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Immersed in Movies: Talking ‘Argo’ with Cinematographer Prieto

Immersed in Movies: Talking 'Argo' with Cinematographer Prieto

Rodrigo Prieto calls “Argo” a “visual tapestry.” That’s because the bizarre fact-based espionage thriller and best picture Oscar front runner required the cinematographer to craftily piece together various looks to pull off the creative hodgepodge of styles, genres, and locales.

But given that “Argo” is about a covert CIA mission to rescue six Americans trapped in Iran after the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy (posing as a Hollywood crew, no less), Prieto’s method was almost as wacky as the goings-on in Ben Affleck’s movie. It wasn’t just life imitating art: it was art imitating life imitating art.

“When we started talking about the Iranian section of the movie, it was a question of how to make it cohesive because we were shooting in many different places, including many locations in Los Angeles like the Veterans Administration building,” Prieto explains. “And then in Istanbul, we wanted it to have a look that whenever you cut back to Tehran, you’d know you were there. We also wanted to give it more of a documentary look than the other aspects of the movie, so we knew from the start we wanted more of a hand-held, frenetic feel.

“But also we wanted a grainier texture and for that we tested 16mm, which looked good but it was a little soft, so we decided to test other options. So because we shot the movie widescreen, we used only two perforations and zoomed into the image, which delivered higher grain. I also pushed one stop, which enhanced the grain even further.”

In fact, the entire movie has a sense of urgency, the notion that anything can happen, which accounts for its great charm and narrative drive, switching back and forth from high drama to satirical comedy during the broader Hollywood moments.

“It was scary not knowing if this collage would come together,” he admits. “But what made me think it would work was the demonstration at the very beginning of the movie. We automatically had different formats: Super 35 two perf intercut with super 8 and 16mm. There’s a variety of textures at the get-go that allowed us to play throughout the movie.”

Prieto first met Affleck while shooting “State of Play” and the actor/director hired him for “Argo” because he admired his work on “Amores Perros” and “21 Grams.” But here Affleck wanted something on the order of “All the President’s Men” meets “Logan’s Run.” “For the Washington, D.C. section, we did a more of a modern filming style with precise, clean camera movies,” Pietro continues. “There was still a lot of motion, but it was done with a steadicam or dollies. It was pretty fluid, especially in the CIA office, where Ben worked out a lot of choreography with the actors.”

The Hollywood section involving Oscar-winning make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and the down and out producer (Alan Arkin) was inspired by the high-contrast, saturated look of John Cassavetes’ “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie.” Although Prieto tested reversal film, he found it impractical, so he came up with a lookup table at Efilm to emulate the look and enhanced it during the digital intermediate process.

However, scenes shot in Istanbul’s historic Hagia Sofia locale were carefully done with the Alexa digital camera because of low light situations. But Prieto didn’t like the fluorescent bulbs in the chandeliers, which gave off an ugly green hue, so he got permission to change them to tiny 7-watt incandescent bulbs to create golden points of light. The Turkish government was so impressed that it decided not to replace them afterward.

Meanwhile, they filmed the sequence at the Canadian Ambassador’s home at a residence in Hancock Park, with Affleck encouraging the actors to stay there together for two weeks prior to the shoot. He used that familiarity to let them improvise.

But the location posed challenges for Prieto. “Ben wanted constantly to be rolling with two cameras to catch them improvising. However, the lighting was tricky because I had to make it look good in any direction and have it still be realistic. Also, the ceilings weren’t high and Ben is tall, so it was hard keeping his lighting out of frame. I had to devise lighting instruments that were tight to the ceiling and still be able to control the lights so they weren’t going all over the place.”

Now Prieto has segued to another presumptive Oscar contender: Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” which takes place in the late ’80s and utilizes the cinematographer’s trademark naturalism. “Maybe I should do sci-fi next,” he quips.

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