The filmmakers framed Frida in the standard 1.85:1 aspect ratio, in part to better represent the vertical architecture at the show’s numerous locations. "Titus [shot in Super 35 by Luciano Tovoli, ASC, AIC] is one of the best-framed movies I’ve ever seen," Prieto remarks. "The use of widescreen is just incredible, so going into Frida I thought Julie might want to use widescreen again. But a lot of our locations were vertical, and Frida’s paintings are vertical. Shooting in 1.85 enabled us to get closer to her paintings without cropping into them."

Prieto and Taymor talked at length about how composition and camera movement could ally viewers with Kahlo’s point of view. "The camera movement subtly creates a perspective," Taymor observes. "We wanted the content of each scene to determine what the camerawork should be – how does the camera move into a scene, and why? For most of the film, you’ll see the camera operating in a way that tells the story, which I think we don’t see often enough in movies."

She adds that the ability to forge a subjective stance was facilitated by Prieto’s skill as an operator. "Rodrigo is an extraordinary cinematographer, and it’s a tremendous advantage that he’s also an operator who is extremely sensitive to actors." Prieto cites first assistant Arturo Castañeda as an invaluable collaborator: "Arturo actually moved up to first AC with me on commercials in Mexico. He was working at a camera-rental house, and one day we asked him to pull focus on a 400mm lens for a spur-of-the-moment, B-camera shot, and he nailed the focus on an approaching car without marks on the first take. I knew he was a natural."

Prieto and Taymor shot-listed every scene, and the cinematographer notes that Taymor was keenly aware of composition not only when planning shots, but also when executing them. "Framing and composition are incredibly important, because you give the image a completely different feel depending on what you’re emphasizing by its placement in the frame," he remarks. "I start every shot by finding the camera placement, its movement and framing, and from there I light it. That way I can find lighting opportunities for specific compositions and angles instead of just lighting an area. Often I’ll set up a shot, place the camera and place the marks, but then the actors come in and do something different; if it doesn’t cause a technical problem, I won’t say anything. But Julie notices that kind of thing right away! Whenever that happened on Frida, without us even talking about what I had in mind, she’d ask the actors to adjust their movements a certain way for the next take, and they’d end up exactly where the composition worked better."

Locations and Lighting

Frida was filmed over 11 weeks in the spring of 2001. "The movie has almost 200 scenes, so that schedule was incredible," Taymor says. "But Rodrigo is magnificent, and he’s exceptionally fast. We were able to do many setups and move very quickly without sacrificing artistry." The show’s locations included sites in Mexico City and the outlying towns of Puebla and San Luis Potosi. Given the crisp images the filmmakers had in mind, Mexico City’s air pollution was a real concern. "Mexico City today is quite smoggy, so the quality of light is totally different from what it was in Frida’s time," Prieto notes. "We took a lot of stills in San Luis Potosi and Puebla and compared them to stills taken in Mexico City during that period, and the quality of light matched." Mexico’s mix of architectural styles also offered buildings that could double for exteriors and interiors in New York and Paris. "We didn’t have the budget to go to those locations, so we went to them via design," Taymor says. "We used Art Nouveau to suggest Paris, and Art Deco to suggest New York."

The production was permitted to film in a number of locations significant to Kahlo’s story, including the Ministry of Education, where Rivera’s murals still adorn the walls, and the San Angel studio that Rivera and Kahlo shared, which is actually two houses joined by a high bridge. The most spectacular location was Teotihuacan, a city of pyramids built by the Aztecs, which Kahlo, Rivera and Trotsky visited shortly after the Russian exile arrived in Mexico. In the film, Kahlo and Trotsky climb partway up one of the pyramids and talk on a plateau. "That sequence needed to stand out visually, because going to Teotihuacan is quite shocking," Prieto says. "I felt that the images needed to be very clean and sharp, so I used Kodak [EXR 50D] 5245, which accentuated the bright red of Frida’s dress and the blue sky.

"Getting permission to shoot there was a nightmare," he continues. "They wouldn’t allow us to use 12-by-12 frames, but we only had one day to shoot, and I knew the dialogue scene would have to be filmed around noon. I had to come up with a way to control the light so the close-ups would match the early-morning light of the wide shots. We took two handheld 4-by-4 frames with 216 and some beadboards, but we couldn’t hold anything up while visitors were around – they didn’t want us to ruin anyone’s aesthetic experience." Steadicam operator Gerardo Manjarrez filmed the actors going up the steps, and Prieto placed the camera on a sandbag and an applebox to film the dialogue scene because a tripod wasn’t allowed.

A number of sets were built at Churubusco Studios in Mexico City, including one for the Kahlo family home, dubbed "Blue House." The U-shaped house wrapped around a courtyard, and Prieto and his gaffer, Benito Aguilar, had to develop a lighting plan that would facilitate day and night scenes there. (See diagram on page 41.) In some sequences, characters walk from the courtyard to the street outside the gates, and the street was actually a real exterior filmed in Puebla. "Fortunately, those scenes were shot out of sequence, so I could match the real exterior light later on the soundstage," Prieto says.

In lighting practical interiors and sets, Prieto made extensive use of a light-control device he and Aguilar dubbed a "Sputnik." (See illustration) "Because we wanted Frida to have a dark, contrasty look, we needed to find ways of controlling soft units," he explains. "Benito came up with the Sputnik, which we used on Juniors, Babies and sometimes on 2K open-faced units. We usually hung the lights just outside of the frame." Made out of showcard, the device attaches to barndoors and features a slot for diffusion. (Prieto favors tracing paper.) "The Sputnik’s opening is exactly the size of the unit, so there’s no spillage whatsoever," he notes. "It creates very focused light that’s not too harsh. And because it’s showcard, it’s very lightweight and easy to set up."

<< previous || next >>

© 2002 American Society of Cinematographers.