Exposing ARGO

"As a director of photography, I like working differently from one movie to the next instead of just using one particular style," Rodrigo Prieto, ASC, AMC explains while discussing his work on the highly-acclaimed ARGO, which is nominated for seven Oscars including Best Picture. "I like to find a different visual approach from movie to movie. With ARGO, I was able to find three styles within one movie!"

The Ben Affleck-directed thriller, set during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, takes audiences through the perilous true story of CIA agent Tony Mendez (Affleck) and his ingenious rescue of six Americans stuck in post-revolution Iran after avoiding capture when the mobs infamously stormed the American embassy. Mendez's plan, to pose as a producer of a low-budget sci-fi film and sneak the Americans out of Iran as crewmembers, takes him from CIA headquarters at Langley to Hollywood to set up the front production company and finally to Tehran.

ARGO - 'Behind the Scenes' Featurette

We get a glimpse during the filming of ARGO, directed by Ben Affleck and shot by Rodrigo Prieto ASC, AMC on ARRICAMs, ARRIFLEX 435, ARRIFLEX 235 and ALEXA.

From the visual standpoint, it was very important for all of these locations to possess a subtly different look to help orient the audience through the fast paced narrative. "When we cut to Tehran," Prieto explains, "you know where you are immediately by the look of it. Same with Hollywood and Washington, DC."

 

The film starts out in Tehran as the ominous crowds start to build up around the embassy. "We wanted this to have a kind of documentary feel, reminiscent of the way we saw the news footage of that era." Prieto explains. "The idea was to shoot the Tehran scenes handheld and for it to feel a little bit grainy. So initially I tested 16mm but we found it was just a little too soft. ARGO is a widescreen film so I used the 35mm ARRICAM in 2-perf mode. Since the rest of the movie is shot in 35mm anamorphic [also with ARRICAMs], and really low-grain and clean, these Tehran sections looked a little grittier and harsher. I also shot those sections with Kodak's older, Vision 2 5260 stock that's a little bit grainer than the newer Vision 3 500-speed emulsions. It had just been discontinued. We managed to get the last of it. I also pushed the negative one stop in developing to add even more contrast and grain."

The portions set in Hollywood revolve around two motion picture veterans (Alan Arkin and John Goodman) who travel in the world of low-budget genre filmmaking that was still quite active in the late 1970s. Affleck and Prieto looked at movies from the time and, "We felt they often had this higher color saturation and we wanted to emulate that," the cinematographer recounts. "We tested Kodak's Ektachrome 5285 100D reversal stock and felt it looked similar to films we saw of the late 70’s, but I knew it would be challenging to use," Prieto explains. "It was only 100 ASA and it was daylight balanced, which made our interiors and night exteriors very complicated to shoot. So we decided instead to shoot negative -- 5219 [500T] and 5207 [250D]--and we made a lookup table (LUT) with high contrast and high saturation to apply for the dailies and later at the DI at EFILM with the colorist Yvan Lucas."

Prieto describes the process of creating this look with EFILM's imaging scientists. "Based on our tests, EFILM designed a LUT that would let us see how the colors would all track with this reversal look," Prieto elaborates, noting that EFILM's Cinemascan technology combined 2K scans [done with ARRISCAN technology] of the original negative with the color metadata to generate dailies that reflected his chosen look. Subsequently the negative would be rescanned [with ARRISCAN] 4K for the final DI with Lucas.

"The reversal 'look' was a bit too extreme at first so I had them scale it down," Prieto notes. "But because we weren't 'baking' anything in, we could applying the reversal look 100% or scale it back to 70%. We could change it shot to shot. It let us bring the qualities we liked about the reversal film to all the Hollywood scenes but with so much more control than we'd have really shooting with it."

While Prieto used a handheld, newsgathering style of operating on the Tehran scenes, he and Affleck screened a lot of 1970s films and let the camerawork of those features inspire the way the Hollywood portions of ARGO would be covered. "We watched science fiction movies like Logan's Run," the cinematographer says, "and plenty of others too. We both really like John Cassavettes's THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE. We looked at the way the camera moves... or sometimes doesn't move. There's a lot of coverage where the camera stays on just one angle and goes in tighter and tighter with the zoom lens." In his third consecutive collaboration with gaffer Randy Woodside, the team chose Illumination Dynamics to provide the extensive lighting packages. The camera equipment, which included ARRICAM LT, ARRIFLEX 435 and 235 in 2-, 3- and 4-perf configurations along with ALEXA, was provided by Clairmont.

For the portions going on within CIA headquarters that happen prior to and concurrent with Mendez's work in Iran, Prieto went with a clean, anamorphic approach that feels the most contemporary in terms of approach. "We were more mobile," he says. "We used a lot of Steadicam for clean moves rather than handheld moves."

Finally, the filmmakers employed a fourth style for a few scenes set in Istanbul, where Mendez goes in search of documents necessary for him to gain access to Iran and execute his plan. For this, he shot using the same anamorphic lenses but mounted to ARRI ALEXA digital cameras. "It could be easy for audiences to think they're in Tehran for these scenes," he says, "so I used the ALEXA and gave it a different look from all the other locations in the movie."

Prieto was also able to benefit from the ALEXA's high exposure index that let him shoot in the very dimly-lit Hagia Sophia museum. "The space was very dim," he says. "The center area of the Hagia Sophia was lit by huge chandeliers with compact fluorescent lighting inside that gave everything this green-cyan hue, which made it pretty ugly for an otherwise beautiful place. We changed out 4000 of these to seven-watt incandescent bulbs. It was still very dim but now had a look more like warm candlelight. I also bounced some [ARRIMAX] 18K HMIs off the walls of the structure to enhance the daylight from the windows under the dome. It still wasn't that much light in the huge space but I was able to shoot with the ALEXA at [EI] 800." Prieto concludes: "It came out nicely and looked just different enough from the other parts of the film that the audience could stay oriented without losing the momentum of the story."