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Prieto’s Pristine Imagery Takes Passengers to the Future



On two recent projects for Martin Scorsese, Rodrigo Prieto ASC AMC was taking viewers to the past. The pilot for Vinyl took place in the 1970s, and Silence, a feature film about missionaries in Japan, is set in the 17th Century. After those two projects, Prieto turned his eye to the future. Passengers takes place on the Starship Avalon, which is transporting 5000 people to a distant colony planet. Two hibernation pods open 90 years too early by mistake. Complications ensue. The director was Morton Tyldum and the cast is led by Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt.

Prieto is known for mixing and matching formats and recording media to underscore story and character, most recently on Silence, where he shot both digital and film. Other examples of his work include The Wolf of Wall Street and Babel.

On Passengers, he and Tyldum developed a conceptual approach built around purity.

“I try to find the texture of a film during preproduction,” says Prieto. “On Passengers, with a spaceship 600 years in the future, I felt that the air inside the spaceship should be very clean. That took us in the direction of a very transparent, pristine image. Morton had not worked with digital yet, and he wasn’t necessarily sold on it. Through several phases, I shot all sorts of tests including film negative and different digital cameras with a variety of lenses.”

The tests also compared anamorphic versus spherical and a widescreen 2.40:1 frame was chosen. The filmmakers thought the optimal look was captured with the ARRI ALEXA 65 and Panavision Primo 70 lenses. Passengers was one of the first feature films to use this particular combination throughout.

“With the Primos, I could really see a difference,” Prieto says. “They maintained the resolution of the big format, but I could open up to T2 or T2.8. The results were beautiful because the image was high resolution and very pristine, and yet had a softness to it with the shallow depth of field. It was a more romantic image, in a way. I could use depth of field to isolate the characters from their environment or, when we wanted, to include them in the environment by using deeper stops with higher ISO ratings. In the wide shots, we’d have the resolution to see these incredible interiors of the spaceship that Guy Dyas designed.”

Prieto occasionally added a tiny degree of SoftFX filtration. Tyldum responded to the way faces looked. “We knew that the movie was really about these two characters, and that we’d be on their faces all the time,” says Prieto. “The skin tones, their expressions, the texture of their faces, the colour of their eyes and the sharpness in their eyes - that was all very important.”

DIT Nick Kay provided a film-based LUT that gave Prieto a solid starting place. “I was able to change the ISO rating on the camera, sometimes even within a scene, without any noticeable degradation or noise,” Prieto says. “I might use 800 ISO on one camera, and for the tighter shot on a longer lens getting a close-up, I might use 1600 so that the depth of field appeared more similar. The ability to go to 1600 ISO while maintaining a clean image was also a big asset because the sets incorporated a lot of practical LED lighting. While shooting, we were also managing the white point on the camera itself. We were using different color temperatures for the sensor, depending on whether I wanted a scene to feel a little cooler or a little warmer. That’s incorporated into the raw image, and I could feel it on the monitor on-set and decide what worked best with our LUT for each scene.”

Kay had worked with Prieto on Vinyl, which helped. “Rodrigo wanted to veer away from a traditional style of video grading, more towards film-style grading, mainly colouring in density,” says the DIT. “I gathered some information and discerned a printer point equivalent on LiveGrade, our on-set platform. That way, when Rodrigo wanted to dial a half point of red, we would all be doing it to the same value, a value more consistent with traditional photochemical timing. That worked well and looked great, too.”


Passengers was one of the first full productions to download and process ALEXA 65 footage and deliver ARRIRAW to the lab on shuttle drives. On average, about 12 TB of data went out every day. The production used two Codex Vault XLs and eight 8TB SSD Transfer Drives.

“The ALEXA 65 produces basically four times the data,” says Kay. “Getting the data into a consistent turnaround and budget was a big hurdle. By keeping the data exchange more conventional, we eliminated extra stages of downloading and RAW processing before the lab could download to their SAN. Instead, the lab went straight to ingest, which cut turnaround time and additional lab time back to normal.

“I used 10GbE to Thunderbolt through Mac Pros to download the ARRIRAW from the Vault to 16TB Thunderbolt shuttles,” says Kay. “We had two dedicated download systems, one for each camera. We kept the data backed up on-set until we received clearance from editorial.”

Kay also used FSI DM250 OLED monitors, graded on Pomfort, and used DaVinci for stills. He used a Miranda 16X16 router, a Leader 5800 waveform, Fuji IS-mini LUT boxes, and worked off a Mac Pro.

Prieto says that the 6K imagery helps, even when the DCP in the theatres is closer to 2K. “When we did Frida, not too long after Roger Deakins made O Brother, Where Art Thou?, we found that scanning the film negative at 6K resolution, even when down-rezzed to 2K, gives you more information. With the ALEXA 65, even though technically the colour depth is the same, my impression is that I have more colour information. I’ve been enjoying the DI – I’ve got plenty of colour to work with, and there are no surprises.”

The combination of the large format ALEXA 65 and the Primo 70 lenses complicated the job for Prieto’s longtime first AC, Zoran Veselic. “It definitely took me out of my comfort zone,” says Veselic. “But being out of the routine made me more attentive and mentally focused on every shot. Every movie is different, with its own challenges, demands and obstacles. I’m grateful and proud to have been a part of the process, and to contribute to the visual part of the storytelling with an artist like Rodrigo.”

Passengers is scheduled to hit theater screens on December 21, 2016.

Images courtesy their respective owners.

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