'Silence' Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto on Shooting Film and Digital for Scorsese
A look into the technical landscape the cinematographer faced creating 17th-century Japan.
At its root, Silence challenges what it means to apostatize—to renounce one’s faith. The story, adapted by Jay Cooks and based on Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel, examines 17th-century Japan as officials feel threatened by the spread of Christianity among peasant villages, forcing them to abandon their faith or face imminent suffering. After the disappearance of Father Christavao (Liam Neeson), two Portuguese missionaries, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver), embark on a journey to find their missing mentor and to spread the gospel of Christianity.
"There is never a random camera move for Martin Scorsese. Every shot stems from the emotional content of the story."
Martin Scorsese had been trying to get Silence off the ground for 27 years. After 15 years of rewrites, multiple lawsuits, and talent that dropped out, the film finally went into production early last year.
Filming in Taipei, Taiwan at CMPC film studios and in surrounding areas, cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto combined film and digital formats, using ARRI cameras with Hawk, Zeiss, and Angenieux Optimo lenses to paint lush landscapes and capture the passion to Scorsese’s emotional triumph. Prieto recently sat down with No Film School to share his experience.
No Film School: You had a busy year. Both Morten Tyldum’s Passengers and Scorese’s Silence are being released in the same month!
Rodrigo Prieto: It has been. I actually color-timed them one right after the other. It was interesting for me, not only prepping and making the two movies— they couldn’t have been more different. The grading of Silence was 17th-century Japan and then going to 600 years in the future on Passengers... both had completely different looks. It was quite fun.
NFS: Silence was nearly 30 years in the making for Scorsese. What were some of the early conversations like with the director?
Prieto: Marty was really open to everything that was happening. He obviously scouted different places in Japan and Canada the many times the movie was going to be made, but he approached the film with an open heart.
"I ended up digitally pushing to ASA 1600, which makes it a little noisier, but in a way helped match the grain structure of film."
NFS: With Scorsese being so close to the subject, how did some of the early visuals come to fruition?
Prieto: [Scorsese] is very meticulous with his shot listing and diagrams. It becomes part of the bible of what we are shooting. It’s interesting because he does them even before seeing the locations. He ended up doing a majority of them in Taiwan, where this film was shot. Some of the locations were not quite set yet. On the day, we would end up adjusting as we went along.
Prieto: If Marty imagines something—a certain shot or camera movement in his mind—he finds it hard to shake it. Say something is moving right to left in his imagination, but the location doesn’t quite work that way. We will still have to figure out a way to make it work the way he has imagined it. Other times he would be flexible with what the location presented. It kept us challenged.
NFS: How did you want to paint the story’s color palette?
Prieto: There’s a progression of color in the film. We were inspired by baroque painters, starting off in cooler tones—blues and cyans—and going towards the green of nature, as it’s an important character to the story. Then we transitioned into a more Japanese feel, if I may. We went with more amber, yellow, and gold hues that would represent the same Japanese screen art during the Edo period.
"Marty is known for his elaborate cinematic language.... He felt this story required a simpler language."
NFS: Did the period inspire the camera compositions?
Prieto: From the beginning, we talked about the restraints in terms of shooting. Marty is known for his elaborate cinematic language; designing complex shots comes naturally to him. He felt this story required a simpler language. This doesn’t mean that shooting wasn’t extremely technical and challenging—the shots are quieter visually. There were only certain instances where the camera is in a strange position or a sudden camera movement.
NFS: More of a documentary approach than creating a visual style?
Prieto: In a way, but it’s more than that. Marty chooses every camera angle, and whether the camera moves or not is the result of a deep understanding of what he wants to express in each scene. There is never a random camera move. Every shot he comes up with stems from the emotional content of the story. The camera is propelling the energy and if the tension of the scene requires you to be static, he will go that way.
"We used film for what it's best at—skin tone and nuance on faces and color of the landscape—then digital for low-light situations."
NFS: Was shooting 35mm the first choice?
Prieto: We agreed immediately we wanted to shoot on film. We actually shot all the night scenes digitally to capture them in candlelight or the dusk scenes with torches. It was the best of both worlds. We used film for what it's best at—to capture skin tone and nuance on the faces and the color of the landscape—then digital for low-light situations.
NFS: Did that bring up any continuity issues?
Prieto: Not necessarily between the cameras themselves, but more from a lighting standpoint because of the constant changes of weather at our locations. In a few hours, we could have sunlight, then rain or fog and clouds.
NFS: How did you combat those issues?
Prieto: I decided to shoot some scenes at night and light them for sunset or dusk so we would have consistency in the lighting. This meant we had to place big lighting rigs to simulate daylight in exteriors. I ended up digitally pushing to ASA 1600, which makes it a little noisier, but in a way helped match the grain structure of film.
NFS: Any scenes in particular?
Prieto: There was one in the courtyard which was built by our production designer Dante Ferretti Rodrigues. Marty wanted it to feel like a soft, bluish sunset and the scene was eight pages long, so I suggested we shoot it for two days during the last 30 minutes of daylight.
NFS: How did you light it?
Prieto: We used HMI balloons to create the ambient daylight, plus these big Tungsten lights to create the sun in the courtyard. It gave us the continuity we needed to continue shooting.
"During the dramatic moments near the end of the film, we wanted it to look like hell."
NFS: You also needed to create the look of moonlight for many of the night scenes. How did you accomplish that?
Prieto: In the scenes where I was actually able to use a crane, my gaffer Karl Engeler built a huge soft lighting box we called the “UFO.” It’s basically a rig with 12x12 of trust and a kind of inverted semi-pyramid form full of light bulbs to simulate the color of moonlight. We used compact fluorescent lights that are blue-green in color and hung it on a crane.
NFS: Fire was another source of light for you. What was the thought behind that?
Prieto: During the dramatic moments near the end of the film, we wanted it to look like hell. Marty wanted everything to be authentic so we had a team of advisers we consulted and our head researcher Marianne Bower, our set decorator Francesca Lo Schiavo, and I picked sources that were accurate. We ended up using these torches made out of iron to light exteriors and enhanced it with film lighting to make the fire effect.
"Controlling the fog was nearly impossible."
NFS: Fog seemed to be another challenge, especially when the priests travel by boat. How did you achieve the look of fog wrapping around the boat?
Prieto: The one reference was a 1950s Japanese film Ugetsu. There’s a scene where the characters are in these small boats on a lake and there’s this incredible fog effect that clutches the boat. While they shot theirs on a sound stage, we were outside in a water tank that was built for Ang Lee’s Life of Pi. It was a little defunct, so we refurbished it to make it work. We shot them at night, so controlling the fog was nearly impossible. We did our best with the fog machines and had a little bit of help with VFX to give it that eerie Ugetsu feel.
NFS: It really gives it a horror-like look.
Prieto: Exactly. Marty was really interested in that mysterious, little bit scary feel. The priests are going into the unknown. A lot of the story happens in the night because they are hiding. It also symbolizes their lack of clarity in their mission and their faith as well.
NFS: You also shot anamorphic. What brought you there?
Prieto: Nature was extremely important in this story. It was a big part of the focus of how to photograph it. Then, with the composition of Japan being a kind of horizontal island, we believed that it had to be widescreen. We thought of the 2.35:1 aspect ratio and considered anamorphic and used a relatively new set anamorphic lenses that are perfect in the sense that they do not distort the image. We didn’t want to romanticize the film, but make it feel like you were there with the priests and feeling the environment, feeling the heat.
"It was never about getting coverage. It wasn’t about filming a master shot then getting closeups."
NFS: The coverage was very emotional but still carried scope in the frame. How did you balance that?
Prieto: It’s definitely part of the planning. When we were going through the shot list that Marty designed, he always spoke in terms of the emotional impact of shots. It was never about getting coverage. It wasn’t about filming a master shot then getting closeups. He writes shot lists as if he is already editing the movie. We wanted to be able to get close enough, but still have enough space onscreen to feel what is around them and feel the environment and the temperature.
NFS: You mentioned the grade earlier. Any takeaways from timing two different formats?
Prieto: I try to approach color in a simple way. In this case, the LUT we wanted had a film look and we used it for everything. Once we did that it didn’t take that much tweaking. We only needed to do a photochemical type of grade, meaning primary color—red, green, blue—and complementary colors. Sometimes we adjusted the contrast, but I don’t like twisting the image around too much. We didn’t want to feel like an effect. We designed the lighting and color grading to give you a sense of the era.