The filmmakers framed Frida in the standard 1.85:1 aspect ratio, in part to better represent the vertical architecture at the shows numerous locations. "Titus [shot in Super 35 by Luciano Tovoli, ASC, AIC] is one of the best-framed movies Ive 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 Fridas 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 Kahlos 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, youll see the camera operating in a way that tells the story, which I think we dont see often enough in movies."
She adds that the ability to forge a subjective stance was facilitated by Prietos skill as an operator. "Rodrigo is an extraordinary cinematographer, and its a tremendous advantage that hes 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 youre 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 Ill set up a shot, place the camera and place the marks, but then the actors come in and do something different; if it doesnt cause a technical problem, I wont 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, shed ask the actors to adjust their movements a certain way for the next take, and theyd 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 hes exceptionally fast. We were able to do many setups and move very quickly without sacrificing artistry." The shows 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 Citys 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 Fridas 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." Mexicos mix of architectural styles also offered buildings that could double for exteriors and interiors in New York and Paris. "We didnt 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 Kahlos story, including the Ministry of Education, where Riveras 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 Fridas dress and the blue sky.
"Getting permission to shoot there was a nightmare," he continues. "They wouldnt 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 couldnt hold anything up while visitors were around they didnt want us to ruin anyones 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 wasnt 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 Sputniks opening is exactly the size of the unit, so theres no spillage whatsoever," he notes. "It creates very focused light thats not too harsh. And because its showcard, its very lightweight and easy to set up."