Interviews from "Expanded Cinematography":
"A Legendary Career in the Art of Cinematography"
Interview with Three-time Oscar Winner and World-Renowned Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC
(Credits include: Apocalypse Now, The Last Emperor, Reds, The Conformist, and more)
Q) Vittorio, tell us about your school days. You have been in the Centre Experimental in Rome, correct?
Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC: Well it’s quite a long story. But I’ll try to make as short as possible. My father was a projectionist of the company Lux film, was screening so many films in his life. Without any doubt…his desire…his dream was to be part of that image they were usually screening. So practically pushed myself to study photography and cinematography. In one single image he put his dream on my shoulders. I started in an institute of photography in Rome for five years. Soon after these five years I felt that photography was very interesting without any doubt. But the fact that it was going on with my father several times to see him at work and I was looking through the little square of the, usually the projectionist look at the screen in order to adjust the frame or just the composition of the focus. In watching so many films, the movement, the photography movement into the booths of the projectionist there’s not the sound of the film, there’s mainly the noise of all the machines, the projectors and so on. So for me what I was looking was for images in movement. So practically in my mind, as an innocent boy, the cinema was really an expression in image movement. This was my first thing.
There was a very interesting, very important cinematographer at the time working for Lux film, his name … he was a graduate in engineering, engineer Pier Bartolucchi, and my father asked to him if I was soon finished the institute of photography I can be his assistant. I received the first great answer in my life: ‘No, I will not take your son as an assistant, unless he is going to do film school first when he finishes his own film school I will take him as an assistant. Because in my opinion, the new generation of cinematographers needs to be knowledgeable.’ I was only 16, so I went to centro experimentale di cinematographia for the time and they told me Mr. Storaro you are too young, you need to follow the rules, you need to be at least 18 years old’. At the same time I was working in the photography shop to keep being a student. My family was not so rich to keep me in school. So I was continued to work in this studio and I found a very small school in cinema, which was practically, kind of center for preparing for assistant in camera operator mainly. It was not a great school but was good enough for me to keep myself as a student, practically, to keeping, knowing, having knowledge even more deeply into cinema the one that I need in photography.
After those 2 years, I went back to the centro experimentale, now I was graduating as a master of photography. I had 2 years of experience in other schools so I thought it was a good time for me. But they said me, "Sorry Mr. Storaro but the rules are changed recently because the students are very too young, now you need 20 years old. Otherwise you cannot go into the centro experimentale. That time we have only 3 place for cinematography, director, production designer, costume designer and so on." And I said I don’t have any more school to do, I would really like to start centro experimentale. They said ‘you can try’ because if they can realize you are knowledgeable enough they can go beyond the fact that you are … the correct study level that you have anyhow or your age. So I understood something very important that if I don’t prepare myself very well, because if I was arriving at the same level as the third person, he was passing not me because I was too young.
That was one great lesson, in order to say, there is a moment in your life that you really have to realize that you have to be well prepared. Otherwise you know whether you can do one step forward. I was lucky also because when I went to do the examination from 500 inscription in the beginning they came down to 100-something after they presented the first request, they come down to 27 only to after we present photograph and many other element in order to be part of the last level of examination. And I was lucky that it happened that in front of me compared 12 different teachers I had some technical professor and I was very well prepared in technology, particularly the chemistry, sensitometry and those kind of things so I was able to answer in a very proper way and I passed as a first in a level than anyone else. That was one of the major steps that I was told you 18 years old. And I spent the most beautiful years of my life in centro experimentale because it was, you were able to perform in learning what you really love without the kind of pressure above you that later doing the professional part of my life that you are going to know. You were free to make a mistake, free to learn really. The only thing that I found out was just the moment the television was coming out. That was 1958 to 1960. So practically we discovered 2 years only was not enough. We were pushing the teacher to change the rules and make it 3 years the course because 2 years was not enough. But soon after I finished the school, I found myself good enough as I was prepared in technology compared to any other young professionals around in italy that back me to start my career into cinematography.
Read about Storaro's latest book "The Art of Cinematography"
exclusive content from Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC about his latest publication!
Q) When in film school, who was your cinematography hero, any Italian cinematographer? Gianni di Venanzo, Aldo, Martelli. Who was the cinematographer you would like to be?
Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC: Without any doubt was Gianni di Venanzo. Gianni di Venanzo was kind of a revolutionary man. Martelli did wonderful films like La Dolce Vitta and many others without any doubt he came from a kind of a way to using lighting that belonged to a different period of time. Di Venanzo really had constituted to throw out all the projector that were around into a set on top on the stage when you have all the projector around. Because normally in any interior light doesn’t really come from above. He started to use light on the floor particularly at the time mainly he was using black and white cinematography. He was very well known for his black and white. Particularly developed by Enzo Venzini and other great technicians that we had in Italy. There was developed in cinecitta it’s negative and that all the movie that they did with Michelangelo Antonioni and Citto Maselli, Differenti or later with Frederico Fellini. Alfa is a classic master of cinematography in black and white with a new way to see cinema, using the natural light, and other natural light very simple little light without making too much of a theatrical direction of the light. Without any doubt, he was in Italy, like Raoul Coutard was in France. More or less the same time, they, without any doubt, changed completely the kind of revolution of cinematography. But di Venanzo was one of my heroes, but at the same time, at the time, any teacher school was an old cinematographer. Sometimes they were very good teacher but they were teaching us the cinema from the past 20 years. And for us watching La Dolce Vita or La Notte or Di Venanzo, Martelli, 8 ½ was really something very important but nobody came ever to school to make any seminar or master class with us. They were very private, let’s say.
I had the chance through my father to have the permission to go on a set for Gianni di Venanzo but I was just at the edge of the door of the studio and he was way around other there, they never paid attention to transfer information to, or knowledge to young cinematographer. That hurt me. That’s why later on when I became a cinematographer myself, as soon I could I had enough knowledge I start to make seminar here in United States, AFI, USC, UCLA, in Russia, in France, in Italy, everywhere in the world because I think something you receive from many many a cinematographer watching their movie on screen is a great value. If you have the chance to know also, the journey that they did is another additional value, element that you can so grow up in a different way. Knowledge is important also when you share knowledge. That we do with any movie, because anyone that was watching Vilmos, Gordon, myself, or Luciano doing a movie, they learn from us. Having the chance also that you can speak about their own creativity. With us was very important. Nobody speak with us at that time.
Q) You are one of the brightest representatives of Italian school cinematography and at the same time the American school of cinematography, can you say what the difference between Italian school of cinematography and American school of cinematography. There is a difference, so how would you describe it?
Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC: For example, as soon as I finished my school, I started to be a camera operator of Marco Scarpelli. He was considered as one of the very good cinematographers in Italia. Guiseppe Rotunno was one of his camera operators for one time. Guiseppe Rotunno as Marco Scarpelli, they took, how do you say, the way the American cinematographer, great American cinematographer like Stradling and many others, usually they were operating in cinema particularly in color using the basic structure. The basic structure in cinematography really was the key light, the soft light, the backlight, whatever. Rotunno particularly became one of the great masters. And I been camera operator with Marco Scarpelli, I was looking at him but at the same time I could see that I was seeing in a different way. At the time also most of the teachers were telling to us ‘are you sure that you want to become a cinematographer? Are you sure you want to make cinema? You know that it would be very difficult. You know that it would be very rare that you can be called for work, maybe a month will past waiting for a call. It was kind of a negative feeling from those kind of teachers. In my opinion, when I was watching the film of Gianni, Gianni arrived over there, why I can’t do that in the same direction. At the same time also Aldo, Aldo Graciatti was another side that I loved too much. Because Aldo came from photography but he was trained in France mainly. So he was very knowledgeable in painting. So the cinematography of Aldo Graciatti like in Senso or La Terra Trema is a kind of painting look let’s say. That was completely different from Gianni di Venanzo.
Just at the beginning of The Conformist when Bernardo Bertolucci presented to myself, to Ferdinando Scarfiotti the production designer, Gitt Magrini the costume designer, probably you already saw this movie but before we start shooting The Conformist we needed to see this movie, it was Citizen Kane by Orson Wells. To me Gregg Toland was practically the kind of sum of what the cinematography at the time could be, look at. Because in my idea, always what he was doing short film inside the school, even soon after the school we were doing short film as a cinematographer while we were doing camera assistant or camera operating, whatever. My opinion was that I was tried to understand which kind of light became part of reality, can be a product for that specific moment in that specific story at that specific place. And I tried to rebuild the kind of light that was done for real and maybe push it in a, let’s say, in a kind of superlative way. That was Gregg Toland. Gregg Toland was almost taking an idea that there is a moment in this room when there’s a dino light coming through, it can be in the summer time, the wintertime or whatever. It can be at 6 o’clock in the morning, or 6 o’clock in the afternoon. But there is one moment that you can imagine this room lit in that way. So your imagination, the possible imagination this way, reveals those kinds of things and underlines very well that specific lighting, that specific scene. To me that was what I was really looking it. So practically, I didn’t start thinking in that direction when I saw Citizen Kane. But it gave me the courage to continue. It gave me confirmation of my little idea at that time that was just the beginning. And that’s what I was doing.
Q) You became revolutionary even in the school. And continued to do it film after film. You are always inventing new ways of seeing things or how your audience will see things different way. How would you describe your style?
Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC: I mean without any doubt my professional in cinema, as I mentioned to you, Gregg Toland, Gianni di Venanzo, Aldo Graziati, no doubt. The mixture of the three of them was almost what became my style. In a sense, what I add to the revolutionary vision of Gianni Venanzo, the painting look of Aldo, to the kind of surrealistic lighting of Gregg Toland, I added the concept of telling the story. To me it was very important the meaning of the word cinematography. It s coming from photography in Greek it’s ‘light’-‘writing’, writing with light. And I loved so much this term because it is telling me that I m not a photographer, I’m not a painter, I’m trying to write with light given story. Very clear. For me the camera is like my pen when I write. I have to write with the camera. And that’s the way we were used to work in Italy. Particularly in the young generation with Bernardo Bertolucci. I met him when he was 22, I was 23 years old. I was an assistant with him. He was the one with his own finder, he was going to design the shot, shot by shot in very specific way. And nobody else can come into this kind of description. When I started to be in cinematographer, he made very clear what he was. He was selecting the space and the rhythm of the space. I was responsible for the language of light. So he was writing with the camera, I was writing with the light. Very clear. Without any doubt.
Q) What you enjoy the most of being cinematographer?
Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC: Well many times somebody asked me if you don’t, if you cannot become a cinematographer what you could be? I don’t know honestly I don’t know in another professional. Because since I was very young, 7 years old, my father, as a projectionist, came to our house and in the little garden screened to myself and to my brothers a little short film of Charlie Chaplin. And that was my first impression of cinema. Since then I was working sometimes with him at work and I was looking at movie that was screening and later I started to study photography. The mystery of the revelation of the image was incredible for me. That was great images. When I did my first film in 1968, Giovenezza, Giovenezza for how much I was knowledgeable, I did 9 years study of cinematography, and I already did 6-7 years as a camera operator, I did only 2 films as an assistant, I was quite knowledgeable, I did several short films as a cinematographer as well, I remember the emotion when I was watching the screen I was seeing that line coming, see the number coming 10, 9, 8, 7, 5, 3, 2, boom. The first image. Seeing that image on the screen was such great emotion you cannot believe. And what can you do, it’s an emotion. The fact that you can able to transfer your knowledge to mechanical elements on something very more and more materialistic. Because now it is digital the image but you are able to transfer your concept, that’s the most important thing.
Q) What do you consider today's greatest challenge for the Cinematographer?
Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC: Well you know I was really very young, very lucky to born in my age. Because I was able to witness the kind of evolution that cinema made from 1940 to 2010-2015. Which was an incredible excursion. All the European cinema particularly the 50s and the 60s, the 70s, the 80s together with the American film industry, they made an incredible evolution from the use of black and white, or beginning of color, thinking of what they had done in 1939. In Citizen Kane on one side, Gone With the Wind on the other side. I mean at that time, they made a very clear stance on what could be cinematography. For many years later, they were considering color, from because there was the push of some technician that said that maybe color is not the answer, we cannot record color in shade, in the shadows. So they were thinking we cannot do a dramatic film in color after we had done it in black and white. And color is only for western, musical or comedies that way everything is almost flat. Major mistake. So practically full light is almost no light, practically. I think that even if we have the greatest example Gone With the Wind, with Gone With the Wind it was able to do particularly with that kind of level of technology at the time, making such movies that you can see the classics spectacular, dramatic, and so on. You can have all the tonalities inside. Later in the 50s, 60s particularly in the United States, there was completely everything flat. It was a kind of stop of expression in color. Only I say through my age, like artists such as Vilmos Zsigmond, Lazlo Kovacs, myself, Luciano Tovoli from Italy, Sven Nykvist from Sweden, Billy Williams from England, those kind of generations started to use color in the dramatic way as well. Films such as The Conformist, McCabe and Mrs Miller, and so and so and so. We were able to really change the language of images as well. That was mainly European. Mainly.
There was a kind of revolution at the moment that in colors cinematography changed because we were able to use more than technical knowledge but cultural knowledge in addition. So practically, born at that time, was born with the same generation Bernardo Bertolucci, and many, many other kinds of directors who worked with at the time. They teach me to search for every single movie specific look. There was not some kind of cinematography that was professionally even. There is no system in our concept for those kinds of things. So every movie you have to look for must have some kind of specific look, specific style, and specific look. And that was an incredible lesson for many many years. So practically I lived in the evolution of color, the evolution of screening, of panoramic, cinemascope, 65, all those kind of generations till arriving at this moment when everything is in very few years, even if I done test in 1983 about electronic high definition video system. But for 20 years nothing happened more or less. So now only recently, everything is changed in photo chemically into digital cinematography. We can elaborate later on why it’s happened those kinds of change, but what is important today for a Cinematographer today?
Q) What is the most demanding challenge for a Cinematographer today?
Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC: To not only be a technician. Technology today with those kinds of camera, the kind of still cameras, today you have in digital most of them are automatic, they give you an automatic exposure, and an automatic focus and so on. Practically, in school, you don’t learn any more in-depth things. What is sensitometry? Nobody knows. What is the process of chemistry? Those kind of chances, are practically lost completely. Going through the kind of knowledge today as in digital, in electronic is not sufficient because today we see any images on the set. At the same time, we are thinking of those kind of images how we can record it. So practically we see our own thought at the same time. You put the camera, you see what you are thinking. So what is the main difference? Before the cinematographer was supposed to be, not necessarily was real, but supposed to be the only one on the set that was knowing how the image looked like the day after, or 2 day after, one week later, depending on how far you are from the laboratory. They have the experience, the knowledge, and so on. Nobody else. Today everybody can see an image. They see it in color and in high definition. So what is our chance, to really control those kinds of images? Knowing the meaning of light, knowing the meaning of every single element through symbology, through physiology, through dramaturgy, the different feelings color can give to us. Given only through our eyes but also through our body. We change audience emotions in front of a red screen, or green or blue screen. Why? Because the screen is bouncing to us a kind of energy in wavelengths which we are absorbing. It is scientifically proven that your metabolism changes. Your blood pressure changes. What about you changes? Change your emotion. You change your emotion from a painting, a reality, a video image, or film images. So if you know, what are the symbols of black darkness, penumbra, light, differences between the 3 of them. If you know the difference in physiology, what happens when you receive red, orange, yellow, and green, blue, indigo, violet. You know how to write with light that story and also color.
Don’t forget that Leonardo da Vinci was calling 2 different elements light and shadows. The marriage between them are creating children. The children are the color. That put it very nicely, but practically if you noticed the color coming from the blackness, and only when the primary element of black is activated creating red, orange, yellow, green, indigo, violet, and all together as Isaac Newton is teaching to us creating white light. So, this is a kind of verbal language, so you have to work like a writer is using words to transfer emotions, like a musician using notes, we using the knowledge of light and shadows and colors, and we can transfer emotions that way. Today, you don’t have to be only a technician, you have to be knowledgeable about the meaning of the visual art, you have to know the symbology, dramaturgy, and physiology. Everything is written in the writing with light. In light, in color, in elements.
Q) Digital Capture has made the job of the Cinematographer very different than what it used to be. What effect do you think this may have long term on the art of Cinematography?
Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC: Look at the movie as I tell you before they made particularly in the 50s, 60s they were using no relationship between light and shadows, they were mainly full light. Because they thought there was a color that was not recorded well. Well they practically renounced an incredible chance that we have to tell the story through those kind of tools, they play music they use only one tone, they use more than one tone in order to tell an harmony of music, or an harmony in painting in different color tonality next to each other, but at the time while we are recording you say, ‘I know in the way they look like this movie it will be ok like that, don’t worry about it.’ Everybody follows you and maybe at the end of the movie, the movie was not so great or the movie can be wonderful, I don’t know, according to the artist. Today everybody see the image, today everybody can say, it’s ok, we see the image what are you looking for. Most of the cinematography today is this way because they don’t put their own individual creativity into it. Because any way you see the image, and most of the cinematographers, most of the directors, most of the producers, they really don’t know that their image can be not quite right for that kind of given story. I have a camera that is 1250 ASA, it’s terrible. Gone with the Wind is only 25. That it was too low, this is too high. A part from that, practically you can shoot everywhere? And you see the images. But is that the image you see in reality? Is it the correct one for the story? That’s the main point. At this point you have to know, its better that the costumer doesn’t dress black for this story. This story is better if he is dressed in white, or better if he can be in shade or penumbra or shadows according to the character, according to the grand story. Or it’s better that maybe everything will be more or less in the same tonality. But only one thing can maybe be in blue. Because we want to tell something specific. What is blue? Blue is the moment when we reach this state, human beings in their growing up process, in their learning, they change their aura. The aura is the energy that we emit around ourselves. It depends according to the level of spirituality, or intelligence that is reached. But at the same time, you can be represented by one color.
Q) Speaking of color, what was your approach on The Last Emperor, which won the Oscar for Best Cinematography.
Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC: The concept of The Last Emperor is very simple, making a kind of relationship between life and light. The story is about one man that was taken from the nationalism in China. He was forced to do his own resume of his own life. His own therapy, physiotherapy, psychotherapy perhaps. He was forced to something he did not want to do. What is he doing at that moment, he feels practically like an emperor, he can’t be treated like any other human being, he wants to kill himself. He cut his own veins. What we see from then, we see red. When you see red he remembers the first time he became emperor. We cut and we have the scene at night, we used the night because we have torches, so we have a kind of red light and the soldiers are coming to take him as a little child, take him away from his own mother, practically they cut the umbilical cord symbolically and he becomes an emperor. So red is the color from the first moment he become an emperor, like at birth. When he’s going to the Forbidden City and they dress him in yellow. Then practically we see the city, they are completely different in color. Part in yellow, part in red. The mix between the two is orange. What does orange mean? Orange is the color of the female, the color of the family, it is the over 5 years old when we are living with the family with our mother. The womb of the family. His family is different because now it is not a house but it is the Forbidden City. It’s not his mother and father, it is 3000 eunuchs. But it is a family. They crown him as an emperor, and he is completely dressed completely in yellow. Because little child doesn’t understand yellow is the color of consciousness. Usually up until our life, we are into the puberty so we realize the kind of sexuality that we have. Green is the age of learning, the age of knowing. Over 20 years old, when the English tutor is coming to him, to teach him, he is coming with a green car. He is giving to him a green bicycle, so on and so on. He starts to understand the city outside of the Forbidden City, the kind of man he is. Because practically he is a prisoner. He is not anymore an emperor. He learned in that moment this kind of thing. When they thrown him outside of the Forbidden City, practically he feel free. When his mother died they don’t let him go to see his own mother. They close the door in front to his face. So, blue is the color of freedom. He is going to live in an English country club. For the first time in the film, you see all drink is tinted blue. Blue is the color of the maturity of the brain, the intelligence and the freedom at the same time. Indigo is the color we reach when we are 50-60-70 years old, the color of ruler. The color of the roman emperor. The color you reach some kind of maturity, you really have ruled the world. It’s the moment when he came back to be an emperor in Manchuria. He was to come back to rules. Violet, the last color of the color spectrum is the moment that we are to understand who we are and we try to transfer our knowledge to somebody else. That’s what I’m trying to do in this period of my life.
When you put together all those different moments, all these different generations of the human beings, different color of the color spectrum, you reach balance, you reach maturity. That’s the moment we decide with Bertolucci to put white snow on the floor. Why? Because white is the sum of the different colors. They reach maturity and become a normal human being, and they let him go free. Those simple concepts give me the chance to express myself in The Last Emperor.
Q) What technical invention or technical progress has affected your creativity the most in the last 40 years?
Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC: Without any doubt, one of the element more shocked for me compared to any other laboratory was the original Technicolor dye transfer system, which was the only unique system that was giving such rich complete palette of color ever. When we lost those kinds of systems in 1970, 75. In Italy it was 1900 that I did with Bertolucci, in United States it was The Godfather that Gordon Willis did with Francis Coppola, we lost something very important because the industry needed to be faster, needed to be simple, needed to be less expensive. So we, Ernesto Novelli in Italy invented the new system called ENR. They were able to bring back to the normal film positive a different, another layer, black layer. They practically were the first original Technicolor system. Originally they had 3 matrices - red, green and blue plus the black. Later they removed the black. They were able to do with three layers only. And those kind of inventions practically gave me the chance to see the final image that went back to me, give me the kind of feeling of thickness almost like a little sculpture, because the normal color positive was too thin, too one surface, there was no any depth. The richest black that ENR was giving me was very important, also the saturation of every single color, it become even more painting look let’s say.
But in all that particular invention there was a need that they felt, particularly in doing a film with Carlos Saura it was ‘Flamenco’ they we saw that we have to frame, make a composition with an image or dancer that practically, if we were doing for television screening, when they were going in cinema they were cut top and bottom. The trouble that we found with filming The Conformist is that we composed for 1.66:1 because Bernardo loved to have the similar relationship with France, which was the aspect ratio that France used. When he went normally to other cinema America, England, Italy it was cut to 1.85. When we did all the cinemascope films, in the cinema people saw exactly what we really did and the kind of experience through image, language of image that…When they go in television but in the United States you have to do a full screen so 2.35:1 practically 1/3 of the image or even 40% was cut completely. To me, cinema is a language of images, and if you have betrayed the images you have betrayed the film, no doubt. So I came out with the idea that was given to me by Leonardo Da Vinci when I watch in Milano in Santa Maria Delle Grazie the church this incredible fresco called “The Last Supper”. In watching “The Last Supper” you are so enchanted in front of these painting because you really see the equilibrium that Leonardo reached with this painting. Practically put the human being in the center of the world and everything, every line, going in the prospective just on his eyes to tell that everything has to be in harmony - in the central perspective and in balance with the rest of the world. And he’s become like a manifest of the innocence of the painting. So I said to myself, how can be so perfect? And I read the measurement, and the measurement was 2 times by 1 time. And I said that’s fantastic because it’s so simple. Even when I saw the Annunciation, Leonardo was very young, he was 20 years old, he did exactly the Angel in Maria he put practically the divinity and the humanity at the same level exactly at 2 to 1, once again. Practically he was a master for perfection Leonardo. So I said to my son Fabrizio, I would like to find something some possibility way to do this. We checked with the number that instead to use 4 perforations in the film, we using only 3 perforations and we have 12 mm of vertical. And we created the perfect 2 to 1 aspect ratio having the gate much wider than 1.85. And without any distortion there was using in anamorphic. So since that moment I’ve been using that method since then till today. The video camera, the one I was originally dreaming of, came out with the Dalsa camera. Dalsa also used the exact 2 to 1 aspect ratio. It was 4K, 16bit. Unfortunately Dalsa went out of business and they sold the prototype. They were lost around the year 2000 something like that. But recently, Sony F65 was the closest camera that fill my dream, is 4K. But more or less is there. 90% it is that one. Those kind of ideas for me give me the chance to express myself in the proper way, the way that you feel comfortable practically.
Q) In an “old-world” this way, the Cinematographer was the only author of the images, very often now the Cinematographer is only co-author of the images. Some people from special effects, they became co-authors of the images. What do you think about this trend?
Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC: I agree, the cinematographer is not the author of the images, but instead the co-author of the images. Because the image, first of all it’s been described in the script originally. Second is the production designer that designs the different locations. And the costume designer designing the kind of tonality the costumes have to be inside. The actor is presenting to the image apart this co-authorship. The director giving the final approval of the kind of image it should be. The cinematographer mainly visualizes those kinds of images, those kinds of spaces with his own use in light and color. So practically we are co-author of the image. We cannot be the author of the image because we are not the author of the image. There are many people that are participating to be an author.
Since, you know, even a long time ago, they were using the special effects. They were doing back screen, rear screen. They were doing the plate, matte shot, and so on and so on. Usually the cinematographers were participating with this concept. With technicians, they were doing visual effects, or special effects, and practically the technician was achieving the concept of the cinematographer. When I did Dick Tracy for example with Disney, I was going myself every end of the week to Disney and see the different frames the different test they were doing, looking at everything they were doing, through the glass painting and so on. But particularly I wrote the concept of the film, the cinematography ideation and I give it to him and I say ‘we have to follow this idea, you cannot change the idea.’ You have to follow this concept it is from the cinematographer. But through your artistic look, your technical knowledge you can achieve all the special effects that you are using this way. And I was supervising this kind of things. So practically, the main concept should come always from the cinematographer.
For example, from what I heard, Emmanuel Lubezki was following the image from the beginning to end of all the work that was happening for his movie Gravity. That’s the thing the cinematographer should do. In that case, practically you are arriving at the end of the conjunction of the first concept, the first location, the first searching the set, the first lighting the set, the first additional visual element. But the main concept is still of the same person, still the cinematographer. But if somebody is being called to just light 2 or 3 pieces of a scene and a few actors, and some other artist with the director, or the production designer decided the way the film should look, probably not only they should share but maybe the recognition for the Oscar for the cinematography should go to the artist that made those kind of visions, not to the cinematographer that maybe used just two piece of light and made just two close ups and that’s it. I don’t know. But definitely some time, we have seen an example recently, the cinematographer that received an Oscar was not really his own, complete work, or his own creativity. But was mainly the creativity of somebody else. And that’s confusing. Starting from the nomination. The cinematographer was part of this kind of creative process compared to what a visual artist did. So you have to give the nomination or not to the movie compared to another one that you know the cinematographer made his own work completely. And not somebody else. You distinguish from the beginning recognition for visual effects or for cinematography. But when you give a nomination to a movie that is 99% visual effects you made a mistake as a cinematographer.
Read about Storaro's latest book "The Art of Cinematography"
exclusive content from Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC about his latest publication!
Q) What advice do you want to pass along to young Cinematographers?
Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC: Well I try to mention before that all my life I tried to understand who I was, why I was doing something like that and so on. Till practically, in performing in try to expressing myself step by step I understand the meaning of my life. I was searching for balance between opposite elements. You know our case is the balance between technology and art. You have to know one and the other. Because if you only know art, you don’t know how to materialize a concept, you cannot be a cinematographer. You can be a great man that can think incredible idea. But if you are not a mathematic you don’t do what Albert Einstein made in e=mc2. If you want to be a writer, if you are not versed in the art of writing you cannot become William Faulkner and so on and so on. But technology without concept, without idea, without knowing the art, you are good technician, but you have to follow someone that will tell you what to do and you are able to materialize somebody elses idea. If you don’t have the idea, you want to materialize you have to combine these 2 different things.
Q) From all your films, which one is your "favorite"?
Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC: I don’t think you can ask to a writer to take one page of one book, or to a musician one note of his symphony, or one film to a cinematographer. Each one represents one part of your life, without any doubt. And I think if you were in good faith you’ve done the best you could in every film each movie is your part of your body, your child, so the best movie at this moment is Muhammad. The one that I showed recently at the American Film Institute because it represents who I am now, with everything that I learned into all my 50 years of professionalism and all the research, all the philosophy that I did, in putting together the knowledge of many philosophers, many artists that later I tried to put in one simple trilogy of books like “Writing with Light”, because it not only helped me in putting all this information, all those research in a specific books or trilogy books because the more you doing, the more your clearing yourself, but also you have a chance to open your knowledge to any other student, young cinematographer, that can learn from whatever was your experience in so many years, they can do in short time. Practically I was transferring to them for many years of my experience in the few years they are to be a student.
One thing that is important that one moment you should recognize like I think I did in the “Art of Cinematography”, that before you there were so many other cinematographers around the world that give to you some knowledge. They give it to you some experience, they give it to you some emotion, that you practically looked. That’s the result of long research between myself Luciano Tovoli and Daniel Didanunci to select 150 persons in one century all around the world of cinematographers that give to us some little difference. And not only that, when you pick up - this is the resume of the trilogy books of “Writing with Light,” “Color & Element.” It’s all my life experience - here is written all of my research. So many philosophers, so many painters, so many scientists - gave me (knowledge) about the visual world. In my opinion, today we cannot ignore it any longer - the knowledge, the symbology, the energy - we (are) probably using visual energy.
The last movie I did, Muhammad, I was trying to visualize this journey that this little boy - in his life - to come a prophet. But the director told me “Vittorio, for us, Mohammad was a prophet since he was born - he didn’t ‘become’ a prophet later on.” So I understood the principle & concept - we have to change, in fact the world around him was changing, not him. You can represent divinity only through energy - the visible energy we know is light. So practically I went deeper and deeper to understand the fact that in order to express that specific concept, I have to use around this life, when he was a child, some color tonality. But him, wherever he will go, continued to be white - to continue to be lit in a very strong visual energy because the concept of the director as a religious man, really believed - this had to be portrayed in the film. So arriving to use a simple element - this light in relation to what is the complimentary of light, which is darkness, or the relationship between them. Leonardo DaVinci said color is a great chance to use those elements as you can express yourself. Not necessarily, spectators or the audience should understand why you are using color or the tonality - but the feeling they should receive, is the one really what you really want to achieve, or that you think with the director, is what this movie should tell an audience. That’s the most important thing. We have the great chance to use one of the greatest elements in life, which is energy.
Q) When you receive script, what do you do first?
Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC: Trying to understand the main concept of the script. There is one main element into the story, without any doubt, that the director & writer are trying to tell. If you understand that, for example, when they told me if I wanted to do Apocalypse Now, ok first of all I said, “Why me & not Gordon Willis?” because I respected so much Gordon Willis. And Francisco told me, “Don’t worry, its nothing against Gordon. Gordon loved to mainly work in New York & mainly in studio. The theme itself is not something Gordon was really looking forward to do. I will do another movie with him but this one - I think I will need a different cinematographer”. And I said “Yes, but what can I do in a war movie?” They said “Vittorio, this is not a war movie. What I would like to tell in Apocalypse Now is the main concept written in the book of Joseph Conrad, ‘Hearts of Darkness.’ The concept is very strong but simple - that when one culture goes on top of another culture, makes an act of violence, this is practically a universal concept.”
I realize the incredible thing of the beginning that I didn't understand. The fact, the principle is that it belongs to all of us. It’s my movie, that movie. It’s not a war movie. So how do transfer that concept using artificial energy on top of natural energy - and see this conflict of energy. Seeing artificial color on top of natural color - so creating visual conflict is what the movie is about. When we arrive at the end in the temple, we discover basic element, which is a color of a cast. The general in the United States wants to remove - why they want to remove? Because he said the truth. He said that war is a horror. Something that no one culture, no one city, no one country admitted it. When the Spanish went to Mexico, they destroyed the Aztec civility - they said no we stopped the human sacrifice, we bring our goods, we bring our knowledge. Yes but you destroyed the other one at the same time. In Apocalypse Now, there is the first bombing of the village - the village is practically inflamed. There is a man in America that said to the people who survived “Come, come, we are here to help you - we bring you help.” But the village is totally destroyed. If you bombing a village of Vietnamese, you are also bombing its own children. The image with the music of Wagner when they are arriving at front of the school - the little children are coming out. All the Americans stand up, “are we bombing children?” Yes. You have to tell the truth. As simple as bombing a village in any other country. So when you arrive at a cast & having the idea, the least part of the unconscious of the human being is part of the conscious of civility today. Because they don’t want to be thrown into darkness. It’s being revealed, step by step, piece by piece, kind of like a mosaic. Step by step, it shows its own face about the horror of the war. This is a cinematography concept. Practically only light is knowledge & only light can bring out darkness.
Q) At what stage do you work with the script and start to think about visual references?
Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC: Probably when you dream. Not necessarily when you read for the first time – it’s happening all in a moment. You start to feel those main concepts as we said before - how can we visualize it? Probably because this over-professional. How to visualize using the instrument of vision to like the musician’s instruments over music. How can you use the visual element to make it aware in front of an audience of those kind of concepts. Step by step, you’ll find there some references. Maybe you looking at some painting or some photograph. You have to do your own research. Step by step, you add an element to an element. You should see my script - they’re big. Because everything that I found can be appropriate for me to make a reference, I put in every single scene - in order to create this mosaic. That’s the difference between photography & cinematography. In photography: you just place yourself with these images. In cinematography: these images have to move so you’ll need literature knowledge because you need to tell a story from beginning, development & the end. But not only that, maybe to those who don’t know music - you need the rhythm, a different rhythm for different sequences. The rhythm cannot be like that, music doesn't work in this way. Music works in different ways & different waves. So when you are putting together images - words & music - you are probably creating a good balanced film.