Digital cinematography
Vittorio Storaro

(translate by Susan Ann White)

The Film REDS, directed by Warren Beatty in 1980, was actually the first project on which I used an electronic image to assist with the shooting of the movie. Although a working image, in flickering Black White, it proved extremely useful in allowing the various co-authors of the film to communicate and to see, at the same time as the Camera Operator, the composition of the image and the camera movement. The system relieved the Cameraman, the first viewer of the film, of the responsibility of judging the technical quality of each shot. For me, it was the first big step towards familiarizing with Electronic Cinema.

ONE FROM THE HEART, directed by Francis Coppola, proved to be a more complex experience regarding the use of electronic technologies. It was 1981, and at that time DIGITAL definition was not yet in use, since the Image and the Sound were recorded entirely in ANALOG;. The marriage between the Optical and the Electronic technologies actually began in that period; but I still insisted on recording the images on Negative Film because I knew that the technology did not permit a transfer from Video to Film of an acceptable quality for the theatrical distribution of the Picture.

This led me, two years later, to realize for the RAI an experimental project, directed by Giuliano Montaldo, and this was my first completely Electronic Film: ARLECCHINO A VENEZIA. It was a profound exploration of the possibilities inherent in the Sony HDVS equipment, carried out by people used to creating images for the big screen; the ultimate aim of using High Definition Video was to widen the TV screen to allow viewers to become more involved in a television program. That experience gave me the feeling that I had in some way completed my formation in the Cinema of INNOCENCE and of MYSTERY, and I was entering a period of AWARENESS of the Image in the light of an Electronic future. I was finally able to see the image on which I was working, in front of me, at the very moment I saw it in my mind, in Color and in High Definition. At the end of this experience I felt that it was my duty to make some observations, as a researcher, on the state of the art and I wrote down my thoughts - on several sheets of paper! - and sent them to Sony. It therefore gave me great pleasure to discover, a few year later, that almost all my suggestions had been incorporated into the second-generation HDVS Videocamera.

Many, perhaps too many, years have passed since then, and it is only recently that Electronic technology seems to be more in a position, thanks to the possibilities of DIGITAL, to take the place of traditional Chemical technology; but after such a long period of stasis everything seems to be happening too fast. The audiovisual industry is, in fact, trying to bring the quality of Cinema down to the low level of Video today, instead of bringing the quality of the latter up to the level of Film. The famous 2K (2000 horizontal pixels) that are the subject of so much discussion, must never be allowed to become our goal. The small projects I have filmed with Sony's CINEALTA Videocamera (commonly known as 24P) have in fact convinced me that for products intended for Video, Television or Electronic distribution, the new videocamera is the best portable Video recording system I have used so far; but it certainly cannot yet match the technological quality of the image recorded on Film.

I say commonly known as 24P because it is seen as a technology that is interchangeable with traditional filming systems - but I don't think having the same slippage speed is enough to merit this. By presenting it in this light, not only will we fail to teach the new generation of Filmmakers a new - Electronic - language but we also associate a new DIGITAL system with an OLD term, linked to the 60 Hz (cycle) synchronism of the American electrical system.

If the first Talkie, which dates to 1927, had been made in Europe, the slippage Standard would most certainly have been 25 images per second, since all the European alternating currents operate on 50 Hz. In Europe, for all these years, we have forced the motors of Movie Cameras and Film Projectors, which would normally have an alternated slippage of 25 positive phases and 25 negative phases, to adapt to a minus one (-1) ft/sec. This is absurd. Although European film projectors operate at 50 Hz, they almost always naturally run at a speed of 25 frames per second (each machine is certified as 24ft/sec. but with plus or minus one (+1 or -1) frame, precisely because of this). Unfortunately, today, Films are still made at 24ft/sec. and then, absurdly, pass to 25ft/sec. with the first Video transfer for the electronic editing (a frame is doubled every second), changing back to 24 (removing a frame every second during negative cutting) for the Film's brief theatrical release, and then back again to 25 (by doubling a frame every second once more) during the electronic transfer for home video distribution (Television - Videotape - Laser disk - DVD, etc.) or for Video-projection. If a Film, during its long-lasting electronic distribution, is shown to us at a false 25ft/sec., why not record it at 25ft/sec. from the very beginning, creating a single 25ft/sec. standard for the entire process: Previsualization - Production - Post-Production - Distribution?

A single standard of 25 frames per second would unify all European AUDIOVISUAL projects by synchronizing in a NEW FILM-TELEVISION STANDARD, all Movie and Video cameras, Film and Video Projectors, with all types of Lights: HMI - Fluorescent - Halogen - Sodium Iodide - Metallic and Mercury Vapor - etc., etc... This way we would avoid the continual transfers from 24 to 25ft/sec and vice versa.

European and American Standards could be brought into line by a small modification of the ALGORITHM instead of the extremely complicated and imperfect duplication of the 3+2 frames, and would provide for the straightforward duplication of 1 frame every 5, thus changing the 25 frames per second (deriving from the European 50-Hz standard) to 30 frames per second (required for the 60-Hz American system), and vice versa.

Remembering how many creative and technical foundations were laid in 1989 when Francis Coppola and myself visited the Sony headquarters in Tokyo, I hope that with these few pages I can actually project my Digital thoughts into the young minds of those electronic engineers who prepare our future - but without always first comparing notes with the people who will be using their technological innovations.

I also find that the denomination 24P, which makes a distinct reference to Cinema, is unsuitable because, according to the Sony specifications, published in the SMPTE magazine, the videocamera, which has the potential to record 1920 horizontal Pixels of luminance is in actual fact set for 1440, and the 960 SAMPLES of different colors, have also been reset at 480. This gives us a reduction of 8.5:1 in the total amount of data, and a net amount of 622Mbits/sec. While digital recorders are being perfected that permit 140 Mbits/sec. of video in each field, we are still obliged to accept a further algorithmic compression of 4.4:1. The possibilities of the system are considerably reduced, so that they can build a portable Videocamera, where the information has to be confined to a small space inside it. A cable temporarily connected to a recorder, in order to transmit a RGB (Red - Green - Blue) signal, without further 4/1 compressions, would be sufficient to improve the Video recording and, although it would not match the quality obtained with Film, it would certainly be a big step in that direction.

The UNIVISIUM system of filming, conceived by my son Fabrizio and myself, is presently the only filming system that takes into account some of the above concepts and innovations, i.e., a 1:2 Aspect Ratio of the Image, a 25ft/sec shooting Speed, the use of the entire surface of the Film for the Image (perforation to perforation) and a slippage of each frame with THREE perforations. These concepts would help us move towards a new common Cinema-Video standard, which is fundamental to the future of Electronic Cinema.

Kodak has also made the mistake of lowering the technological level of the cinematic image. They did this by coming up with the fantastic idea of DIGITAL INTERMEDIATE (the possibility of correcting the image electronically and then making an Internegative from which release prints for distribution can be struck in the normal way) but limiting it to a resolution of only 2K and a level of color depth of 8-10 Bits thus reducing the great potential of one of their own products: Negative Film. This mistake will no doubt soon be rectified, and was probably caused by the limited data-storage capacity and speed of the present system, but it has curtailed a great creative possibility by limiting it to the technical level of Television, rather than elevating it to that of Cinema, to the extent that Kodak itself, having recognized this limitation, is working with specialized electronics companies on the building of a Telecine with a resolution of 4K: the minimum required to retransfer images to film and obtain a cinematic product worthy of the name.

The various screenings organized throughout the world by Texas Instruments are also part of the attempt by international Industry to reduce the cinematic image to the level of television. The Texas Instruments video projector with micro-mirrors is the best on the market - while we wait for the new model announced by Kodak to appear - but it doesn't reach 2K or 10 Bits. The above attempt has met with a negative reaction from almost all cinematographers at the international level, who have rebelled against their creativity being kept to a maximum 2K horizontally (2,000 pixels) and 10-Bit limit (1,024 chromatic levels for each primary color). We would do well always to remember that negative film can record at least 6K horizontally (6,000 pixels) and 16 Bits (65,536 chromatic levels for each primary color), which are visible to the naked eye.

The confusion created by the name 24P and the various - clearly biased - demonstrations held all over the globe, have led the less expert to believe that, in this historic moment, Digital Cinema really is equipped to replace analog Cinema recorded on film. Unfortunately, we have still not seen any presentations of images recorded and video-projected digitally alongside the same images filmed and projected on Film: an acid test that is fundamental to understanding, and making others understand, the present state of affairs, and essential if we are to respect both systems and be aware of the level at which each stands, so that we can know exactly what we are gaining and what we are losing by using the first or second system. Each system - Film and Video - performs at its best, obviously, when used to realize projects for a specific distribution medium.

On the Live Film projects - TOSCA, made in 1994, and the more-recent production LA TRAVIATA, both destined solely for television and home video - I was able to express myself freely with the electronic medium, knowing that the images would not be transferred to other media. I would naturally have liked to film both with HIGH DEFINITION TV, but unfortunately that technology would not have been able to handle the large number of TV cameras and the live broadcast in a hundred countries. The first production, with images recorded in analog, and the second, using digital, give me every reason to hope that there will be a third in DIGITAL HIGH DEFINITION.. I personally think, however, that although the technological level reached by electronic digital is the best so far in the field of television, and the various videocameras that are swiftly evolving will certainly take over from all the amateur-documentary-research cinema made so far in 16mm for the small screen, we have still not reached a technological level able to replace cinema seen on a good big screen and filmed in 35mm.

Recently, while reprinting the new version of APOCALYPSE NOW, reedited by Walter Murch under Francis Coppola's supervision (various sequences were added to complete the picture that now runs for 3'20), I realized that, even after a life of 26 years, the original negative still possessed the cinematic tonalities that, with a good projection system, allow one to appreciate the visual feeling that cinema should convey on a big screen. One of the first things that Walter Murch and Kim Aubry, the post-production supervisor, asked for was that the additional sequences be printed on an INTERPOSITIVE that they could edit with the Interpositive of the scenes of the first version of the film, and then transfer everything onto an INTERNEGATIVE from which the 35mm prints for distribution would be struck. Knowing that the various intermediate transfers result in a sizable reduction of resolution - color level - chromatic balance, in addition to the 25% loss in chromatic tonalities caused by FADING over time, I initially thought I had lost part of the film.

The experience gained during the final printing of BULWORTH, directed by Warren Beatty, which was done by using the traditional TECHNICOLOR DYE TRANSFER that had just be reinstalled in Los Angeles, made me persuade Francis Coppola to reedit the Original Negative of APOCALYPSE NOW on a single piece of film, between the old and new editing, so that I could avoid the Interpositive-Internegative duplications and extract directly from the original negative the THREE MATRIXES of the primary colors (Red-Green-Blue) which, imbibed with the complementary colors (Cyan-Magenta-Yellow), can transfer all the information onto a BLANK positive which, by recombining the colors, makes it possible to project the image in full saturated colors.

A cinematic image that I have recently seen again at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, at the exhibition entitled CONVERSATION BETWEEN SHADOW AND LIGHT: ITALIAN CINEMATOGRAPHY, which made me realize just how many tonalities we are still unable to see with normal duplication systems, although these tonalities are present on the original negative, and showed me that we can still achieve an indisputably high quality with the cinematic system. After this experience I believe even more, I honestly believe we should do everything we can to elevate the quality of Video to that of Film, before thinking about substituting one for the other.

I am sure that when we actually do replace film projectors with video-projectors in those medium-small theaters of a multiplex, particularly for films of an intimate or psychological nature, we shall also feel the need to distinguish them from epic Cinema, that of the great novels, by filming it in large formats, with 65mm film negative. Epics that can be projected on a big screen and seen by a large audience, in that enormous amniotic sac known as a movie theater, where the collective Unconscious of that large audience can vibrate in order that it might feel, see, experience and be enthralled by that spectacular form of entertainment known as Cinema.

Recently, in visualizing a particular form of lighting for I VILLINI DELLE FATE in the Coppedé quarter of Rome that I had created with my daughter Francesca who specializes in Lighting Design in Architecture, I had the chance to become more familiar with the Cinealta videocamera, obviously using it with a compositional ratio of 1:2 and a speed of 25ft/sec, and to personally verify the possibilities and the limits of the present electronic technologies. I repeated this experience with fourth-year students at the Accademia dell'Immagine de L'Aquila where I teach Writing with Light, when shooting an Art

Of course, the Cinealta videocamera needs to be better equipped, with the right primary lenses, modern remote-control systems for graduated Filters, Iris and Focus control, high quality vision in the Eye-Piece, etc. A Playback system of the same high quality as the recording is also indispensable, as are all those clever devices that will make the traditional Shooting of a Film with real DIGITAL CINEMATOGRAPHY a more modern, efficient and fantastic experience.

Naturally, the experiences of students in the various Film Schools are linked to electronics. The concept of seeing immediately the image on which one is working is too firmly fixed in their young minds for them to return to the mystery of cinema. The Time, Equipment and Cost factors of electronic recording are too advantageous to refuse, particularly where teaching is concerned. Leading Cinematographers have also realized that the modification of the image during a transfer from Film to Video is subject to such a vast range of tonal and chromatic variations that it is obvious that, at the creative level, Video is much more versatile than its elder sister Film.

There is no doubt that if we were to succeed in raising the quality and extending the conservation period of the Video Image to that of Film, the changeover would be inevitable; indeed, it would be industry's duty to make it.

My experience of this period between the two media has shown me that the transfer from Film to Video has an increasing influence on what we express. In recent years, I have spent many days at telecines in Italy and America. There is no doubt that we are the professionals who should be called in for every transfer made from Film to Video.

I think we have the skill and experience to defend the images created by all the collaborators on a Film; we have the technical and creative know-how to protect the public's right to see a Film, whether it be in a Cinema or on a Video screen, that is identical to the Answer Print approved by the Director.

To ensure that we will be called upon, we must establish ourselves as Co-Authors of the Cinematic Image - recognition that should have been accorded us a long time ago - in the same way that Music Composers and Screenwriters were identified as Co-Authors of the Film, under the Cinema Law of 1941. This is the only way to defend the quality of our work and of the Film itself. We all know that we can only hope to receive this recognition at the European level, through IMAGO. We don't help ourselves, however, by signing our work as executors, as technicians who are interchangeable at every moment in the creative process, or by approaching the visualization of every story without any specific idea, any precise Cinematographic concept, without a personal vision that would enable each one of us TO WRITE WITH THE LIGHT the story of a Film by using our own sensibility-culture-intelligence, and to combine an individual INTELLECTUAL WORK with the cinematic work. Quite frankly, I really don't understand why most of the members of the AIC sign their works as directors of photography instead of cinematographers. Our society is called the Associazione Italiana Autori della Fotografia Cinematografica, a long and complicated name, which was fundamental in the past for making it understood at the international level that we should be included in the group of Co-Authors of a Film. The term Director of Photography was invented in the USA when the DIRECTORS GUILD OF AMERICA was formed and the then members of the AMERICAN SOCIETY OF CINEMATOGRAPHERS (A.S.C.), not wanting to feel inferior to a Film Director, started calling themselves Directors of Photography. This created conflict between the person responsible for the cinematography and the Director. In a collective art like the Cinema there is only one Director and the word "Photography means expression in a single image. We express ourselves through Cinematography, which means Writing with Light in Motion and requires more than one image to become an art form; in fact, it needs a beginning, development, and an end.

I think we should update the name of our Association. Still keeping the initials AIC, I think we should change the name to (A.I.C.) - ASSOCIAZIONE ITALIANA di CINEMATOGRAFIA (Society of Italian Cinematographers), bringing it into line with other international Societies, such as the British Society of Cinematographers, American Society of Cinematographers, etc. I firmly believe this; indeed, for some time I have been signing my works: Cinematography by Vittorio Storaro. I also believe, however, that Cinematography, even though it is a personal inner journey, must be seen as a collective cinematic experience.

Cinematography cannot exist alone; it must be part of a collective creative process coordinated by the main author of the film: the Director. During my life I have been lucky enough to meet a number of maestros who have guided me on my journey.

While with Bertolucci, Coppola and Beatty I grappled with Shadows, Lights and Colors, looking for a Harmony between opposite Elements, with Carlos Saura I discovered a new aspect of visual art. The idea of a unification of images with a new composition, a new aspect ratio of 1:2, which has rid me of the anxiety of not having one standard composition for Video and Film images. Cinema is a language of images, and by changing the original composition of a Shot, we alter its linguistic expression, the style and the Film itself.

I think we should no longer destroy our images, no longer alter the original composition of the Film, no longer transcribe two Video versions of the same Film (the letter box and the full-screen versions).

We must campaign to have our Films transferred to long-lasting bases. We are all familiar with the problem of the Conservation of images; we are all aware that every color image on film fades with time, albeit slowly, and that the Electronic image deteriorates faster because a real solution has not yet been found for its lasting preservation.>

One solution for Preserving the cinematic Image in the future is undoubtedly the TECHNICOLOR DYE TRANSFER and SILVER MASTER SEPARATION system, but I think our future hope will be the new KODAK DIGITAL OPTICAL TAPE system. The former technology is already available; I hope the latter will be as soon as possible, both for Film and Video.

I am therefore sure that before long we shall be able to record our images in real High Definition, preserve them indefinitely and obtain excellent technological quality: at least 4K, 16-Bit Color depth, a compositional ratio of 1:2, and maybe even a slippage of 25 frames per second! When that moment comes, I imagine we shall perhaps lose our Innocence and perhaps part of the Mystery of the Image will be revealed; but we shall certainly acquire a deeper AWARENESS of its FORMATION and its CONSERVATION. This is all part of the word Evolution. Man began to express himself visually with Graffiti on the walls of a cave, then he painted on Walls, composed Mosaics, painted on Wood panels and on Canvases, created images on Photographic plates and on Film, and now he has succeeded in composing virtual images.

As soon as Man manages to solve the time-quality-price equation, I think he will be able to digitally fix images directly in the word Energy.