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American Cinematographer Magazine
21 Grams, an emotionally wrenching drama shot by Rodrigo Prieto, ASC, AMC, intertwines the lives of its characters in unexpected ways.    

by John Calhoun

Unit photography by Jim Sheldon

Three years ago, cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, ASC, AMC and director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu burst onto the international scene with the Mexican film Amores Perros, which examined three unacquainted characters whose fates intersect via a tragic car accident. For his work on the film, which features a complex, nonlinear narrative and a strikingly raw look, Prieto won Mexico's Silver Ariel and Camerimage's Golden Frog. Since then, the cinematographer's career has flourished; he received an ASC Award nomination for his work on Frida (see AC Oct. '02), and he also photographed 8 Mile, 25th Hour and the documentary Comandante (AC May '03). He also found time to collaborate with Inarritu again, on the new drama 21 Grams.

Like Amores Perros, 21 Grams examines three unacquainted characters whose fates intersect after a tragic car accident. It also features a complex, nonlinear structure and a raw, handheld visual style that is accentuated by bleach bypass. "At one point, Alejandro described them as sister movies," says Prieto. But he is quick to note that there are also crucial differences between the films: 21 Grams is "more introspective, and the camera is as well. We were trying to get into the actors' eyes, to feel what they were feeling. We were subtler in the camerawork because the story demanded it."

The three main characters of 21 Grams are Paul (Sean Penn), a college professor in dire need of a heart transplant; Jack (Benicio Del Toro), an ex-con trying to hold his life together with the help of his Christian faith; and Cristina (Naomi Watts), a wife and mother to two little girls. After he receives his transplant, Paul meets Cristina and becomes her lover, and they are soon driven to a fateful rendezvous with Jack.

The filmmakers approach the material with considerable daring, flash-forwarding within storylines and hopping from one character to another. Helping to give viewers some bearings is Prieto's visual scheme. "In the script," he says, "there were cues to help you understand where you were in the chronology of each story, but I felt we should support that visually. We therefore designed an emotional arc for each of the stories, and whenever we went back to one, we tried to be at that place visually."

In other words, each of the three narratives has a visual design that evolves as the stories progress and converge. "We were separating each story with colors that we felt were appropriate," explains Prieto. "We pictured Paul's story in cool colors; the [interior] lighting is generally white, and the night exteriors have the cool, greenish look of metal-halide lamps. By contrast, we went for warmer colors for Jack; all of the night exteriors in his story are lit with sodium-vapor lamps, and we gelled lamps indoors with warm colors. The vibration of red-orange light is more intense, which we felt was right for the character. Cristina's story is presented neutrally, as something in between. In general, the lighting is white, but her story mixes so much Paul's that they both have blue-green night exteriors. And when they finally meet Jack, all three color schemes become more red-orange.

"We also played with different film stocks to keep the grain structures in different contrasts as the stories developed," Prieto continues. "When things were looking up for the characters, we'd use a finer-grained stock." For Paul's story, that meant Kodak Vision 250D 5246 stock for the scenes following his transplant, and for most of his scenes with Cristina. (Night interiors involving these characters were shot with Kodak Vision 500T 5279.) "Then, as things get more complex, we go to a heavier grain [Kodak Vision 800T 5289]. The first third of Jack's story was 5279, and then we moved into 5289." In fact, the transition occurs in the midst of a sequence in which friends are gathered for Jack's birthday party, and the guest of honor is absent.

"Scenes that show the party happening without him were filmed on 5279, and the moment he arrives, we changed to 5289," says Prieto. "It's so subtle that it's likely no one will consciously notice it." When the characters converge in New Mexico for the film's climax, the scenes are rendered entirely with the heavy-grained 5289, made harsher by the bleach-bypass process.

"Prior to shooting, we did many, many tests involving wardrobe, palettes of background colors, film stocks and lighting colors," the cinematographer recalls. "We didn't initially approach those choices in a way that actually gave them intellectual meaning; we just went with what we felt. We kept making tests, and we arrived at the final scheme through discovery, not design."

Testing also helped determine what effect Deluxe Lab's CCE silver-retention process would have on the images. "I was almost fighting [the process] in the way I was lighting," Prieto reveals. "We didn't want the look to be extremely contrasty, but we did want it to have an extra edge, a vibration. Lighting by eye, I had to fight my instincts and be very aware of the actors' eyes, which normally would have been perfectly exposed. The nervousness caused by that approach gave the shoot a special energy for me. We couldn't take anything for granted - we were surprised by the test results every time! A color that we thought would read gray would turn out to be completely black. That's why we tested every piece of wardrobe and every single set color."

Inarritu and Prieto also shot-listed the movie in prep, but only for general guidance. They wanted to achieve a style of camerawork that would feel spontaneous, but wouldn't call attention to itself. "The objective was to make the film as unobtrusive as possible visually," says Prieto. "The images support the power, drama and emotions of the story, but we hope they don't make you think about the way the film was shot. Our goal was a kind of minimalism, in the sense that we didn't use any cranes or dollies. We were working handheld all the time, even on static shots, because we wanted to create the feeling that the camera was present with the actors, moving, reacting and breathing with them."

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© 2003 American Cinematographer.