The image of cinema in the light of experience
Giuseppe Rotunno

Interview by Alessandro Gatti(translate by Susan Ann White)

I did the cinematography for Le notti bianche, by Luchino Visconti, after 17 years of experience, formation and development in the field of still photography and filming. I began to gain experience in the dark room of the photographic lab at Cinecittà, headed by Arturo Bragaglia whose generosity and the respect he showed for my passion for experimentation, which ranged from the actual taking of photographs to developing and printing, retouching prints and restoring plates, led him to advise me and to help me make the transition from the photographic lab to the adjacent cameramen's department where I served the various stages of my apprenticeship learning all the different jobs from assistant cameraman to cameraman. Later, when I was in the Army, I began my career as a news cameraman by shooting documentaries. I did this throughout my military service, which I was obliged to do, despite my young age, because there was a war on. As head of a unit of cameramen I was not only entrusted with all the photographic and filming equipment and the two vehicles for transporting it, but also appointed as war correspondent to take photographs and make films, which I also had to print, to send to the headquarters of the General Staff of the Italian Army, as documentation and reportage on the conflict

On 8 September 1943 I was captured in Greece, then deported to Germany and sent to two concentration camps in the province of Westphalia, the first in a town called Hattingen and the second in Witten, on the Ruhr, from which I was released on 11 April 1945 by the soldiers of a US military division. After returning to Italy I took up my work in the cinema again, amidst a thousand difficulties, going back to being an assistant cameraman but very soon moving up to cameraman and, alternately, working as a cinematographer on documentaries, news and sporting events, and with second units on feature films.

In recent years I have seen a considerable change in the quality of Italian cinema and its way of telling stories, from the time it first became mature, independent and free to express itself by outgrowing the era of romantic melodramas, known as the "white-telephone" films, that was imposed upon it for many years, and evolved to a higher cultural level that made it famous throughout the world as Neorealist cinema, still much appreciated today.

Italian cinematographers played a fundamental role in the transition from "white-telephone" to Neorealist cinema. Films were made with old movie cameras and lenses, sometimes of a different quality, and assorted lengths of film produced by various manufacturers, which were bought on the black market at Porta Portese (Rome), had often expired or were cloudy, in bad condition, and whose origins were uncertain.

Despite everything, our cinematographers succeeded in transforming the defects into qualities, inventing a splendid yet effective style, which worked so well for telling the stories of the films it characterized that it eliminated any technical flaws. I received my grounding in cinematography when Neorealism was at its height -from 1945 to 1955 - the year I made my debut as a director of photography, with sole responsibility for a major film. The technical possibilities had improved greatly in Italy and I was able to shoot my first picture in colour and in Cinemascope - a wide-screen format that was a new technology then -, and I never ceased to experiment with every filming system considered modern, without forgetting the needs of the story.

We are still experimenting with new technologies, and this will only end when the cinema itself ends.

Choose a scene from one of your films, which you consider important because it marked a particular achievement in your career. Describe how you filmed it and what emotions it aroused in you, also from a technical point of view.

The photography of the film Le notti bianche by Luchino Visconti, based on a novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky, constituted an important stage in my development with regard to telling stories with light.

The photography of this film, which was always halfway between the real and the unreal, reality and fantasy, and the expressive dimension of cinema and that of theatre, was at one with the direction, scene after scene. In his remarkable career, Visconti alternated great theatrical works with great movies, giving the theatre the cinema's expressive potential, and vice versa; in fact, the visual theme of the story of Le notti bianche, devised by Visconti, embraced the two ways of telling a story to which he dedicated, throughout his life, tremendous energy, talent, professionalism, and all his sensibility.

Which scene from this movie do I choose as the most important? Every atmosphere created by the light strengthens the other emotively, but this is perhaps most evident in the scene in which Mario helps Natalia to write a letter to her grandmother's tenant.

The two of them are sitting at a café table and, as the scene progresses, a mist slowly appears, thickening, almost imperceptibly, at certain moments.

The graduated light from specially-built Dimmers, controlled from a keyboard, was projected onto large lengths of gauze hanging from the beams in the studio and reaching to the ground, which divided the set into sections, leaving only enough space for the characters, who followed pre-established routes, to emerge from and disappear into the mist at the required distance.

With the possibilities offered by the new technologies, how would you reshoot that scene today? Would you get a better result?

I would do it in exactly the same way, because when you achieve the desired results, you can't do any better. I can say, also speaking for Visconti, that the photography of Le notti bianche is still valid and effective, and no new technology could make it better.

Do you think that the introduction of digital technologies is a violation of the cinema’s code?

Definitely. When the new technolgies can facilitate and improve our work, they should be used like any other medium designed for the same purpose; but it would be counterproductive to think that new technologies alone make a quality picture. It is a passion for cinema and an awareness of what can be obtained from the film medium, combined with talent and professionalism, that permits films of quality to be made, and we would do well never to forget this. (Ben Hur (1959) by William Wyler is a case in point.)

What's your opinion of recent films that have been partially shot - Buena Vista Social Club by Wim Wenders, Gladiator by Ridley Scott - or totally shot - Dancer in the Dark by Lars Von Trier - with digital videocameras and then printed on film for the theatres?

I haven't seen the Wenders' film and, from what I understand, Dancer in the Dark was not shot completely with electronic technologies, some of it was filmed with traditional film systems while electronic equipment was used for shots or scenes held to be more adapted to this medium. Von Trier skillfully exploited the new technologies and made them blend well with the film. I have a feeling that now the benefits he got from the publicity are over, he may have some doubts about the benefits of the electronic medium - unless his passion for operating a camera prevails over that of directing.

Ridley Scott used electronic technology with great expertise on his film Gladiator to create special effects.

His is a film in which the feeling that certain things are artificial, works. In Italy we are used to seeing "sacred" representations of ancient Rome, especially at Easter-time, reconstructed with characters with false beards and fake swords, shields, armour and whips. Ridley Scott uses all these fake elements, but they're done extremely well, and above all very effectively. The director has dominated artifice, using it to create a film of considerable cinematic impact.

In November 2000 the first film, Bounds, was distributed via satellite in American cinemas; what do you think of this?

This is an important event, but we are talking about the commercial aspect of the medium. The contemporaneous presentation of a film in all parts of the world (although I don't know much about this event) is of great commercial importance for a producer who invests so much money in it; making in a day what he would normally receive as income over a period of years is the maximum! But very little changes where we cinematographers are concerned. We are more interested in how much of the intellectual content of the work we have realized is communicated to the public. Nevertheless, it's still wiser to start with film to obtain a better quality and better conservation.

Have you ever photographed a film using techniques you would describe as innovative?

I believe that we all think we use innovative techniques. Techniques are the fundamental basis of expression; therefore, cinematographers abide by the rules they consider effective. Since it was first invented, Cinema has been evolving and will continue to do so. It is the validity of the innovations that counts. There are films like Senso and Il Gattopardo, which Visconti updated for his contemporaries, that are still valid today.

Is there a danger that when an actor's gestures or the sets are filmed with digital technologies, which sometimes produce hyper-realistic images, the story, the actor himself, and even the light meticulously prepared beforehand, will no longer be believable?

These are elements that are part of the story of a film, and do not depend on the shooting medium. If anything, they depend on the light, that is, the lighting; the shooting medium is secondary. A videocamera doesn't make the scene more realistic than a movie camera, because they are both objective enough to reproduce what they frame; it is the quality of the subjects to be shot and how they are lit at the moment of shooting that makes the images believable.

If we could slow down, but not stop progress, what direction should the research undertaken by designers of technology take? Should they move towards miniaturized film cameras and lighter chassis, or digital video equipment?

The answer lies in the question: we have to use what we think will do most for cinema. We naturally choose a material that can improve our work. I think that film still has a big advantage over the electronic media; it allows us to gather more information, to create more quality. As they say, cinema is sensuous, television mechanical. Cinematography has no substitute, it's like wine and water: we drink both but they're completely different, and one cannot substitute the other. Even though they can sometimes be mixed. Miniaturized movie cameras have been around for some time; they are to be used when necessary

What do you think about conservation and restoration in the Italian cinema? Does restoration here mean the same as it does in the United States?

The word restoration means the same here as it does in the United States, but they probably give more importance to technical results in the States. The physical reconstruction of the sensitive materials that contain the original images must not have predominance over the original photographic qualities that must be salvaged with the equally original defects, in order to respect as much as possible the authors' intentions. The film must be restored and represented in its totality; some defects are inherent and cannot be removed without sacrificing something of the film's originality, and so they must be accepted.

Are there some films that should be restored but remain in the shadows because more acclaimed pictures are given precedence?

Certainly, the choice of film is not always impartial: restoring them all would require enormous capital that doesn't exist, so we are obliged to choose, and the choices, as always, have to be made even if this means some pictures being left out. We should decide according to the physical state of the sensitive materials and the qualities present in the cinematic works.

Do you have your own personal list of films you'd like to see restored as soon as possible?

I do have a personal list, but the need for urgent intervention must be established in relation to the physical condition of the sensitive materials. There are also films of which I am particularly fond, my eyes have learnt more from some films than others, and, of course, I like to choose as much as anyone else. We cannot forget our great film authors, such as Fellini, Visconti Rossellini, Antonioni, De Sica, Soldati, Monicelli, Pietrangeli, Bertolucci, Germi, Scola, Risi, Pasolini... It's difficult to list them all, and the others must not be abandoned...

If all films were shot with digital technologies the problem of preservation and restoration, encountered after a few years with film, would not exist. Any comments?

For the moment, at least, it is still not more advantageous to use digital technologies for conserving images; on the contrary, they are more fragile, they have an invisible enemy called "magnetic fields" that can have a negative effect on them at any time, in any place. The electronic medium can be used as an alternative for preservation, especially when there is not much storage space, but I agree with Steven Spielberg who says that as long as there is still one printing and developing lab in the world he will shoot his films on film. Modern negatives are more resistant to wear and, when the necessary precautions are taken, guarantee that a film will be preserved for at least 100 years.

Is digital cinema a boat that we shouldn't miss, something we should embrace wholeheartedly, or simply a system to be combined with traditional cinema, a further opportunity - like a Steadicam?

There are no boats that we shouldn't miss in cinema. The Steadicam adds something when it's needed, but I never had difficulty in expressing myself, or in helping the director to express himself, on a film shot before this medium was invented. The technical medium helps us, makes things easier, and maybe even allows us to implement our choices faster, but cinema is perfectly valid without the Steadicam. It is the stories that count, the direction, the acting, the sets, the light; all elements that are not contained in the Steadicam, nor in electronics. They exist independently of the technologies, and they are the only indispensable elements for making a film.

Experts say that a small improvement in negative film is equal to a huge step forward in digital technology...

Certainly, if we're talking about the cinematic quality of film as we understand it. Negative film has achieved a sensitivity and definition comparable to that of the human eye. Light should be used in cinema to tell stories the way we want to tell them, to adapt what we have in front of the camera to the need for high quality in our movies; otherwise we might as well shoot without additional lighting.

Cinema attendance is on the increase in Italy and more and more multiplexes are springing up. Often a multiplex in Italy becomes a meeting place for youngsters who go to the cinema to socialize and mainly watch American or Christmas movies. Can you visualize art multiplexes in this country - they already exist in France - where Italian films are shown many months after their release. A sort of protected zone for a product that is often of high quality. What could the AIC do in this regard?

I think we must protect our cinematic values of the past and present, but concentrate on the distribution and conservation of films. Otherwise we run the risk of limiting the cultural stimuli needed by authors to make a quality film capable of competing in the international market; the only one that can make a film industry financially independent. The public must be won over by quality. Perhaps showings at reduced prices could prolong the life of some films and give life to others. We must not stop making films with the technologies that gave birth to cinema with which it can express itself completely in its space on the big screen, enveloping audiences with its great images, and allowing them to escape from their daily routine by involving them in the stories told by the films.

The purpose of art is precisely that of liberating the spirit from the conditioning of everyday life, from a limited way of thinking and from the lethargy that results from this. To quote Jean Dubuffet: "Luminous projection places the surrounding world in the shadows and reveals only the image, suddenly awakening the spirit.

The new generation of cinematographers create new styles and languages, also as a result of parallel experiences like shorts, videoclips and commercials, which makes them more receptive to the new. What do the veterans, who consider the new instruments a means rather than an end, think about this?

I have always considered the tools of our craft a means and not an end; it could not be otherwise. If we're shooting a videoclip we have to adapt to that kind of language, advertising is another thing, and our efforts must be directed at making the product a commercial success. The same goes for movies: each story that is entrusted to us has to achieve its goal, has to be communicated to the audience in the most immediate way. Our work has to provide the most effective way in to the story, without resorting to frills and special effects for their own sake, which only detract from the meaning and can get in the way. The quality of the photography is determined by the position and direction, not the quantity, of the light, which cannot be more or less than what is essential.

Why did you choose a career in movies: was it because of a film, a concept of cinema, or a person who was important to you?

I started working in movies by chance, because I needed a job, but ever since I was a boy I had been fascinated by the photographs displayed in the windows of a shop called Foto arte Carnevali, near my home.

The enlarged images, the retouched portraits, the views that characterized the shots, attracted my attention every time I passed by. Cinema first entered my life as a job opportunity.

My father died and, as is the case with most Italian families, I had to start earning a living.

Your profession has, with the advent of the new technologies, become more immediate; the ritual of the daily "rushes" has often given way to snap decisions taken by directors, implemented with videotape or an Avid. Do you see this as other categories encroaching on your territory, or a step backwards?

I don't think all that is such a great achievement, but nor do I considerate it disadvantageous tor my profession; in other words, I continue to see cinema as I know it, love it and think it should be. The images of a film take shape in our minds as soon as we read the script, or the director tells us the story; they start to materialize during the reconstruction of the settings on location or in the studios; the qualities of the image are created during shooting, when it is perfected. The game is over for the photography as soon as the editing stage is reached.

Viewing the rushes on the big screen reveals those defects that the small screen minimizes or hides completely - giving a false picture of the results. If we consider this important, we get the right results.

If other people do things differently, I can say all the better or worse for them; it depends on the kind of results they obtain. Cinema merits the proper attention because it is still a unique way of communicating feelings.

Mario Bava, who was first a cinematographer and then a director and wizard of special effects, said that cinema was artisanal, that it began with ideas, in the mind, was created with one's own hands, and that great effects could be achieved with very little. Do you think that to illuminate a film we should return to ideas, to a good screenplay in which the words are the true special effects?

I think Mario Bava was right about a lot of things: cinema also has an artisanal aspect. We most certainly should go back to good screenplays, which are fundamental for telling a story with images; otherwise it's like reading a book with bad dialogue. If we add to this functional photography that opens up many possibilities for communicating the qualities, both emotional and visual, of the images, the result will undoubtedly be more effective.