Sunday, March 4, 2007

Vittorio Storaro on the Making of

Vittorio Storaro on the Making of
Little Buddha

Originally published in American Cinematographer, 1994

Do you know the adage about seeing is believing? Believe it. On January 29 the Technology Council of the Motion Picture-Television Industry presented a film format seminar at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The purpose, according to Disney vice president Rob Hummel, who choreographed the presentation, was to demonstrate aesthetic and technical differences in scenes filmed in six different formats. The choices ranged from Super 16 to 65 mm, and included the four most popular 35 mm formats.

The audience included some 400 professional filmmakers and students with diverse sub-sets of interests, including directing, producing, cinematography, postproduction and distribution. During the opening of the day-long seminar, Hummel showed the audience an interior and exterior scene filmed exactly the same way in each of the six formats. A poll of the savvy audience revealed that a large majority recognized and preferred sequences filmed with wide-screen aspect ratios and the biggest image areas.

The seminar was capped with a unique presentation by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC, who previewed two scenes from Little Buddha, a Bernardo Bertolucci film scheduled for early summer release by Miramax Films.

The first is an intimate scene filmed in a church. The location is Seattle, and the period is now. A Buddhist holy man (Lama Norbu) is introduced to a boy (Jesse Konrad) and his mother (Lisa). Lisa leaves, and Jesse and Norbu talk. This sequence was filmed in 35 mm anamorphic format (2,35:1 aspect ratio). The images are sharp from the front to the back of the scene, and the tonality of shadows, even in the darkest corners, is as varied as a delicate penumbra. It pulls the audience right into the illusion. It's a voyeuristic experience, like they are spectators peeking through a window looking at a real-life event.

The second scene is set in India some 2,500 years ago. You can hear the audience turn silent when the first 65 mm images fill the screen. It is like someone flicked a switch labeled quiet. The sequence depicts an early stage in a lifelong journey by Siddhartha Gautama of the Sakyas, who ultimately emerges as Buddha. Siddhartha is travelling on a private road designed to shield him from the harsher realities of life, including illness, aging and death.

The 65 mm (2,21:1 aspect ratio) images lift the emotional content to a higher level of visual intensity. The images are incredibly sharp, including the distant horizons which seem many miles away. The picture quality is pristine and devoid of grain. Colors are lushly saturated. Storaro uses the 65 mm frame as part of his visual vocabulary, and in doing so, he turns the audience into true believers. It is like they are participants in that incredible scene, walking by Siddhartha's side.

After the two scenes are presented, Storaro tells the audience that with the emergence of HDTV, filmmaking must evolve to a higher plane. He truly believes the 65 mm format can be used to transform movie-going into a more profound and immersive experience.

Little Buddha is based on a concept developed by Bertolucci. It was produced by Jeremy Thomas. Bertolucci, Thomas and Storaro previously collaborated on the making of The Last Emperor and The Sheltering Sky. Bertolucci and Storaro have worked together for almost 30 years. Their collaboration started when Storaro was a 23-year-old assistant cameraman just getting his career underway on Before the Revolution, Bertolucci's first important film. Other films Storaro has photographed for Bertolucci include The Conformist, The Last Tango in Paris, 1900 and Luna.

Little Buddha was scripted by Rudy Wurlitzer and Mark Peploe, and music was composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto. The cast features Keanu Reeves as Siddhartha, Chris Isaak, Bridget Fonda and Alex Weisendanger as the Konrad family, and Ying Ruocheng and Jigme Kunsang as Norbu and his aid Champa.

The story: Lama Norbu, an aging holy man, believes that his master (Buddha) might have been re-born. He visits with three possible candidates in Seattle, Nepal and India. During these visits, Norbu tells the story of Buddha.

"It's a story within a story," Storaro explains. "When Norbu talks about Buddha, it is like he is opening a beautifully illustrated storybook. We (Storaro, Bertolucci and costume/production designer James Acheson) wanted it to be a perfect world seen through the eyes of a child."

The trio had already discussed a visual frame of reference. During the 1700s, Indian artists painted miniature depictions of the life of Buddha. Storaro explains that every detail is an exactingly sharp replica of reality. Colors are deeply saturated. The miniatures were a visual metaphor for the life of Buddha.

You probably aren't going to believe this, but the decision to shoot the Buddha sequences in 65 mm format didn't occur until live-action photography was underway in Kathmandu in Nepal. Sixty-five millimeter cameras, lenses and film had to be ordered and delivered within days, and arrangements had to be made with Technicolor Labs to provide 35 mm dailies using the custom E.N.R. process that Storaro favors. The 65 mm scenes account for about one-third of the 139 minute film.

Storaro explains, "One evening (very early in production), we were looking at dailies, and they were really quite good. When the lights came on, I asked Bernardo how we were going to photograph perfect images during the sequences depicting the life of Buddha?"

It was actually a rhetorical question. Storaro had a solution in mind. He had previously tried to persuade Warren Beatty to film Dick Tracy in 65 mm format. "I was convinced that this film (Dick Tracy) deserved a bigger canvas to express all of the tonal and figurative nuances, and all of the subtleties of character," he says.

Storaro shot a number of tests with the new ARRI 765 camera before Beatty decided to film Dick Tracy in Super 35 anamorphic format. But Storaro was convinced that many of the old concerns about shooting in 65 mm format were no longer relevant. His only other 65 mm camera experience occurred during the filming of Captain EO, a 3-D special venue film that played at Disney theme parks for years.

Bertolucci and Storaro had discussed the possibility of producing an epoch film about the life of Buddha for many years. The assumption was always that it would be filmed in 65 mm format. During the early 1990s, there was a falling out with a financial backer and the project was shelved.

Bertolucci decided to follow a different path in the making of Little Buddha. The contemporary story focuses on the relationship between Lama Norbu, Jesse and his parents. Bertolucci and Thomas felt it would be too costly, and camera movement and lighting requirements would be too restrictive if they filmed Little Buddha in 65 mm format.

Early in the film, the story of Buddha is interjected sparingly. However, relatively soon the two stories are like separate trains travelling on parallel tracks. The visual contrast between the past and present is an important element in the visual grammar of Little Buddha.

In traditional filmmaking, the intercutting of flashback sequences, like the telling of the story of Buddha, would be dream-like, and somewhat softer and hazier than the contemporary content of the film. However, in the case of Little Buddha, Storaro felt it was important for the audience to see the scenes as being bigger than life.

"When I explained my idea for shooting the flashback sequences in 65 mm format, Bernardo became very excited," Storaro says. "He immediately recognized how the contrast in the quality of images would become part of the story."

This time, Storaro convinced Bertolucci that with the mobility of modern 65 mm cameras, and advances in lens and film technology, there wouldn't be any creative compromises in movement or lighting. He said he would shoot the 65 mm scenes exactly the way he planned to film them in anamorphic 35 format. In some ways, there was more creative freedom.

"The 65 mm lenses we used are spherical," he says. "There are limitations in rack focussing with an anamorphic lens, particularly on moving shots, and there is always some distortion." But the biggest advantage that Storaro savored was the vast improvement in image quality. The image area on a 65 mm frame is approximately six times larger, and the pictures aren't squeezed through the extra glass element present in anamorphic lenses.

"We are being honest with the audience when we tell them this is a 70 mm film," he says. "We are fooling them when we make 70 mm prints from 35 mm anamorphic negatives. My heart was bleeding when I saw the intrusion of grain in 70 mm prints of The Last Emperor (35 anamorphic format)."

Storaro also had to convince Thomas, who had questions about the higher cost of shooting that much of the film in 65 mm format. He asked how much extra time, crew and equipment Storaro would need to shoot the life of Buddha sequences in 65 mm format? Thomas was also concerned about possible delays in the tightly knit production schedule.

Storaro assured him that no extra time, crew or equipment was necessary. "People remember the stories they heard about the limitations in the 65 mm format 20 years ago," Storaro says, when cameras were cumbersome and weighed hundreds of pounds, lenses were bulky and slow, and color film speeds were limited to an exposure index of 100 in tungsten light. "Today, there are no such limitations. The ARRI 765 cameras are somewhat larger than their 35 mm counterparts, but they impose no limitations in movement."

As soon as Thomas concurred, Storaro made calls to Arriflex, Technicolor and Kodak. Despite the short notice, all three companies cooperated. Three ARRI 765 cameras were shipped within days, along with a full complement of lenses in 40, 50, 60, 80, 100, 250 and 350 millimeter focal lengths. Arriflex also remounted the Technovision lenses Storaro used to differentiate image quality in some scenes for use with the 65 mm cameras. Arriflex also provided a number of other special devices, including adapting a Technovision matte box for use with the ARRI 765s, and adapting the camera plate to fit the Vinten fluid head.

One little known fact is that Arriflex doesn't put a premium price on its 65 mm camera equipment rentals. Volker Bahnemann, president of ARRI corporation says that is part of the company's commitment to encourage more 65 mm production. Two technicians, Manfred Jahn, from ARRI-Munich, the rental company, and Thomas Smidek, from ARRI-Austria, an expert in the electronic components of the 65 mm cameras, were sent to the location to assist Storaro's crew on any technical issues.

Kodak shipped an ample supply of Eastman EXR 5296 and 5293 film in 65 mm format. The respective exposure indexes are 500 and 200 in 3200 Kelvin tungsten light. Storaro notes that the availability of high-speed, low-grain films contributes significantly to the freedom while working in the 65 mm format. Every visual detail is obvious to the audience when 70 mm prints are projected on a large screen. There is no margin for error. The cinematographer must pull deep stops to maintain sharp depth of field.

A rule of thumb, 20 years ago you needed approximately four times the light (compared to 35 mm) for proper exposure of 65 mm film. In other words, if it required 100 footcandles of keylight to shoot a scene in 35 mm format, you needed 400 footcandles to shoot the same sequence with a 65 mm camera and lens. That dictated much of the visual content of 65 mm films made during that period.

"Today's films are so sensitive they are capable of registering all of the emotions and energy of everyone, including the actors, director and cinematographer," Storaro says. "The 5293 film records less grain and a wide range of tonality, and it is fast enough for deep focuses. I used the 5296 film in situations where we needed even more sensitivity to light -- for example, in the forest where Buddha was born."

The cooperation of the lab was another essential ingredient in enabling the visual strategy. Negative from scenes filmed in Nepal were processed at Technicolor in Rome. Film from the Seattle location photography was processed at Technicolor in Los Angeles. That indicates the tremendous trust Storaro has in the consistency of processes at these different facilities, and in London, where some of the work was done.

Storaro first used the E.N.R. process, which is named for a chemist in the Technicolor Rome lab, Ernesto N. Rico, during the early 1980s on Ladyhawke. Technicolor vice president Frank Ricotta describes it as a proprietary process, which leaves more of the silver in the print film when it is processed. This results in blacker blacks, and also more details can be seen in the shadow areas, without compromising the purity of whites or the vividness of colors. Ricotta says that the E.N.R. process can also heighten the perception of sharpness.

Since the E.N.R. process involves the print film rather than the negative or intermediates, it afforded Storaro the opportunity to orchestrate image quality like a maestro interprets a musical score. He was able to fine tune pictorial elements of the dailies and ultimately the release prints in quest of the perfect image.

The ARRI 765 cameras arrived in Kathmandu on schedule, but that only gave Storaro's crew one evening to familiarize themselves with the new equipment. Other than the fact that they are somewhat heavier and a bit more cumbersome than the ARRI 535 cameras, most other features are the same. When they they started using the 65 mm cameras the next day, very few people in the cast and crew were even aware of the transition.

"We didn't make any changes in lighting, camera movement or composition," says Storaro. There were few limits imposed by the cameras. The crew easily lifted them on and off of dollies and cranes." The main concession was switching from Chapman PeeWee to studier Chapman Hybrid dollies to accommodate the heavier weight of the cameras. Everything else was the same, even the Vinten gearheads.

One of the significant challenges for Bertolucci and Storaro in translating the story of Buddha to film was finding ways to bridge the cultural gap in understanding between Eastern and Western audiences. Buddha is the spiritual leader of many billions of people, however in Western society, he is an enigma.

In "The Religions of Man," written by Huston Smith, there is a story about Buddha speaking with an assemblage of monks. One asks if he is a god. Buddha says no. Another monk asks if he is an angel. He says no again. A third monk asks if he is a saint. Once again, Buddha says no. What are you then? Buddha says he is the awakened one. That's not an easy concept for Western audiences to grasp.

The story of Buddha began around 560 B.C. in northern India where Siddhartha was born. His father was a powerful nobleman. At his birth, seers predicted that Siddhartha would either be a general who conquers and unifies India, or a philosopher who becomes a spiritual leader of the world.

His father was determined that Siddhartha would eventually follow in his footsteps as a ruler. He created a sheltered environment for his son to deter him from following a spiritual path. However, fate intervenes. When Siddhartha is travelling on his private road, he encounters sights he had never seen before. He sees a wrinkled man who is aging, and another man in pain. He wonders from the road into the village where he sees poverty for the first time.

Siddhartha sees these sights as he leaves the road and walks through the village. He comes to a river bank where he encounters a funeral. The 65 mm camera follows smoothly in his tracks. At the age of 29, Siddhartha begins searching for the meaning of life.

He spends time with Hindu yogis and a band of ascetics, and decides that neither group has the answer he is seeking. Finally, Siddhartha decides that meditation is the path to enlightenment. He continues his wanderings for six more years until he comes to the Bo (fig) tree. Siddhartha vows not to leave that "immovable spot" until his meditation leads to enlightenment.

There is a surrealistic visual effects sequence where Mara, the lord of darkness attempts to distract Siddhartha. Mara conjures up a violent storm. He sends fireballs raining down on Siddhartha, and unleashes an army that attacks him with flaming arrows. Mara finally uses his own daughters in an attempt to seduce Siddhartha. At the end, Siddhartha emerges from this cosmic experience as the Buddha, and he spends the next 45 years as a teacher and spiritual architect of one of the world's great religions.

The visual strategy devised by Storaro and Bertolucci divided Little Buddha into four elements. Each element has a central player: Lama Norbu and the three children. There is a special tonality, or visual signature for each of these characters, represented by a different part of the color spectrum. The visual signatures for the three children are red, green and blue.

Storaro explains that those colors are psychological symbols for fire, water and air, respectively, which the ancient Greek philosophers defined as three of the four main elements of life. The fourth main element is heart, which is represented by Lama Norbu. After these elements are combined, and there is a balance, Storaro finally shows the audience the purity of white light.

Perhaps it sounds esoteric, but Storaro believes that in the visual language of film, colors speak to the audience with silent words. "There is no doubt that every color is a specific wavelength of energy that can represent or symbolize a time or life or emotion."

At the core of his philosophy is his belief: "Visually movies are the resolution of a conflict between light and shadows. Light reveals truth, and shadows obscure it, with a broad base of tonality in between."

During the 1970s and '80s, when Storaro was emerging as an influential force, it was common place for cinematographers to talk about the art of painting with light. He spoke about writing with light, because film is the visual literature of the 20th century. Storaro points out that writing with light is the literal meaning of the word cinematography in Greek. He has struggled and succeeded in Italy in legally identifying cinematographers as one of the co-authors of the films they help to create.

Storaro is inordinately eloquent in his command of the grammar of filmmaking. For example, in Little Buddha, he used older Technovision lenses in some scenes where he wanted a warmer look, almost plastic in texture. Storaro explains that the new lenses record sharper, colder and more defined images. These visual subtleties are sub-text in the overall content of the film, but they add immeasurably to the richness of the movie-goer's experience.

Storaro has pioneered the use of precisely pre-setting and controlling lights at a computer console, a technique developed for the live theatre. He used it for the first time while filming One From the Heart, directed by Francis Coppola.

"The story required a continuous transformation of light to mask or to reveal emotions in different characters," he explains. "The story was moving, evolving and dissolving continuously. So we developed a system based on stage lighting, which gave us much more subtle control of the use of light and color. Instead of DC we used AC power, and we controlled all of the lights through a small dimmer board. Once my units were in place, all I needed was a control console and one operator, and I could change the entire design of lighting, or one group of lights, or one light at any time."

It altered his thinking about the use and control of light forever. The lighting console gave him the freedom to alter the angle, quality and color of lighting second by second on moving shots.

In part, cinematography is the art of pre-visualization. That implies an ability by the cinematographer to see the images shot by shot in his or her head before they are captured on film. Storaro creates a very specific ideology for every film based on discussions with his co-authors, mainly the director, his visual memory and intuition. Every shot is painstakingly planned. He has refined and improved his use of the lighting console on each film that he has made since One From the Heart.

All of these and other tactics that he has developed over the years are woven into the fabric of Little Buddha. Sometimes, it seems like Storaro has been a cornerstone in the art of cinematography forever. He has already won three Oscars for Apocalypse Now, Reds and The Last Emperor. When he earns his fourth Oscar, Storaro will be in an exclusive club. Only Joe Ruttenberg, ASC, and Leon Shamroy, ASC, earned four Oscars. The only other cinematographers with as many as three Oscars are Freddie Young, BSC, Winton Hoch, ASC, Robert Surtees, ASC, and Arthur Miller, ASC.

Here is something to think about. All of the other cinematographers with three or four Oscars have well over 100 feature credits. They spent all or most of their careers working under studio contracts, shooting feature films virtually their entire careers. Storaro is only 53, and is clearly in the prime of his career. He has some 36 plus feature credits, and tends to be both eclectic and selective in the work that he does. Storaro has worked on special venue projects, i.e., Captain EO, TV mini-series, Peter the Great, and he recently completed an extraordinary documentary, which involved filming 15 hours of the history of Rome.

Like all cinematographers, or human beings for that matter, at least in part his work reflects the sum of his experiences. Storaro was born in Rome in 1940, where his father was a projectionist at Lux Films. He still has vivid memories of sitting by his father's side watching films day after day. "My father put the dream of working as a cinematographer into my heart," he says. Storaro was enrolled at the Duca D'Aosta technical photographic institute at the tender age of 11. He received a master of photography degree five years later. At that juncture, he began an apprenticeship at a photographic studio, and subsequently continued his education at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in 1960.

After working as an assistant cameraman for around a year, Storaro became an operator at the age of 21. In 1963, the film industry in Italy ground to a halt. There were no jobs, and literally no films were being made. Storaro used the time to augment his education. He spent two years studying the arts including literature, movies, painting and sculpture. It made a profound impact on his thinking about his artform, and on his understanding of the nature of light and color.

He went back to work in 1963, on Before the Revolution, which was his first contact with Bertolucci. Storaro shot his first feature, Giovinezza, Giovenezzi, in 1968, and a year later, he worked with Bertolucci as a cinematographer for the first time on a film called Strateglia del Ragno. In 1970, they collaborated on The Conformist, which elevated both of them to international stature among their peers.

Ask Storaro about his on-going professional relationship with Bertolucci, and you can see the fondness and admiration shining in his eyes when he talks about the director being his guide on a lifelong journey. It is clear that their work together isn't completed.

Ask how he prepared to shoot Little Buddha with its complex message, and the extraordinary combining of film formats, and Storaro responds, "Someone (else) asked me how long I prepared for shooting the story of Buddha. I said 53 years, my entire life. You are influenced by everything, not just the films you shoot, but also by all of your other experiences. You can't make a film like this and not question your own life -- your own impermanence; who we are; where we are going, and what enlightenment means to us.

"I woke up every day thinking, I would take another step toward understanding the meaning of my life, and that was a wonderful experience. It's a journey you never complete. It is one thing to do research, and to find a better way to record an image. That is something you do consciously. It is an entirely different experience, when you discover something new at the moment of photography. Filming Little Buddha made me more conscious of that."

At the conclusion of the film format seminar, Storaro sat in on a panel discussion which focussed on the future of the artform, and specifically about the choice of film formats. He made an extraordinary statement. He said that in the future, he would only do theatrical feature work for big-screen theaters in 65 mm format.

If you weren't there, and if you haven't seen Little Buddha, it could sound like bravado. But Storaro augmented his statement by making an eloquent plea for riding the 65 mm format as a vehicle to the future of moviemaking. He reminded the audience that in the beginning of the film industry, just around 100 years ago, Louis and Auguste Lumiere, and other artistic pioneers never meant to restrict visual story-telling within the limited confines of a 35 mm frame. The Lumieres experimented with 75 mm film, and there were various other wide film formats. In fact in 1899, Hopwood's Living Pictures catalog listed cameras and projectors that were available in nine different widths.

The 35 mm format became a defacto standard around 1913, partially on the basis of a handshake agreement between George Eastman and Thomas Edison, who wanted to standardize production and distribution for economies of scale. There was a resurgence of wide-film formats in Hollywood during the mid-1920s through the early 1930s. Virtually every studio had their own format, ranging in gauge from 55 mm to 70 mm. Some of the names included Natural Vision, by RKO, (Campus Sweethearts), Polyvision (a three-panel process invented by Abel Gance, used during the 1927 filming and exhibition of Napolean), Fox Grandier (The Big Trail), Realife, by MGM, (Billy the Kid), Vitascope, by Warner Bros. and United Artists (Kismet and The Bat Whispers, respectively).

The opening sentence in an article published in the ASC 1930 Cinematographic Annual was an upbeat prediction about wide-screen filmmaking: "One of the outstanding developments of the past year in the motion picture industry has been the introduction of wide film. Even the advent of sound created no greater flurry of excitement."

But the world was in the grip of a tightening economic depression, exhibitors were investing in upgrading their theatres for sound, and the studios cut back dramatically on research and development. Plans for wide-screen production and exhibition were shelved for future consideration.

During the 1950s, the studios dusted those plans off, and brought wide-screen filmmaking back in a big way. That was in direct response to the erosion of box office receipts because of the rising popularity of television. Hollywood tried 3-D filmmaking first, but it proved to be a short-lived gimmick.

The modern era of wide-screen filmmaking began in 1952 with This is Cinerama. There was another flurry of specialized formats, including Cinemascope, VistaVision, Todd-A-O and Technirama. In 1956, Panavision developed Camera 65 for MGM. It was first used during the filming of Raintree County. There were other technical developments, with a big one being the development of spherical 65 mm lenses by Panavision, which eliminated the "fat faces" syndrome that plagued earlier CinemaScope films.

There were some 40 blockbuster or roadshow films, as they were called, filmed in wide-screen formats during this period, with the most famous being Oklahoma, Around the World in 80 Days, The Sound of Music, Lawrence of Arabia, The Alamo, Exodus, My Fair Lady, South Pacific, before the curtain finally came down following the release of Ryan's Daughter.

There were a number of reasons why the wide-film format floundered, however the biggest was economics. The cameras were incredibly cumbersome, and lenses and films were slow. It was a deadly combination. Then, Bob Gottshalk at Panavision invented a set of 35 mm anamorphic lenses which could be used to squeeze a wide-screen image onto theatrical screens using much more mobile cameras. Film technology improved to the point where quality 70 mm prints could be blown up from 35 mm negatives.

During the late 1980s and early '90s, there were dramatic breakthroughs in 65 mm camera and lens technologies, driven by the rising popularity of special venue theatres at theme parks, world's fairs and expositions, and now, hotels and shopping centers. The public clearly has a taste for more immersive films. The first theatrical feature shot in 65 mm format since Ryan's Daughter was Ron Howard's Far and Away, photographed by Mikael Salomon, ASC. There was much hope at the time that other wide-screen films would follow in the wake of its success. But Far and Away faltered at the box office. Nevertheless, Storaro believes that inevitably, the 65 mm wide-screen format will return, and when that happens, he intends to be in the front ranks of filmmakers working in that format.

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