A recent post about cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s use of a rare format generated a great deal of interest. (http://www.davidheuring.com/2012/05/14/van-sant-film-uses-unique-4-perf1-3-squeeze-format/) The technique involves 1.3x Hawk anamorphic lenses and results in an image that is 435 square millimeters in a 1.42:1 aspect ratio on the negative, with a final aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Sandgren says the technique delivers a boost in image quality.
One reader asked if the technique was the same one Rodrigo Prieto, ASC used on Biutiful. The short answer is that it’s slightly different; CinemaScope, aka anamorphic, results in a slightly smaller image on the negative, although for some portions of Biutiful, images shot anamorphic are presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
Here’s my December 2010 conversation with Prieto on the making of Biutiful, which earned Oscar nominations for Best Foreign Language Film and for Best Actor (Javier Bardem). Prieto won the Silver Ariel for Best Cinematography, one of seven Ariel nominations for the film. The Ariel is given by the Mexican Academy of Film and is considered the most prestigious award in the Mexican movie industry.
Rodrigo Prieto, ASC and Alejandro González Iñárritu have forged a unique filmmaking bond. Their first three films together, Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel, have led the renaissance in Mexican cinema. Babel, which featured bold, arresting imagery and unique story structure, was nominated for seven Academy Awards®, including Best Director and Best Picture.
Their most recent collaboration is Biutiful, which stars Javier Bardem as a man whose life is falling apart. Facing death, he learns to forgive, to let go, and to love.
The story takes place partly on the wrong side of the tracks in Barcelona, where immigrants from China slave away in sweatshops, and Senegalese men sleep when not hawking cheap, knockoff handbags to tourists on La Rambla. The filmmakers shot entirely in actual locations in Barcelona and elsewhere in Spain.
David Heuring: The film depicts parts of Barcelona that most tourists don’t see.
Rodrigo Prieto: Yes. One of the Spanish producers was scouting locations, and even he was surprised at the places they were visiting. They are right there, but I can almost call it an underworld or an unseen black market, largely controlled by immigrants. It’s there and part of the reality. The tourists see the end result of that, with people selling their wares on the street. But we went behind the scenes and dove into that world. It’s actually very accurate. There was a lot of research put into it and we were careful when reproducing it. In some cases, for example when we filmed Ige and Ekweme’s home, we were filming in the actual locations where Senegalese immigrants live. The Chinese would not allow us to film in their sweatshops, but we very carefully reproduced what we saw on our scouts. It’s like many world cities in that it’s a sophisticated place that has another side.
DH: Did the tight practical locations dictate some of your decisions?
Prieto: Everything was done on practical locations, even the sweatshops we reproduced. For Alejandro, it’s very important to shoot in practical locations. He feels that the actors, and everyone, respond differently. When you’re in a real place and you arrive at real locations, the actual streets – all these things do affect the vibe on the set. It does cause complications or challenges for the placement of lighting or camera. But we have always found a way of working around it. It adds a layer of authenticity. If the camera can’t be in a place where a wall would be taken out, it simple won’t be. The camera will be inside the space. Often, I have to incorporate the lighting into the frame. I worked closely with Brigitte Broch, the production designer, in choosing practicals and window placement in some of the sets. We did do some construction of the set inside a location. It required a lot of planning. And figuring out how to fit in there with a camera and a crew and a microphone boom operator was challenging. Still, quite a few shots have complicated choreography, and some of them include mirrors and reflections.
DH: What was your approach to camera movement? How did that fit with your other choices? Were you operating the camera?
Prieto: I would say that 95% of the film is handheld. I operated, and for many scenes with children, we had a B camera operated by Daniel Aranyó, a great Spanish cinematographer who also filmed some second unit and some plates. Alejandro likes the looseness and spontaneity, and the sensation of the camera reacting – a reactive camera immersed in the scene with the actors. In this case, we were a little more choreographed than in the past. It’s not really about improvisation. We wanted the camera to show Uxbal’s perspective for the most part. We wanted to turn and see his reaction on his face, but also see what he was looking at. So often we had him still in the frame, while we came around to see what he was looking at. And then we’d move around to see his expression again. Often we weren’t cutting as much, and the camera was doing the editing, finding the different beats by moving around. In that sense, it is a kinetic camera. But I try to approach handheld as much as possible so that it is not jerky – unless it’s an action scene, and I’m running with the camera and it’s unavoidable. There’s a scene where the Senegalese are selling their wares in the street, and the police come and there’s a huge raid. They run all the way down La Rambla, and one of them is run over by a car. It’s a big, frenetic moment. We filmed a couple takes going down La Rambla in a golf cart, but Ale said it didn’t have the necessary energy. So I ended up handheld and running backwards.
DH: Did you consider a digital format? How did you come to the decision to shoot film?
Prieto: We never considered digital at all for this film. For Alejandro, it was really important to have the texture of film and film grain apparent in the movie. He was reacting to the development of all the high definition televisions and digital projection. These developments, in his perception, sometimes make even movies shot on film look almost like video. It’s something we have done a lot – in the films I have done with Alejandro, we have played with the texture of film grain in different levels, enhancing a certain character or a certain moment or location with more grain than another. In Babel, we mixed 16 mm with 35 mm with anamorphic. In this case, I stuck mostly with one texture of film grain, but we were really looking for that one texture. So we started out by testing. We were hoping to shoot with 5279, but as we were shooting our tests, we found out that there wasn’t enough of that stock left for us to shoot the whole movie on it. It’s too bad, because we really liked the texture of the grain, and the contrast and color saturation.
At some point, someone from Kodak called and said there was a new stock, 5260. My answer was no, that we were not looking a new stock. New stocks usually have less grain. Kodak said that this stock was made to replace the 79. We tested it, with many levels of pushing, and altering the temperature in the development bath, and changing the amount of time in the development, in order to find the proper level of grain. And we were relieved and happy – we liked it. The 5260 did have the character we were looking for. So I pushed it one stop with time in development throughout the movie. We printed on Vision Premier, and so we achieved very rich, deep blacks, and what I think is very nice film texture with the grain. We did find that in night scenes, when we have a lot of black on the screen, that the 5260 pushed one stop would come back slightly blue and a little bit milky. So for those scenes, I used 5219, pushed a stop. For scenes in Navarra, which take place in the snow, I used the 50D 5201. I wanted those scenes to be as clean as possible, and to feel a difference in the quality and transparency of the air.
DH: You also play with aspect ratio in the film.
Prieto: Yes. Throughout the movie, we used both 1.85 and 2.35. As we were prepping, Alejandro told me he wanted to find a way to transition with our character from being a very tight and controlling person. His journey, as he learns about his cancer and his sickness, he is eventually able to let go. H realizes that he had better put his life in order, and stop trying to avoid his fate, let’s say. Ale wanted to find a way to represent that with the camera. He wanted the language of the camera to shift. At first, we talked about doing tighter frames, and being more frenetic with the movement, with longer lenses, and towards the end, loosening up the framing, using wider lenses with fewer cuts and less movement. So we did some of that. But the tight lenses meant we really couldn’t use long lenses. So, in looking for other ways of representing this transition, I proposed to Ale that we shift the aspect ratio. Begin the story with a 1.85:1 frame, and at a certain point, open up to 2.40:1. We tested this and screened it at different cinemas, and decided that it wasn’t going to be too jarring. The bookends are in the wide aspect ratio. In particular there are some shots done at an ocean beach. The ocean itself helps to open up the screen.
DH: How did you achieve this shift?
Prieto: I used spherical lenses, and at one point, shifted to anamorphic. But this wasn’t only for the change in aspect ratio. In fact, the shift to anamorphic lenses happens before the shift to the wider aspect ratio. That was because at a certain very dramatic moment, I wanted to shift Uxbal’s perception of the world around him. We felt that the spherical lenses gave us a very hard-edged look. We tested many different types of lenses to find out what would give us this hard edge combined with flare and highlights. We tested Zeiss Ultra Speeds, and Cookes, but we settled on Panavision Ultra Speed Z series, the MKII lenses for the bulk of the 1.85 part of the movie. And then we shifted to G series and C series anamorphic lenses – mostly G. That happens at the very dramatic moment. Even though we stayed in the 1.85 aspect ratio, I like the way the background soft focus shifts with the anamorphic. Later we have the moment where we actually open up the aspect ratio to 2.35:1 and use the entire anamorphic image.
DH: There’s a sequence of strange moments where he walks to a nightclub that offered you some opportunities with the visuals.
Prieto: He goes from an intense moment of discovery, thought a strange walk at night though the streets of Barcelona, into a nightclub that is also a very surreal scene. Then he goes back home and finds his son. We wanted to give this sequence a special texture, and we found it was enhanced by the C series anamorphic lenses, which flare a lot, with that classic streaking effect in the highlights, especially in the nightclub, where he is drunk. It adds a subjective level to his experience. He feels his world is falling apart, and his perception is skewed. When he gets home, I wanted to represent that feeling when you are drunk and you turn on a light and it’s bothersome. There I overexposed the lights by four to five stops. Combined with the flaring lenses, it gave the feeling of a headache. We added some surreal elements. He gets s snack, and he see the shadow of his fork on the plate and it’s out of sync. The character’s ability to hear dead people talking allowed me to be a little more playful there visually. It’s a departure from what we’ve done before on Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel. We are grounded in naturalism, but in these scenes it’s handheld and dirty, and it feels like you are there with the actor. But there are things that happen that are a little bit out of the realm of normal.
DH: It sounds like you’re always searching for ways of communicating to the audience the experience of the character.
Prieto: Yes, we wanted this to be very subjective experience. We used the imperfections of photography sometimes to enhance that — overexposed windows that would flare the lens, for example. We pushed it further with these lenses. Sometimes we’d use a filter – a Tiffen Smoque effect filter — to enhance these flares. In another case we used the filter, but not with the flare lenses. Marambra, Uxbal’s wife, is bipolar, and she uses a therapeutic light, and she attributes a lot of power to this light. Here we used the Smoque filter to enhance the effect of this emanating light. It was fun to be playful with the image. Alejandro was always keen to find ways to enhance the experience for the spectator – visuals, and sound as well.
DP Rodrigo Prieto (left) and director Alejandro González Iñárritu.
DH: I’m fascinated by the idea of what might be called photographic imperfections that, in the hands of master visual storytellers, become tools to connect the audience with the human experience, to create empathy. Sometimes it seems to me that the evolution of filmmaking technology is misunderstood as an inevitable march toward pictorial perfection in which any so-called flaws or image characteristics are distilled out on the way to maximum resolution, maximum pixel count. But in fact, these are the tool you use to make it art.
Prieto: You are given this incredible palette. Alejandro and Brigitte put these things in front of the camera, and for me it’s an incredible playground. Incredible performances, characters, locations. . . it’s great to take that and add another layer with the photography. With Alejandro, it’s always been a great collaboration. It’s exhilarating, because he really understands the use of the medium of cinema – every single aspect.
DH: Please tell me a little about the post. I understand you scanned at 4K and worked in 2K for the digital intermediate.
Prieto: Yes. We did the DI in Barcelona, and the color timer was Miguel Perez. I had worked with him on Broken Embraces with Pedro Almodóvar, and he is also a director of photography. I asked Deluxe Madrid and Deluxe Barcelona if Miguel could come to Barcelona. The LUTs weren’t quite ready, so I had to test a lot. But we were able to do it by printing every day. I usually approach the DI as if it were photochemical. I like using the Lustre, but I always ask the timer to use the keyboard instead of knobs. That way I know we are adding a point of yellow, or two points. I guess I am a bit of a control freak. I rarely tweak contrast and saturation because I am really careful in preproduction to find the proper combination of film stock, exposure, print stock and printer lights to get the contrast and saturation I like. Sometimes it’s nice to go in and tweak a little bit for matching. It’s fabulous to be able to go in and create Windows and darken or brighten certain areas. We had that in still photography in the darkroom; now we have that possibility as cinematographers.