To make a movie based on one of world’s most famous toy brands is to venture into a particularly public arena, where everyone has at least a passing familiarity and expects a certain recognizability. In bringing Barbie to the big screen, director Greta Gerwig and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, ASC, AMC therefore had to find the right balance between the authentic and the inventive. Working with an inspired script by Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, larger-than-life production design by Sarah Greenwood, and Panavision System 65 large-format spherical optics, Prieto helped realize a world that’s been welcomed by fans and newcomers alike, inviting one and all to participate in the fun and share in the joy.
The cinematographer recently spoke with Panavision to revisit his experiences in Barbieland and beyond.
Panavision: There are two distinct worlds in Barbie, Barbieland where all the Barbies and Kens — and Allan — live, and the real world where the Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling version of Barbie and Ken end up going. How did you and Greta and your collaborators conceive each world visually?
Rodrigo Prieto, ASC, AMC: Figuring out what each of those looked like was the key to the design of the cinematography. In a way, the real world was easier to design because we wanted it to feel naturalistic and familiar. When we as an audience see Barbie get to the real world, it’s important that we understand what it is while she's still trying to figure it out — we're a step ahead of her. Barbieland, on the other hand, is a new place for us as an audience, but we also wanted there to be some familiarity in the sense that we all have played with toys and many of us have played with Barbies — I have two daughters, and for sure I've played with Barbies!
We basically started from the idea that Barbieland is a toy world. We didn't want to make it clear whether it's miniature or it's human scale, but we did want it to feel like that whole world is inside of a box. That's why we went with painted backdrops. Our approach to Barbieland was theatrical in a way, but one of the rules we made for ourselves was that daytime is always sunny in Barbieland, so we had to create the sensation of a realistic exterior, but it's not completely real. Another rule we made is that it's always backlit in Barbieland, so the actors had this beautiful glow on their faces and a nice backlight from the sun - which meant that sometimes when the camera pans from one place to another, we had to dim-out the sun in one direction and then dim-up the sun in the new direction so the shot would still be backlit.
What drew you to the System 65 lenses?
Prieto: First, I felt that Barbieland needed to be pristine and clean, so I proposed the idea of going digital. Then I felt that in order for it to feel a bit like a miniature, we needed a big sensor so the depth of field would be shallow like when you're shooting a miniature. But Greta didn't want the background to be mushy and disappear, so it was a balance to achieve that magical aspect of shallow depth of field without losing the presence of Barbieland and all these wonderful sets.
I tested so many different types of lenses. We were looking for something that would feel not too sharp, but at the same time we weren't looking for a vintage, vignetted look - we didn't want it to look affected. When we approached these tests, I tried not to impose any idea, I tried to only say, 'This is this lens, this is this lens,' and we'd just look at them, the same shot and the same focal length with all these different lens series. I didn't guide Greta, but for both of us, our unequivocal favorites were the Panavision System 65 lenses. They worked for the big format, and we found that they had precisely the combination of ever-so-slight softness on the skin, but it didn't look non-sharp. It still had the eyes in focus, it still felt sharp but not aggressively so, and the edges didn't go towards dark vignetting. An important word for us in Barbieland was 'innocence.' It had to feel innocent, and these lenses were beautiful but innocent. There was never a feeling of abrasion or blooming highlights. We didn't want it to feel filtered; we wanted it to feel direct, like you're there, you're seeing with your own eyes.
I must say, I do love working with Panavision. The service is excellent. The level of attention to the client and the details and what we're trying to do is fabulous.
How did you approach framing and moving the camera?
Prieto: The way the camera behaved was very important. Another rule we imposed on ourselves was to be very simple with the camera treatment in Barbieland. I didn’t want the camera to be ironic or to impose angles. I thought that this should be like looking at a box, to be frontal or sideways, and that's it, and then move in straight directions. When we see a car, we see it from the side or the front or the back. The camera just pushes forward or tracks sideways, that sort of thing.
Greta called it 'authentic artificiality.' We wanted this world to feel authentic even though it's artificial. Same thing with the lightning. There's going to be a block party in front of Barbie's Dreamhouse - where does the disco ball come from? Who knows? It's just there. There's a certain magic, and the only rule is it has to look lovely. Every day is perfect in Barbieland, until she starts getting existential. That's when things change. The camera doesn't know that things are not going well for her, so the camera still does the same camera movement, but she falls out of frame. That wasn't written into the script; it was just an idea that came out of our discussions about how the camera should behave in Barbieland. That was a lot of fun for me, that these photographic decisions we made became integral to the storytelling.
Did you and Greta share any specific references for inspiration?
Prieto: Greta was very influenced by many movies she loves from the ’40s, ’50s or even ’30s, certainly The Wizard of Oz, where you can clearly see that the background is a wall that's painted — that's an aesthetic that Greta loves. We also looked at The Red Shoes and films like Singin’ in the Rain for the ‘dream ballet’ when the Kens do their dance all dressed in black with the pink socks. Oklahoma! was another reference.
A lot of my references are usually from street photography. That didn't quite apply to Barbieland, but for the real world I did bring the idea of emulating a bit of Garry Winogrand's work, which is street photography and very spontaneous. He captures all these moments that are perfectly imperfect. That was a concept that we had for the real world: Things had to be imperfect, but that's what's beautiful about the real world. That's what Barbie comes to realize.
Another reference was Mystery Train by Jim Jarmusch. There are these lateral tracking shots of these Japanese tourists as they walk through Memphis. It's a very formal frame where they're in the center of the shot, and it's head-to-toe, and the camera tracks right along with them, sideways. Those shots give a rhythm to the movie that I found really appealing and very interesting. I brought that as an idea especially for the transition shots from Barbieland to the real world and back, what we called the ‘transportation scenes,’ the shots of the spaceship, of the boat, and they end up on their rollerblades. It wasn't scripted how that would be done, so discussing those scenes from Mystery Train was a starting point.
We decided we wanted to be completely lateral with the vehicle in the center of the frame. That was the concept, and then Sarah Greenwood, the production designer, created these theatrical ideas that were all physical, with no visual effects. The 'water' was on rollers, the dolphins were moved by technicians behind the [set piece], the lines on the road move but the car itself doesn't. So the camera and vehicle are static, and everything else is moving. That was so much fun to figure out the angle, the distance, the field of view - it was very technical, but in the end I think it's quite magical. The whole movie was a very close collaboration with Sarah and her whole team in the art department. I loved working with them.
Barbie feels unique within your body of work. From your perspective, how does it compare to other projects in your career?
Prieto: I try to approach every movie as if it’s my first. Obviously I bring my experience and the things I’ve learned, but I try not to put those at the forefront. During prep, I try to learn everything from scratch and really think of each movie as its own thing. Certainly Barbie was that way for me — it’s a very different film from what I’ve done in the past. But I’m always there to make the director’s film, and every idea I bring is inspired by the director and the script. That’s why I do so much testing if I can in preproduction, so I can show the director, ‘This is an idea, what do you think of it?’ I try to understand through testing and looking at references what's in the director's mind, and I bring to that my own ideas.
It's been liberating to work with such different directors and on such different movies throughout my career. Barbie was a wonderful experience with Greta. Her leadership is very much about including everybody and really listening to everybody's ideas, and her enthusiasm guided us through everything. I was thrilled that when I had an idea and she liked it, she really manifested it. I've tried to apply that to my work as a director and as a cinematographer, using that mode of leadership where you include everybody and you bring them along on the ride. The project can be stressful and challenging and difficult, but overall the main feeling is joy. That's something that I hope to carry throughout my career.
What inspired you to become a cinematographer, and what keeps you inspired?
Prieto: So many things inspired me, but the first was making 8mm and then Super 8 movies as a form of play. I had little clay monsters, and I would do stop-motion with my older brother, and it was fun making them come alive, scaring our friends with our little horror movies or impressing them with our visual effects. We were into those genres, science fiction and horror, and it was just a lot of fun.
When I went to film school, it wasn't so much that I wanted to emulate certain directors or anything like that. I wanted to make movies, and I wanted to trick people to think that something artificial is real. You're creating atmosphere, you're creating scenes, you're creating moments out of your imagination, and you make them real to someone. That's magical, and that's what I love about cinematography. Even if it's Barbieland and it's fake, the audience is there, they're in the moment. That's what inspired me, and that's what keeps me going. Let's make this moment, and let's make it as strong and emotional as possible. And when you capture the audience, that's what I love.
All photos courtesy of Warner Bros.