Rodrigo Prieto Lights Sophia Loren for 'The Human Voice'

Rodrigo Prieto, ASC, AMC is best known for his distinctive feature film cinematography in visually rich movies such as Babel, Brokeback Mountain, Biutiful, 21 Grams, 8 Mile, Alexander, and the forthcoming The Wolf of Wall Street for director Martin Scorsese. In 2013’s Argo, the Ben Affleck-directed Academy Award-winner for best picture, he combined different formats to delineate various threads of the story, a technique he has used often in the past.

In the past year, in addition to his feature work, Prieto has been involved in two unique short film projects. The first was a short he directed, titled Likeness and starring Elle Fanning. At a screening of Likeness at the Tribeca Film Festival, he met Edoardo Ponti, son of the Italian film producer Carlo Ponti. Their conversations led eventually to Prieto’s second unique project, The Human Voice.


The Human Voice is a short film based on a one-woman play written in the 1930s by Jean Cocteau. In it, the audience sees a woman whose lover is breaking up with her over the phone. The story unfolds over the course of a single day, and the audience hears only her side of the phone conversation, which is often interrupted by the notoriously unreliable Italian phone service. Ponti was planning to direct the project, and in the title role was his mother, Sophia Loren, who had dreamed of playing the role since before she became an actress. 

Prieto was immediately intrigued by the project and simultaneously thrilled and intimidated by the opportunity to work with Loren. Ponti envisioned images that were romantic, yet realistic, and without “visual gimmickry.” He wanted to let the drama come from Loren, the words and her acting. On a sound stage in Rome, a lived-in apartment set was designed and constructed by production designer Maurizio Sabatini.

Prior to the shoot, Prieto performed thorough tests with a Canon C500 camera, using a 2K 12-bit file format facilitated by a Codex Onboard S Plus recorder. The lenses were Cooke S4/I primes, augmented throughout with a very slight, almost unnoticeable degree of SoftFX filtration.

The tests included the standard bowls of fruit and colour charts, as well as elements from the set, like furniture, wallpaper, a lamp, and the wardrobe, with textiles hung from C-stands. There was also a stand-in to gauge skin tones. Prieto shot this setup with a range of over- and under-exposure, in varied lighting configurations, and in 4K 8-bit and 2K 12-bit formats.

“It was clear to me that the subtlety of colour was best captured at the 2K with a 12-bit depth,” says Prieto. “I could see more nuance in the skin tones, and in the apple, more of the different shades of red and yellow. I found that intriguing because, for me, one of the drawbacks of digital in my experience is the colour depth compared to film negative. Particularly in skin tones, I find that sometimes digital renders skin relatively flat in the sense that it doesn’t see or doesn’t capture all the hundreds and thousands of nuances of colour of the skin.

“The resolution difference between the 2K and 4K was not apparent to me unless we zoomed in to something with fine detail,” he says. “Then you could definitely see it. But the difference in colour was more apparent and more important, as well as the latitude in the under-exposure, which was a little bit more detailed at 12-bit. For our purposes, the differences in resolution between 4K and 2K were negligible, but the proper rendering of the many colours in her face was essential. So for me, it became a no-brainer.”

Digital Imaging Technician Francesco Luigi Giardiello co-ordinated with EFilm and did some “basic, but very effective” on-set colour grading for Prieto. The dailies were 10-bit, but they included the basic colour timing that was done on set, so Ponti could edit with Prieto’s starting point in terms of colour.

“Francesco was really a huge asset on this film,” says the cinematographer. “He has a good eye, and he made everything very simple and helpful for us. We liked the way the colours were reproduced on set using the look-up table provided by EFilm.”

“Rodrigo made his decisions by eye,” says Giardiello. “We chose to use a Codex S recorder because it was the most solid recorder shooting at 2K 12-bit 4:4:4. We developed the workflow and LUTs with EFilm LA and Deluxe Italy in order to have a consistent, lossless pipeline in terms of colour definition. With the C500, Codex is the only way to link CDL values with a shot clip. Along with Truelight SDI, we designed a very high-end colour pipeline on set.”

A few flashback scenes were shot on waterfront exteriors in Naples. Giardiello says that working with an icon of international cinema required some special planning. “Neapolitans love Sophia Loren as much as they love Maradona,” he says. “Working in the same tiny market street as Sophia Loren is quite impossible! So we bought a backpack and added an onboard battery with a couple of BNC connectors running out to the camera and to my Leader monitor. With a Codex recorder in the backpack, we essentially brought a DIT station with us, on my shoulder. Thank goodness for Codex!”

“What really made the 12-bit files work was the ability of the Codex to record all the information the camera could gather,” says Prieto. “That was important to us. I really had a lot of information to play with on the under-exposure side, and in the highlights as well. 

On the set, Prieto communicated time of day through changes in colour temperature and the angle to light through the windows. Changes in the lighting from bright, warm afternoon sun to cool evening blues parallel the emotional journey of the character. At a certain point, she confesses that she’s been putting on a brave face. 

“We wanted it to feel a little sadder and, basically, a cool ambient dusk light that transitions to night,” says Prieto. “The lights in the apartment are on, so it’s a much darker feel with areas of the room in deep shadow. She walks around the room through pools of light, and she stands near the window with a little bit of moonlight, almost in silhouette. It becomes much moodier and dramatic as she does. There’s a moment where she smacks down a lamp and it falls to the ground. The lighting changes, and now it’s from the ground up. These sorts of scenes were tricky to pull off while staying relatively flattering to her.” 

Ponti and Prieto devised a shot list that was based on each moment of the text. Some scenes were handheld, some were high angle, and some were booms down, depending on what felt right for that shot. One particularly memorable shot starts on her bedside table and the photographs there, slowly pans and dollies across the room, revealing her personal effects, and eventually finds Loren reflected in a mirror, talking on the phone. Her monologue continues throughout.

“At times, we didn’t even cover her for parts of the text,” says Prieto. “We just went with whatever felt appropriate. I think that the premise of how we designed the shots was very effective.”

The Cooke S4 lenses were another key to the look. “There’s something about the Cooke S4s that’s pleasing to the eye,” says Prieto. “They’re creamier, maybe, or less contrasty than the older lenses that I use a lot. Given Edoardo’s desire for a more romantic but naturalistic feel, I thought that the Cookes were very appropriate. We also used the Canon zooms. We found in testing that Francesco could make a LUT to offset the higher contrast of these lenses, so they blended pretty well with the S4s.”

Working with Loren was an incredible opportunity, says Prieto, and a bit imposing at first. “But Edoardo was instrumental in easing my fears,” says the cinematographer. “He’s a very generous director. It was a privilege for me and a very special project.”

The Human Voice will debut in Italy in early 2014. Watch for it at a film festival near you. 



“We chose to use a Codex S recorder because it was the most solid recorder shooting at 2K 12-bit 4:4:4”

Francesco Luigi Giardiello - DIT

Codex Onboard S Recorder

“What really made the 12-bit files work was the ability of the Codex to record all the information the camera could gather"

Rodrigo Prieto, ASC, AMC - Cinematographer

“With a Codex recorder in the backpack, we essentially brought a DIT station with us, on my shoulder. Thank goodness for Codex!”

Francesco Luigi Giardiello - DIT


“With the C500, Codex is the only way to link CDL values with a shot clip.”

Francesco Luigi Giardiello - DIT


Photography supplied courtesy of Jon Fauer, Film and Digital Times.