for a jazz fan.  

Documentary Serendipity
Waiting for the sun to set over Ipanema Beach in Rio.

As the days of the shoot wore on, we traveled with Sérgio all around Rio, shooting b-roll of the beautiful resort and beach areas. One of the most spectacular shoots was documenting the sunset over Dois Irmãos (Two Brothers), two iconic mountains that tower over Ipanema Beach. We filmed the scene from a rock outcropping on the east side of the beach. In Rio, watching the sunset is an activity all its own, and we were joined by hundreds of people on the rocks as we filmed the sun descending behind the mountains. Everyone on the beach cheered and applauded as the sun disappeared behind the two mountains, the scene punctuated by vendors selling fruit and drinks to the assembled crowd, it was quite a unique experience. Where else have you filmed where the sunset is its own star with an adoring audience?  

Documentary Serendipity
Filming Sérgio, in windy conditions, reminiscing about riding the ferry from Niteroi to Rio for the young pianist and composer to play the jazz clubs in the alleys and back streets of Rio.

Another epic shoot in Brazil, both logistically and emotionally, was filming Sérgio aboard the ferry from Rio to his hometown of Niteroi across the bay. Sérgio was born during World War II in 1941, so riding the same ferry that he rode as a teen, then a young man to travel from his home in Niteroi to Rio where he played his first gigs as a professional musician and composer was quite emotional. Compounding that was filming on the top deck of a 200-foot long ferry over the bay. The winds were very high, making the shoot a challenge with sound and with trying to not have the flags and reflectors I was using to light Sérgio blow away. My Brazilian grip and gaffer were on it, but everyone in the crew pitched in to keep any of our grip gear from going airborne into the ocean as we crossed the bay. 

Documentary Serendipity
Filming an interview with Brazilian composer and musician Carlinhos Brown in Rio.

Our director, John and our producer Dave Harding decided that we would shoot all of our interviews using a green screen. As a cinematographer, for me, shooting interviews on a green screen isn’t always the most creative endeavor as you rarely get to choose and light the background plates. That function, at least in documentaries, is often decided later, in post, long after you’ve shot the interviews. Green screen is often a “cart before the horse” situation in that you don’t know what the backgrounds will be, so how do you decide to light the talent in the green-screen shot? What will the lighting on the backgrounds look like? Which direction will the light come from for a given shot? Color and textures?  

Documentary Serendipity
Filming an interview with Sérgio in Los Angeles. Note his cool, iconic hat.

Since we were shooting in multiple countries and locations, as a producer, I understood the decision to shoot green screen; it made sense. We shot some interviews in various recording studios, several more interview sessions in Sérgio’s home and in many different locations in Brazil. But I was a bit wary that the interviews I had shot probably wouldn’t match very well with the backgrounds. More on this later.

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Documentary Serendipity
Herb Alpert explains his musical relationship with Sergio from the early days to the present day.

We were able to shoot interviews with an amazing array of talent. Quincy Jones, Harrison Ford, Herb Alpert, Lani Hall, John Legend, will.i.am, Common, Brazilian musician Carlinhos Brown, Gracinha, Sérgio’s wife and all of Sérgio’s family, numerous Brazilian TV executives, journalists and musicians all make appearances in the film. The list went on and on. We developed a loose signature look for the interviews, even though they were all shot green screen. Our producer, Dave Harding, was a former gaffer, so it was nice to have a producer who understood lighting and could confer with me to help push the look to what John’s vision for the film was.

Documentary Serendipity
Meeting and working with Brazilian Soccer legend Pelé was the best. He’s probably the most famous, adored athlete in history and is friends with Sérgio and his wife Gracinha.

I utilized a soft key source, usually using a LitePanels Gemini 2×1 shone through a 4x or 6x silk and then, rather than utilizing another soft or hard source as a fill source opposite the talent as one might normally do, I’d place another smaller instrument like an Aputure Lightstorm LS-1S LED panel through a 42-inch diffusion disc on the same side as the key source but lower and at less intensity. This would give me some extra power to light talent, whose skin tones raged from Caucasian and fairly pale to fairly dark skin, in a relatively even light level. I would sometimes use a solid or Duvetyn on a C-stand on the fill side of the talent’s face to knock down the wrap from the two soft sources, allowing us to get some shadow and “mood” on the talent, but not too much as the tone of the film was to be upbeat, lighthearted and joyous.

Documentary Serendipity
We shot an interview with Sérgio in the Niterói Contemporary Art Museum, a spectacular building located on the bay overlooking Rio.

For the women and some of the male interview subjects, I’d finish off the look using a small hair/rim light. For women, even though hair lights are a bit out of style lately, it gave a nice flattering glow to their hair, but I kept the level to a minimum, trying to not make it too apparent. Most importantly, the hair/rim light would nicely separate Sérgio’s iconic hats that he always wears. It was kind of wonderful; Sérgio seemed to wear a different hat in almost every interview in the film. I wanted to make sure that the hats were clearly highlighted as part of Sérgio’s look, and I think we succeeded.

Documentary Serendipity
This is the end result of what our sets and design elements looked like in the finished film when composited with the green screen interviews.

Later, in 2018, I received a call that we were going to actually have sets built and shoot them as the background plates for the green screen interviews. We also shot a large selection of individual elements that would also be integrated into various notion graphics in the film. It’s rare, as a documentary DP, to have the opportunity to also shoot the background plates for your green screen interviews so that was an interesting experience for me and our Los Angeles crew. Our Gaffer, Mark Napier, even came up with a really effective way to add movement to our shadows on the backgrounds using a rotating Mason jar as well as a woven Bamboo basket. The patterns and lettering from the glass broke up the light and lent a nice, organic quality to the movement, along with the Bamboo basket, kind of like the sun shining through moving tree branches without being as literal as using a “Branch-o-loris,” shining a light through an actual tree branch on the C-stand. The backgrounds came out nice and are used to great effect throughout the film.

Documentary Serendipity
Director John Scheinfeld and Sérgio Mendes field questions from the audience at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival premiere of “Sergio Mendes: In the Key of Joy.”

Director John Scheinfeld’s cut of the film comes in at about 100 minutes and played its opening night at the Santa Barbara Film Festival to a sold-out house. The audience gave the film, John and Sérgio—both who were in attendance—a standing ovation. John and Sérgio gave a Q&A after the screening, which was then followed by a set with Sérgio and his touring band. I was lucky enough to be in the audience that night and received a nice shout out from John about the photography of the film and the challenges we encountered shooting it.

Documentary Serendipity
Rolling Stone published a recent article on the film and trailer.

At the screening, I reflected back on how lucky I was to use my cinematography to help tell the story of a musical legend. In a way, Sérgio Mendes has musical accomplishments that are commensurate with artists like the Beatles (Sérgio and band opened their set at the screening with a Brazilian flavored cover of the Beatles’ “Fool on the Hill,” a big hit for Sérgio in 1968), his music built a huge global audience for Bossa Nova and he’s still touring all over the world, collaborating and composing with younger musicians and producers like will.i.am (producer of The Black Eyed Peas with whom he re-recorded in 2006 an updated version of his breakthrough hit, Mas Que Nada), John Legend and Common as well as numerous other musicians and collaborators who appear on his latest album that’s just being released as I write this.

Documentary Serendipity
The film may have a life on the film festival circuit. This is the poster for the film, hopefully coming to a streaming service soon.

As John related during the Q&A session at the screening, the film is John’s positive, feel-good antidote to the darker political and social times that are so prevalent in 2020. As Sérgio’s story evolves in the film, he faced some incredibly dark times with political persecution during the military coup in Brazil as a young man, which was the main reason he came to New York in the 1960s. But he never let the darkness he experienced color his optimistic outlook on life; he found joy and happiness through the serendipity of life, which is a timeless and relevant message for us all.

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