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American Cinematographer Magazine
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Prieto shot 21 Grams with the lightweight Moviecam SL, a favorite of his. "You don't really feel the weight of it, yet it's not like DV cams, which are sometimes so light that they shake easily. The Moviecam SL has enough weight to make carrying it a bit of an effort." He shot most of the film's scenes with one camera. "We occasionally used two, but sometimes that forces the operators to use longer lenses to avoid getting in each other's way." Because sharpness and hard contrast was a goal, Prieto photographed 21 Grams with Zeiss Ultra Primes. "We wanted to see every blemish and nuance on the actors' faces," he notes. He stuck mostly to shorter focal lengths. "The 40mm was our favorite, and we used it for close-ups. On wider shots, we'd go for 32mm or 24mm. We occasionally used 16mm or 14mm lens, but we never wanted to create a distorted feeling."

Prieto shared operating duties with Mexican cinematographer Xavier Perez Grobet (Before Night Falls; see AC Jan. '01). "For a movie of this sort, operating the camera is so much about instinct," Prieto maintains. "Although we had a very clear sense of how we wanted the shots to work, we didn't have very precise camera movements. The operator had to react in the moment to what was happening, and tilt the appropriate way. Sometimes I preferred not to explain it, but to just grab the camera and feel what the actor was doing and react to that." When the characters' lives become more unstable, the camerawork follows suit. "As things started getting out of control for a character, we'd look for frames that were off-balance, with perhaps the negative space or the air of the framing in the wrong spot." The film's standard 1.85:1 format also allowed Prieto to play with composition at the top and bottom of frame: "Sometimes we wanted to have too much or to little headroom to create a sense of being off-balance."

He offers two examples of such framing from Cristina's story arc. Personal tragedy drives her back into her old life of alcohol and drug abuse, and in one scene, "she sits on the toilet after snorting some coke. We filmed her from the shower [the only space available in the practical location], and placed her head at the bottom of the frame. This seemed to enhance her sense of isolation in a hostile environment. We also used this tactic in her bedroom, when she tries to call her drug dealer. After she hangs up the phone, we cut to a wide shot of the room, with her on the bottom left of frame, looking small and lonely. We called shots like these 'abandoning angles,' where we ended scenes with wide views, as if giving the character some space after being very close and intimate with them."

21 Grams was filmed in Memphis, Tennessee, a city chosen not for its specificity but for its relative anonymity. The story was originally set in Mexico City, like Amores Perros, but when Inarritu 's debut film became such a success, American producer Ted Hope came calling. According to Prieto, once the project became U.S.-based, "the script not only needed to be translated, it needed to be refined by someone who understood [American] culture. Alejandro gave it to someone who helped him out with the idiosyncrasies." He adds, "We decided early on that we didn't want to locate the story in a specific town. Memphis gave us the texture of a place that is not like a new American town or a very old American town, like New Orleans. I wouldn't say it's 'Anytown, U.S.A.,' but we did try to find locations that had the character and textures we wanted without them necessarily reading as Memphis."

And real locations they were. No major sets were built for 21 Grams, which led Prieto to rely on small, flexible lighting sources, especially Kino Flos. "I was trying to be very practical about lighting sources, and we pre-lit every location as much as possible," he says. "We had to devise units that would allow us the freedom to shoot in basically any direction, and to move the camera around as we pleased. We designed all sorts of gadgets to control the Kino Flos. Sometimes the egg crates didn't make them directional enough, so we made our own egg crate devices: we lined the barndoors with Velcro to insert black cutters inside and control the spread of light." Key grip Joseph Dianda also created special softboxes, dubbed "Joey lights" in his honor. "They were 4-by-4 boxes made of foamcore that would take eight Kino Flos, spread out to fill the 4-foot square," the cinematographer explains. Velcro-lined barndoors and cutters were used to direct the light. "We could quickly set them up against any surface. We'd put them right up against the ceiling, and the whole softbox would come out only 4 or 5 inches; it was very easy to move them around and keep them out of frame."

Gaffer Robert Baumgartner made his own contribution: a handheld eyelight comprised of two diffused 2-foot Kino Flos on white backing. "It was like a 2-by-2 softbox, and Robby could change the diffusion on it and walk around with the actors, keeping the eyelight on them," says Prieto. "He became like a dancer with the actors, keeping out of shot and introducing it when he thought it was needed. Little things like that were invented to keep the camera and the actors free, while still allowing us to see their eyes."

In the various locations, Prieto continues, "our approach was based first on reality, and then on what was good dramatically. Our starting point was, 'How would this place be lit in real life?' There are several scenes set in hospitals, for example, and we tested to determine exactly how green we wanted the uncorrected fluorescent lighting to be in each of those scenes." For a scene in which Cristina receives terrible news, Prieto opted for a light green; he corrected all of the fluorescents with 1/4 Minus Green and used mainly practical lighting. "However," he adds, "we were shooting in an abandoned hospital, and most of the lights didn't work. So we had to put in our fluorescent lights, which gave us the opportunity to choose where the practicals would go."

"We had to come up with some very creative uses for the gear," notes Baumgartner, who rented his lighting package from Illumination Dynamics in Charlotte, North Carolina. "A lot of the lighting [on this show] had to be done from outside or up high inside to avoid having a lot of stands around. We often used larger Fresnels [Arri 18Ks], usually with a large Chimera, either off a Condor or a platform.

"Both Rodrigo and I have become big fans of the Arri X Light," he adds. "We found that it provides an incredibly powerful HMI source that can get very soft very quickly and doesn't take up a lot of room. The film's rectory location, for instance, had windows on both sides. On one side, for the sun source, we primarily used 18Ks and 12K Pars. For the fill light coming from the other side, we traced the windows and put a 4K Arri X behind each one. Those units gave us a very natural bounce-back light - kind of like what you would get using an HMI Par and an 8-by-8 frame. We got that same quality without taking up a lot of space."

As the lighting was being designed, the picture's evolving visual scheme also had to be considered. Prieto offers an example: "When Paul gets his new heart and is feeling better, I was going for a sunlight effect as much as I could - overexposing and having blown-out sunlight coming in. For different reasons, I did a similar thing with Jack." In Jack's earlier scenes, we see him counseling a troubled young man at a community center and praying with his family in church. For these sequences and others, Prieto used a Rosco Soft Frost gel on the camera to "bloom and blow out" windows in the frame. He explains, "Using that filter gave me an almost godly religious intensity, a sense of Jack believing in the holiness of his life's mission. On interiors, I would purposefully light Benicio with the sunlight coming through the windows but would keep it off of the person he's with. After the accident, which sparks his downfall, I stopped doing that."

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© 2003 American Cinematographer.