The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents January 2011 Return to Table of Contents
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Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC
Short Takes
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up
Rodrigo Prieto, ASC, AMC discusses his approach to Biutiful, his latest collaboration with director Alejandro González Iñárritu.

Unit photography by José Haro. Photos and frame grabs courtesy of Roadside Attractions.
The new film Biutiful is the latest collaboration between director Alejandro González Iñárritu and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, ASC, AMC, and although it does not feature the kind of fractured narrative that characterized their previous features, Amores Perros (AC April ’01), 21 Grams (AC Dec. ’03) and Babel (AC Nov. ’06), it nonetheless offers a similarly rich tapestry of characters and subplots. The film focuses on Uxbal (Javier Bardem), a divorced father of two, who hustles a living in Barcelona by selling goods from a Chinese sweatshop to African street vendors, and by moonlighting as a kind of messenger between the dead and the living — he possesses the eerie ability to see ghosts. When Uxbal learns that he has a terminal illness, he struggles to come to terms with his fate, all the while concealing his ill-
ness from his loved ones, including his children, his tempestuous ex-wife, Marambra (Maricel Alvarez), and his brother, Tito (Eduard Fernández).

A few months after the film’s premiere at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, AC caught up with Prieto to discuss the project. In a separate conversation, Iñárritu shared some observations about Biutiful and his approach to filmmaking. (See page 38.)

American Cinematographer: The supernatural is an element that you and Iñarritu haven’t tackled before, and you chose to represent it in an unusually naturalistic way. Why?

Rodrigo Prieto, ASC, AMC: On this film, we were aiming for a subjective point of view that would emphasize Uxbal’s perspective, and we always wanted to stay believable, to portray his environment the way he would see it. His ability to see and hear the dead is part of his reality, so we didn’t want to depict that differently in terms of the visuals. The metaphysical is part of his everyday life, so I did not emphasize it through special lighting or camera gags for these moments.  On the whole film overall, I did allow myself to be a little bit more stylized with the lighting, but it’s always based on real sources. I wanted the film to feel naturalistic, but I did heighten the atmosphere of certain scenes through lighting to align the viewer with Uxbal’s thoughts.

One stylistic carryover from your previous collaborations is the emphasis on a handheld camera.

Prieto: Yes. I shot about 95 percent of the film handheld, but many of the moves were carefully choreographed. We designed complex shots that would tell the story without the need to cut; the rhythm of the camera movement was meant to represent Uxbal’s emotional state. We tried to keep him in frame most of the time, and the way the camera moves around him is motivated by what he is focusing on.

There is a very unusual format change from 1.85:1 to 2.40:1, and from spherical to anamorphic, partway through the story. What motivated that choice?

Prieto: So you noticed? [Laughs.] In one of the first discussions I had with Alejandro, he described Uxbal as someone who is uptight and controlling at the beginning of the film, and then, as he is forced by his circumstances to accept his fate, he is finally able to let go. Alejandro wanted to find a way to represent this transition visually. At first, we talked about using tighter compositions in the beginning and then going wider as the story progressed. After that conversation, I thought about it some more and wondered if we could take that a step further and play with the aspect ratio. I suggested we test starting at 1.85 and eventually opening up to 2.40 to represent the transition from tight control to ultimate release. There was some concern that the shift would be too jarring, but we decided it worked, and we thought it was subtle enough that the average viewer wouldn’t notice it. We start the transition with the tragic scene in the Chinese sweatshop, where we stay with the 1.85 aspect ratio but switch to anamorphic lenses. This marks a very powerful, crucial moment for Uxbal; his world truly starts to unravel, and it’s the point where he either falls apart or decides to take charge of putting his life in order. I felt that anamorphic lenses would help isolate him and convey his despair because they would slightly alter the texture of the image. I wanted the backgrounds at this point to have that soft-focus texture, that slightly liquid feel of anamorphic. We made the aspect-ratio transition a few scenes later on a crane shot at the beach, using an angle of the ocean to open the edges of the screen to 2:40. I shot most of the movie with Panavision Ultra Speed [Z Series] MKIIs, and for most of the anamorphic work I used Panavision’s G-Series lenses. Whenever there was a source of light in frame, like a window, the MKIIs would cause a slight flare, and they gave the image a hard edge and contrasty feel that we liked. For certain moments, we enhanced the flare of bright sources with a Tiffen Smoque Filter on the camera.

The 1.85 anamorphic passage in the film is very impressionistic, with Uxbal crossing the bridge at sunset, roaming the streets at night, and then going to meet his brother at the nightclub.

Prieto: He is going through a deeply traumatic moment, so we wanted to use different techniques to create the sense that things are out of balance, that he’s confused and doesn’t know where to go or what to do. We wanted to create images that weren’t straightforward, so we would, for example, pass split diopters in front of the lens to defocus some elements in the frame.

The film has a very rough, powerful texture and a grainy, saturated image. How did you achieve that?

Prieto: From the beginning, Alejandro felt it was important to have film grain permeating the air. In part, it was his reaction to all the digital developments — he feels that more and more, movies tend to look too clean and plastic. But film grain has actually been an important part of the visual palette in all our films, going back to Amores Perros. Because Biutiful tells one story, I didn’t want to mix as many film stocks as I have on our other films. The stock I tested in the beginning was Kodak [Vision 500T] 5279, which we liked, but it was being discontinued. So we used [Kodak Vision2 500T] 5260, which is similar to 5279 but has better color reproduction. We found that pushing 5260 by 1 stop, combined with the USZ MKII lenses, gave us a texture that we really loved. Pushing enhanced the grain but also enhanced the contrast and the color saturation, and that became an integral part of the movie’s look. However, I found that for night scenes, when there’s a lot of black in the frame, the pushed 5260 became a little too milky and a little too blue in the blacks. So for those scenes, I used [Kodak Vision3 500T] 5219 pushed 1 stop; that gave the night scenes a little less grain, but in the very dark, high-contrast night scenes, it delivered deeper, cleaner blacks. I rated both film stocks at 640 ASA. The film is bookended by scenes set in the snow, and for those I used [Kodak Vision2 50D] 5201, which has a very clean grain. It’s the only part of the movie that’s not pushed. I wanted those scenes to be clean and pristine, to have a very different feel.

Like all of your films with Iñárritu, Biutiful was shot on location. What kind of lighting did you bring to the locations?


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