Babel; The look of Babel

The visceral power and expressiveness of BABEL comes not only from the performances but from the film’s unique visual fluidity. Using a style that is a departure from his previous film, Iñárritu sought to combine a stark hyper-realism with more poetic, dream-like sequences that work to pull the audience deep into the inner lives of the characters. To help achieve this, he was joined by a crew of top rate collaborators consisting of director of photography Rodrigo Prieto, production designer Brigitte Broch and composer Gustavo Santaolalla, along with sound designer Martín Hernández – all of whom have been integral members of González Iñárritu’s team since Amores Perros. The artistic bond already established between them made the BABEL experience even more intimate and transforming.

“Over the course of the year, we lived around the world like a big circus of gypsies. It was a creative process in which everybody gave the best of their talents and I owe to all of my team and collaborators, the best and most satisfying moments, both in the film and out of it. Without them, it would have been impossible to conceive even an inch of film,” says the director.

Key to forging the film’s unique look was Oscar®-nominated cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto’s (Brokeback Mountain) mastery of visual narratives. Collaborating closely with Gonzalez Iñárritu, Prieto developed distinctive film styles for each of BABEL’s four interlocked stories yet also found a way to cohesively tie them all together.

“We visually represented the character’s individual emotional journeys through the use of different film stocks and formats,” Prieto explains. “By emphasizing the subtle differences between the image quality of each story — like the texture of the film grain, the color saturation, and the sharpness of the backgrounds – we were able to enhance the experience of feeling like you are in different places geographically and emotionally,” says Prieto. “We then digitally combined the different lens formats used into one negative, in the same way that all these cultures and languages come together in one film.”

Production designer Brigitte Broch – an Oscar® winner for Moulin Rouge — faced her own unusual challenges while moving around the globe and encountering very diverse production situations – from the empty deserts of South Morocco and Mexico to the hypermodern city of Tokyo. Meanwhile, she worked to achieve Iñárritu’s goal of always making the art department’s efforts invisible to the audience.

“This film was one of the toughest experiences of my life, though also one of the most unforgettable and gratifying,” says Broch. “From working in the most amazing landscapes in Morocco to watching the strangest mixture of society in Tokyo, this film has shaped in me a better understanding of mankind. We decided to paint the film country by country in variations on red tones. We used orange earth tones for Morocco, electric, vivid red for Mexico and then shifted more toward a subtle red-purple for Japan.”

The film’s aesthetic was also forged in the editing room, where Gonzalez Iñárritu recruited Academy Award®-winning editor Stephen Mirrone’s efforts to tackle the massive task of pulling all of BABEL’s interlocked pieces together.

“I loved working with Alejandro because he is relentless,” says Mirrione. “He’s not satisfied unless every frame in the film makes you feel something. In editing BABEL that meant being focused microscopically on every detail within each scene. Over 2,500 distinct camera setups were shot, giving us an overwhelming palette of images and sounds to choose from. There are roughly 4,000 cuts in the film. So, like assembling a massive mosaic from tiny intricately designed tiles, the work we all accomplished only became clear to me after stepping back and watching with a little distance. I am still discovering new details, new connections, and new layers of meaning with every viewing.”

Adding the final touches of feeling and depth to the film is another long-time partner of Iñárritu’s – composer Gustavo Santaolalla, who most recently wrote the Oscar®-winning score for Brokeback Mountain. “BABEL was the third motion picture I had the chance of working with Alejandro. Since Amores Perros and through 21 Grams we’ve been developing a particular musical language that helps us to connect with the humanistic, visceral and heartfelt essence of his movies,” says Santaolalla. “The challenge with BABEL was to find a leading instrument that would connect all the characters and places, keeping an identity but not sounding like the music of a National Geographic documentary. That voice I found in an instrument called the oud, an Arab fretless instrument, ancestor of the Spanish guitar that also echoes the Japanese koto. That sound in combination with other instruments is what created the sonic fabric of BABEL.”

Also joining the project were producers Jon Kilik (Alexander, Malcolm X, Dead Man Walking) and Steve Golin (Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich). “It was great to be able to rely on the family that had been with me during the past two films, but it was also amazing to work with new friends and partners, Jon Kilik and Steve Golin. We went through a lot over the course of the film, but their spirit, experience and support was indispensable for this project,” says Gonzalez Iñárritu.

From the point of view of a producer, BABEL posed numerous challenges, but the biggest goal of all was to maintain the creative integrity of the film. “BABEL became the most demanding and the most rewarding producing challenge of my career,” says Kilik “Remote deserts, highly secured international borders, and one of the most densely populated cities on the planet made for enormous production challenges while embracing the lifestyle and work style of Morocco, Mexico and Japan resulted in an honesty on the screen that I am extremely proud of.”

Golin expresses a similar sentiment. “This was my first collaboration with Alejandro and the experience of working on BABEL was not only memorable, but unlike any other film I have been a part of,” he remarks. “Each day provided me an opportunity to witness people’s methodologies of filmmaking within an international setting and I was continually challenged and inspired as a producer. Having to overcome the obstacles and boundaries of language to find a way of working with one another helped to make this journey truly unique.”