To provide soft, overhead illumination in several scenes, Prieto and Aguilar clustered several China balls lamped with 500-watt Photofloods and skirted them off with black Duvetyn. "Light from the China balls is difficult to control, so I tend to use them in situations where I can pre-rig them," Prieto says. "They work well for scenes that have to be lit so the camera can see anywhere." One such scene in Frida unfolds during the woozy hours of Kahlo and Rivera’s wedding reception; it also offers a humorous example of Prieto’s handheld camerawork. The camera "arrives" well into the festivities and weaves through the crowd like a drunken party guest, finally arriving in the main room, where Rivera’s ex-wife (Valeria Golino) picks a fight with the newlyweds. "In addition to the China balls overhead, we had a couple of Sputniks off in the corners of the room to pick up some highlights," Prieto recalls. "The Sputniks also flared the lens here and there, which enhanced the sequence’s drunken feel."

To light another contentious scene – featuring Rivera, Siquieros, Kahlo and Modotti around a kitchen table – Prieto and Aguilar clustered six China balls around a Par 64 with a narrow spot, skirted the rig off with black Duvetyn and positioned it directly above the table. "That created a soft, very directional toplight," Prieto says. "The walls fell off completely, almost to black. The Par created a hot spot in the center of the table, and the bounce illuminated the actors whenever they looked down. We dimmed down the 500-watt Photofloods in the China balls to create a warm tone, and the wood table gave the light bouncing off of it a warm glow. That was one of the few scenes we shot with two cameras simultaneously, and that rig gave us a lot of freedom – the light looked good from any angle." Coming through the window behind Rivera was a 5K gelled with 14 CTB and 14 Plus Green, a combination Prieto likes to use to suggest ambient night light. "It creates a no-color light – it’s cool, but the Plus Green warms it back up and keeps the blue edge off of it."

Following the kitchen-table showdown, Kahlo and Modotti head into an adjoining room and dance a spirited tango for an enthusiastic crowd. "That had to be shot with a completely free camera, so we brought in Gerardo and the Steadicam," Prieto says. "We wanted to give the sequence a bit of a dizzy feel, so I played around with the viewfinder, and we shot it several times with different camera choreography. We hung an Image 80 that was skirted off over the doorway where the women enter the room, and over the area where they dance we rigged a 6-by-6 Blanket Lite gelled with 12 CTO and skirted off. The women walk through a pool of light from the Image 80, past an area of darkness, and then into the golden glow from the Blanket Lite. I also had a 9-inch Kino Flo above the camera to pick up the actresses’ eyes when the camera moved in close."

Prieto is especially happy with another scene that showcases the interplay of shadows and light. After one of her breakups with Rivera, an unhappy Kahlo goes to a bar that appears to be empty. "As she looks at herself in a mirror, the ambient light fades, and a woman wearing a skull mask appears behind her head," Prieto details. "She goes toward the woman [singer Chavela Vargas], who begins singing the haunting song ‘La Ilorona.’ We originally intended to circle around the table with a 360-degree dolly, but track didn’t fit into the set. As we were thinking about laying dance floor, Julie pulled me aside and suggested that moving the lighting instead of the camera would give the scene a dreamy feeling. Just as she was describing this, a crewmember was moving a practical chandelier, and I happened to see the light and shadows moving on Julie’s face. It was a magical moment! So when we filmed the scene, Benito sat on a stepladder holding a long pole that had a Chinese lantern with a 500-watt Photoflood dimmed down to warm up the color temperature. He circled the light over Salma and Chavela, following the rhythm of the song. There was a close-up of Salma that started with her silhouetted, and as the lantern circled around and lit her cheek, a tear emerged from her eye. Looking through the viewfinder, I knew that everything had come together by chance and had propelled the emotion of the scene to a different level. Moments like that are why I chose to be a cinematographer."

An Animated Canvas

Frida literally brings a number of Kahlo’s distinctive paintings to life onscreen through a subtle blend of cinematography and digital effects. "I find that it’s impossible to completely understand and expose what it is for an artist to create, but Frida was actually an autobiographer in her paintings," Taymor remarks. "When I read Herrera’s book, I could really understand where the paintings came from in her life, which makes her very different from an abstract painter like Pollock or Picasso, with whom that’s not so clear. Like many people, I found her paintings frighteningly gruesome and revealing, but as a film director, they appealed to me because of their narrative content. I thought that using photography and visual effects to make them unfold before your eyes would be a great addition to what might otherwise be a normal biopic."

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© 2002 American Society of Cinematographers.