Fade to Black: Rodrigo Prieto, Cinematographer

Photo by Eniac Martinez

Rodrigo Prieto, ASC, AMC, (pictured left) is living proof the “new generation” of cinematographers won't be abandoning film any time soon. Prieto's head is clearly buried in film space these days, especially as he comes off working once again with director Alejandro González Iñárritu (pictured right) on Babel, their third collaboration.

Babel's nature — three separate stories in different locales with different characters, connected by a tragic event — required so many different looks that it gave Prieto an opportunity to experiment with film stocks and techniques. That process of experimentation, while grueling, was particularly satisfying for Prieto. Now that it's all over, he eagerly waxes philosophical about the nuances of the whole thing — pushing stock, comparing three-perf to 16mm, manipulating grain and texture, and using Arri/Carl Zeiss Master Prime lenses.

“The main issue on Babel was giving each story a particular look, without it being too obvious or apparent,” he says. “It was important to us that the film be visually unified, but with subtle differences that could emphasize the emotional state of the characters. We felt the story of the American couple in Morocco, for example, had to have a sense of difficulty and a ‘dirty’ texture. We decided to use film grain and contrast to characterize their story. For the Japanese story, on the other hand, we tested different methods of achieving shallow depth of field to represent the point of view of the world of a deaf-mute girl. We settled on using [Panavision] C Series anamorphic lenses on a Millennium XL [Panaflex camera], but with a 1:85 aspect ratio, which meant scanning only the center portion of the negative to finish on standard 1:85 instead of 2:35. In Mexico, however, we opted for three-perf 35mm on [Kodak Vision 500T] 5279, pushed one stop. We found this stock gave us increased color saturation compared to the [Kodak Vision2 500T] 5218 in Japan, or the 16mm of Morocco.”

Prieto ended up with reams of such anecdotes related to specific lens, stock, light, and composition choices. At one point, he seriously considered using a Thomson Viper FilmStream HD camera system for key scenes.

"One of the challenges in Tokyo was an important part of the story that happens in an apartment at night overlooking the city skyline, and there were several other key exterior night scenes that happen at night, where Alejandro wanted the brightness of the city to be an important element,” he says. “Therefore, we decided to test the Viper in different low-light situations, simultaneously shooting on film with 5218 pushed one stop. We scanned the 5218, and color corrected it at EFilm, while trying to match the uncompressed film-stream data of the Viper. We discovered that we could not rescue all highlights with the Viper's data, and there was some aliasing on Japanese signs. I also did not like the way the skin tone of the HD compared to 5218. Plus, there was a cyan atmosphere or glow that the 5218 captured from the city lights that was not present with HD, which made [HD] look cleaner, but we didn't like that either. Besides, since we wanted reduced depth of field, the [HD camera] was actually causing the opposite."

Instead, Prieto mixed and matched various flavors of 35mm and Super 16 material, and then took the whole thing to Laser Pacific, Hollywood, Calif., for a digital intermediate, working closely with Iñárritu and colorist Yvan Lucas. Even there, Prieto emphasizes the philosophical mindset was photochemical, not digital.

"Yvan is a talented colorist whose background is in the lab, so his approach to digital timing is similar to the way he would work with printing lights in the lab,” Prieto says. “Both Alejandro and I liked this, as we did not want to digitally manipulate the images in ways we could not achieve photochemically — we felt this could result in over-stylized photography. I prefer to achieve as much as possible on the original camera negative, and only use the DI as an interactive color correction tool."