Rodrigo Prieto, ASC, AMC was at the camera for Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, a tale of greed and excess in the go-go 1980s financial rackets. This time, the duo went back a decade earlier to present a story set in the music industry of the 1970s, as it evolved from kid stuff into big business. The two-hour pilot for the HBO series Vinyl touches on the entire culture of the period – business, fashion, society, and art are all in a state of flux.
After a battery of rigorous tests, Prieto chose the Panavised Sony F55 with the S-Gamut3.Cine/SLog3 color space and a film emulation LUT to portray the rock ‘n’ roll milieu.
“That combination gave us really pleasing richness of color,” says Prieto. “We felt the skin tones looked more like film. The camera’s response to color, such as the way the blues looked in the shadows, was also important to us.”
Other building blocks of the look included a touch of extra color saturation and contrast, and film grain added in various amounts depending on the scene. The right amount of grain structure was achieved by varying film stock, exposure and development on shots of a gray card. Using LiveGrain, a system designed by Suny Behar, Prieto could apply, for example, 16mm grain in the shadows and 35mm grain pushed one stop on the highlights – in the same shot if he desired. It allowed the filmmakers to precisely control the grain structure for specific moments of the story.
“What I liked about all this was that I could create a formula that then could be reproduced in the rest of the series,” says Prieto.
Of course, lenses and camera filtration were a key aspect of the visuals, and here, Prieto turned to Panavision. “I tested many different lenses looking for a vintage feel – Baltars, Cooke Panchros, and Primos with different types of diffusion filtration,” he says. “What I found was that the Primos used with Soft FX filtration rendered a look very similar to the older glass. Of course, the older lenses have problems in terms of color matching, F-stop and close focus. With the Primos, I had total control. I am very scrupulous about these tests and when I A/B screened footage, we really analyzed it with Marty. We could not tell the difference between the older lenses and the Primos with Soft FX. That’s why I decided to go with the control of using the Primo lenses.”
What I found was that the Primos used with Soft FX filtration rendered a look very similar to the older glass.
Panavision also adapted the Primos, allowing Prieto to use the Soft FX behind the lens and avoiding the ghosting that sometimes comes with stacking filters in front of the lens. The filters themselves were custom-made with various combinations of neutral density, further simplifying the image path.
During the 32-day shoot, the filmmakers tried to maintain a rock ‘n’ roll spirit. “We didn’t want to limit ourselves in terms of one specific style of shooting,” he says. “Sometimes you devise a language for a movie or for a project like this and then you stick to it. We decided instead to sense what each scene felt like and then go for that. Of course, Scorsese is certainly a master in cinematic language. He’d come up with all these wild camera moves, and we’d execute them. There were handheld scenes, crane shots, and MōVI shots – a little bit of everything.”
Working with Panavision New York on the shoot gave Prieto peace of mind. “I felt that they really understood the F55 camera and had the proper accessories to make it work in all the different styles that we used,” he says. “Panavision accessorizes the F55 in a way that makes it the type of camera that a film operator is used to. That was important to us.”
The handheld configuration often came into play for scenes depicting concerts, where multiple cameras were used first on the stage behind the band shooting the crowd, then capturing the performance from the audience perspective, and perhaps a third time through the song amongst the giddy rockers gyrating to the music. Different concert situations called for tailored approaches – a glam group similar to the New York Dolls had one look, while a punk band called the Nasty Bits had another. A Led Zeppelin-like band at a Madison Square Garden-like event was shot from a backstage perspective.
“It was really great fun because you get all the energy, not only of the music but from the people,” says Prieto. “Everybody is listening to the music and feeling it, and to let that energy translate into the camera is exciting.”
Regarding the support he got from Panavision, he adds, “I had the option of going with any company or camera, and given the camera that we picked, I found that Panavision offered me the perfect combination of service, camera and accessories. Things like the lens adaptations they did for us might seem unimportant, but those little details really are crucial to me. Panavision is a company that caters to your very specific requirements. They’re there for you to help you solve the problems that come up.”
Looking back on the shoot, Prieto says, “I really enjoyed it. Can it get any better for a DP? I was shooting a Martin Scorsese movie set in the 1970s, about rock ‘n’ roll. Come on!”
The first season also includes episodes photographed by Reed Morano, ASC and David Franco, ASC using the look established by Prieto. Vinyl is currently airing on HBO.