Sunday, March 4, 2007
A Conversation with Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC
A Conversation with
Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC
By Allen Daviau, ASC & Bob Fisher
Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC was born in Rome in 1940, where his father was a projectionist at Lux Film Studio. Storaro began studying photography at a technical school at the age of 11 and subsequently enrolled at the Italian Cinemagraphic Training Centre. He continued his education at the Centro Sperimente di Cinemagrafia (the state film school). Storaro began his career as an assistant cameraman at the age of 20 and stepped up to the role of camera operator on his second film.
During a lull in production in Italy, Storaro dedicated several years to studying all forms of artistic expression including literature, painting, sculpting and music. He returned to work as an assistant cameraman in 1966 on Before the Revolution, the first film directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. Storaro earned his first cinematography credit two years later for Giovinezza, Giovinezza (Youthful, Youthful). His third film La Strategia del Ragno (The Spider Stratagem) marked the beginning of his long collaboration with Bertolucci. In 1970, Bertolucci and Storaro collaborated on The Conformist, a seminal film in the history of contemporary cinematography.
Storaro’s first mainstream studio film was Apocalypse Now, directed by Francis Ford Coppola in 1979. Storaro earned his first Oscar for that effort. He received his second Oscar in 1981 for Reds, directed by Warren Beatty and a third Oscar for The Last Emperor in 1987, directed by Bertolucci. Storaro earned a fourth Oscar nomination for Dick Tracy in 1990.
His other feature credits include 1900, Luna, Last Tango in Paris, Tucker: A Man and His Dreams, One From the Heart, Little Buddha, Ladyhawke, Tango and Bulworth. His eclectic body of work also includes the TV mini-series, Peter the Great, the opera La Traviata, a 15-hour documentary, Roma Imago Urbis, which plays at museums around the world, and Captain E-O, an extraordinary 3-D film that played at the EPCOT Center in Florida for years.
Storaro was president of AIC (Association of Italian Cinematographers) and a founder of IMAGO, an alliance of some 20 cinematography organization in Europe. He coined the phrase and popularized the concept that cinematographers are co-authors of the films they help to create and he has been an eloquent advocate for their artistic rights. His recent projects include Dune, a six-hour mini-series, based on Frank Herbert’s classic novels, slated for airing on the USA Networks in December.
The American Society of Cinematographers will present its Lifetime Achievement Award to Storaro on February 18, 2001 at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles.
The following conversation took place recently at Local 600’s National Office in Los Angeles. Cinemagraphic journalist Bob Fisher and renown Director of Photography Allen Daviau, ASC, (E.T., The ColorPurple, and The Empire of the Sun) spoke with Vittorio Storaro at length about his life as a filmmaker.
FISHER: You told me a long time ago that your father was a projectionist and you would watch movies with him. In retrospect, how did that influence you?
STORARO: There is no doubt that, as I told you a long time ago, my father put his dream into my heart. I remember sitting in that little projection room and watching films with him. There is no doubt that influenced my interest in this magical world. I was always watching silent movies because you couldn’t hear sound in the booth. I just saw the images and I would try to understand the story. When I was very young, my father brought an old projector home, because the studio installed a new model. All the kids in the neighborhood would sit on these little benches in our garden. My brothers and I painted a wall white, and my father would show us Charlie Chaplin movies, which of course were silent. That probably gave me some kind of a structure that was later reinforced at Centro Sperimente di Cinemagrafia. I learned that cinema is a language consisting of images.
DAVIAU: When did you know it was cinematography that you wanted to do?
STORARO: I was 11 years old when I began to study photography. When I finished school, my father asked one of the greatest cinematographers in Italy at the time if he could help me get a job in the industry. He was wonderful. He said that I was too young. First I must study film. That was the proper advice. The Centro Sperimente di Cinemagrafia also told me I was too young. I was only 16 and you had to be at least 18 to begin classes. I didn't know what to do. My family was very poor. I would study during the morning. Then I worked during the afternoon in a photography shop, where I swept the floor and developed so many photographs you wouldn’t believe the number. Eventually I was allowed to print and retouch pictures.
FISHER: Did you study by yourself or was it more formal training?
STORARO: I went to a very small film school. It was called the (Italian Cinemagraphic Training Centre). It gave me the chance to keep feeling that I was a student, which was very important. I have always kept that feeling. I’m still a student in the sense that there is always something to learn. I am always doing my own research. When I was 18, I went back to Centro Sperimente di Cinemagrafia and they told me they just changed the rules. You had to be 20. I said, I had no other schools to go to, only this one. They told me, you can try but there are 500 students applying and they were taking only three (cinematography students). I realized that if I failed the examination, my destiny would be to keep working in a small photography shop, and I would probably end my career retouching photographs or printing pictures on driver's licenses.
DAVIAU: How did they select the three students?
STORARO: The 500 (applicants) had to present an application with their resume and a series of photographs and they used all this material to select 30 students for the exam. I was one of the 30. During the examination I was lucky because they were going in alphabetical order and I was one of the last people they interviewed. It was at 2 o'clock in the afternoon and there were 10 people seated at a long table questioning me. They were very tired when I arrived. I was very shy but I knew I had to make an effort. They asked me the first question and I never stopped talking for two hours. I reached the first position of the three they selected. It was a wonderful opportunity because the government gave you a small salary (for living expenses). You were paid to be a student.
DAVIAU: Was there a formal connection between the school and the film industry? Did you know when you got out of school you would go to work for a studio?
STORARO: Theoretically, yes. At that time, every national film was supposed to hire two who graduated from the school but it practically never happened. In fact, every teacher was telling us how difficult it was to get into the film industry. They were telling us, you are going to school but maybe you will never work in this industry. Between my first and second year, my father spoke with a producer he knew, and he asked if I could go on the set with no salary, just as an intern during the summer. It was a black and white film. I was loading and unloading magazines and for every shot, I cut a little piece of negative and processed it at exactly the right temperature to test the exposure. After the summer, the assistant cameraman I was working with said, ‘You are doing great. Why go back to school? It’s much better that you stay with me on the next movie.’ I thanked him and said. ‘I'm sorry, but I have to finish my studies.’ He told me how difficult it was for film school students to get jobs, and said this is a chance to learn cinematography from him. Still, I was very conscientious about the importance of finishing school.
FISHER: Looking back, was that the right decision?
STORARO: Being in school at that time was wonderful because I had such a drive to learn. The opportunities were an incredible gift. There was none of the responsibility that you feel as a professional. There was just the freedom to feel and think and to trust your intuition. I remember that feeling of freedom very clearly. During the last few months of school, I got a call from my friend who I had worked with during the summertime, and he told me he had another movie. I finished school one day, and the next morning I was on the set working as a focus puller on an anamorphic film. After working on two pictures as a camera assistant, I was asked to be a camera operator on another film. It was an action movie, kind of a Western, in Cinemascope. From that moment on I considered the camera to be like a pen that you use to draw images. Operating a camera is mainly about composition and rhythm. I concentrated completely on operating and I was very happy doing that. I also operated the camera for several commercials. It was very primitive. While we were shooting, someone with a watch was timing every pan and zoom. He would say, ‘You have 4-1/2 seconds to do that zoom.’ It was a great lesson for me, learning to make each element of a shot work in that amount of time.
FISHER: Were you thinking about shooting at that time?
STORARO: After a few years, people were asking me to be a cinematographer but I said, ‘No, thank you’, because I didn't think I knew enough. I also didn’t like the stories they were offering or find the directors inspiring. The fact is that I was so in love with camera movement that it gave me an ability to say no. I was very conscious that I didn't have to be in a hurry.
DAVIAU: It sounds like a smooth beginning for your career.
STORARO: I worked on three movies as a camera operator with the cinematographers Aldo Scavarda and Marco Scarpelli. Then there was a crisis in the film industry in Italy. Everything stopped. Instead of 300 films a year, suddenly they were producing 10. Most of the people I knew weren’t working, and I was still too shy to go around asking for work. My mother was pushing me to go out and find work but I said I would rather prepare for the next call. I realized there was a lot that I didn’t know. At film school, they taught me mainly about cameras, lenses, film, sensitometry, everything connected with technology. Nobody taught me anything about how to interpret stories. I realized by then that we should use technology to express ideas and visions. Nobody in film school told me to study painting, music, literature or philosophy. I applied myself to studying the works of the great masters of art, including Faulkner, Vermeer, Caravaggio, Mozart and Rembrandt. I received a letter from an Italian television company asking if I wanted a job as a cameraman, and I said, ‘no.’ My mother was furious. She said, ‘You’ve been sitting at home studying for two years and they call you for work, and you don't want to go.’ I said, ‘Mama, I don't want to be a television cameraman. I want to be a cinematographer and I’m still learning.’
DAVIAU: When did you go back to work?
STORARO: A camera operator I had worked with was preparing to do a film with a young director named Bernardo Bertolucci. He asked me to step backwards and work on this film as an assistant cameraman. I remembered visiting with a commercial director I had worked with and there was a portrait on his desk with the inscription– ‘There is need of courage and humility to start your life all over again.’ I decided it I would be too arrogant to feel that because I was a camera operator yesterday, I couldn’t be an assistant today. It was very clear in my mind that I should do that film. The movie was Before the Revolution. It was a wonderful experience for me.
FISHER: What were your first impressions of Bertolucci?
STORARO: My first impression was that he had incredible knowledge, especially for someone so young. Bernardo was 22. I was 23. He did only one film as an assistant director before this one, Accattone directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini. The year before that he won a prize as a poet. His father was one of the most important poets in Italy and his family’s friends were all writers and poets. In fact, a friend of his father (Alberto Moravia) wrote The Conformist. Bernardo knew so much. Every shot was perfectly laid down and structured. It was a shock for me to witness his clarity and strength. He knew exactly how he wanted to use the camera. In my mind, he was the ideal director. That was my impression of his best side. Bernardo, being so young, was also very arrogant. He put himself on kind of a pedestal. That side of him was not very pleasant.
DAVIAU: What happened after that film?
STORARO: After that film, I went back to working as a camera operator. I felt I still had more to learn. I also worked on a number of short films with Camillo and Luigi Bazzoni. We did a lot of photography writing together. That was a great opportunity for me to learn. The government was funding, I think it was 90 short films a year and we received some of those grants. There was a lot of freedom to choose your stories and the way you wanted to do it. That was a very important period in my life. We had a very small crew. I was the operator but I was really doing a lot of the cinematography. We were also producing our own projects with money we had saved.
FISHER: When did you decide it was time to step up to the role of cinematographer?
STORARO: I was operating on another film and we did some difficult and very complicated shots. Suddenly everything seemed too easy for me. The mystery was gone. At lunch, I told the director that for the first time as a camera operator, I didn't feel any emotion. It was automatic like a robot. He said, ‘Vittorio, I think you need to move up to cinematography and open new doors.’
DAVIAU: What was your first picture as a cinematographer?
STORARO: My first movie (as a cinematographer) was called Giovinezza, Giovinezza [Youthful, Youthful]. That was in 1968, and it was my first and my only black and white movie. I worked with a wonderful Italian director named Franco Rossi. Unfortunately, outside of Italy or Europe, nobody knows about that film or about many of my early films with other Italian directors. Sometimes you see retrospectives at festivals or universities featuring Bertolucci’s titles but rarely other films. On that first film, I finally felt I'd been able to tell a complete story. It was a complete journey using all the language of light and darkness and contrast. We began with words on a page and translated them into a journey on film that tells a story. It was like your first love. I remember I cried two days before the movie was over because I knew that it was going to finish and that same emotion would never come back. If I could do another million films, it would never be the same emotion.
Fisher: Has Giovinezza, Giovinezza been released as a videocassette?
STORARO: Most of my early films were never released around the world. One exception is The Conformist, which is probably the early movie everyone knows best. There was one tape made a long time ago, but it was very bad. Paramount re-did it with (colorist) Lou Levinson working with me on the transfer. That was five or six years ago. It was a wonderful gift because it includes a sequence that was cut out of the original picture. It’s the sequence where the protagonist is going to be married. His blind friends make a little party for him. We lit this sequence with Chinese lanterns using different colors in an incredible, almost grotesque, but very dramatic way. At that time, we were using the Technicolor dye transfer system and that sequence was cut only in the matrixes. When we were re-mastering the pictures for Paramount, we discovered the original negative for the sequence was still alive. It was six to nine minutes long. I called Bertolucci and he was very happy that we were doing that. The problem was that sequence was never dubbed in English. I suggested to Garrett Smith (at Paramount) that we just use subtitles. We did a beautiful transfer but it still hasn’t been released. Maybe it will happen someday in DVD.
DAVIAU: We have been waiting so long to see this wonderful film again.
STORARO: What I am hoping is that with the new technology today, we will be able to make a high-definition master and transfer down to DVD. I was in Los Angeles recently and worked with Garrett (Smith) on a new master for Apocalypse Now. We did one in D-1 format six years ago. We remade it two years ago in high-definition. Francis Coppola recently re-cut the picture in a longer version. He added 54 minutes. I timed the additional scenes and re-timed the original ones at Technicolor. We made that movie 25 years ago and the colors are already fading. It’s painful to see some of your work fading so fast. You see it happening during your lifetime. At the same time, it is wonderful to have the chance to revitalize your work and re-time and try to do something better.
FISHER: Aren’t there protection masters?
STORARO: Yes, there are protection (YCM) masters of the original negative so that will always be there. I am hoping that Francis will have (editor) Walter Murch cut the negative (rather than the internegative) for the new release, and that we can get Technicolor to make a matrix for producing dye transfer prints. That way, those prints will he here 1,000 years from now long after we are gone.
FISHER: What happened after Giovinezza, Giovinezza?
STORARO: I was committed to working on another film (L’Uccello dalle piume di cristall) in 1969 and Bertolucci called me one day. I was really shocked, because I only met him once in a while after our first experience and he never said anything but, ‘good morning.’ In this phone conversation, he asked, ‘Do you remember me?’ I said, ‘Of course, I remember you.’ I used to dream that this call would happen. He said, ‘I remember you very well. I heard you are a cinematographer now. You were only an assistant but I saw the way you were acting and speaking, and it stayed in my mind. I would like to meet with you and talk about my next project.’ We made an appointment. I remember that I said to myself, ‘When I open the door, if I see the same arrogance in his face, I will close the door and go away.’ It is so clear in my mind. I opened the door and I found the most sweet and wonderful person that I could ever hope to meet. It was a wonderful meeting. He said he had an opportunity to do a little movie for Italian television. It was called La Strategia del Ragno (The Spider Strategy). Television was providing new opportunities to do movies but he didn’t want to place limits on it because it was a television film for a small screen. He didn’t want to think in the language of television. He wanted to do it as a normal movie. The problem was that there were two weeks when the production of L’Uccello dalle piume di cristall and La Strategia del Ragno would overlap. He said to me one of the most wonderful things a director can say to a cinematographer. He said he’d rather that I shoot part of his movie than nothing.
DAVIAU: And that led to The Conformist?
STORARO: Yes. Bernardo called me one day and said, ‘Vittorio, I would like to speak with you about The Conformist.’ I was shooting, so I met him at the end of the day. I remember I was very tired, when I went to his office. He wanted me to use another camera operator. I told him my operator was my collaborator. He had just given me the script for The Conformist. I had it in front of me. I said, ‘Well, Bernardo, I understand what you are saying, and I respect you.’ I gave the script back and said goodbye. I stepped out of the door. He followed me into the corridor and said, ‘Wait a minute. Let's talk about it.’ I proposed that we start the picture with my operator and after the first week if he really felt he was incapable of doing what he wanted, I would listen to him. The three of us have worked together on many other pictures including Last Tango in Paris, 1900, La Luna, The Last Emperor, The Sheltering Sky, and Little Buddha.
DAVIAU: How difficult was it for you to give him back the script?
STORARO: Maybe I wasn’t totally conscious of what I was giving up but I also did that with Francis Coppola when after the first week of shooting Apocalypse Now. The co-producer, Grey Frederickson, told me we had to switch laboratories. We were using Technicolor in Rome but there was only one airplane flight a week to Italy. There were three airplanes a week to Los Angeles. I had a very close relationship with Ernesto Novelli in Rome. We collaborated on The Conformist, Last Tango, 1900 and other films. We were halfway around the world. How could I work with a lab I didn’t know? There are moments in your life where you have to be strong, and when you take this position you have to be very aware of the possible consequences. Bernardo and Francis could have said, ‘okay let him go.’
DAVIAU: Have you ever lost a film you wanted to do because of that principal?
STORARO: Yes I have as recently as two months ago. I accepted a picture and the production company had an agreement with a laboratory that couldn't use the (Univisium) system. I believed it was necessary for this film. It has an aspect ratio 2:1, which I feel is the right balance or equilibrium, between the new wide screen television systems and the cinema. I feel that it is very important for cinema and television audiences to see movies exactly the way they are composed by the director and cinematographer. We could also save time and money (Univisium is three perf) by using 25 percent more of the negative. That gives you an incredible advantage in creativity because we have 25 percent more time in every magazine. It gives the director that much more time to bring out a performance from an actor without having to stop and reload the magazine. The last movie I did with Warren Beatty was Bulworth and 80-percent was shot with a Steadicam that uses a smaller magazine. We were re-loading after every take. The longer run time can be very important.
DAVIAU: Is there a technical infrastructure for Univisium?
STORARO: Technicolor in Rome, Los Angeles and London are supporting this system. It requires a minor adjustment in the lab. Clairmont has modified cameras that can be rented in the U.S. and Canada, and Technovision is renting equipment in the rest of the world.
DAVIAU: Not to get off the subject but have you had any experience in Europe in discussing the 16:9 or 1:78 aspect ratio the electronic companies are trying to impose on the industry?
STORARO: Yes, I have. A few years ago there was a proposal made at the CamerImage Festival in Torun, that we accept 16:9 or 1:78 as a standard for both cinema and HDTV. This means taking film composition down to video composition. It is exactly the same as the proposal to accept 2K resolution as a standard for an electronic intermediate system. That would require sacrificing so much of the quality of information that we use to express ourselves on film, and move film down to the lower quality of high-definition video. I think that is wrong. Our goal should be to attempt to raise digital video quality to the level of the film. I was at the Electronic Film Festival in Tokyo and at the WideScreen Film Festival in Amsterdam, where I discussed my feelings about the evils of not respecting the aspect ratios of classic CinemaScope and 70 mm films by panning and scanning them to fit the shape of TV screens. I think the electronic companies need a 4K camera – twice the resolution they propose today – with a 2:1 aspect ratio.
DAVIAU: You don’t think it is too late with all the commitment to 16:9?
STORARO: There is a lot of mastering being done at the current 16:9 standard for future release to TV but this doesn't mean it is the end of the world. It is just a step in-between the past and a future where we work to make video look more like film rather than making film look like video. I normally transfer any anamorphic picture in a 2:1 aspect ratio. I remember several years ago when ASC, the Cinematographers Guild, and the Directors Guild of America all fought to protect the original composition of movies shown on future HDTV sets. That was a good beginning. I would like to see a new generation of monitors that are 2:1 instead of 16:9 and a single 2:1 standard for production. This is an issue that all of us at ASC, ICG, Imago in Europe, the DGA and other directors around the world ought to stand together on. You already have the American Movie Classic (channel), the Italian National Television Station and some other cable systems showing respect for the original aspect ratio of classic films. Think of all of the time, money and effort that goes into building and lighting sets, and producing movies, and tell me who has a better right to decide how the audience should see our films?
FISHER: I’m going to change the topic. How did you meet Francis Coppola? That was a turning point in your career. Up until then, all of your films were made in Europe.
STORARO: The first time I saw The Godfather, I remember I was really shocked by that wonderful picture. I was really in love with it. I had met Gordon Willis (ASC) because he visited Technicolor in Italy, when I was filming Its A Pity She’s a Whore. We met and shook hands. My English was more limited than it is today. I was only 30 or 31 years old and it was flattering to have someone like Gordon Willis shaking my hand and complimenting my work. In 1972, I was shooting Last Tango in Paris. It was a Friday evening and I was supposed to take an airplane to Rome to pick up my wife, my mother and children to. So I was really in a hurry and suddenly I saw this gentleman with a beard with Bernardo (Bertolucci). Bernardo called me and said, I want to introduce you to Mr. Francis Coppola. I remember Francis had a wonderful smile. That's how I met him. It was really only a few seconds. Sometime later, I was in a very little studio in Rome, shooting a wonderful little picture and suddenly I bumped into Coppola and Gordon (Willis). They were shooting Godfather, Part II in the same studio on the same stage. Gordon asked me to please turn off our arc light when they were shooting because it interfered with their light. Time went by. In 1976 I did 1900 with Bernardo. Around that time I got a call from a director who wanted to talk about a picture called Dune. I didn't know anything about it at that time but I bought and read Frank Herbert's book. It was fascinating and wonderful. I was totally in love with the story. I had a meeting with the person who was originally going to direct Dune. The very next morning the co-producer of Apocalypse Now (Fred Roos) called and said he wanted to meet with me. When he told me about the film, I asked why Gordon Willis wasn’t shooting it. His answer was that he was there to offer me the movie for Mr. Coppola. I told him I was sorry but I didn’t think it was right. I told him I wouldn’t do it. He said, ‘Wait a minute. Let's call Francis.’ He called right away. We spoke for half an hour. He was trying to explain that there was nothing wrong between him and Gordon. They were good friends but they agreed this movie wasn’t his picture. I told him that I still needed to speak with Gordon first. He asked me to meet him in Australia to scout some locations, and then we would fly to Los Angeles and have dinner with Gordon. He said, ‘You speak to Gordon and after that you give me your answer.’ I went to Sydney and spent some time with the production designer Dean Tavoularis, Francis Coppola and Grey Frederickson. Afterwards, we flew to Los Angeles where Gordon was shooting All The President's Men. I cooked some pasta for all of us. We had a wonderful dinner. Gordon said, ‘Francis and I love each other but this is not my movie. I don't feel like going to go to the Middle East or wherever he’s going to shoot it. I have some different things I want to do.’ That’s how I happened to shoot Apocalypse Now.
FISHER: That’s a great story. How about meeting Warren Beatty?
STORARO: That story is connected with Apocalypse Now. After those first meetings with Francis, I was back home where I was doing all my visual research and I came across a Tarzan book from 1940 with a very upsetting structure in the drawing. The colors were so surrealistic that it had nothing to do with reality. I presented it to Francis as an idea for the jungle. I saw it as an opportunity to show the conflict between artificial and natural light on the screen. To me that represented the conflict between two cultures. One was imposing itself on the other. I wanted to use artificial color on top of natural color. Time went by. We had completed the first section of the movie and stopped for Christmas. I went to San Francisco to see the first editing of the first section with Francis. That night he invited me to dinner with George Lucas, who was editing the first Star Wars. Robert Towne was at that dinner. He said he was writing a script for a film about Tarzan. We had a wonderful conversation. Two years later, Robert Towne called and asked, ‘Vittorio, do you remember me? We are starting to talk about Tarzan.’ He sent me the script and I sent him my research based on that Tarzan book. I came to Los Angeles to shoot tests for Tarzan at Warner Bros. I remember I felt totally alone. It was the first time I didn’t have anyone on my crew with me.
DAVIAU: If you knew how many people would have given anything to have worked for you!
STORARO: I was very shy. The first day we were here, I went to dinner with the executive producer, the costume designer and Robert Towne. We were discussing the main structure of the picture and while we were having dinner, Warren Beatty showed up. He was very nice. He shook hands with everyone, and went to his own table. I barely saw him because I was so into this discussion. Finally, at the end of the dinner I was so exhausted from having that conversation with my poor English at that time, and Robert Towne asked if I minded if we stopped to say two words to Warren? I just wanted to go to sleep but we sat down with him. Warren told me he saw 1900 and he started asking me questions. After half an hour, we shook hands and said goodbye.
DAVIAU: What happened on Tarzan?
STORARO: We shot some wonderful tests but the picture got delayed. I went back to Rome, and started to shoot La Luna with Bernardo Bertolucci (1979). We filmed some parts in Rome and afterwards we went to Parma to do some of the shooting. My daughter was with me. We went out for dinner with Bernardo and some friends, and came back home and went to sleep. Around one o'clock in the morning, the phone rang, and I heard, ‘ Hi, Vittorio. How are you? Do you remember me?’ I’m saying, ‘What, who's talking?’ He was telling his name but I couldn’t understand. He’s saying, ‘Do you remember, we met in Los Angeles. You were at dinner together with Robert Towne?” By now, I was awake and thinking of every writer and director I had met trying to recognize the voice.
He started telling me the story (of Reds) John Reed and finally I recognized who was at the other end of the telephone. That was my first conversation with Warren Beatty about Reds. I remember at our first meeting, instead of explaining the story, he acted it out page by page. It was a wonderful afternoon that will always be in my memory. It was an incredibly different experience working with an actor who was also a director.
FISHER: I’m a little conflicted because I have questions about all of those wonderful films, but I would like to talk some about your recent project, Dune, because we can always post some of the original articles about the older films on the website.
STORARO: As I mentioned before, I almost worked on the original Dune. Time went by and Dino DeLaurentis bought the rights to Dune. Ridley Scott was supposed to direct the picture. I remember meeting Tony Scott when I was in England shooting Agatha (1979) with (director) Michael Apted, or maybe it while I was working on Reds (1981). By then, I had read all of five of Frank Herbert’s Dunes books. I was a fan of the saga. When I saw the picture that David Lynch directed (and Freddie Francis, BSC shot), my impression was that two hours isn’t long enough to tell that story.
FISHER: How does your passion for a story affect the outcome of a film?
STORARO: I told you this a long time ago. Film is sensitive enough to recognize and record the passion that people feel for the projects they are producing. I can always tell if a picture is produced with a sense of love for the content. You can see it in the actors and on the film itself.
FISHER: So, how did you happen to shoot the Dune miniseries?
STORARO: I came to Los Angeles to shoot Picking Up The Pieces. The film’s assistant director, Matt Clark, was one of the best I've worked with. During the shooting, he was amazed by the lighting system, which I’ve been using since Peter the Great (1986). All of the lights are on dimmers and you can operate them from a single control board. You can change anything, including colors. Once you're set up, you can go very fast. You can do long moving shots, transitions from day to night or night to day, and you don’t have to stop to re-set lights. He (Clark) was also impressed with Univisium. He told me he had a friend preparing a picture that was going to be produced on a very tight budget and schedule. I said, no thank you. I had just done several pictures and I was anxious to get back to Italy to my studies and my family. I didn't want to do another picture right away. That’s when he told me that his friend was preparing Dune as a six-hour mini-series.
FISHER: And that got you interested?
STORARO: I have always felt that this story needs to be told in infinite detail. His friend was John Harrison (the writer-director). At our first meeting, I showed John some pictures from Goya en Burdeos (his fourth film with Spanish director Carlos Saura) which illustrate how you can use translights or a translucent material to create a vision of different places without really building a set. There were no sets (in Goya), only the furniture and set dressings; but no construction or walls. The translights were on aluminum frames and they can be front- or backlit depending on whether you want to be realistic or fantastic. We also used them in Flamenco and Tango. I told him we used photographs and some paintings. My son, Fabrizio, scanned the images into a computer, where they were composited and enhanced, and then we recorded out onto a special photographic material to create the backings. In Goya, we used 20 different paintings to create a 250-foot long, 30-foot high backing.
John (Harrison) said, this is the solution because we have to be in the desert, we have to shoot at night, and if we have to go to Algeria (for locations), it would be an enormous expense.
FISHER: Why weren’t they considering using green or blue background screens and inserting plates for the landscapes in digital postproduction? A lot of sci-fi films are made that way.
STORARO: He didn’t want to shoot in the studio with a green screen, because the actors wouldn’t have any feeling for the locations. Also, the special effects (for scanning, compositing and recording film out) would have also cost an enormous amount of money.
FISHER: What is it about Dune that appeals to you?
STORARO: The story and the wonderful characters fascinate me. William Hurt has a wonderful role as Duke Leto Atreides. He had a similar story to mine. He dreamed about playing the main character, Paul Atri, in the original film. John Harrison was also a great fan of the book. I was working with Lou Levinson (colorist at Post Logic) preparing the film for television. I realized Lou knew every character’s name. He told me he ’s been a fan for 20 years and how happy he was when he heard he was going to be working with me on this film. A lot of us who worked on the film were in love with the story. There are a lot of stories like that in the cast and crew.
FISHER: Where was Dune produced?
STORARO: At Barrandov Studios, in Prague. They were originally thinking they would produce in high-definition video format to save money and time but I wasn’t interested. I showed them how we could use the backgrounds and lighting system with the Univisium format to produce a much higher quality film on their schedule and budget. We shot everything with Kodak Vision 200T film (5274) and brought the entire lighting system from Rome, the computer control board and dimmers, the globes and gelatin filters, and also the image composition for the big translights made by my son Fabrizio.
DAVIAU: The thing that gets me when producers talk about shooting in high definition and they think you just take the camera out of the box, and its ready to turn on and shoot. They also think that you don't need to light anything, so they can save time and money on everything. Did you run into that situation?
STORARO: Once the producers realized that with Univisium, they were going to cut 25 percent off the film budget, they didn’t see any reason to risk shooting in high-definition. They were very happy that we found a way to shoot film. They told me yes right away. You are right though that attempts are being made to confuse producers. While I was in Los Angeles supervising the transfer of Dune, I saw a demonstration of the Sony (HD 24P) camera with Panavision lenses. It was supposed to be a comparison of the same scenes produced on 35 mm film with some footage shot with the high definition camera. But they transferred the film in high definition format, so you immediately lost a lot of information. Also, the shots were not very interesting. They were flat lighting with very little contrast. They used video projectors, so of course, it didn’t look very different. It would be a different result if it were a high-contrast scene with a lot of movement that you finished and projected on film.
FISHER: Was Dune shot entirely on a stage or were there locations?
STORARO: Dune was entirely shot on a stage in Prague, primarily for budget reasons. Everything costs less in the Czech Republic and we had very good people.
FISHER: How did you create an alien desert environment on a stage?
STORARO: First of all, we are talking about a story that is 6,000 years in the future on another planet, so we had total freedom to create the look we wanted to support the story. I was happy about the decision not to go out into the real desert for two reasons. One, it's not easy to create a fantasy vision in a desert at night. There are so many things you can’t control. Second, we were able to shape the look to what we wanted it to be and not what we found. I have shot pictures in the desert and have done a lot of research. I know what the sun is like at different times of day including dawn and sunset. I’ve seen how the wind moves the sand and shapes the dunes. I’ve looked at every book and every painting. We photographed and scanned images from books, put them into the computer and melded them in different ways. The background look of Dune is a totally new vision. We want the audience to feel the desert without thinking this is like Morocco or some other place. Originally, they were thinking a second unit would go out to the desert and shoot plates that would use for special effects. The translight backgrounds gave us more of an alien look and feeling, and it cost a lot less.
FISHER: How did you light a desert 6000 years from now on an alien planet?
STORARO: There is a question of how far you can push reality and still be believable but the cinema is about fantasy. When I read a script or when I speak with a director, I ask what is the vision for this story? I try to understand what this story means. What is the main concept? That’s what defines the light. My ideas about lighting come from the Greek philosophy of the primary elements of life. They said there is an equilibrium between four basic elements, earth, water, fire and air, and together they make life. Earth is black, water is green, fire is red, air is blue and when you combine them you get life or energy, which is white. This concept gave me the idea of how to light the desert. It had to be different than what we expect to see now on Earth. We decided that the light would always be changing. That was easy to control in the studio with our lighting system and the translight material. When you are making a film, you need an ability to control time. Maybe you need to make 12 hours pass in 12 minutes or three hours in 30 seconds. The lightboard allowed us create an illusion of movement of the planet by the way that light and shadows moved, and the colors of light. You can move from one emotion to another immediately.
FISHER: Did you compose in 2:1 format?
STORARO: I was very aware that we were making this project for television. The first release in the U.S. was supposed to be 4:3 and then in Europe they will also release it in 16:9. The producers wanted me to protect the frame for those formats with the main actors are always contained within the 4:3 frame. John Harrison showed the first cut to USA Network in 16:9. I think he convinced them that we are right and it will be released in 16:9, but if you watch carefully the main actor always in the 4:3 area. The operator worked hard to keep the composition interesting, but it was a compromise.
FISHER: How did you build a desert on the stage? Did they bring in tons of sand?
STORARO: Yes but the sand was not the same color as the backing, so we put some additional color into the lighting to meld the sand with the backing.
FISHER: How much of the background did the translights cover?
STORARO: We had three major desert sets and the translights varied from covering 160 to 250 degrees. Originally, we were planning to build at least five or six sets with bigger translights but we didn’t have the time or budget. One of the translights was a cityscape with a view of the city of the Imperial Palace. The production designer (Miljen Kreka Kljakovic) and my son (Fabrizio) collaborated. They created one main room with glasses windows all around, which gives you a total view of the city surrounding this palace. Our budget for producing six hours of Dune was $20 million.
FISHER: What about the sky?
STORARO: You see very little of the sky. We had two moons on Arrakis, so there are times we have two moons and the sun rising or setting in the same background. The sun by itself is the pure symbol of visible energy, so it has to be represented by white. But at the same time, we know through our experience that the atmosphere around any planet changes its aura during the journey from dawn to morning to mid-day, afternoon, sunset and dusk. During that journey, you select the colors you want for moments of the story. You have an enormous amount of colors to choose from. You can create any of those looks without a lightboard of course, but it gave us the freedom to control the light instantly. I have been working with the same person, Fabio Cafolla (on the lightboard) since 1983.
FISHER: So you've had a long relationship and he can anticipate what you're thinking?
STORARO: It is like the relationship between a director and a cinematographer or a cameraman and his crew. Once you've had one experience together, you can step forward the next time. That's why most of the time I insist on bringing key member of my crew to locations. The fact that he knows me allows me to move forward without wasting time and energy. I also used some local crew, because you can learn from them as well. They have different experiences. I believe this exchange is very important. It opens new doors. When I went to work with Francis Coppola on Apocalypse Now I brought the Bertolucci experience. When I went to work with Warren Beatty on Reds, I brought my Italian experience and the Francis Coppola experience. When I did my next picture with Bertolucci, I brought insights from working with Francis and Warren on Apocalypse Now and Reds – not only technical knowledge, but also cultural knowledge.
FISHER: Does the audience see the moon and sun or is it just light?
STORARO: I used a simple follow spot to build a circle of light. The two moons were symbolic representing two women female characters. One moon is blue light, and the other one is a green light. The blue moon belongs to the Emperor. I discussed these concepts with the production and costume designers. We discussed the use of colors in sets and costumes as well as in the lighting. I prepared a color spectrum with an area belonging to every character. We discussed how we would use colors scene by scene and how we should move from one tonality to another. The negative was processed at Technicolor in Rome. They provided video dailies but the color timer (Carlo La Bella that timed most of my pictures) knew from my philosophy, the main structure of the story, plus he had written descriptions of the tone of color by character and scene.
DAVIAU: How was postproduction handled?
STORARO: The (offline) editing was done in NTSC format but that wasn’t a major problem because I knew that was just a temporary transfer. My main goal was to transfer the TV version in high-definition with Lou Levinson (at Post Logic in Los Angeles).
DAVIAU: Was that a part of your contract?
STORARO: I was very firm in my contract about Univisium and having my principle crew, however convincing them to allow me to finish in HD format with Lou was a battle I fought step by step. I finally I convinced them to do that but it was a battle.
FISHER: I have one more question about Univisium. How does it change the camera?
STORARO: There is a new movement in the ARRI 535B camera and a 2:1 gate. The ARRI 435 camera has a modified movement and 2:1 gate. Another advantage is that there is almost no flutter when the lab makes dailies, and that also gives you steadiness for transferring to video. You can save money by printing dailies because you are using less film. However you can also choose to print four-perf. I used this system to shoot Goya and the prints look like normal anamorphic with normal analog and digital soundtracks, only the aspect ratio is 2:1. There are two black lines on the edges of the frame but the audience doesn’t see them. We used the Univisium system to photograph Tango, which was shown at the Cannes Film Festival with only digital sound and four perforations. It was wonderful (image quality) because I was using the entire (frame) area.
DAVIAU: And it was spherical lenses?
STORARO: Yes. The Sony digital system is ideal for Univisium because of the quality of the sound, and it allows us to use the whole frame for the images from perforation to perforation. Right now, you can’t do that in every theatre because you need an analog sound track in some.
DAVIAU: When I was shooting The Falcon and the Snowman with John Schlesinger in Mexico, I remember him saying how difficult it was to fit the story into two hours and 10 minutes. The miniseries format gave you more time to tell the story, however, I wonder whether there were limits imposed on you because it was made for television?
STORARO: It is a different mentality. I think there is an imbalance between budgets and schedules available for the cinema and television. Some producers think that because it is a smaller screen you need less quality. I loved Dune because of the story and characters, and the incredible possibilities for expressing myself with lighting. We have to understand that television sets are getting bigger and the audience can see more today than ever before. DVD is also lifting the level of quality, and high definition TV is coming. We have a great chance to tell stories you can never have in cinema.
FISHER: Some of the characters in Dune have distinctively blue eyes. How did you do that?
STORARO: The Freemen, the native people of Dune, live in the desert. The Spice they eat changes the color of their eyes completely to blue. We investigated many solutions. One day we went to a lady eye doctor in Prague searching for blue contact lenses. She showed us several colors. I noticed in a catalog she showed us there was one contact lens for fluorescent lights. We were using fluorescent lights. I remembered a similar situation in a scene in Taxi, where we followed a young girl into a room at an amusement park where we used black light, so I knew a little bit about this situation. We shot some tests with those lenses. They had two different densities. We selected the higher one. We used a black light in front of the actor’s faces and it gave us perfect light blue eyes. The only problem that we had was with ultraviolet light, particularly in shadows. It affected skin tones and some of the clothes. We worked with the costume designer who tested different materials and rejected some of them. The final step was during the transfer with Lou Levinson. He built a little window around the eyes and locked into the blue I wanted. At the same time, we were able to clean out any ultraviolet spill light. It took very little time.
DAVIAU: I think you should explain that this isn’t a task you would delegate to any colorist. Lou has mastered the technology but he is also a graduate of the Chicago Art Institute, so he has a fine arts background and you were in the suite with him when he made these changes.
STORARO: Those are the reasons I have been working with Lou since Tucker (a 1988 film) was converted to video. The relationship with the (colorist) is very important.
FISHER: What do you say when you stand up in front of a class at a film school, and they ask you to predict the future?
STORARO: There is no doubt that human beings need to evolve. We can't stand still. If we stood still we would still be painting graffiti on the walls of caves. It's a journey that we can slow down or speed up, but we can't stop it. If we stop it, we stop the world's evolution. Whether we are using paint or light, we are using a form of technology to translate our ideas to some type of a canvas. Because of the advances that have been made, we have a lot more freedom to express ourselves today with modern cameras, lenses and films. Believe me, we don’t require additional light for exposing images like we did in the past. The films are so sensitive that we can light the way we like to express ourselves. We can come very close to achieving what we see in our minds. Our knowledge of technology, our experience, makes us free. You have incredible freedom today. You have access to the knowledge of the world. You can find anything you want on the Internet or find any book in the library. Of course, technology will continue to change and it will give us more freedom. It doesn’t matter whether it will be film, tape or some other media that we use to record images. It is all part of our life’s journey. The unknown isn’t our enemy. It is our friend. What counts are our ideas. Cinematography will always have a future as long as we make a contribution and help to tell the stories. We just need to push technology in the direction that we love the best.
DAVIAU: If you could mandate one thing, what would it be?
STORARO: I would like us to make an effort together to convince Technicolor to continue supporting the dye transfer system. We need to educate producers and directors, as well as the studios, so they know this is the surest way to protect their work for the future. It is also the best way to see many films. No doubt, someday we will be shooting with digital cameras and there will be digital projectors in the megaplexes but let’s try not to settle for that until it is up to the best film standards. Even then, it will be important to preserve the Technicolor dye transfer system so our movies don’t fade.
DAVIAU: So, as a tribute to you on receiving the ASC Lifetime Achievement award from your colleagues, maybe we should all let Technicolor know how important it is for them to continue their support of this system… and that we’ll support their efforts.
STORARO: I recognize we are going against the grain of history but it is something that is worth doing. When I was shooting Bulworth, I asked for a test and screened it side by side with a normal print, an ENR print and a Kodak Premiere print. I was shocked to read so many more tonalities, and so much more information from the original negative on the Technicolor print. I think you read only 60-percent of the original negative with a normal print, 75-percent with ENR, maybe 80-percent with a Premiere print, and 100-percent with a dye transfer print. I saw that very clearly. It’s the best quality print in addition to being the technology that does the best job of preserving the images. That should be the standard for comparing digital cameras and projectors to film.
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