A Personal Project for Prieto

Rodrigo Prieto, ASC, AMC, recently had the opportunity to write, direct and shoot a short film about a social issue of his choice for the film and philanthropy organization Candescent Films. He chose one that has affected his family: body image. Rodrigo’s daughter Ximena struggled with an eating disorder as a teenager. “It’s a complex issue for a family to deal with,” he says. “Especially as a parent, it’s very hard, because the more you try to help, sometimes, the worse it gets. It’s not as easy as just telling your son or daughter to eat. It’s all about them controlling the only thing they can control. It’s a mental illness."

“This film was actually a way for me to communicate with my daughter,” Rodrigo continues. “She worked on it with me as my creative consultant. Every idea I had, I would ask if it felt right to her. It was a way of talking about the issue, and I think it was very helpful for me. She told me that a big step to recovery is being able to acknowledge and talk about the problem. There is so much stigma and shame attached to eating disorders. Making this film, and showing an actor going through these feelings of unworthiness, is a way of saying emotional pain is nothing to be ashamed of. This can happen to anyone, even ‘regular’ kids. I hope the film helps kids feel safe enough to be open about it.”

Rodrigo’s film, Likeness, begins with a roving POV shot of a freakishly lit party populated by fashion models who are glimpsed in surreal, unsettling vignettes as a young woman (played by Elle Fanning) makes her way through the crowd. Eventually, she enters a bathroom, where she sees her reflection. Her skin cracks and begins to peel off, and she reacts emotionally. When she comes back out, the party appears to be a perfectly normal gathering of healthy-seeming kids. The strange sights in the opening scenes were perhaps a figment of her imagination. There is little dialogue, and no neat resolution.

Rodrigo shot on 35mm film, using Kodak’s Vision2 500T 5260, which has since been discontinued. The shoot was done in two 11-hour days, with one day for pre-lighting. The location was a house in Altadena, Calif., that is often rented out for filming.

“I originally considered shooting digital,” he says, “but I was afraid the prosthetic makeup might be too clear. I used 5260 on Biutiful and State of Play, and I loved it. I wanted that texture and grain and contrast, and I pushed it one stop to get that nightmarish feeling.

Rodrigo Prieto, ASC, AMC
Rodrigo Prieto, ASC, AMC

“Wearing all those hats was certainly challenging and interesting for me. Sometimes my interests as a director were in conflict with what I wanted to do as a cinematographer — timing and coverage, for example. Some areas of the party included three different lighting cues, which all had to be set up before the shoot day. The camera sees everything, panning and following, so we had to hang everything, which was tricky.

The camera was provided by 1st AC Zoran Veselic, one of Rodrigo’s regular collaborators. Steadicam operator Jacques Jouffret helped out, as did lighting consultant Robby Baumgartner, a cinematographer who previously worked with Rodrigo as a gaffer.

Under the closing credits, Rodrigo chose to use an interesting piece of audio. It’s Fanning, improvising a half-hummed, half-sung song. “When I was shooting We Bought a Zoo with Elle, one day I heard her humming to herself, and I thought it was beautiful and mesmerizing,” he says. “I took her to another room and asked the sound guy to record it. Now, it’s under the credits. I think it’s wonderful because it has a sweetness and a melancholy that are appropriate.”

Likeness was nominated for Best Narrative Short at the Tribeca Film Festival, and it also earned a Webby Award nomination for Best Drama: Long Form or Series. (It was released online via the New York Times/T-Magazine.)

You can watch the film here:

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