How to Shoot All That Pink and Other Lessons in ‘Barbie’ Cinematography

TheWrap magazine: “The first day on the set, I discovered that it was really a problem,” says cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto

Greta Gerwig Rodrigo Prieto - Barbie
Greta Gerwig and Rodrigo Prieto on the set of "Barbie" (Warner Bros.)

When Rodrigo Prieto started working on “Barbie,” it gave him a serious case of creative whiplash. From the start, the Mexican-born cinematographer had loved the way he could hear Greta Gerwig’s voice in the script, and how she left things open-ended and peppered the screenplay with notes that things would change. But Prieto was already doing prep on one of 2023’s other big movies, Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” — and while it was fun to do something else on weekends during the COVID lockdown in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, where “Killers” would be shooting, it was also confusing.

“It was a good way to relax,” he said. “’Killers of the Flower Moon’ was so intense, and ‘Barbie’ gave me an opportunity to go someplace else for a moment. But I did maybe three Zooms with Greta, and then I did have to tell her, ‘OK, we have to stop these Zooms because it’s getting closer to the shoot and I need to fully concentrate on that.’ But it’s amazing how many of the things we ended up doing for ‘Barbie’ were things we talked about in those first Zooms.”

Rodrigo Prieto, BARBIE
Rodrigo Prieto (Photo by Jeff Vespa)

Those things included the visual language and the lighting of Barbie Land, the world where most of the film takes place. “There is a dialogue, I’m not sure if it ended up in the movie, where Sasha (a real-world girl played by Ariana Greenblatt) asks Barbie, ‘What are we in Barbie Land? Are we small and people are playing with us, or are we normal sized?’

“And Barbie just answers, ‘Yes.’ In a way, we wanted to be this in-between place where it looks like they’re living in toys, but they’re not toys.

“And in terms of the camera, one of the ideas that I proposed to Greta was to figure out a way to make it look like we’re photographing a miniature. We tested many different formats and we considered film, but through testing, we agreed that digital was right for this film.”

They photographed a real Barbie doll in front of a backdrop, then replicated the feel using a human stand-in and an Alexa 65 camera. Gerwig also mentioned the idea of opening a box and seeing a toy for the first time, which led Prieto to photograph the characters with either head-on frontal shots or sideways and perfectly parallel to the movement.

“There are no oblique angles and the camera always tracks in a straight line,” he said. “We even incorporated a joke, which is that the camera doesn’t know that the world is starting to unravel for Barbie, that things are malfunctioning, so it keeps doing the same routine.” When Barbie goes to the real world, though, the rules changed, with longer lenses and looser camera movement.

Of course, one of the main attributes of Barbie’s world is just how pink it is. “I didn’t expect that to be so complicated, to tell you the truth,” Prieto said. “One of the rules we had was that it’s always sunny in Barbie Land, and always backlit. But what happens is that you turn on the sun and everything behind the cameras bounces light back onto the actors. And because the sets were all pink, the faces went completely magenta. The first day on the set, I discovered that it was really a problem. So I had to buy tons of neutral gray material, and we would drape it on everything that was off-camera.”

In the end, what Prieto embraced in “Barbie” was the ability to make up new rules along the way. “One thing I loved from Greta was this sense of anything goes,” he said. “To me, it was a big learning experience. I’ve done so many movies that are naturalistic or reality-based, and I’m always feeling that the only way an audience will engage is when they believe it completely.

“Well, I’m learning that you can actually make something that feels totally fake, and yet you believe it.”

This story was part of the “Barbie” cover story in the Below-the-Line issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read the rest of the “Barbie” below-the-line stories here.

Read more from the Below-the-Line issue here.  

Greta Gerwig and Barbie below-the-line team
Photo by Jeff Vespa for TheWrap

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