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Over the past month, Ben Affleck’s “Argo” has firmly entrenched itself as a surefire Oscar contender. Since it opened to outstanding reviews and box office earlier in the year, numerous commentators have lauded it for its portrayal of how Canadian diplomats, American spies and Hollywood big shots worked together to rescue six Americans from Iran in 1980. It has also been praised for its gripping suspense and aesthetic.
Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto was responsible in significant part for that aesthetic – a look he is the first to admit was also the result of a team. I recently spoke to the Oscar nominee (“Brokeback Mountain”) about his part in creating the film.
“There was a lot of research material from Ben himself and Sarah Seymour [the production designer],” Prieto recalls. “We were trying to visualize the events and how they were seen by people at the time. A lot of the film is stories and the parallel between news and how we tell stories. To do this, understanding how people thought at the time was important.”
This attempt to create reality affected how the camera was used. “Not being there, we needed to figure out how to experience it through the movie," he says. "The takeover of the embassy was filmed with technology such as Super 8 that was available at the time. This also affected the grain, to create a sense of urgency and a feeling of ‘anything can happen,’ even leading to the use of a handheld camera.”
That said, there was obviously a danger of a feeling of discontinuity with different styles being used from Iran to Washington to Hollywood. These are the three worlds the film inhabits that have been discussed at length on the press tour, particularly by screenwriter Chris Terrio, who used it as a bit of a thematic structure.
“We wanted to differentiate each type of film," Prieto says. "But we had to figure out to how to do that without being distracting.” This originally led to a plan to use 16mm film for Iran and 35mm for Washington and Hollywood. But that was too striking a difference, Prieto says. Instead, the decision was made to use a 2-perf negative pulldown process (which has seen a resurgence with the advent of higher quality, lower grain film stocks and digital intermediate post-production techniques that eliminate the need for optical labwork. It gave a subtle shift in visual quality, noticeable, but not severe.
As for the Hollywood and Washington sections of the film, there were ideas to differentiate those as well. “We decided, in the Hollywood sections, to emulate the way some of the movies from the late-1970s/early-1980s looked," Prieto says. "I particularly remember Ben was keen on some of them with a particular camera style that had a high concept and high color section. We added saturation/context beyond what the negative would normally give.” This differed from the fast-paced world of Washington where in the CIA the Affleck and Prieto used very crisp camera movements that were very precise.
Even in the small section of the film set in Turkey, they sought a unique look, deciding to shoot with a very low light. Turkey also subbed in for Iran in the film, but this decision distinguished the looks of the "two" on-screen locations.
Prieto describes managing all the different formats from a technical standpoint as the biggest challenge he faced on the film. This was complicated by Affleck’s desire to shoot everything from at least two vantage points with at least two cameras.
“Maintaining lighting atmosphere is really challenging,” he says. “Besides, we have many actors and a big ensemble, so that was also challenging, to keep a sense of claustrophobia, low lights. This would especially be an issue when, for example, shooting a bazaar in Istanbul.”
In Prieto’s words, changes in technology have “not exactly changed what I’m doing but have expanded possibilities.” He says he still prefers film as he feels digital doesn’t capture all the depth and range on certain characteristics such as skin-tone. But he admits digital opens new possibilities as well, and he’s been playing with them on Martin Scorsese’s "The Wolf of Wall Street," currently shooting in New York. “I’m excited about the possibilities,” he says.
Prieto also singles out much of the teamwork that went into "Argo," as he relied on his camera crew to keep track of everything when the film and processes changed. He found Affleck “very hands on…it’s amazing how he could switch hats and be acting, producing and directing this film simultaneously," he says. "From a photographic standpoint, he’s very savvy."
Of course, the collaboration with other artists on the film did not end with the director, as Prieto also has high praise for production designer Sharon Seymour and costume designer Jacqueline West. With respect to Seymour, Prieto notes that the film "didn’t have a huge budget, so we were constantly trying to incorporate things such as a lightbulb into the set so the lighting would feel authentic.” As for West, “Costumes affect where you point your eyes and what you see," he says. "For the Hollywood section, for instance, a red blouse would really stick out and black clothes would look jet black. We had to be selective with what we wanted to draw attention to.”
That team effort in creating the look of “Argo” is among the many things Prieto fondly looks back upon when considering the experience of the film. And indeed, it's interesting to note that it's very much of a piece with the film's thematic ideas.
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