Lessons in Light and Shadow


Aspiring filmmakers and cinematographers got a free first hand lesson in the craft with an award winning filmmaker at the historical American Society of Cinematographers in Hollywood.

Rodrigo Prieto has been the director of photography and cinematographer of some of the most elaborate and award winning films. Teaming up with film giants like Ang Lee, Spike Lee and Pedro Almodovar, he helped create rich cinematic atmospheres. His credits include the gritty 8 Mile, the intricate Brokeback Mountain, and visually beautiful Frida. Most recently, Prieto teamed up with Cameron Crowe in the family film We Bought A Zoo starring Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson.

He spoke in detail at the ASC breakfast to an impressed group of 100 guests about the process of filmmaking and stressed the importance of being a team player.

Prieto discovered his love for film at an early age by picking up a camera and making stop motion movies of monsters. At the time in Mexico, cinematography was a relatively unpopular career choice, so 12-year-old Prieto was free to experiment and innovate on the fly.

Film school beckoned.

Initially thinking about directing, he found creative flexibility working with light and photography. He found his way into the union, which was a daunting task.

“Someone had to actually die so there could be an opening for an apprentice,” he said. Working underpaid and under the radar, he eventually got accepted.

Film school shaped him as a cinematographer. It was a great starting point for him and he applied his knowledge with every job he accepted. Never afraid to ask directors to consider him for work, the tenacious cinematographer has been working in the industry since 1988 and hasn’t stopped since.

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Prieto prefers the alchemy photochemical process as opposed to the digital process. He intuitively looks for the feel of something. He finds drama in light and shadow and plays with a silouhette to create the necessary effects to tell the story. In the Ang Lee film Lust, Caution a heightened dramatic point in the film shows a man’s shadow looming over white sheets of a bed.

Prieto’s eye is always on the camera viewfinder, witnessing the process immediately. He does lighting and operates the camera simultaneously. He is receptive and follows the actors to feel their rhythm. “It is a dance between actor and cinematographer.” While it is physically taxing, he enjoys that process.

Prieto concluded with some golden advise for working within the industry. “Be flexible. Be happy on set.” A cinematographer’s key element must be “flexibility and to be able to take problems in stride; there’s always challenges.”

One can easily say how and why this man is revered and sought after to work with. “I very much identify with his work. I’ve been wanting to work with him forever,” said director and audience member Michael Abt of D’avante Garde Media.

The American Society of Cinematographers was founded in 1919 and has been dedicated to the growth and education of the filmmaker. The ASC, whose exclusive membership is by invitation only, is based on the individual’s body of work.

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