Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Top 10 Rodrigo Prieto Films

Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto is a master of many things. Most noticeably, he’s a master of the raw. His unflinching, grainy compositions are so perfect at capturing the grittiness of the world. He’s also a master of color. Whether it’s dark blues or crisp reds, overexposed hot light or desaturated landscapes, the man knows exact which color scheme best suits a scene. And lastly, Rodrigo Prieto is a grand master of the final shot. As you’ll see in a few of the frames below, Prieto knows how to close a film with startling simplicity. Many of these shots don’t seem that effective, until you realize they haven’t escaped your mind for days. That, my friends, is the mark of a master.

10. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Working with Martin Scorsese for the first time, Prieto gave The Wolf of Wall Street a frenzied look that was wholly essential to the film. When you break the shot list of this film down, it reads like one spawn from a student film, in which every camera trick imaginable is implored, just ‘cause. Stop motion, slow motion, time lapse, freeze frames, shifting aspect ratios – it’s all here. And then, what are we left with? A final, haunting shot of indifference and half-interest. A sea of faces looking back, wondering if they can make it too.

9. Broken Embraces (2009)
When you enter the world of Pedro Almodóvar, you enter a world of bright colors and obtuse angles. You also enter a world in which many other exceptional cinematographers have already established a theme, and left their indelible mark. The look and design of Broken Embraces fits perfectly within Almodóvar’s filmography. It’s lavish and appealing; a legitimate visual sensation.

8. 8 Mile (2002)
Has Detroit ever looked so bleak? The cold streets, the sweaty hell of the factory, the smoke-laden danger of an underground rap battle. It’s the grit of the ghetto, the permanent stain of a disadvantaged life. There are no lasting moments of achievement in Curtis Hanson’s 8 Mile. No strolls into the sunset, head held high in victory. Instead, there’s a lone figure, walking down a sticky alley in a bad part of town, slowly making his way back to work.

7. Amores Perros (2000)
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s debut film is a brutal masterpiece of the human condition. It’s a series of unflinching stories told through an equally stark lens, which allows us to immediately become immersed in the film’s dangerous world. And then there’s that final shot. That final, lasting shot that helps put the entire film into perspective. A new life is only a few long steps away.

6. Babel (2006)
A bright red dress covered in sand and dirt and fear is a terrifying backdrop of a harsh desert. The shifting, flashing lights of a nightclub so expertly capture the emotional turmoil within. A mundane Moroccan mountain is heaven on Earth for two joyful boys in the wind, while a drab village miles away is hell for panicked tourists. Babel is a film about different worlds colliding, and I so love how they are connected through Prieto’s lens.

5. Biutiful (2010)
One of the best shots of Rodrigo Prieto’s career is Javier Bardem walking on a bridge in Barcelona, making a quick phone call. Lit only by bright street lights and the fading blue sky, Bardem looks up and notices two flocks of birds intersecting and dancing in the sky together. In one shot, the camera follows the birds in the air, turns 360 degrees, then finds Bardem again, standing blankly, looking, thinking. It’s absolute perfection.

4. Lust, Caution (2007)
The look of Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution is an exercise into the lasting impact of shooting on film. Now, don’t get me wrong, as an independent filmmaker myself, shooting digitally has allowed me to have a career, for which I am forever grateful. I love digital filmmaking, but I’ll be the first to admit that digital lacks the texture of film; a deep texture that cannot be replicated. Lust, Caution speaks to this perfectly. The entire film looks like a goddamn painting; textured, balanced and, by all accounts, utterly flawless.

3. 21 Grams (2003)

Prieto and Iñárritu’s grittiest and most daring collaboration is 21 Grams. A film executed so unforgivingly – in acting, editing, writing and look – that the viewer can’t help but squirm. Whether Prieto is bathing a grief-stricken Naomi Watts in shallow red light, watching birds frantically fly above a magic hour hospital, or over exposing the light inside a liquor store, every shot in 21 Grams is achieved to promote the film’s overall dread. And ultimately, we’re left with one of my favorite closing shots in all of cinema. An empty pool in front of a shitty motel in the wrong side of nowhere, cluttered with random junk and falling snow. There is nothing. There is no goodbye. This is the end.

2. Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Here’s the best way I can highlight Rodrigo Prieto’s Oscar-nominated cinematography for Brokeback Mountain: choose any still frame from the movie, and marvel at its greatest. Literally, any frame. It’s that good.

1. 25th Hour (2002)

The grainy introduction of our doomed antihero, Monty Brogan, and his vintage Super Bee. The over-washed New York hell shown in Monty’s Fuck You speech. The reflections of a Wall Street office used as a source of confinement. The way a dance floor bleeds like a tempting blue inferno. Or a club bathroom in which lush reds are an invitation to lost innocence. An over-exposed interrogation room is a glimpse into the harsh realities of the law. And, of course, a stark glace into the hollow depth of Ground Zero, one that doesn’t play as Never Forget, but rather, Do Not Ignore. All of these sequences look like they belong in a different movie. A different time. A different place. A different life. A life that came so close to never happening.

Also from And So it Begins…


  1. Prieto is another of my favorite cinematographers working today. It's a shame that you nor the upcoming filmmakers of the next generation won't be shooting in film. Sure, digital has some advantages but it saddens me that no one will be able to create a film shot on film. QT was right. It just saddens me as a film buff and as an aspiring filmmaker.

    For me, my Prieto top 10 are:

    1. Brokeback Mountain
    2. Amores Perros
    3. Lust, Caution
    4. 8 Mile
    5. The 25th Hour
    6. 21 Grams
    7. Biutiful
    8. Babel
    9. Broken Embraces
    10. The Wolf of Wall Street.

    I would also give honorable mentions to his work on Argo, We Bought a Zoo, and Frida which I think are amazing for the sense of style he creates. He is a master of dark lighting and maintaining something that feels natural.

    The stuff he does with Oliver Stone like Alexander and Wall Street 2 aren't so great because with the former, it was overwhelmed by its bad visual effects and bloated set design while in the latter, I thought it was mediocre as it didn't really have a lot of life to it. I blame Stone for the reasons why those films didn't work visually as it's an indication of how out-of-touch he is as a filmmaker as he is someone who needs to retire.

    BTW, do you remember Prieto's cameo in Brokeback Mountain? I thought that was a cool moment in the film.

    1. Great list. Love that we chose the same flicks, just in a slightly different order. I didn't care for We Bought a Zoo, but goddamn, that film looked amazing. Also agree with what you said about Alexander and Wall Street 2. In Brokeback, he played the guy Jack picked up in Mexico, right? Very important moment in the film.

  2. The Wolf of Wall Street? 8 Mile? Brokeback Mountain? 21 Grams? Holy shiiiit. Cheers to this guy!

    Great post, Alex, thanks for pointing this guy out! I'll be looking out for him from now on.

    1. My pleasure! Dude knows how to shoot a film, right? His filmography is insane.

  3. A real unsung hero as so eloquently highlighted here, Alex. I wasn't familiar with Prieto's name (an unfair ignorance associated to most cinematographers, I find) but it just goes to show how important their work is to the overall process. I love that shot you've picked from Broken Embraces. I love the composition particularly. Prieto has worked on a truly spectacular body of films. I like your challenge to pick any frame from Brokeback Mountain to marvel at its greatness - great screenshot choice by the way.

    1. Thanks Dan! It is a shame that the names of DPs aren't more well known, because their job on a film is so essential. Of all the stills in Brokeback, that one I picked is my favorite. It's funny, my love for shots of actors' backs comes from Bergman's The Virgin Spring. And on the Criterion for that movie, Ang Lee does the introduction and says that shot of Sydow's back in The Virgin Spring is his favorite shot from any movie. That's why Lee always has similar shots in his films. Love that.

  4. I've been meaning to see Babel, Biutiful, and 21 grams (unknowing Prieto did the cinematography) and they sound and look beautiful! Great post!

    1. Thanks Rachel! I'm curious, have you seen Amores Perros? Either way, you have some really intense films ahead of you. Iñárritu holds nothing back. Good luck! :)

    2. I haven't not, but now that you suggested it, I will!

    3. His movies are So. Good. but very, very taxing. Please do not marathon all of them in one day, I don't want to be responsible for an emotional breakdown that you might have!

  5. Ah, what a great DP! I had no idea he did 25th Hour, I must re-watch it soon. My personal favourite of Prieto's is 21 Grams, the look of it is so brutal and unflinching, and coupled with the acting (Naomi Watts in particular) makes it so much more haunting.

    It's a shame that DP's in general are not as well known by the public as actors and directors are. My personal favourites are Gordon Willis (RIP) Sven Nykvist, Roger Deakins & Emmanuel Lubezki. Who are your favourite DPs?

    1. Definitely one of the best DPs ever. 21 Grams is flawless in its grainy design. Just astounding. I actually made a list of my favorite DPs a few years ago. I think it'd be the same today. Nykvist will always be my favorite :)


  6. See I learn so much here. I didn't even know the man's name let alone that he did cinematography to all those brilliant films.

    I love that shot you chose for Wolf of Wall Street - the most important aspect of it, the one that Scorsese lets audience figure out and notice for themselves, is that yellow note and it's the most saturated part of the shot. Genius, especially that there is yellow near that on walls and in lights yet the eye still goes to that note. Another shot I loved in that movie is when Jordan wakes up after his bachelor party and walks over to the widow. That was so iconic.

    1. Yes! That's exactly why I chose that shot from WoWS. Spot on there. It really is proof that you don't have to jam insert shots down our throats. Let US figure it out, even if it is after multiple viewings. Love that damn shot.

      And that Vegas shot is incredible as well. Really solid CGI work.

  7. I didn't realize he was responsible for all these films, that's one of the many reasons I love these posts. You are awesome!

    1. Aww thanks Brittani! Dude has mad skills, doesn't he? Want an eye.

  8. Awesome list! So glad to see Biutiful and 25th Hour so high, and it's great that Broken Embraces made the cut. How does this guy not have an Oscar (or a CinSpec?!)?

    1. Haha, he needs a CinSpec STAT! But really, very pleased to hear that you're a fan of his work. He should have more than one Oscar nomination by now.