The filmmakers discuss their collaboration on the popular music video about gender inequality.
Photos courtesy of Taylor Swift
A man stands with his back to camera, looking out at a city skyline from his private corner office. The camera pushes in until the man fills the screen. He turns around, revealing his bearded face, and exits his workspace into a bullpen crowded with desks, where he shouts commands at his adoring employees, who applaud him. He turns to the camera and winks — because he is actually multi-award-winning music artist Taylor Swift, transformed via prosthetics into her male alter ego, Tyler Swift.
In her latest single, “The Man,” Swift challenges her audience to imagine what her life might look like if women were afforded the same privileges as men — and in the music video, her solo directorial debut, she takes the concept even further. To bring her vision to life, Swift hired cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, ASC, AMC.
“Rodrigo was at the top of a dream list of DPs I had put together for this video, but I never dreamed he would be available or interested,” Swift tells American Cinematographer. “I had referenced his style, his versatility and his approach as an example of what I was looking for. I’m a huge fan of the work he’s done, and I still can’t believe my luck, having gotten to work with him.”
Prieto was immediately interested when production company Superprime approached him about the project, but “it was a tricky time for me because it was the middle of awards season, which can be intense,” he says, referring to his Academy, ASC and BAFTA award nominations for The Irishman [AC Jan. ’20]. He ultimately found he had just enough time to shoot “The Man” between the BAFTA and Oscar ceremonies. “It was good to focus on creative work during that time!” he says.
“The Man” comprises several vignettes that illustrate exaggerated male privilege: being cheered in the workplace for brash arrogance; “manspreading” on a crowded subway while women nearby try to take up as little space as possible; public urination; partying on a yacht with bikini-clad women; leaving a one-night stand through a hallway of high-fives; being lauded as the “world’s greatest dad” for giving his child a moment of attention; doing shots off a woman in a bar; throwing a tantrum over a tennis match; and, with a flash-forward of 58 years, marrying a woman several decades his junior — again, to applause.
“Rodrigo was at the top of a dream list of DPs
I had put together for this video, but I never
dreamed he would be available or interested.
I had referenced his style, his versatility
and his approach as an example of what
I was looking for. I’m a huge fan of the
work he’s done, and I still can’t believe
my luck, having gotten to work with him.”
— Taylor Swift
Moments in the video, including the opening office sequence, are reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, which Prieto shot [AC Dec. ’13]. “I think that might be why they hired me,” he quips. Jordan Belfort, that film’s protagonist, “is ‘the man,’” Prieto continues. “He used his male privilege and charisma to [steal from] all these people.”
Prieto shot “The Man” with a Sony Venice paired mainly with Panavision H Series lenses. (Panavision Primo 24-275mm [T2.8] and 17.5-75mm [T2.3] zoom lenses were used for some shots.) “Chris Cunningham operated the Steadicam,” he notes. “I’ve done several music videos and commercials with him, and he always delivers smooth moves and has great instincts.”
Capturing in 6K raw, “we framed for 2.40 but used the full sensor to allow maximum flexibility for repositioning in post,” Prieto continues. “I’ve been using the H Series lenses with the Venice quite a bit because they cover the full 6K frame and are very forgiving. They take away from that hard digital feel you can get at high resolutions.”
He also felt the lenses’ “gentle quality” suited the project because of the heavy prosthetics Swift wore. “I didn’t want to resort to diffusion to soften or hide any [imperfections in the prosthetics]. But I must say, the prosthetic work [by Bill Corso] was excellent.”
Lighting the variety of vignettes proved challenging, because “the sets had to fit on two soundstages, and they required diverse lighting scenarios,” says Prieto. “It all had to be rigged and ready to go because we jumped from one set right into the next.”
Three of the vignettes are day exteriors, but all were shot onstage. For direct sunlight, he and the lighting team generally used a 50K SoftSun gelled with 1⁄4 CTO, and for ambient daylight they directed 18K Arrimax and Arri HMI Fresnel units into 20'x20' and 20'x40' frames of bleached muslin rigged above the set. To fill in gaps, they used Arri M40 4K HMIs. “We dimmed all of the ceiling bounces way down, in part so the SoftSun would be the brightest light on the set — it was usually 2 1⁄2 stops over the ambient fill light — but also because dimming HMIs cools the light, bringing the color temperature up from 5,600 to roughly 6,200 Kelvin, which works well for skylight. Indirect ambient daylight is a combination of many color temperatures, but it’s mostly the light from blue sky.”
Prieto also used Arri SkyPanels to emulate ambient daylight in the perimeter for the park and tennis-court sequences. For the yacht sequence in particular, which features CG water, he used an Arrimax 18K on a scissor lift to create direct “sunlight” and to get a sharp shadow. “I had the scissor lift drive back and forth a foot or two in either direction to give the sensation of the light shifting,” Prieto says.
For the bar scene, the key light was a SkyPanel diffused through a 7' octagonal Chimera OctaPlus above the main table; two more SkyPanels were rigged with standard Chimeras for the two other tables. “We also had other SkyPanels reflecting off 8-by-8 Ultrabounces on the sides to create effects that suggest a dance floor nearby,” Prieto notes.
“[Taylor] asked our opinions on many things,
but she was very clear on what she liked
and what she didn’t. She was very open to input,
and I think that speaks to her own security.”
— Rodrigo Prieto, ASC, AMC
To create the appearance of a moving train for the sequence inside the subway car, Swift and the other actors sat in front of the train window, behind which the crew had rigged a greenscreen. Additionally, a 40' truss with Color Kinetics ColorBlast LEDs — directed through 216 diffusion — was placed out of frame on top of the window to create a chase pattern of colored light on the actors. “The visual-effects artists matched our interactive lighting [when they created] the background for the scene,” says Prieto. Gaffer Josh Davis proposed adding a flicker effect to the practical overhead fluorescents, and this was accomplished with a few cool-white bulbs connected to a dimmer board.
For the “walk of praise” through the stylized hallway of high-fives following the character’s one-night stand, Prieto requested that the set have no ceiling. The hallway featured multiple archways, which were about 31⁄2' apart, allowing him to rig ETC Source Four ellipsoidal spots overhead to create overexposed pools of light beneath each arch that the character walks through. The bounce off the floor served as fill light.
Prieto’s lighting for the wedding sequence was also minimal. Per his suggestion to Swift that the scene look like a home movie, it was shot handheld and keyed with a 150-watt Dedolight attached to the camera, while two trusses rigged with several SkyPanels diffused with standard Chimeras provided soft backlight.
“It was quite interesting and enjoyable to create so many different looks for a single video,” the cinematographer says. “There’s a unity of style, but all the sets are very different.”
“We need more women and minorities in
crew positions to better represent our society.
And the only way to change that is if there are
more women and minorities in crew positions.
And the only way to do it at this point
is to push it.”
— Rodrigo Prieto, ASC, AMC
On collaborating with Swift, Prieto says, “She asked our opinions on many things, but she was very clear on what she liked and what she didn’t. She was very open to input, and I think that speaks to her own security. Sometimes directors are dictators because they’re actually insecure. As a cinematographer, you want someone who will be open to your suggestions and ideas, but will have a clear perspective of their own. Then you build on that and help support them. Taylor was like that, and it was a joy to work with her.”
“From the moment Rodrigo walked into the room, everyone on our team felt immediately like he was our friend and enthusiastic collaborator,” Swift says. “He was so excited, friendly, warm and thoughtful. I like to work with people who love to create as much as I do, and having that energy brought to the table by Rodrigo elevated the entire crew.”
Swift’s video ends with a breaking of the fourth wall — with the camera pulling back to reveal the set, and Swift in the director’s chair. She asks her alter ego if he can be “sexier” and “more likeable,” which brings the viewer back to the core of Swift’s message.
In an interview with Billboard about “The Man,” Swift said, “The more we talk about it, the better off we’ll be. And I wanted to make it catchy for a reason — so that it would get stuck in people’s heads, [so] they would end up with a song about gender inequality stuck in their heads. And for me, that’s a good day.”
Says Prieto, “I appreciate the message she’s putting out there, and that millions of people are listening to that song and seeing our video. I believe that helps move the needle a little bit.” With respect to the film industry, he adds, “I think we do need to make a conscious effort to hire into our crews more women and, of course, people of color and minorities. You usually hire only people you already know, plus additional crew based on recommendations. We need more women and minorities in crew positions to better represent our society. And the only way to change that is if there are more women and minorities in crew positions. And the only way to do it at this point is to push it. I do think it’s our responsibility, and I’m trying. I haven’t been the best at it, I must admit, but I’m hoping to push it even more.”
As of this date, “The Man” has had more than 43 million views on YouTube.