The Cinema’s eyes
Giovanni Grazzini

(Translate by Susan Ann White)

Fiat lux, he said. And the vast set of Creation lit up. The Master was pleased and satisfied with his judgment. He took by the arm a young man who was passing by, his eyes wide with astonishment, and endowed him with artistic vision, saying: I see you love images. I shall make you a cinematographer.

He put a film director by his side, and asked the two to challenge him by reinventing the world. The pair set to work, with the boy knowing immediately that he had the most difficult task, because a director without a cinematographer produces nothing fruitful, while a cinematographer can make a form materialize from nothing simply by turning on a light.

The new Ark of the Covenant set sail, on the understanding that its final goal was to endow the different settings and moments of a film with what would become known as figurative unity. These two people did not always have a good relationship, because sometimes the director expected too much or did not know what he wanted. But by using filters, lamps, gauzes and gobos, the cinematographer often succeeded in visualizing the atmosphere in which the story took place and the concept behind the images.>

Once film had been invented that was sensitive, in varying degrees, to natural or artificial light, the cinematographer exploited its virtues with figurative expertise, either by drawing on his own sensibility or by finding inspiration in Nature and in painting.

Scholars began to talk about plastic values and formal and stylistic elements; books and essays on cinematographers began to appear. These writings spoke highly of the creative processes adopted by the cinematographer and a craft that had evolved into a profession, now that the filming of sequences, lenses, camera movements, lighting plans, the mise en scène, the type of camera used and the developing and printing of the film no longer pertained to a single cameraman but had been extended to the other protagonists of the marriage between art and technology. Not only: the focus of the visual planes and sound levels was perfected; the zoom was used to move in on the subject; they learnt to dolly in on the actor diagonally to create a three-dimensional image with a musical quality; the relationship with the sound engineer, without whom the photography would be negated, was completely resolved. They understood that everything begins by studying the screenplay, by capturing its harmonies and counterpoints and translating them into light and shade.

Thus cinema became a way of writing, and the eyes of the cinematographer, his instinct and his skill in regulating the light, taught us to see and appreciate the architecture of the space and the composition of the images, whether they were those of a harsh, raw realist film, a dream-like fantasy, or the already well-established images based on photodynamics and possessing a plastic dynamism. Every good cinematographer aims to capture the feeling of life and the rhythm of time, to photograph ideas and the human condition, in order to arouse profound emotions in us, which he does by sensuously caressing with the lens the forms and ideas he interprets. Rather than simply taking pleasure in reproducing reality our cinematographer wants to transmit to us a kind of aesthetic delight created by the combination of the colors, and the pureness and expressive intensity of the images. The story told with light and shadows communicates the energy of life and the world of the emotions; the spirit of an epoch or of a life-style. As Marcello Gatti says: Every time you do the lighting it’s like making love.

What kind of strategies does the cinematographer worth his salt dream up to make the light reflect the feeling of the screenplay? He makes the light come down from above, uses reflected light, directs it from below to make the character look sinister, under- or over-exposes the negative, shoots with backlighting, diffuses the light to soften outlines and attenuate colors, and may even cause it to emanate from the actor. Lighting technique plays a crucial role, but it is the cinematographer’s talent and unbridled creativity that gives the photography its great qualities, the right to be called a figurative art.

Up till now, and for almost a century, the mission, vocation and ambition of the cinematographer, who by painting with the light (as the electricians in the theater used to say) has been able to wrest from the darkness the inner significance of things and gestures, the chaos of life and its sweetness and psychological conflicts, has consisted in seeing the cinematic work as embodying the essence of feeling, nature, the relationship between space and time, the real but also the imaginary.

Progress has now brought us to a turning point.

Traditional technology, which has produced so many masterpieces, is currently being replaced by digital technology, which is the product of electronics and draws extensively on the baggage of the silent cinematographer. The making and viewing of a film has changed radically. The older cinematographers, who are still active, will be the last to be able to say that, as young men, they exposed the film in the sun to print it. Filmed with digital micro-cameras, transferred onto film for cinema showings and projected and distributed in digital form, the movie made in the first decade of the 21st century and beamed from a satellite, eliminates, among other things, the viewing of the rushes and ushers in videotape. It may be painful - Franco Di Giacomo comments - to imagine shooting a film without the reassuring hum of the movie camera, but it means that we shall have to get used to the whir of the videotape as it rewinds. I think it’s worth making the effort.

As we move unrelentingly towards epochal change, the person who designs the lighting still plays a crucial role. According to many people, film still has the advantage of giving us more information than its digital equivalent, but the expressive qualities of cinema do not derive from technology or a sequence of numbers. Rotunno says that wine and water can be mixed, and so can chemical and digital processes. What is important is that this cocktail does not violate the code of cinema; that the new instruments continue to be a means for communicating the values inherent in the images, and are not used to stupefy an audience that has regressed to childhood.

Daniele Nannuzzi maintains that digital technology really stimulates the imagination, but sees it merely as another opportunity, like all the others, to create special effects that would otherwise be impossible from a production point of view. The language has to remain that of film. If everyone is talking about digital, it’s only because it’s not as expensive as film and requires fewer technicians. All this is very depressing, Nannuzzi says, but digital is extremely useful in post-production, especially when you use the telecine to convert from the negative to tape. However, it’s no longer cinema if there is not that beam of light that crosses the movie theater and unites the film with the screen. (...) The negative is like a piece of antique furniture polished by hand (...); digital is like spray-polishing that same piece of furniture.

Tonino Delli Colli has similar ideas: I can’t relate to the new digital filming systems, or rather I have no desire to learn these new techniques even though everything is changing and the evolution of technologies will make filmmaking even more immediate.

Vittorio Storaro, on the other hand, is optimistic: I am sure that before long we shall be able to record our images in real High Definition, preserve them indefinitely, and obtain excellent technological quality. (...) I imagine, when that moment comes, that we shall perhaps lose our Innocence and perhaps part of the Mystery of the image will be revealed; but we shall certainly be more CONSCIOUS of its formation and its conservation. All this is part of the word ‘Evolution’. (...) And as soon as Man succeeds in solving the time-quality-price equation, I think he will be able to digitally fix images directly in the word ‘Energy’.

It is true, however, that with regard to restoration digital technologies make it possible to reconstruct missing lengths of film, to erase scratches or breaks, to copy frames, to transform the old soundtrack, and to incorporate characters from other movies. The main problem is however one of conservation. As Giuseppe Rotunno says, restoration is possible only if the material is in a good state of preservation.

In other words, the new generation of cinematographers are faced with a lot of questions, the main one being: should they move towards negatives for miniature movie cameras or towards digital video? The answer from this writer, who does not work in movies but loves cinema, is that if it is true that we have really reached perfection with regard to what the human eye can perceive, make us see beyond technical virtuosity, and show us the aesthetic qualities inherent in the frame.

We shall be nourished and rewarded.