Juan Benavides is a Mexican architect and filmmaker currently based in the Netherlands.
He describes himself as someone working in and around architecture. This acknowledgment allows him to shift across his various creative interests, engaging in projects that range from architectural design and academic research to videography, photography, and music.
I find his architectural video work captivating and inspiring. In this interview, we focused on his architecture filmmaking studio, FILMATICA to learn more about the documenting process behind filming contemporary architecture.
Hello Juan, thank you for joining us here at APALMANAC. To start things off, can you tell us about the beginnings of your journey in architectural videos?
I realized that some of the dominant rules and compositional aspects of the house transmitted in photographs translated into a completely different reading of the house through video. Capturing how nature and the inhabitants interacted with the architecture and the sounds produced by it, really added another level of beauty to the architectural project itself. That was the trigger for me.
Back then, my sister had just moved to a house in Monterrey that I really liked. So I got myself a camera and asked her to let me in one day to shoot a video of it. From that moment onwards, I had a very clear intention of beginning a project solely dedicated to capturing architectural works through video.
I ended up sending this video Casa de Uno for Dear Architects to the architectural office, and they loved it. This led to another commission from the same office later on, and it all snowballed from there.
You mention the intention of only working with video. Looking at your work, there is an evident consistency. Do you choose which projects to document beforehand?
Since the beginning, it was important to me to think of my architectural videos not as isolated projects but as one large series. By having this line of thought, the videos then automatically translate into a more cohesive set.
To do so, I tend to only work with architecture offices that I want to know more about. And whose work I find beautiful, with “strong and clear formal proposals, aesthetically rich spatial conditions, and inspiring landscapes,” as I usually state. These elements automatically group all videos within a certain family, regardless of the architectural office, type of project, and location. Working within these parameters, inevitably attracts clients that identify themselves with this family, leading them to reach out for potential collaborations.
If you had to highlight some of the most important aspects of architecture filmmaking, which ones would it be?
I would place the narrative at the top of the list. Videos always have a clear beginning and end, therefore, a logical narrative is extremely important to me.
For example, strong conceptual intentions behind any architectural project can easily be translated into a narrative. It can be the central stairwell of a housing building, where the narrative begins on the top level and slowly descends towards the street, or more subjective narratives like day-to-night or night-to-day, which are very common ones. Among my work, there’s the documentation of a house in the woods where the narrative begins with a rainy day followed by a sequence of scenes of the day after
Another important aspect is improvisation. I tend to not visit the projects before documenting, so the day I film is usually my first time there. Unlike photography, in post-production, video cannot be retouched as much, so I need to carefully choose and compose the scenes when filming. I love this aspect of working with video because the documentation then becomes more honest and truthful to the as-found condition.
The second aspect to highlight is sound. Through ambient sounds, intangible to a photograph, you can accentuate the emotions transmitted in a video. Only when on-site can you perceive the sound of nature, animals, objects, and materials in a building. These elements can—and must—be exploited through video; they act as additional components to successfully communicate a project.
Glad you mentioned the sound. There is a second layer to that: music. Watching your videos, I realized that you compose your own soundtrack, yet another talent! Can you tell us a bit more about the inclusion of original scores in your videos?
Early on, I invited a friend to compose the music for my videos, but nowadays, I am indeed doing it myself. I have played guitar for almost 15 years now, and I can compose basic melodies on the piano. The music for the videos is based on the logic of the video itself; this allows to accentuate the narrative in certain ways. I enjoy the process of composing and adding original music because it makes each documentation unique, and offices really appreciate the fact of having music created for their specific project.
That’s amazing! Original music definitely adds value to your work. Your website features videos in multiple countries. Can you tell us more about that international experience?
Sure, this was definitely an important step. At some point, I came to realize that within Mexico, I had already approached the offices I wanted to work with.
Having built a portfolio, I thought it would be a good moment to invest some of my time and money to cover travel expenses for a short filmmaking trip, hoping to find collaborations with foreign offices. I happened to know two architects based in Seattle to whom I expressed my interest in doing so, and that’s how it started.
Since then, I’ve replicated this process on other filmmaking trips. Searching offices I’m interested in working with and contacting them both via email and by phone. You hear a lot of crickets and “not right now’s,” but there are always positive answers. In the end it all builds up; some clients introduce you to a greater network, and gaining their trust leads to recommendations and so on.
Our readers are always interested in photography gear. What equipment do you work with?
I’m not much of a gearhead. Learning how to make a sequence and building up a compelling narrative is a priority to me. Top-of-the-line gear doesn’t necessarily lead to producing something beautiful.
As I work alone, my equipment is relatively simple and compact. I have a Canon 5D Mark III and a couple of lenses (TS-E 17mm and a 50mm prime), tripods and a slider for horizontal and vertical movements, and a DJI drone—which I tend to use as a slider—for those projects immersed in dense and tangled landscapes.
Totally agree. I really like those smooth drone panning shots. Before saying goodbye, can you think of a one-sentence advice for architectural photographers interested in doing video?
To avoid a biased view, try to make a video of a project you have not taken photos of before. That’s a good starting point. Just work on a logical narrative and go for it!
Many thanks to Juan Benavides for this inspiring conversation. To watch his film work, you can head over to either the FILMATICA website or directly on his Vimeo profile . Additionally. you can follow his personal practice on juanbenavides.mx and on Instagram as @juanbenavidesl
Cover image: Still from the Gorton Bound Bunkhouse video for Miller Hull in Decatur Island.