Interviews from "Expanded Cinematography":


"Finding an Artistic Inspiration"

Interview with Award Winning, Oscar Nominated
Cinematographer Dante Spinotti, ASC, AIC
(Credits include: L.A. Confidential, Public Enemies, Heat, Last of the Mohicans, and more)


Q) Everyone foreign cameraman in Hollywood has their own story on how they ended up here. What is your story?


Dante Spinotti, ASC, AIC: Ah, well my story is mostly due to chances. I decided to become a freelancer at some point, because I was no good at school.


An uncle of mine was being a DP there, so I learned English - knowing English back in those days was not as frequent as it is today. Not that many kids knew that. And then I became freelance in Italy, around 1980, I always said in the back of mind that I wanted to come to the States because I always thought that here was where the real industry was. Meaning in terms of quality, in terms of people participating - I don’t know why but I always felt, in the back of my mind, the idea to come here was important.


So it was a good way to move forward and I was lucky because Dino De Laurentiis (a famous Italian producer) was operating here in the United States and did many successful films. He was looking for people that were coming from Europe because he had an operation in North Carolina. North Carolina was a right-to-work state, so he could hire collaborators from England or from Italy. And he liked the idea of helping Italians. Dino De Laurentiis has always been very loyal to his origins you know. And he heard about me, I had just became freelance in Rome, and he sent somebody to contact me. And I finally went to work in North Carolina, which was like a step to work with people like Michael Mann and others, and there was a step to come here to Hollywood. After having done a couple movies that were seen like Manhunter with Michael Mann or Crimes of the Heart with Bruce Beresford. I had a few calls after that.


Q) Italian school of cinematography has a very good tradition - one of the best traditions in the world. And they created their own look - so called Italian school of cinematography. When you moved to the United State did you continue to work in this so called “Italian-style” of cinematography or did you feel that you had to change to work more in the so called “American-style” of cinematography?


Dante Spinotti, ASC, AIC: Well you know - a friend of mine, Vittorio Storaro, he maintains - you do your work, you are a cinematographer and you have with yourself layers and layers of experience. Actually he maintains that we have 2000 years of good behind us that backs up our being cinematographers. I haven't been that deep in the thing, but I definitely think every experience is a layer as you grow up. I mean the sensitivity then will transfer to your lighting and framing and helping the director in telling the story. In these directions, everything inside of you is useful.


I think in America, you know I was a television cameraman in the beginning director of photography, except that name wasn't director of photography - we were called cameramen. Italians hated television and I worked for a few years, 3 to 4 years, freelance in Rome and then I came to the States. And the change in ways of operating was pretty radical in many ways because European and Italian movies were made with few people. It wasn’t such a thing, rarely, if any time for a “rigging crew.” You could improvise, you have your schedule the next day, and you would go there and see what it takes. Of course you would do scouting in the morning or in the afternoon where the stage is. But it wasn’t much crew, we were 40-60 member deep, as opposed to the hundreds and even thousand member crews here. So it was a much looser way of shooting a movie. In the US, it’s more industrial so you needed to plan rigging, so you had to decide early. You can’t wait - you couldn't wait to see the scene and the action to decide on how to light a scene. You have to try to imagine it in your mind and anticipate the decisions on how to do the lighting. So in that sense it was different, but not in your aesthetic visual contributions.


Q) About changes or adaptations to American industry - do you feel or did you feel rather that you had to adjust not only in the way you were working but just your artistic style? Because it’s a different pace, it’s a different demand.


Dante Spinotti, ASC, AIC: Not really the artistic style - yes I was looking for the same inspirations, but you do have to adjust the way you work. You do have to have in mind that you need to be able to keep the schedule. And you need to move kind of fast because of the high cost of production here. So that makes a difference, not so much - you know. I would say no definitely artistic consideration.


Yes at times maybe. Also maybe it was me, but I think for most of us immediately learned how to work with more than one camera. So to be able to not just light a single shot but light a scene – which probably makes the movie better, the direction better - because you capture more important moments in a scene or in the acting of an actor or performance. You have to have another amount of adaptations with this certain method of working. And then of course you add experiences and you see your colleagues work, but personally I always like to be inspired by what is around me. By the story I read, what is around me, the faces of the actors. That’s why I try to forget how I shot the previous movie every time. Being inspired by the new material in front of me.


Q) How was your method of working with Michael Mann. He is known as a very demanding director, very visually demanding, and some people say its not so easy working with him but you worked with him so successfully. So what is your secret to working successfully with Michael Mann?


Dante Spinotti, ASC, AIC: Well I would say more than anything, Michael Mann gets very deeply involved in the movies that he does. And he expects everyone to have such deep immersion, concentration, and dedication. Michael brings the craft of filmmaking to a sort of a scientific level. He brings notes for everything, for everybody, the set dressing, the costumes, the actor, not to mention the acting later, and the lighting. He has become more so, movie after movie. So you have to be in agreement, you have to be liking what he does to be able to work with him. If you don’t like what he does, you better not work because he can be very conflictual. Other than that, we’ve been friends for many, many years. I highly respect Michael, and I guess he likes me, otherwise he wouldn't call me so many times. What else can I tell you, it’s a way of taking movie-making to a different level. It's very, almost transcendent, he used to say back in the days. I don’t think he says that anymore, but it’s very intense, very concentrated, its a very deep immersion. I like making movies with Michael because it's always a very serious visual search or research. They always bring very interesting results.


Q) So you mentioned a very important quality for cinematographers of any age: the ability to adapt. Which is a very important quality for cinematographers. What other qualities are necessary for cinematographers today? Can you name a few absolutely necessary qualities for cinematographers to succeed and make expressive films?


Dante Spinotti, ASC, AIC: Needless to say, the first part is the passion - you really have to like the whole thing. You really have to like what you do - I was a stills photographer when I was a kid. But if I had to say something, I would say forget about technique. It’s not about technique. Technique is very simple, all the modern technology is really helping, and if you really don’t know you can always find somebody that can give you suggestions on how to do this or approach that.


It’s not about technique; I would suggest that you need to be prepared in a sort of other different things like visual studies. Ideally very passionate about art, architecture, design, history, culture - I would say that’s the main thing because once you start shooting a movie, or however well you prepare - you have to be able to give answers in a very short time while you are on-set. And you can always give answers, “you can do this or you can do that, is this better, or this works.” You can only give answers if you have it in your memory. Comparing myself, my brain as a cameraman to a computer - in your memory you have to have a lot of information to be able to decide and select and give an answer.


Q) In the last few years, cinematography, like everything else – are going through drastic changes. One of those changes is that director of photography is not the only author of the images. In most pictures, even if it doesn't have a lot of visual effects, post-production still plays an extreme and important role. Basically as we call here in our institute we are going into a stage of "Expanded Cinematography". How is this affecting your work or how do you think it would affect the work of other people when they only partially authors of the images, and the final image has been done sometimes without their close participation. What do you think of this stage of development in cinematography?


Dante Spinotti, ASC, AIC: I don’t know, in my personal experience, even in a project that had a lot of visual effects - I felt that finally it depended on all I was doing - working with a director of course. The way of doing effects would be inspired by what we were doing in the cinematography. Many times I was suggesting the VFX guys on how to do a second or third unit shot on how these elements would have been approached. So when you are shooting live, you just set the tone on what the VFX operation will be in a way. I just saw The Jungle Book the other day - which was a beautiful movie, you had to admit. And we are getting into some sort of other story there – it’s another story.


It is a movie which most has been done by computer generated images. But never the less we know Bill Pope was following the production and had a huge visual contribution to the movie. You can tell that behind all these images of these backgrounds in the jungle, the way the animals were lit, obviously in the way the main actor was lit - it was all depending on the vision of the - what was considered director of photography in the project.


How this thing will proceed? I don’t know. Right now I think the contribution of the cinematographer and the ideas of the cinematographer are still key in the operation of the project. Obviously there are times - but there are ways of controlling of what you do on the set. I mean most of the time we are shooting something - like when you are shooting a feature film - you have a color correction set that would really set the tone for the scenes that you are doing in the movie. And it’s always about bringing ideas too. That’s what I’m saying that your contra pro-creation comes first. Bringing ideas to the whole operation as opposed to just giving technical hand to the operation. So in that case you can expect - one minute and the next – it’s hard to tell.


I’m proposing or I proposed when I was with the Academy, was to do a survey of the future of movie theaters in cinema. Because what is going to happen to the theaters in the future? Not a technical study but a sociological study of what do kids think about going to a theater. We know that 3D is going to be better in the future. But some main production may happen to the movie theaters in the next few years. Is the public still going to go? More quantity? Are the kids going to go to the movies?


The technology is going to be changing big time. I would imagine a tiny Oculus camera, right? Maybe you can put it on the shoulders of an Everest climber, right? Or you can put it on the shoulders of a soldier in a war zone - and it can send live images that could be streamed through anybody sitting in these living rooms, in these Oculus glasses. Even those things can be question marks. But you always need an idea behind, you always need a shade to the images, you always need lighting. I think the experience that we spend on our whole life in trying to look at the light and figure how light the movie and how to light the scene is very useful. Will probably be useful.


Q) We've been discussing the relationship between the cinematographer and special effects - you said something using the word “still.” Do you think the cinematographer is still needed for the movie? Do you think that in some point the role of the cinematographer will change, or maybe he won’t be needed for the movie?


Dante Spinotti, ASC, AIC: The role of the cinematographer will change? Substantially no. Because I say we will always need someone that has spent his life working on and thinking about the lighting. And working with light and making it work on a feature film, to give this kind of contribution to a computer generated image, and plus I don’t think the transition to total computer generated images will happen in a very short time. So again cinematography is a contribution of ideas, and it’s a contribution of many things which are about technique and about technology. So I would expect the cinematographer will be a professional figure that will keep being busy in the future.


Q) Is it possible that a professional cinematographer of the future will be equally good at lighting and working with special effects to know all the detailed software used by other people? Do you think there will be a time when a “traditional cinematographer” will be lighting not only in the traditional sense but also working with virtual tools himself.


Dante Spinotti, ASC, AIC: I mean it’s happened already if you consider the work that Bill Pope has done of Jungle Book or Chivo Lubezki has done on Gravity for instance. When you are involved on a project of that scope of course you start to learn about visual effects and all the technologies. Again, I am going to expect that all these technologies cross, go one into the other about generating with the computer, scene or sequence or an image or some live background inspired by still photos you would probably buy into that technology as well as into the digital transition from photochemical technology into digital electronic technology. And we have acquired a number of bigger or small notions to be able to perform you know our profession, even though of course our technology was film. Again I stress the point that it’s not much about the technology as it is about creativity, culture, aesthetic knowledge, and politics. Yes, you have to know about politics.


Q) What film do you consider your most challenging film and why?


Dante Spinotti, ASC, AIC: Well there is no such thing as the most challenging movie. Every movie has some challenges and some beautiful relaxing moments, inspired and flowing moments. Every movie is very challenging; there is not one that is more than another. You just jump in there, and you have to keep the speed. You have to keep the schedule. You have to do a very careful preparation and try to imagine how. You know to me making a movie is about looking for a language. You have to figure out how you are going to shoot this movie.


And the language is not something like "okay lets do it this way, lets grab the camera by hand." No, it relates to the story. It relates to everything else that is in the movie. It relates to costumes, the production design, the actors, the way it is written, the kind of period piece it is. You have to relate yourself to some references, some visual references per visual use of the language. So you have to find the language, what the language is, and that is the most difficult part of the movie I think. You better find it pretty soon rather then later.


Once you are shooting if you are lucky, that might guide you through the rest of the shoot. Challenging movies, we know that there are both stressful and have less time to shoot. It’s part of our profession. We know the history of some of the main movies of the world that were made when the elements were then tough to go through. It can be the most different possible element, the condition of the location, the relationship inside the crew. There is a lot of this stuff happening all the time. Not necessarily the movie in which you have a good time is also the best movie.


Q) When you get script, how do you work on the script? What is your own matter to work on a script? Do you make a mark, visual references? What are you doing first?


Dante Spinotti, ASC, AIC: Well it's really progressive when you're sent the script, and they would like you to say whether you would like to do this operation or not. So you read the script right, then a progression of notes that are more and more and more detailed. The first time you read it is to capture the story. The second time you start reading it for different reasons. Maybe the third time you are reading its because you are trying to visualize it. The forth time is maybe because you want to figure out how it works relative to the schedule.


You know you keep reading a screenplay for different technical, efficiency, and creative reasons on how to interpret the screenplay. One time you read because you want to choose cameras and lenses, another time you read it because you start to see the first location and so you try and tie the screenplay to the location and so forth.


Q) There are a lot of changes in technologies, so how do you follow them? Because there is a lot happening almost every single day.


Dante Spinotti, ASC, AIC: It's all relative, what makes really the changes is when you go see a movie and you have a question mark or you read about a movie and then you have some questions, and then you go and get some information, you know whether that’s American Cinematographer or the trade magazines. Or if you are involved in a project that will require new technology, then that is the moment when you will inquire. That is usually the best moment, because you will have the camera or technology supplier who will be more then happy to instruct you on that. And don’t forget about all the people around you like the DIT or camera assistant, and you know the camera operators and post production house will listen and help. Again the technical side is easy.


Q) Are you present during color correction? How do you deal with this very important issue?


Dante Spinotti, ASC, AIC: You know so far at least in my recent projects you have a DIT with whom you work with on the look for a given scene, so you really start color correcting on set. Of course the tools in the DI are much bigger and much more complex. So if you take this further, then you need some very important people here to collaborate with. Again what you do later is part of the language of the film, so its better to have an idea while you shooting as to what you are going to end up going towards.


Q) Do you think cinematographers have to have their own style, develop their own style, or do you think that they basically have to change their style for a given director? Or select a director that will be close to their style?


Dante Spinotti, ASC, AIC: No I don’t think you change your style for the director, again I think I told you I try to forget everything I did in the previous movie. So when I’m in front of a new movie, a new story with new sets, places, landscapes, and environments, I am inspired by those. I don’t put my way of lighting on top of those, but instead be inspired and informed and react to what I see in front of me. This is what I think I like to really do best, even including how the actors move. So I don’t think it is about style, it’s really about keeping your mind prepared for what you going to see.


Q) What advice would you give to cinematographers that are about to break in, and do their first movies?


Dante Spinotti, ASC, AIC: Again, the advice that I would give to your people is forget about technologies and technique, try to learn as much as you can in terms of aesthetic abilities. Finesse your aesthetic abilities and your understanding. Learn about modern art and go learn about architecture and go learn about politics.