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Vittorio Storaro on writing with light


The George Eastman Museum this week is celebrating legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, and on Saturday will present him the George Eastman Award, the museum's highest honor, for his distinguished contributions to the art of film. The three-time Academy Award winner will be in town this weekend to introduce screenings of "Apocalypse Now Redux" on Friday, and "Dick Tracy" on Saturday (before the award presentation ceremony). On Sunday, Storaro will introduce a free screening of "Muhammad: The Messenger of God."

The Dryden will continue showing selections from Storaro's five decade career -- including "The Last Emperor," "Last Tango in Paris," and "Little Buddha" -- through the end of April. A complete film schedule and ticket information is available at or by calling 530-3367.

Storaro, from his home in Italy, gave CITY a little bit of time to discuss his impressive career, his choice for the most important tool in any cinematographer's arsenal, and the future of motion picture photography. An edited transcript of that conversation follows.

CITY: You describe the art of cinematography as "writing with light." Can you talk a bit about what you mean by that?

Vittorio Storaro: First we need to make a distinction between photography and cinematography. Photography comes from the Greek language: "photo" or "light" and "graphé" or "writing." Photography is expressing ourselves in one single image. Cinematography is an evolution from that word, meaning several images in movement. There are multiple images moving in a specific rhythm. It's much more like writing an idea than painting. That's why I like to express what I'm doing as "writing with light." Because it needs to express a complete concept from the beginning, through an evolution, and an end.

You've worked with a number of directors on more than one film, most notably your many collaborations with Bernardo Bertolucci. How does your working relationship with a director change over that kind of time?

It becomes a kind of journey. With Bernardo, we have a very special relationship, because we are thinking in the same direction. Same with Francis Ford Coppola, Warren Beatty, Carlos Saura. It's also the same thing with Woody Allen. Where you feel that you are going in the same direction of discovery. The first time Francis Coppola called me for "Apocalypse Now," he didn't speak Italian, and my English was much more coarse than it is now, but we were speaking the same language of cinema. That's what made us have no problem at all with the language difference.

Francis every morning would tell me his main concept for the sequence we were going to shoot. And I was translating visually his words; proposing some kind of camera angle or some kind of lighting. And of course the director always has the final word. The director is the only one who can say, "Yes, this is correct" or "This is no good." The final cut is always about the one who conducts the entire journey with all the people in one direction. I feel comfortable with this philosophy. Only if I'm feeling that way can I work with a director for so long.

That's why I've never loved the idea that people call me the Director of Photography. That title is completely wrong for us. Because cinema is a common art; it's not a singular one. It's like an orchestra. In an orchestra, we have somebody that plays piano, somebody on violin, singing, or playing drums, whatever. But there is only one conductor. It's the same thing in cinema. We have the writer, the production designer, costumer, the cinematographer, editor, composer; and the director is the only one who needs to have the final decision to lead all of us in the same direction. That's why the word cinematographer is perfect for us. With the Director of Photography title we are creating a kind of conflict on the set because it means we have two directors. One is directing the visual area, and one is directing the content. Which is not true.

The films you've worked on are often noted for their distinct use of color. What is it about color that makes it such an important tool in your storytelling?

It's one of the most important things that today's cinematographers should keep in mind. We had 50 to 60 years of cinema that were all in black-and-white. Practically a whole generation began seeing cinema in black-and-white. When color came out -- in Technicolor and through Eastman Kodak -- people thought that maybe color would not be compatible.

Photography is made through the relationship -- in harmony or conflict -- between light and shadow. Leonardo da Vinci said that colors are the children of light and shadow. Isaac Newton showed that white light can be opened with a prism, and you can see what is inside; the seven colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. Only when you put all those colors back together can you create white light, which is a fantastic concept. In a sense, that light is visible energy. Energy we can feel with our entire body. Our blood pressure, our metabolism changes if we are backed by strong light or we are in shadow. Today not many cinematographers know about the expression and energy color can provide when you see it. Don't be afraid to use color. Colors are not the enemy; they are friends.

"Café Society" was both your and director Woody Allen's first film shot digitally. What led to that decision?

I shot for Woody Allen on set with a big monitor which showed exactly what we are doing, exactly what the movie will look like. So we had the chance to make corrections. The technology has made an incredible advancement; you can achieve a very good image that's very close to the one we get with film. After these two experiences, I don't think that I am losing anything. Because I am using all my experience; all this background from the 60 films I did before. I'm using the new technology in a knowledgeable way. I have much more control over the image than I did at the beginning of my career.

Cinema is in progress, always. No doubt cinema is not finished yet, and I'm sure it will continue to evolve. But the most important thing is that we not forget that past, and to always keep in mind what we learned from the past and the present in order to go forward into the future. And to preserve that history. Any painter, any sculptor is always thinking how to make their work, their creativity, last as long as possible. That's one of the most important issues. The Eastman Kodak company -- not just the museum but the company -- has the chance to do it. They have the resources and the research to push the ideas of George Eastman. Not only creating an element like film which can record an image, but can preserve that image for future generations.