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Vittorio Storaro Paints With His Camera

Vittorio Storaro Paints With His Camera

Articles - Cinematography

Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC was born in Rome in 1940, where his father was a projectionist at Lux Studios. He saw many movies in the projection booth with his father. There was no sound
in the booth, so Storaro learned to “read” images. He graduated from the state film school, Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, in 1960 and has subsequently earned Oscars for Apocalypse Now, Reds and The Last Emperor, and a fourth nomination for Dick Tracy. A short list of his other memorable films includes The Conformist, 1900, Last Tango in Paris, Tucker: The Man and His Dream, One From the Heart, Little Buddha, Tango and Bulworth. Storaro is currently collaborating with director Carlos Saura on Io, Don Giovanni, a film about the life of Lorenzo da Ponte, the lyricist who collaborated with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart on the opera Don Giovanni.

MM: You have spoken in the past about how the art created by Caravaggio has influenced you. What is your earliest memory of seeing his paintings?

Vittorio Storaro (VS): Someone asked me a similar question about two years ago when the Guggenheim Museum in New York City had a beautiful celebration of Italian cinematography, where they presented two of my films, The Conformist and Apocalypse Now. I explained that in Italy we see art in our churches starting on the day we are baptized. When I was attending elementary school, the first book they gave me had paintings by Raphael on the front and back pages. When I was just starting my career during my early twenties, I visited the
Church of San Luis dei Francesi in the center of Rome with my fiancé, Antonia, who later became my wife. There were some extraordinary paintings in the church’s chapel. It was the first time I saw The Calling of Saint Matthew.

MM: What was your first impression of The Calling of Saint Matthew?

VS: It took my breath away. There is a beam of light that goes from the top to the bottom of the painting, dividing it into two parts. One side is in daylight and the other side is in darkness. I recall thinking they represented the human and the divine sides of life and our unconscious and conscious beings. That was the first time that I saw light and darkness used as metaphors for life and death. I also remember reading a book by William Faulkner called Absalom, Absalom!, where one of the main characters explains how a beam of sunlight penetrated and divided a room like it was separating periods in another character’s life. It was the same concept as The Calling of Saint Matthew.

MM: How did that impression influence you as a filmmaker?

VS: I didn’t know that the artist was Caravaggio when I first saw The Calling of Saint Matthew, because nobody taught us art in cinematography school. They mainly taught us
about technology. That is still happening in many schools around the world. They are mainly teaching technology rather than art. I believe they should be teaching their students to use colors, light, darkness and movement the way that authors use words to write literature. Great cinema draws on all of the arts—literature, sculpture, painting, music and architecture. It even
draws on lessons we learn by reading philosophy. Since the day that I went into that church and saw that painting, I have been trying to understand what it told us about the meaning of light and darkness. That has been a lifelong quest for me. I remember drawing on those memories while I was working on The Conformist and 1900 early in my career and later on Reds.

MM: What was your reaction when you were asked to shoot Caravaggio?

VS: When [producer] Ida Di Benedetto asked me if I wanted to work with her on a television movie about Caravaggio, I not only said yes, I said that I would throw myself into this project if we were writing graffiti on a wall or messages in the sand. I am an eternal student, always looking for opportunities to broaden areas of knowledge about philosophy and the arts. I have spent a good part of my life trying to understand why Caravaggio painted the way that he did during different periods of his life.

MM: About how much time did you dedicate to this project?

VS: I spent about one year of my life on this project, starting with pre-production through the completion of post-production. It was a great experience for me. I dedicated myself completely to trying to understand why and how that man with all the suffering and the joy that he went through at that moment in history discovered new ways to express himself. I believe he affected all of our visual arts.

MM: What was the first discussion between you and the director about?

VS: I came onto this film with an open mind. In our first conversations, Angelo Longoni, the director, suggested that all of our lighting should be similar to Caravaggio paintings. I thought about that, and then suggested that we light most scenes to look natural, so that when we show the audience how Caravaggio saw things through his own eyes, it looks and feels different. I felt that was important, because no other artists were painting the way that he did at that time. Angelo agreed.

MM: Is the cinematography objective, as though the audience is witnessing the story as spectators, or is it subjective, as if they are participants?

VS: They are mainly witnesses, but there are many moments when you see the story through Caravaggio’s eyes. You see what he sees when he closes a window to make the studio dark, fixes the lantern in relation to his model and positions the mirror from his point of view as he prepares to paint. We show the audience what he sees.

MM: Was Caravaggio produced at real locations where the actual events in his life happened, or was it filmed on sets on stages, or a
combination of both?

VS: It was a combination. First, we went first to Sicily, where he lived and worked. We filmed scenes at exterior and interior locations, including a beautiful castle that looks the same as it did 400 years ago. We shot scenes there recreating parts of his life in Naples and on the island of Malta. We were in Sicily and other parts of southern Italy for two weeks. We also shot in Rome for two weeks, including an ancient church, the castle where Caravaggio witnessed the execution of Beatrice Cenci, and in a beautiful old building where we recreated the interiors of Cardinal Del Monte’s palace. After that we spent six weeks on the backlot at Belgrade Studios (in Serbia), where we recreated the center of Rome in the time Caravaggio was alive.

MM: Other than production and costume design, how did the period when the story takes place affect the way you filmed Caravaggio?

VS: Obviously, there was no electric power. We had beams of artificial sunlight coming through doors and windows. We also simulated firelight, including torches, candles and lanterns. We gave a lot of thought to the angles and colors of light, and whether a scene was happening in a place that was lit by one or 300 candles.

MM: What film format was chosen to produce Caravaggio?

VS: We used the Univisium system, which is 35mm film with three perforations per frame. The cameras were modified to allow us to compose images with a 2:1 aspect ratio. That was important, because there were plans to release both television and cinema versions of Caravaggio. I believe that it is important for audiences to experience films the way they are intended to be seen whether it is seen on a cinema screen or on television. (Editor’s note: Storaro invented the Univisium system during the 1980s, when the FCC was first considering standards for
high-definition television displays in the U.S., and similar discussions were going on in other countries.)

MM: How were the cameras modified?

VS: We had two ARRI 535B cameras modified for Univisium, along with a full set of Cooke prime and zoom lenses. The cameras have a modified movement with no flutter, and a 2:1 gate. Kodak provided the films we needed in three-perf format, and Technicolor in Rome processed the negative and printed the film in Univisium format. We saw film dailies in Italy and digital dailies on a 50-inch plasma screen in Belgrade.

MM: We understand that you used four different KODAK VISION2 color negative films. Wouldn’t it have been simpler to standardize on one or two stocks?

VS: Some people prefer conforming to one film for a consistent look. I believe it is important to use the proper film for each situation, just like Caravaggio chose the right paint for each stroke of his brush. When you change a setting from day to night, or from interior to exterior, you should use the film which works best in that light. If we were shooting a daytime exterior, I used 5201
(50D). If we had an interior daytime scene, I used 5205, the 250-speed daylight film. For night interiors, I used the 5217 (200T) film. If it was a big night exterior scene in the street, I used 5218 (500T) film.

MM: Why did you use two cameras to film scenes?

VS: We used two cameras from different perspectives, because we only had 12 weeks to cover a long and complicated script. By using the Univision format with three-perforations per frame, we could shoot for 25 percent longer without stopping to reload. The Univision format also reduced our costs for film and lab work by 25 percent.

MM: What was your general approach to lighting?

VS: I have been using a theatrical dimmer board since One From the Heart in 1982. The dimmer board allowed us to control lighting from a single place while we were shooting. We designed lighting during rehearsals, and controlled transitions from day to night and colors from the board while we were shooting.

MM: What was your approach to the use of colors?

VS: I have learned that colors have to be believable in terms of the artificial sources of light they were using at that time, as well as the natural journey of the sun if you want the audience to see and feel what it was like to be at that place and time. While studying Caravaggio’s paintings, I noticed that he used blacks, orange to red colors, yellows, some whites, and very rich green tones, but you never see blue in his paintings. So I also completely avoided the use of blue.

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