During preproduction, Prieto and Taymor brought in visual-effects artists from Amoeba Proteus to discuss the animation of Kahlo’s paintings, as well as how to use effects to depict her travels in North America and Europe. "We had endless meetings about how to achieve different things, and Julie was very receptive to ideas," Prieto recalls. "A great thing about Julie is that because she is primarily a theater director, and not that technically savvy about filmmaking, she can imagine things, period, rather than think, ‘What can we do within the limitations of film?’ She would say, ‘This is what I’d like to do,’ and knowing the tools available to us, I could contribute ideas and suggest things that would enhance her idea. I found it very exciting to be able to participate at that level and help generate visual concepts."

Prieto had to recreate some of the paintings, such as The Two Fridas, Self Portrait With Cropped Hair and The Broken Column, by filming Hayek in poses matching those in the paintings; the actress wore makeup designed to look as though she had literally been painted. The live-action image then dissolves to match the painting, or vice versa. However, there was a stark contrast between the shadowless paintings Kahlo created and the film’s own rich palette of shadows and color. "You don’t see shadows in Frida’s paintings, and the lighting is quite flat," the cinematographer says. "I wanted them to have a little bit of depth on film, but they still had to feel flat. I created lots of fill with bounced light – I think the lighting ratio was 2:1. Also, the sets [depicted in the paintings] were built in forced perspective, with tilted floors, because in her paintings the perspective is a little off."

Paintings such as My Dress Hangs There, The Suicide of Dorothy Hale and What the Water Gave Me were animated with a blend of digital visual effects and live-action photography. "I wanted the effects to look as though Frida could have created them, and in a funny way, as though I could have, too," Taymor says. "Naïve can be very sophisticated. Frida was inspired by retablos [small paintings documenting religious events] and picked up on folk art, but there’s a twist with her, and I think that’s true of my work in general. Her style was very visceral, very elemental, and it inspired our style."

Kahlo and Rivera’s trip to the States is depicted with a black-and-white montage blending live-action footage of the actors with cityscape cutouts, period film footage of a Detroit factory that Rivera actually toured, postcard images and other elements. "In the original script, Frida and Diego just walk down Fifth Avenue, and how boring can that be?" says Taymor. "Both Frida and Diego did montages in their paintings, so I wanted to do something in their style. That kind of agitprop photomontage is also true to that period. It was also a cheap way of creating a vast landscape."

One of Frida’s most startling subjective visions is actually a puppet-animation sequence created by The Brothers Quay (Institute Benjamenta, The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer). Drifting in and out of consciousness after the bus accident, Kahlo sees doctors as chattering skeletons and hears disembodied voices relaying her grim prognosis. "I’ve never met the Quays, but I’ve loved their work for years," Taymor says. "I simply gave them a scenario; I said it was a nightmare featuring skeletons in the Mexican Day of the Dead style, and I stressed to make it abstract, comic but slightly frightening. I sent them books of woodcut artist [José Guadalupe] Posada and photos of the hospital room, and they ran with it."

A Digital Paintbrush

Frida’s emphasis on the subjective also led the filmmakers to visually differentiate certain episodes in the artist’s life, in some cases quite dramatically. When preproduction discussions turned to that topic, Prieto suggested taking Frida to a digital intermediate. "Ninety percent of the movie didn’t need digital correction, but some of the looks Julie wanted would have been very difficult to achieve photochemically," Prieto explains. "In addition, the film spans so many years, so many places and so many events that I thought we needed a way to control it all, to give it a unity but also differentiate the particular looks." Adds Taymor, "The idea of controlling some of the palette seemed to be appropriate for a film about painters."

By the time the filmmakers received permission to explore a digital intermediate, however, they were well into principal photography and were enthusiastic about the look of the film dailies. "Julie was concerned that a digitally treated film wouldn’t look like the film we’d shot," Prieto says. "So we tested the process by sending footage to a number of facilities [in the U.S., Canada and Europe] and asking them to match it. First we sent makeup tests, and then we sent other shots, including the night exterior that shows Trotsky arriving at Frida’s house in a black car. Our big concern was definition, and looking at the night-sequence tests side by side, we noticed the slight difference in definition on the car’s grille – we could see a little bit of moiré in most of the digital versions. Side by side, we felt that EFilm’s definition was the best." At press time, Prieto and Taymor were finishing Frida with colorist Steve Bowen at EFilm in Hollywood.

One scene that required digital manipulation is the blinding-white hospital scene that follows the Quay Brothers sequence. The camera assumes Kahlo’s point of view as a doctor and nurses discuss her condition, and Prieto used a 10mm lens to distort the perspective. "After the accident, Frida wrote that the world was transparent, like ice, and nothing was hidden," Prieto explains. "Julie and I initially talked about doing a skip-bleach on the negative for that scene to enhance the contrast and desaturate the color, but instead we created the look in digital timing, which enabled us to control just how far we wanted to push the contrast." To help create a hot image, Prieto lit the doctor and nurses from above with 4K Very Narrow-Spot Pars, and the light bounced off the white sheets and onto the actors, who were all dressed in white.

In another digitally treated sequence, Kahlo takes a solo trip to Paris for an exhibition of her work. She writes to Rivera that she’s having a terrible time, but in reality she’s quite happy. Taymor wanted the visuals to suggest early motion pictures with hand-tinted color. "I loved the idea that Frida’s letters were not fully fleshed out, like tinted photos or postcards," she explains. Adds Prieto, "We took the image to a maroonish, brownish hue, desaturating skin tones and enhancing color in some parts of the frame. The idea was to create a contrast between what Frida was telling Diego and what she was actually experiencing."

The cinematographer, who is anticipating digital intermediates on his upcoming features 8 Mile and The 25th Hour, says EFilm’s proprietary ColorStorm process is a great improvement over telecine work: "At EFilm, each scene that comes up [onscreen] appears the way the negative was originally exposed. In telecine, the timing you put into one shot carries over into the next one, and you don’t have a reference for zero color correction. But at EFilm, every shot starts at zero, and if it comes up and looks great, you can say, ‘Don’t touch it.’

"With digital technology, color-timing is finally the way it should be," continues Prieto. "Traditional timing has always frustrated me a bit, because you talk in theory about adjustments with the timer, and the next day you screen the results, then you talk again, and then you screen it again. With digital, you see what you’re talking about right away." The downside, however, is the time-consuming nature of the work. "Timing a feature traditionally takes about 10 days, and you don’t have to stay at the lab the whole time, but with digital timing you have to sit there and tweak it. It’s taking us about three weeks to finish Frida."

"Digital timing is definitely a longer process," Taymor concurs, "but for a film like this it’s worth it. I can’t say that every film needs it, but if there’s one that asks to be done this way, it’s Frida."


Anamorphic 1.85:1

Moviecam Compact; Arriflex 435

Zeiss Ultra Primes

Kodak Vision 200T 5274, Vision 250D 5246, Vision 500T 5279,

EXR 500D 5245, SFX 200T

Digital Intermediate by EFilm

Printed on Kodak Vision Premier 2393

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© 2002 American Society of Cinematographers.