Mixed Formats, Anamorphic Lenses, and Three Shades of Red

Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, ASC, AMC, is just finishing up a music video (for Jamie Foxx), a genre he hasn’t worked in since he began to establish his cinematography career in the U.S., where he’d moved from Mexico City. Prieto already had begun making a name in feature film cinematography with Original Sin and Amores Perros, the latter the first of a trilogy that was followed by 21 Grams and now completed with Babel. (All three films feature Prieto’s cinematography and are directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and written by Guillermo Arriaga.) Prieto talks to Film and Video about who has influenced his work, his style of working and how he achieved the look on Babel.

Film & Video: When you got your start in Mexico City as a young man, you worked with both still photographer Nadine Markova and cinematographer Emanuel Lubezki. What did you learn from them?

RP: I was excited when I started to work for Nadine Markova. That was the beginning when I got into composition and lighting. I was in film school when Lubezki made Banditos, his first picture, and I thought, "This is really different from other Mexican films." I hadn’t yet shot a feature, so it was a turning point for me. I shot second unit for him, and I was still in film school when I had this opportunity.

What I got from both of them was passion and fearlessness. I sensed Nadine was very bold in her photography and thought differently than other photographers. Lubezki was also very daring. He was always trying something different, experimenting, and I admire that very much.

F&V: Who were your biggest influences as a student and young cinematographer?

RP: Nestor Almendros was the first photographer I was aware of, and I was very influenced by his work with a camera. He always looked for naturalism, and that stuck with me throughout the years. It’s something I’ve always tried to incorporate in what I’m doing – not necessarily realism but [being] organic to the material. It could be a fantasy and there’s still a reality to that world. I’ve always tried to be respectful of that.

F&V: Do you consider Amores Perros to be your breakthrough movie?

RP: Probably so. But the first studio movie I did was Original Sin. That was just after finishing shooting Amores Perros. [Director] Michael Cristofer had seen my previous Mexican movies, such as Un Embrujo, and he liked that piece, which was so different from Amores Perros. Cristofer and [director] Julie [Taymor] were more familiar with my other Mexican films.

Amores Perros did start me going in a certain direction, for movies of that type like 25th Hour and 8 Mile. Fortunately I’d already done Original Sin and Frida, which helped to establish that I’m capable of doing different styles.

F&V: What’s the nature of your collaboration with director Inarritu?

RP: I originally met him when he was a well-known radio announcer in Mexico city. He had started a new type of radio program in Mexico, and then he eventually decided to go into TV, commercials and movies. That’s where we started. We worked together on at least 50 commercials, and I definitely liked working with him. I remember him telling me that if he made a movie, I’d be the first in line to do it.

He worked on Amores Perros for a year before he mentioned it. Finally, I read the script and I never expected anything like it. Amores Perros was a departure from what we’d been doing. It’s a really dark, really challenging movie. There was a lot of prep, trying out different things and testing everything. What’s great is that Alejandro involved me, although he’d been working on the script for a year. I was able to give my opinions and notes on the script. He gave me an opportunity to understand the characters and story way before we started shooting.

I think he has that talent to incorporate the people he works with and get the best out of everybody. We collaborate on the shot list and really the design of the way we shoot the movie.

F&V: Was that relationship any different working on Babel?

RP: It’s really continued the same way. Alejandro has clear stories and he knows where he emotionally wants to be, but he’s also supported me in designing a visual representation with it. I try to come to the table with film stocks and lenses.

On Babel, we used different formats – some 16mm, some 35mm and another section with anamorphic. All of it is in the 1.85 aspect ratio, even though we shot with anamorphic lenses. We were going for different textures, different film grain to represent one of the stories. I would say it represents the geographic location as well as the emotional state the characters are in.

In Babel, we shot in three countries, but the story happens in four countries. One little part is in the U.S., which we actually shot in Tijuana, Mexico. Another part is in northern Mexico, so we shot in Tecate and also in the Sonoran desert, which is also supposed to be the desert in the U.S. Then we filmed in Morocco and in Tokyo. Tunisia was scouted but we decided against it.

F&V: Tell us a little about the cameras, lenses and film stocks you did use.

RP: For the Moroccan part, I used the ARRI SR camera, Zeiss prime lenses and ARRI zooms. For the one part in Morocco when it’s night, I switched to the ARRICAM LT and for that I used the last existing 800 ASA Kodak 5289 stock. I had used a lot of that for Amores Perros and 21 Grams and really love the grain, which is why it’s been discontinued. But for the last part of the Moroccan section, there’s a long dusk scene that goes into night and I didn’t want to use high-speed 16mm, so I transitioned to 35mm.

For the Mexican and American stories, I used 35mm 3-perf cameras and again the ARRICAM LT. In Japan, we used the Panavision Millennium XL camera and Anamorphic C series lenses.

F&V: What were the big challenges shooting Babel?

RP: The first would have to be the logistics with all the different locations, crews and languages. Technically, combining all these formats and making it one movie was also a challenge. It was important that it didn’t feel so different that it looked like different films spliced together. I wanted a different texture and feel for each part, but for them to be part of the same film. I did many, many, many tests to determine what films stocks would feel better.

I ended up using 5218 for the Japanese section, 5279 for all of the Mexico section, with 5229 for the night scenes (Vision Expression 500 ASA that I pushed one stop), and for Morocco, I used 7245, 7248 and 7205.

F&V: What’s the palette in Babel?

RP: In terms of production design, Alejandro came up with using one color that would unify the story, and that color was red, with different shades of red for each section. For Morocco, we used a burnt red, with a little bit of umber, with different elements of the set and costumes. In Mexico, it was more of a primary red. And in Japan it’s more of a magenta-red. That was mostly achieved in the production design and wardrobe, but sometimes I applied it in the lighting, particularly in Japan. There’s a nightclub scene and I tried to paint gels on the lights, mostly using a combination of pink and green gels.

F&V: Did you know from the beginning that you’d be doing a digital intermediate?

RP: Yes, because of this idea of combining formats determined it. We could have done it optically, but it would have been too complicated. It all started with 16mm, because we wanted to have a bleach-bypass look on the Moroccan section but we didn’t want it to be a full bleach-bypass like we did on Amores Perros. We wanted to go halfway. We found that photochemically, we couldn’t achieve a consistent half-bleach-bypass on the negative. There were variations in the lab. We had to achieve that look digitally.

For more on the DI on Babel, read the rest of the interview at www.distudionews.com.