The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents November 2006 Return to Table of Contents
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Flags of Our Fathers
Short Takes
Books in Review
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up
A shot fired in Africa echoes around the world in Babel, photographed by Rodrigo Prieto, ASC, AMC.

Unit Photography by Murray Close, Eniac Martinez and Tsutomu Umezawa
Additonal Photos by Mary Ellen Mark, Graciela Iturbide and Patrick Bard
Photos and frame grabs courtesy of Paramount Vantage

In Babel, the accidental shooting of an American tourist on a lonely stretch of road in Morocco has immediate and dramatic consequences for those involved, but its effect ripples through lives on other continents as well. The picture is the third feature collaboration between director Alejandro Gonzlez Iñrritu and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, ASC, AMC, following Amores Perros (see AC April ’01) and 21 Grams (AC Dec. ’03), and it is their most technically ambitious work yet. In their quest to give each strand of the nonlinear, globe-spanning narrative an appropriate visual texture, they devised an approach that ultimately involved three formats, eight film stocks and, from start to finish, six post houses. On top of that, says Prieto, “We didn’t want the things we were doing to be obvious at all.”  

Babel begins in Morocco with a goat-herder’s purchase of a rifle from a neighbor. He turns the weapon over to his young sons (Boubker Ait El Caid and Said Tarchani) so they can protect the herd, and the next day the boys decide to test its range by firing at several objects, one of which is a tour bus crawling along the road far below them. The tourists aboard include Richard (Brad Pitt) and Susan (Cate Blanchett), a California couple struggling with a rocky marriage. Susan is hit by the bullet, and while Richard and others struggle to save her life, the authorities begin hunting for the shooter.  

When she is notified of the accident, Amelia (Adriana Barraza), the Mexican nanny who is tending Richard and Susan’s two children in San Diego, realizes the only way she will be able to attend her son’s imminent wedding in Mexico is to take her young charges with her. All goes well until their late-night return to the States, when their driver, Amelia’s hotheaded nephew (Gael Garca Bernal), flees the border inspection station after quarreling with a guard and ends up dumping Amelia and the children in the desert.  

Meanwhile, the Morocco investigation leads to Tokyo, where the rifle’s last registered owner, Wataya (Kôji Yakusho), is struggling to connect with his teenaged daughter, Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi), in the wake of his wife’s suicide. The girl is a deaf-mute, and because of her handicap, she misunderstands the policemen’s reason for seeking her father and becomes convinced it has something to do with her mother’s death.  

Given that Babel was shot entirely on location on three continents, its logistical complexity alone was considerable. What helped smooth the way for Prieto was a lengthy prep, facilitated in part by his longstanding friendship with Iñrritu. “Several years ago, Alejandro began talking about a movie where an event happening in one country affects things happening in other countries,” recalls the cinematographer. “One of the great things about our collaborations is that I’ve always had the opportunity to come onto the projects very early on and participate, even on the scripts, all of which were written by Guillermo Arriaga. It goes beyond the classical cinematographer-director collaboration. We start generally, conceptually, by discussing the characters and how to visually present their stories, and Alejandro allows a lot of room for me to propose ideas. It makes you feel like it’s your movie, too, and that empowers you to contribute as much as possible.  

“This was the longest prep I’ve ever had,” he continues, noting that he spent seven months on Babel once formal prep began. “Each of the three stories had a long maturation period because the way the schedule worked out, we prepped Morocco for two months and shot that story, prepped Mexico for a month and shot that, and then prepped Japan for three weeks and shot that. I had the opportunity to shoot many, many tests and really nail down specific details.”  

The thorough testing paid off all the way down the line, particularly when production expressed concern about a handful of the filmmakers’ decisions. When such questions arose, the team screened and re-screened Prieto’s tests, and sometimes he shot more. “I wasn’t aware of precedents for some of the challenges we confronted on Babel, so there was nowhere we could go for advice, and extensive testing was necessary,” he says. Among the choices under question were shooting Super 16mm in Morocco, which prompted concerns about scratches and dust particles, and filming with anamorphic lenses for a final 1.85:1 aspect ratio in Japan, knowing Prieto would be on top of the actors with a handheld camera, often in low light. During the post phase, another round of tests even enabled the filmmakers to successfully argue for an Agfa release-print stock (CP30) — unheard of in Hollywood — when it looked as though Kodak Vision Premier, their first choice, would be too costly. (In the end, they were able to secure a full release on Premier.)  

One technique that helped link Amores Perros and 21 Grams visually was Prieto’s use of the bleach-bypass process on the negative, but when he and Iñrritu began prepping Babel, “the first thing we said was, ‘Enough of that!’” They eventually decided to unify Babel ’s three stories more subtly with color and varying levels of grain. Prieto explains, “We were nervous about one story looking completely different from the other — we wanted it to be one movie, but with different feels. [Production designer] Brigitte Broch suggested we find one color to carry through all three stories, and we chose red. It appears as umber in Morocco and as primary red in Mexico, in both cases mainly in the costumes and set dressing. In Japan, we looked for more of a pink/magenta shade, and we used that in the production design and some of the lighting, particularly in an important sequence in a nightclub.” As for film grain, “Alejandro loves it, and once we decided to make the grain of Super 16 the texture of Morocco, we carried [grain] through Mexico and Japan to different degrees.”  

Terror Abroad
Despite the filmmakers’ vow to avoid a bleach bypass, it came into play as they began refining the details of Morocco’s palette. “We wanted Morocco to feel difficult, almost dirty, because of what transpires there,” says Prieto. “Alejandro wanted to feel the texture of the film grain and contrast, and to me that suggested at least some degree of bleach bypass. When we learned the stock I initially wanted to use for that, Kodak [Vision 800T] 5289, had been discontinued, I thought, ‘Why not Super 16?’ Alejandro liked the idea, and after testing, we decided to go with it.  

“That meant we knew we’d be finishing with a digital intermediate [DI], because we knew we wanted to shoot 35mm in the other countries. But I decided to see what varying degrees of bleach bypass looked like on the negative, because I’ve always believed it’s better to do that process photochemically than achieve the look digitally. But when we tested applications of 1/4, 1/3 and 1/2 bleach bypass at FotoKem, we found we couldn’t get a consistent amount of silver on the 16mm negative. I wasn’t happy with the variation, so we decided to achieve the effect in the DI. We took our bleach-bypass tests to clair Laboratories in France, which processed some of our Morocco material, and determined with [colorist] Yvan Lucas what percentage of contrast and desaturation we had to apply with the [Discreet] Lustre to match the look we liked. It worked out well.”  

Prieto used four of Kodak’s 16mm film stocks in Morocco to help differentiate Richard and Susan’s story from the boys’. “[EXR 100D] 7248 was our favorite — its grain texture was visible, and to me it seemed the most like 5289 — but, as with 5289, I discovered it had just been discontinued,” he says. “We looked all over the place and were able to secure just enough of it for the Americans’ story. I didn’t want the Moroccan kids’ story to be as grainy, so I used [EXR 50D] 7245, which has a finer grain, for those day exteriors, [Vision2 250D] 7205 for day interiors, and [Vision2 500T] 7218 for a couple of night interiors and a day-for-night shot.”

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