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Interview with Cinematographer, Rodrigo Prieto

Sharon Abella:
You have quite an extensive resume having worked as a Director of Photography on many amazing films including "Amores Perros", "Frida', "25th Hour", "21 Grams", "Alexander", "Brokeback Mountain", "Babel", "Se, jie"/"Lust, Caution", “Broken Embraces” and "Biutiful", nearing completion in Barcelona.

Rodrigo Prieto
1. As a DP you work closely with the Director and the Production Designer to achieve the cinematic look of the film. Tell us about how you decide which type of film stock to use, which type of camera, the lighting style to complement the way the Director and Production Designer want the movie to look.

When I first read a script, I try not to think of the way it could be photographed. I prefer reading simply to feel how I connect with the story and the characters, and what emotions I experience as the story progresses. On a second reading, I start thinking more as a Cinematographer, and specific visual ideas start popping into my mind. I then do some research, which usually entails looking at many photography and art books to find examples of framing, texture, color and lighting that I think could be relevant to specific scenes in the storyline. I present these images to the Director, and listen to whatever feedback I can get. This is my way of starting to understand more clearly what the Director is envisioning, and what he/she responds to. This, plus the references the Director and Production Designer bring to the table becomes the basis for the visual language for the film. I then proceed to test different film stocks, lenses, cameras, lighting set-ups, colors, and anything that I can think of that can enhance the storytelling through the images we produce. This is a phase of filmmaking that I enjoy very much, as it is a time of discovery and experimentation. Of course this continues during the shoot of the film, but when I am shooting tests, I am truly free to stretch the boundaries of the concepts we come up with to see what can work and what does not.

2. You have worked closely with Alejandro Inarritu on many projects, including "Amores Perros", "21 Grams", "Babel", and currently, "Biutiful". What is it like to work with him? What is his visual style? Does he allow you freedom to follow your own vision, to handle most of your own visual elements?

Alejandro is a very complete director. By this I mean that he truly understands the medium and knows how to use the elements at his disposal to narrate his films: the performances, the sound, the music, the editing, the production design, and of course, the cinematography. He has an amazing sense of visuals and the language of the camera, and I feel very fortunate to be able to share with him my ideas to find the best way to engage the audience in what he is trying to communicate. We started working together some years before "Amores Perros" on TV commercials, and since then we developed a creative partnership where we both sit down and share our ideas on how to shoot any given scene, bouncing them off each other. We basically shotlist as much of the film as we can in preproduction and then adapt to the situation on the set. The camerawork on his films is very intuitive, and that is why I do the operating, so I can react to the performances and the rhythm of the scene as we go. He allows me complete freedom to use my instincts with the camera, adjusting for new takes whenever necessary. In terms of lighting, we usually talk about the mood and ambience each scene will require, and I work on achieving it while allowing room for the actors to feel free to move as their emotions dictate. I know that if I do the most perfect and amazing lighting, but it cramps the actors in any way, the scene will not be successful, and the movie suffers.

3. I was in particularly impressed with your work on Ang Lee's "Se, Jie", or "Lust, Caution". Along with the lighting, the set and costume design were very tasteful, and complemented one another. Please share what it was like to work side by side with Ang Lee. Again did he offer you freedom, or was it a collaborative effort?

I felt very honored that Ang would asked me to photograph, "Lust, Caution", since it meant having to deal with his cinematographer not speaking the language everyone else is using. This was a big challenge, but in the end, visual language is universal, and Ang made an effort to keep me informed on everything that was going on. I also had a personal interpreter, and most of my crew, who were from Hong Kong, spoke engilsh.
I had worked with Ang before on "Brokeback Mountain", but this was a very different experience. Ang seemed much more intense on "Lust, Caution" than on "Brokeback". I understand that "Brokeback" was a film that he wanted to do to wind down and recuperate from the nightmare he went through in The Hulk. So he made relatively few takes, and the hours were reasonable each day. In China, in contrast, we tipically worked at least 14 hours each day, six days a week, and on the seventh day we would see rushes, and sometimes scout. Needless to say, it was exhausting, but exhilarating at the same time. Ang is very perticular about camera placement and lens choice, so he is very hands-on in this respect. My input is more focused on lighting, film stocks and filtration. I do operate the camera as well, but he will ask me to do very specific things, so it is a very different approach to Alejandro, but I find the chalenge very stimulating as well.

4. Who aspired you? How did you get started? Do you like George Hurrell? 5. What advice do you offer those interested in becoming a DP?

I was into filmmaking since a very young age. I started out when I was 10 years old by making Super 8 films of monsters and Science Fiction with my older brother, Antonio. We would make stop motion films of clay monsters inspired on Ray Harrihousen’s work on films like “Jason and The Argonauts” and “Clash of the Titans.” That evolved into eventually attending film school in Mexico City. I also worked for a fashion still photographer, Nadine Markova for a year, which sparked my interest in photography, and led me to chose cinematography as my field.
Do I like George Hurrel? His portrait work is unparalleled and his lighting is exquisite. I particularly like his portrait of Anna May Wong. I simply can’t understand how he could make hard light look so good on actors faces. On “Broken Embraces” which I recently completed with Pedro Almodóvar, I had a chance to explore lighting Penélope Crúz in a different styles, ranging from naturalism, to more glamorous “Hollywood” style, but I know that I could not come even close to the perfection of Hurell’s lighting.

5. What advice do you offer those interested in becoming a DP?

The only advice I can give to aspiring cinematographers is shoot anything that comes your way. Just do it all with the same enthusiasm as if you were making "Gone With the Wind". Someone will notice, and ask you to do something else, and little by little, the projects will grow in ambition and scope. But above all, enjoy the journey, always.
First published on SharonAbella's blog

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