‘Barbie’ Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto Explains the Rules That Conjured the ‘Artificial Reality’ of Barbie Land

The Oscar-nominated DP tells TheWrap of the unique challenges “Barbie” posed and talks “Killers of the Flower Moon”

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When Oscar-nominated cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto got a call from filmmaker Greta Gerwig to work on her next project, he was excited. He had been an admirer of her work, and was eager to work with her. But when she pitched her bubbly, 1950s musicals-inspired take on “Barbie,” he could not have been in a more different headspace — he was in Oklahoma prepping Martin Scorsese’s dark true crime drama “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

“It was hard for me to completely shift gears in such a tremendous way,” he admitted during an interview with TheWrap, but he was immediately intrigued and excited by Gerwig’s pitch for “Barbie,” and knew he wanted to do it before he even read Gerwig’s script. “I knew that she wasn’t going to do what you’d expect,” he said.

Prieto knew “Barbie” was special, but said no one could have predicted the cultural phenomenon the film has become. “I had a sense that it was going to probably be successful,” he said. “But I never imagined the scale of what it’s become.”

At $1.2 billion worldwide and $542 million domestic, the film has broken a number of box office records and is now the highest-grossing film domestically in the history of Warner Bros. Buoyed by positive reviews and strong word-of-mouth, its adoring fandom keeps expanding. That’s largely to do with the thoughtfulness with which Gerwig, Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling and others approached the material, and Prieto said his early conversations with Gerwig were intensely focused on how to bring Barbie Land to life. Which in turn led to a set of rules that governed how they conjured this pink-coated dream.

“The first conversations were about this idea Greta had about authentic artificiality, and how she wanted to feel like we are in some sort of toy world, but not completely,” the “Brokeback Mountain” and “The Irishman” cinematographer recalled. “We started talking about this notion of being in a box in a way, of painted backdrops, of feeling the stage like you did in ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ and feeling that you’re in a studio.”

Read on as Prieto breaks down the challenges of bringing Barbie Land to life from a soundstage in London, how the visual approach changed once they got to the real world and the handmade quality that permeates the film.

First of all, the film is such a massive success. Did you have an inkling it’d be this big?
Well no. I kind of always felt that it was going to be successful and never imagined to what extent, but I thought that it really had something for everybody. I had a sense that it was going to probably be successful, but no, frankly, I never imagined the scale of what it’s become. It’s pretty amazing. It’s becoming a cultural phenomenon.

I’m always fascinated by the early conversations between directors and cinematographers. What were your first conversations with Greta about “Barbie?”
The very first conversation I was involved in, I was in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and was in prep on “Killers of the Flower Moon.” First, of course, it was my desire to work with Greta. Then she started telling me about the idea of her making a Barbie movie. I thought that was incredible. I knew that it was going to be something special, I knew that she wasn’t going to do what you’d expect. So immediately, not even having read the script, I knew that it was something that I’d be interested in. Then we started having a few conversations over Zoom, and (production designer) Sarah Greenwood was also involved in some of those, which was interesting because I was in the world of “Killers of the Flower Moon” so it was hard for me to completely shift gears in such a tremendous way.

The first thing was, what is Barbie Land? How will that look? How will it feel? The first conversations were about this idea Greta had about authentic artificiality, and how she wanted to feel like we are in some sort of toy world, but not completely. She didn’t want it to look like they were small necessarily. You want it to feel like it’s their world and it’s believable, but at the same time, she has a heavy influence from movies of the ’50s and musicals and “The Wizard of Oz” was a big influence. “Singin’ in the Rain,” movies of that ilk. “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” was a big influence that I used as a lighting reference and for color. So we started talking about this notion of being in a box in a way, of painted backdrops, of feeling the stage like you did in “The Wizard of Oz,” and feeling that you’re in a studio. So I think our first conversations had to do with that and how to then distinguish the real world.

What are the unique challenges of shooting so much of this on a soundstage with that “artificial” sheen, while still making it cinematic?
I did want the lighting to feel not completely like we’re stage bound. One of our first decisions was that every day in Barbie Land has to be sunny. Then I decided, OK, we’re gonna keep the sun backlighting the characters all the time, no matter where the camera’s looking. Then in terms of the fill light — which in the real world, you have the sun and then it’s basically the skylight on top of you and then the reflection of objects from the sunlight, that’s what lights your face. If you’re backlit, you’re looking at someone with the sun behind them. So then it became the challenge of how do I, in a practical way, keep the sun backlighting every angle? It meant having a lot of big fixtures, in this case they’re called soft suns, and we had them rigged on different corners of the stages and then we have another one on a lift. So I was able to say, “OK, now we’re doing this angle, turn that one on, turn this one on,” or sometimes when the camera pans around, we’d literally dim the soft sun down, so that when you pan the camera around now it’s backlit again, so we took away one sun and brought up another. So anyway it’s artificial, but I did want it to feel almost like you’re in an actual exterior in terms of the lighting.

One of the challenges was that there were so many props and set design that was a very saturated pink, and other colors too, but mostly pink. So anytime I turned on the backlight, the bounce on the faces was pink, so all the actors looked magenta. I didn’t want to create hard contrast or anything, so I wouldn’t be able to bring in black — they call it negative fill — so instead of negative fill, I created a neutral fill. So what that is, is that we had tons of neutral gray material, and we’d drape everything that was not on camera with gray. That way it was bouncing some light, but it wasn’t tinted with color.

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We were talking about “Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” the lighting is quite frontal. Catherine Deneuve looks amazing based on that light, so that was a challenge for me. I decided OK, we’re gonna go that way because Barbie Land is innocent. We didn’t want to make the camera angles oblique and funky, it just has to be innocent and frontal. And the camera moves on tracks lateral or frontal, so the lighting had to be high-key, which is a stretch as a cinematographer. All of us are used to creating the illusion of depth with lighting, and that tool is gone when you’re lighting frontal, so I had to figure out how to get the sensation of dimensionality and depth with color. Also depth of field with choice of camera, we used a camera that has a big sensor, the Alexa 65. And the reason for that is that with a bigger sensor, you get a feeling of a more shallow depth of field. So that’s sort of the world we were navigating, trying to make it feel like a miniature but not exactly, try to make it feel like a daytime exterior but not exactly. So that was always that balance of artificial but feeling somehow authentic to that world.

It’s interesting, too, because it also feels like if you were making this film in the ’50s you would have a ton of craftspeople who do this every day, and you guys are using tools and crafts that haven’t been used for decades.
That’s exactly right. Fortunately, we were shooting in London, and there were still some of the disciples and the people that were still painting these backdrops and so we had some great craftsmen in the art department. But then again, the visual effects team also was crucial. One notion we had was some of the scenes, we wanted to actually build miniatures, and we ended up actually building quite a bit of miniatures. The one that I know was used in the movie is the big wide shot of Weird Barbie’s house. That’s an actual miniature, and other miniatures were made so that the visual effects department could scan them and use them then as CG models, but they’re based on the texture the color of actual miniatures. The cul-de-sac where Barbie’s Dreamhouse is, that’s an actual set, so the big main sets are actual sets.

Another tricky one was the beach, because obviously, the beach goes on forever. We had to make the stage feel like it would continue and yet still feel like the ocean is not water. It’s solid. There’s a wall, a painted backdrop of the sky, but then that had to be extended by visual effects to the sides. So we shot many plates.

It was technically quite challenging to create that feeling of reality, but one thing that was fun is the transportation scene, which are the transitions to the real world and back. The script just said, “and now they’re on a boat, and now they’re on the spaceship,” but didn’t specify anything. But we, as a team, came up with this idea of it being very theatrical. Sarah Greenwood, the production designer, is brilliant. She made this very theatrical thing where you’d have the foreground, the foreground ground moving on a belt, and the vehicle was a cut out that had a little bit of dimension on a fake road that little lines were moving, and then the next layer was maybe the desert on a flat painting which was moving at different speed, and then another layer was mountains that were moving in another speed. So it was all actually made practically. Like the dolphins, a person is turning around a little thing with dolphins going around, and on the boat the seagull is someone moving the seagull on a pole. Everything was completely handmade, and that was beautiful for everybody and it gave the space for the actors to improvise stuff because they were seeing it, it wasn’t a blue screen, they were actually seeing dolphins, they were seeing the cut-out mountains. So it was great fun. Pretty challenging, but fun.

What rules governed your approach to the real world?
Perhaps the most obvious is the color, not only the set colors, but also what’s called a lookup table, which is basically a digital filter or look you can choose for different parts of the film, or you can make a whole film with one lookup table. In this case, we created a lookup table for Barbie Land and we created a different lookup table for the real world and then other specific lookup tables. The LUT for Barbie Land was based on the three-strip Technicolor, which was the way lots of movies were done in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s — so many of the musicals that Greta loves were photographed and printed on three-strip Technicolor, which was quite saturated in terms of its feeling of color. So based on that we created a specific look for Barbie Land. Greta called it TechniBarbie, because it’s based on Technicolor. And then the real world, the color was normal in the sense that it was based on film negative even though we shot on digital. It looks like the real world.

The camera also behaves very differently, and the lenses and even the format of the camera. So we had a regular sensor instead of our big sensor, so that depth of field looks like a regular movie, let’s say. And we allowed ourselves to be a little more sloppy with a camera in a way, because part of the whole subject is the imperfections of the real world become attractive to Barbie. It’s what’s beautiful about life, the messiness and the unpredictability of things. We used longer lenses sometimes, which in Barbie Land was a no-no because everything needed to feel sort of close and wide. I think it’s relatively subtle, but I mean, certainly simply being in Venice, California, versus being in a studio in London automatically created a big difference.

What was it like for you to tackle these big musical sequences?
It’s kind of new to me in the sense that I’ve done choreographies as well in the past, music videos and other types of things. But here, we were not only inspired by the old musicals from the ‘40s and ‘50s, but also Bob Fosse was a big thing for us, including “All That Jazz” which is one of my all-time favorite movies. Bob Fosse he would choreograph for the camera. It wasn’t just do choreography and use several cameras to capture it, it was very specific for the composition of the camera, and that’s something we looked for on “Barbie.” I worked closely with the choreographers and it was all really thought out of what the camera was going to do, where it was going to be. It was amazing. I really enjoyed it and also coming up with the lighting for all that and designing it with my gaffer and my dimmer operator.

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I know you went straight from “Killers of the Flower Moon” to “Barbie.” Was that a tough transition?
It was right away. And in fact, right after “Barbie,” I jumped into the movie that I’m editing now — I’ve directed a film called “Pedro Páramo,” which is yet another completely different project. It happens during the time of the Mexican Revolution and has to do with people who are dead and now they’re ghosts. I’m kind of used to doing that. After “Silence,” I did “Passengers.” But it wasn’t too bad, and we started talking about the ideas of “Barbie” while I was still actually prepping “Killers of the Flower Moon” — that was a little tricky for me. I had one moment I said, “Greta I can’t anymore. I have to focus on ‘Killers.’ Let me just finish it, and then we can keep on talking.” But we did talk enough that the basis of what we then developed was in place. So by the time I finished “Killers of the Flower Moon,” I guess I felt kind of ready. I knew what it was. I had an idea of what “Barbie” was going to be and almost immediately went to London and started prepping.

I’m so excited for “Killers of the Flower Moon,” and it got such a great response at Cannes. What can you say about that experience?
It was a very long process. It started with a very different script, and then it evolved and in between that there was a pandemic, so that was more than a year just prepping that film and participating in all of that transition to what the script ended up being. Then diving deep into the Osage world and learning of their culture and being welcomed by them. It was really wonderful, because Scorsese, for him it was very important – and rightly so – to go deep into the research and understand the culture properly, and not look at it as just “OK, we’re gonna do a movie about this horrible thing that happened and here we go, we know how to do this.” It was very respectful of the families that lived this. Then to create the look of all that, it was based on the still color photography of the era of the ‘20s, that was the starting point for me for the color of the movie. So it was a wonderful experience and also my fourth movie with Scorsese, so it’s a creative relationship that’s evolved and I truly feel so lucky to work with these directors. Scorsese is someone I’ve known since film school and loved his work and then to have the opportunity to work with him, it’s amazing. And now with someone like Greta, I didn’t know her when I was in film school, but I’ve come to admire her and it’s really wonderful as a cinematographer to work with people you admire. I love that and I’m grateful to the universe for that opportunity.

“Barbie” is now playing exclusively in theaters.