Frida, photographed by Rodrigo Prieto, AMC and directed by Julie Taymor, offers a vibrant vision of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.

In motion pictures, the life of the artist is frequently depicted as a tortured trajectory leading to premature death. The remarkable story of Frida Kahlo, whose paintings are commonly described as "grotesque," "disturbing" and "surreal," could easily have fallen into that category: the ghastly injuries she sustained in a bus accident at age 16 led to more than 30 operations and a lifetime of chronic physical pain. She also married, divorced and remarried fellow Mexican artist Diego Rivera, who was as famous for his infidelities as he was for his Communist views. "The exit will be joyful," Kahlo wrote in her journal on the eve of her death, "and I hope never to return."

Hayden Herrera’s biography Frida, published in 1983, revealed Kahlo’s relationship with Rivera as one of extraordinary mutual support, and it sparked a flurry of interest in her work and life. Scripts for various Kahlo biopics began swirling in the Hollywood pipeline, and at one time or another they attracted such disparate filmmakers as David Cronenberg, Francis Coppola and Pedro Almodovar. One such project was based on Herrera’s biography, and in the mid-1990s, director Roberto Sneider and screenwriter Rodrigo Garcia sent Frida’s screenplay to cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, AMC. "I grew up seeing Diego’s murals and Frida’s paintings, and I was really, really excited about the film," says Prieto, whose credits include the Mexican films Amores Perros (see AC April ’01), Un Embrujo and Sobrenatural, and the U.S. feature Original Sin (AC Feb. ’01). "But then the project kept dragging and not happening."

Finally, Frida came to the attention of director Julie Taymor – an artist with strong feelings about artist biopics. "Most movies about artists wallow in the angst, and they repel me," says Taymor, who directed her first feature, Titus, in 1999 (AC Feb. ’00). "What I found intriguing about Frida was the prospect of striking a balance between the realism of a period piece set in the Twenties, Thirties and Forties and the interior landscape of this woman’s mind. I was also blown away by the love affair between Frida and Diego, which is the most unusual love story I’ve ever seen. It was a love affair with unbelievable parameters, and through everything, they were the most supportive of artists to each other."

When Taymor signed onto Frida, her immediate concern was assembling a top-flight Mexican crew. "I’ve always believed that it’s vital to have collaborators who are of the culture you’re trying to represent," she says. "And being a visual artist, I’m obviously going to hire wonderful people in the visual departments." Prieto was at the top of her list. "I saw Amores Perros and I saw his reel, and I could see that Rodrigo had the technique and versatility I needed for Frida," she says. "I didn’t go after anybody else, and was I ever right."

Palette and Perspective

Frida follows the arc of the artist’s life from age 16 to her death at 47. It is during her prolonged recovery from the bus accident that Kahlo (played by Salma Hayek) takes up painting. Shortly thereafter, she introduces herself to Rivera (Alfred Molina), and his mentorship quickly evolves into romance. As a couple, Kahlo and Rivera form the charismatic center of a group of politically aware artists congregating in Mexico in the 1920s and 1930s; their friends include muralist David Siquieros (Antonio Banderas), photographer Tina Modotti (Ashley Judd) and political refugee Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush). As Rivera gains fame for sprawling murals that teem with characters and ideas, Kahlo continues to paint essentially for herself, turning out small pictures that link identity with loss and isolation.

Prieto and Taymor’s early discussions about Frida’s visuals centered on the importance of bold colors and crisp definition. "I’d spent time in Mexico and loved it as a palette, as a culture to put on film," Taymor explains. "If you look at photos of Mexico in Frida’s period – before all the smog – there’s a clarity and a rich, deep contrast of color." Prieto says he found that aspect of the film especially appealing: "One of the first things Julie said was that she didn’t want to shy away from the colors of Mexico, which are really striking. Diego and Frida loved pre-Hispanic art, and the way they lived and dressed was very vibrantly Mexican. You don’t often see that [represented] in movies."

Taymor also wanted a lot of dark areas in the frame, a concept she attributes to "the many photos of Frida that show her in and out of shadows, depending on whether she wanted to hide something." Adds Prieto, "We wanted to see Frida’s world through her eyes, while still staying true to realistic settings and lighting designs. We took a lot of visual cues from her own letters and diaries; she wrote a lot about color and the ‘mystery of darkness.’"

Zeiss Ultra Prime lenses were integral to achieving the clarity and color of Frida’s palette. "The Ultra Primes offer a great reproduction of contrast and definition in the shadow areas without being too hard, and they’re not too flarey," explains Prieto, who mounted the lenses on a Moviecam Compact. "I didn’t see Frida as very filtered; I wanted high saturation of color and good contrast, and I knew the Ultra Primes would be very good for that." (He used light filtration, a 18 Black Pro-Mist, to help soften hair and makeup effects used to depict Rivera and Kahlo late in life.)

For most of the film, Prieto employed three Kodak Vision stocks: 200T 5274 for soundstage work, 250D 5246 for day exteriors and 500T 5279 for night exteriors. "I was especially concerned about contrast and grain," he notes. "The 200T doesn’t have a noticeable grain structure to me, but it’s softer than [EXR] 5248, which felt a little too snappy for this movie. For day exteriors, I like the fact that you can use 5246 without an 85 filter; it maintains very nice contrast, and even as you start losing daylight you don’t need to switch to a faster stock." Prieto typically rates film stocks at the recommended EI. "[The exposure] varies so much depending on the way you measure light. I usually end up overexposing by about a third of a stop just by aiming the ball a little more to the shadows, so I don’t need to change the rating to get a rich negative."

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© 2002 American Society of Cinematographers.