Following his Master Class presentation at CAMERIMAGE FILM FESTIVAL 2016, Vittorio Storaro AIC ASC, shares his experiences of shooting Woody Allen’s romantic comedy Café Society digitally, and offers some sage advice for up-and-coming cinematographers.
(01 – Vittorio and the Sony F65 digital camera)
Although I have used High Definition video and digital capture technology for well over thirty years, Café Society was my first real experience in long-form digital capture. I wanted the opportunity to express my personal views, meanly at young cinematographer, about the many different aspects of digital cinematography on this production. I perceive, and worry, that some cinematographers today do not feel they need to know much about the technology they are using, the history of cinema, the visual arts, nor, perhaps, cinematography in the future. I hope what follows will be of interest particularly to younger cinematographers at the early stages of their careers. Human beings have expressed themselves using visual arts for millennia. They painted graffiti on the walls of caves, then on wood, canvas, photographic and cinematographic emulsions – in B&W, colour, widescreen, 3D stereo and 360-degrees – using analogue and, more recently, digital means. The “medium” wasn't and isn't the most important thing: it changes in different periods of time. But, the “IDEA” was, is and will always be the main concern of the human mind, and this should be exactly so for the cinematographer. I do not believe that cinema is really different in either analogue or digital form, so long as we carry history, knowledge and a genuine love for the arts into our work. Whatever the medium we choose as cinematographic artists, we have the means, and we must remain be determined, to express ourselves in ways that can give new purpose to our own creative lives and evoke emotions in those who watch our work.
A) Cinematographic ideation – the psychology behind the formation of visual ideas
I believe that the research on paintings, photography and other historical sources, are very useful
in helping you to arrive at the basic visual idea for a production. Every film needs its own vision,
particularly in the electronic era, when everybody can see images whilst we are recording them.
I gave the story of Café Society a specific visual structure. Story told not only by the characters in 1930, but also by a Narrator. A voiceover that covers two contrasting worlds: the Jewish cultural world of the Bronx in New York and the Hollywood star system in Los Angeles.
1) My first thought was to visualise New York in a low chromatic range, with dull lunar tonality. This was inspired by the photography of Edward Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz and the paintings of Georgia O'Keeffe and Ben Shahn.
2) It is from this vision of New York that Bobby Dorfman moves to the sunlit world of Hollywood,where he meets his Uncle Phil, a film industry agent. Post-expressionism was the predominant artistic movement of that time and influenced all of arts of that period – theatre, music, photography, cinema, painting and even comic strips. It was a time saturated by the work of painters as Otto Dix and Edward Hopper, I felt these could have an imprint on the visual language surrounding the star system in Café Society. When Bobby returns to New York, the story takes him into his brother's nightclub – the more sophisticated, aristocractic and luminescent world of New York, well represented by the Art Deco paintings of Tamara de Lempicka.
Literature and music can take many variations and I believe that the language of light has similar possibilities. It can have energy waves that create specific emotions. But it is not enough to have one single idea though an entire movie, and it is quite another thing to take the ideas from your mind and materialise them into moving images.
B) Location scout
It is absolutely essential for the cinematographer to see the location with the Director and the
Production designer. From here you can start to determine all of the theoretical ideas from your
mind. Usually, every scene in the script has loose descriptions such as “Day” or “Night”. But
inside the word “Day” there are many different moments and settings – aurora, dawn, morning,
afternoon, sunset, dusk – each with different lighting tonalities and nuances that enable
you to enlarge your visual vocabulary for the production.
The location scout allows cinematographers, to write on the script the different times of day and to start creating a chromatic, luminous journey that underlines the events in the story. Of course, it is your job to visualise all of this through illumination and through my work on this production I do think that the real difference between analogue and digital capture is "the use of Light".
C) Importance of light
A photograph is a single expression of a moment, whereas cinematography is about multiple expressions and it needs the input of several artists to create the complete picture.
Digital cameras are now so sensitive to light (+/- 1000ASA) that we can record images in almost any location, using just the existing available light. However, available light is not necessarily correct for any given specific sequence.
And, this is the most common mistake that many young cinematographers seem to be making, to the extent that most movies do not have a proper visual style for the particular story being told, and the images end-up looking very similar to one another.
It now almost impossible to recognise the different creative styles between different cinematographers. I might say, many don't seem to want to try to have their own, personal, visual style. I have even heard some young cinematographers asking one of the camera companies to make the sensor more sensitive, so they don't need use any additional lighting on location. Regarding the style of light, I believe it is important to research historical references from paintings. For Café Society I was inspired by several different artistic works:
According to film director Sergei Eisenstein's book Colours, it is possible to achieve a dramatic composition of colours to better visualise the drama of scenes. We can consider the colour spectrum of Sir Isaac Newton : Red-Orange-Yellow-Green-Blue-Indigo-Violet to underline each character with a specific colour, or with Goethe’s Theory Of Colours and the physiology of how colours are perceived by humans for dramatic effect.
D) Technical testing In preparing yourself for a new movie, it is important to do serious technical tests with digital camera and lenses. You need to be sure of the central position of the focus, and how best to utilise it for creative purposes as for example in Citizen Kane and Son Of Saul. At Panavision NewYork, with the assistance of Chris Konash and Steve Wills, I did several important checks, particularly with the Cooke S4i lenses and their depth-of-field characteristics.
I also did some creative tests to confirm other, different parts of the cinematography and the formation of the visual ideas and concepts for Café Society, which were starting to take shape. But, to make the best use of the lighting, we need to control it.
E) Lighting&dimmer control Ever since I started as a cinematographer, one of my dreams was to be able to control all of the lighting from a single point. This dream was realised in 1980 during the production of One From The Heart, directed by Francis Coppola.
In every other movie I have used a Lightboard to keep all of the on-set lights under dimmer control. The benefit is that we not only keep the master down during rehearsals, saving bulbs, gels and the overall temperature on-set, but we can change the visual atmosphere within every shot. At Cinelease L.A. and N.Y. I asked the use of Iride Lights, a Lightboard and the Rosco gels.
F) Digital capture
From 1980 onwards, I started to use the small B&W video-tap that was introduced on the film camera. Reds, directed by Warren Beatty and One From The Heart by Francis Coppola, were my first experiences of using this technology. In 1983, I shot Arlecchino in Venice, directed by Giuliano Montaldo, using a Sony High Definition video system. In 2000, I used the Sony CineAlta, whilst I was teaching at Academy of Image Arts & Sciences in l'Aquila.
In 2009, I did my first digital capture for the TV film Flamenco, Flamenco, directed by Carlos Saura. But, even with all of these different experiences, I considered that it wasn't my time to leave the world of celluloid photochemical production.
In 2015, however, for the film Café Society, I realised that the time had come for me to cross the bridge between film and digital capture.
So I convinced Woody to move together with me into this new technology. I mentioned to him that "Progress" can be slow down or speed up, but it cannot be stopped. The Sony F65, with its 4K, 16-bit and 2:1 aspect ratio was the digital camera for us. But, I understood that I needed some additional knowledge and support to be able to perform properly with this camera.
G) Digital Imaging Technician (DIT)
In digital cinematography the DIT is very important figure. For Café Society, I chosen Simone d'Arcangelo, a former student of mine at The Academy of Image in l'Aquila, that had dedicated himself to this technology and had become very experienced in digital workflow.
But, we should be very mindful to find the balance between technology and the creative needs of the cinematography. Albert Einstein used to say, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
I remember Technicolor's "Colour Consultant", who attended on-set during films made in 1950s / 1970s. Here influenced key creative decisions on a Film, in how colour and lights should be used to capture better the images on film. Spreading fear that colours would not be captured well in shadow areas, they determined that many movies should by filmed with a generic, uniform light. The "dramaturgy" – the practice of dramatic composition, using light and shadow – was cancelled-out of movies shot in colour. They used to say what colour was good for a Western, a Comedy and Musical films and that B&W was good for a dramatic story. But thankfully, despite the colour consultant, the cinematographers of movies such as The Red Shoes (1948, Jack Cardiff), Moulin Rouge (1952, Oswald Morris), Senso (1954, Aldo Graziati/Robert Krasker), and especially Gone With The Wind (1939, Ernest Haller/Lee Garmes) were able, with the technology available at the time, to use colours in dramatic ways – using filmstocks with an exposure rating of around just 25ASA.
When my generation of cinematographers came into filmmaking, that theory was modified. We proved that Technicolor could record many more tonalities of Colour, even in shadow. Some examples are: Women In Love (1969, Billy Williams), The Conformist (1970, Vittorio Storaro), McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971, Vilmos Zsigmond), The French Connection (1971, Owen Roizman), The Godfather (1972, Gordon Willis), Cries And Whispers (1972, Sven Nykvist), etc... etc... etc...
That was the time of the mystery of the revelation of the image. Today we have a perfect image on a well-calibrated monitor.
H) Video control on-set
Since 1980, with Warren Beatty’s film Reds, when the first video assist technologies stared
being used on the film set, the cameraman and the cinematographer suddenly appeared to have
lost their value in knowing how the filmed image would appear on-screen during dailies.
Today we live in a period of even more heightened awareness, when everyone can see the image on-set and cinematographers have lost the mystery of the revelation of the image. Today, it is more incumbent than ever on us to really need to know the meaning of the various visual arts that go into the creation of the cinematographic image – symbolism, physiology, the dramaturgy of light and colours – so that we have solid reasoning behind our cinematographic choices. We need to know the value and the impact that visual energy has on human perception.
Video assist can keeps us in agreement with the director, because we can see, and we can change any image.. together.
Jean Cocteau used to say: "Cinema is a dream in which we all dream together.”
I) Image composition
For me, the composition of the image in the 2:1 aspect ratio is essential. In epic pictures, such as Apocalypse Now (1979) and Little Buddha (1993), I did everything I could to preserve the original composition of the film in all forms of distribution.
It is very important for audiences to see films the way they were composed by the director and cinematographer. All different aspect ratios used in Cinema history – original 1:1.33, panoramic
1:1.66 in France, 1:1.85 in Europe/USA, Cinemascope 1:2.35, 70mm 1:2.21 – were drastically mutilated when they were transferred from film to video, in full screen 1:1.35.
It's a terrible situation to record images in "full aperture" for someone later to determinate the the final composition. Cinema is an expression of images, completed by music and words. In modifying the composition of the image, the film itself is changed.
Taking the best symbol of The Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci's fresco The Last Supper, with its 2:1 aspect ratio, I invented, with my son Fabrizio, the Univisium System – a universal film format that could unify all future theatrical and television movies into one aspect ratio 2:1.
As humans, we consider "reality" to be what our eyes see around 180° degree of space. When we select part of this reality, in a specific size and shape, we are creating "visual art". "Art" in Latin means "ability". In agreement with directors, we need to compose images to suit the style of the film. "Composition" and "rhythm" are two of the most important words in the camera operator's vocabulary. Working closely with camera and Steadicam/operator Will Arnot, we together dedicated specific attention to the correct composition and rhythm in every image in Café Society, to make sure they were in sympathy with both the narration and structure of the overall story.
J) Dailies Shooting in New York, every Saturday I reviewed dailies in my hotel apartment with and Anthony Raffaele, the colourist at Technicolor New York, Will and Simone. These sessions allowed us all to confirm or modify any creative and technical choices we had made. Those meetings also gave us a continual survey of the visual journey of the production so far, and to make decisions about the next stages of the production.
K) Digital Intermediate: 4K 16-bit colours
With the Digital Intermediate colour grade, we are able to finalise all of the visual aspects of a movie. That horrible statement that you sometimes hear on-set, "don’t worry about it now, we will fix it in post", should not be part of cinematographer's vocabulary. In the DI, we should just refine the quality of the images that we crafted and recorded on-set. I asked of Technicolor New York to have DI colourist Anthony Raffaele with me throughout the entire production. I believe that is very important to carry with us all the knowledge that we learn during the entire filming process.
With Baselight colour grading console, during the D.I. with his sensitivity and technical knowledge, Anthony was able to interpret my complete vision for the movie at the original recording quality of 4K 16-bit, with 2:1 composition, in realtime. My dream for several years.
L) Worldwide distribution
When you create digital images at the very highest level of quality, it is very important to maintain this quality throughout the worldwide distribution of the movie. Unfortunately, the main distribution standard today is still the 2K, 12-bit linear DCP. Very few cinemas are equipped to screen movies at 4K and even fewer have the capacity to support 16-bit colour.
If we record/screen at 4K, with the Univisium 2:1 format, we have a frame size of 4096 x 2048, totalling 8,388,608 million pixels. To record/screen at 2K, with the Univisium 2:1 format , we get 2048 x1024, just 2,097,152 millions pixels. Essentially we have lost 6,291,456 million of pixel information. Also, 16-bit linear colours represent 281 billions of colour shade. But 12-bit linear colours, represent 68 million of colours shade. Between the two, 213 billions of colours shade have gone missing. To my knowledge, the Arcadia cinema in Melzo, near Milan, Italy, screened Café Society at 4K, 16-bit. Audiences there were able to fully-appreciate the original visual intention of Woody Allen's film.
The final consideration of a motion picture's journey is long-term preservation. Almost everybody in the industry thinks that digital systems will preserve films forever. Wrong. Capture and finish in the digital format does not guarantee permanence of the media afterwards. No digital system devised so far supports assured preservation for the future. Digital images are impermanent. According to Kodak’s specifications colour film, kept under strict temperature and humidity control, has almost 100 years of life. Digital media does not have more than five years before it needs to be re-transferred or migrated to a new digital platform to be preserved. After 417 years, we can still appreciate the paintings of Caravaggio, such as The Calling Of Saint Matthew, which was completed in 1600 in Rome. But I have no idea how many year’s we will still be able to see the film Café Society made in 2015.
At present, the best analogue system for long-term preservation of colour
motion picture film is the Silver Separation Master, devised by Technicolor, but
it is very rarely used. To my knowledge, the Digital Optical Tape System (DOTS), a Kodak technology developed by Rom Hummel with Group47 in Los
Angeles, could be the final answer for both analogue and digital movies.
The DOTS technology, can withstand extreme temperature and exposure to electrical or magnetic fields, and offers the capability to preserve and read image files for perhaps 500 years into the future. It has already generated much interest from the US Library Of Congress and the US National Archive.
I believe that everybody should be free to do in cinema what they think is appropriate for their creative personality. But, the romantic and nostalgic energy being spent by several filmmakers and cinematographers, in trying to maintain past analogue systems, to keep alive what, any how, is going to disappear, would be much better invested if we all work together, using our combined energies, in trying to reach the best possible image quality at every stage pre-production, production, post production and particularly preservation for the future.
It is our creativity, our history and our film industry that are at stake. We all need, for the love of the art of Cinematography, to take a stand on these fundamental matters.
Sincerely Vittorio Storaro