Latin Heat: Exclusive Interview: The Cinematographer of “Black Box” Hilda Mercado

By Justina Bonilla

Blumhouse Television, in partnership with Amazon Prime Video, released a film series of original horror films for the month of October under the banner “Welcome to the Blumhouse”. These films include The LieBlack BoxEvil Eye, and Nocturne.

Among the four films is the psychological sci-fi thriller Black Box. Directed by Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour and written by Stephen Herman and Osei-Kuffour, the films follows newly widowed father Nolan (Mamoudou Athie) and his young daughter Ava (Amanda Christine).

Nolan tries to rebuild his and Ava’s lives, after a car tragic accident which caused the loss of his wife and severely damaged his memory. Desperate for a way to get his memory back, Nolan subjects himself to a experimental memory treatment called Black Box, by the renowned specialist Dr. Lilian Brooks (Phylicia Rashad). However, the longer Nolan participates in Black Box, the more he sees visions that force him to face memories and fears beyond his worst imagination.   

Visually bringing to life both the outside world and the inner world of Nolan’s mind is Mexican cinematographer Hilda Mercado. In an exclusive interview with Mercado, she shares with us her passion for photography, her cinematography career, and her participation in Black Box.

Originally from Mexico, Mercado first developed her passion for still photography at age 15, when she went to England to learn English during a summer. Along with her English classes, Mercado participated in journalism courses. “That’s where it started unconsciously because I had to [tell] a story with images,” she recalls.

Continuing her education, Mercado earned a bachelor’s degree in communications. Initially, she was pursuing advertising. However, when she experienced films classes, she made the conscious decision to pursue cinematography. “I fell in love with the process of reading a story, and how are we going to visually support that story,” she says. “I love to think about the lenses and each lens has a personality. And how we just choose those lenses.”

Cinematographer Hilda Mercado

Mercado further elaborated on her passion for cinematography. “I love to think about lighting,” she says. “I love to read the script, to break it down. That whole process that you are thinking about a story. How you are going to light it. Then you actually see it. I love that process.” She adds, “I love the collaboration. I love to sit down and to talk to the director and the production designer.”

Understanding the strength of colors in storytelling is another essential aspect of cinematography. Mercado emphasized, “I like that we play with color. Because color tells a story. The way you dress, or something that changes within the story. I like to design the movies on what I hear from the director, based on color. It’s not only the look, but also [the] person. What are the colors that surround this person in their life, in the story?”

“Colors are emotions,” Mercado says. “Are we going to support the characters of the stories with pastels colors in their house or maybe not? Maybe it’s the lack of color?”. She gives an example. “Maybe, this [character] is boring. And we portray that with the greys. Maybe something changes in their life and we put a red flower in the [background].”

Photo: Amazon Studios

To strengthen her knowledge and abilities as a cinematographer and camera operator, Mercado also participated in numerous International film and video workshops in Rockpoint, Maine, which focused on camera and lighting. Later, she earned her master’s in fine arts in cinematography from the distinguished American Film Institute of Los Angeles. She is also a member of the exclusive Mexican Society of Cinematographers, AMC.

As a camera operator, Mercado has worked on numerous television programs and films, including the popular true crime documentary television program 48-Hours, the Netflix pop-culture phenomenon Stranger Things, the critically acclaimed The Nice Guys, the award winning winning I, Tonya, and the cult-classic comedy Kung Pow: Enter the Fist.

As a cinematographer, Mercado has contributed her talent to a variety of projects, from commercials, short films, and television series to documentaries and feature films such as the television series Dead Silent and The Resident, the documentary Women Behind the Camera, and the Brawny campaign for #strenghthasnogender.

Photo: Alfonso Bresciani/Amazon Studios

Mercado became involved with Black Box through the cinematographer of Evil EyeYaron Levy, whom she met at AFI. Levy introduced her to Blumhouse as the cinematographer that he felt best fit Black Box. After reading the Black Box script, Mercado indeed wanted to be a part of the project. “There’s so many challenges,” she says. “There’s so many themes. There’s so many colors.”
About collaborating with director Osei-Kuffour, Mercado says “It was nice to work with him, because he already had a lot of things [thought out].” With an array of visual ideas already connected to this script, Mercado was able to create the vivid scenes to compliment this visually complex story.

“I love that challenge of the different worlds, the different looks and the different spaces,” she says. Among the multiple Black Box scenes, two of Mercado’s favorite take place at a the church and an apartment, scenes set in the subconscious mind of Nolan.

In terms of effects for Black Box, more emphasis was put on practical effects, with very minimal CG visual effects, according to the cinematographer. “(In) a lot of transitions, we were just [using] a dolly and pushing it in and back, [with] different lighting cues,” she says. “At the very beginning [we] were in one room, and then just doing the transition with our dolly, then ended up in another lighting cue. And then, digital effects would blend the beginning and the end. But everything we did [with] practical [effects]”.

With the rise and notoriety of Mexican cinematographers in American cinema, such as Emmanuel LubezkiGuillermo NavarroAlfonzo Cuaron, and Rodrigo Prieto, Mercado sees Mexican culture as a major influence in this field. “I believe that culturally, Mexico has a lot of color, a lot of texture, a lot of flavor, and a lot of smells,” she says. “I think from the beginning we are basically surrounded by that. That influences how we see the world. How we use that to help tell the story.”

With Mercado’s ability to blend every aspect of the story into a pageantry of color, moods and textures to display each vivid scene, she creatures a distinctive visual experience. We look forward to seeing her work expand into other television and feature film projects.

Black Box is available to stream or buy/rent on Amazon Prime Video.

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