Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro Warns of "Major Problem" in the Field

Said the 'Cafe Society' cinematographer: "We have to always move a story forward, not step back."
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Vittorio Storaro

Considered among the greatest cinematographers of all time, Vittorio Storaro identified what he sees as a “major problem” in cinematography today as he attracted a starstruck crowd and earned an enthusiastic standing ovation Friday evening at Cine Gear Expo, where he screened his latest work, Woody Allen’s Cafe Society.

He stated that a trend that has emerged with the use of digital cameras is that “people want to work faster or show that they can use less light, but they don’t look for the proper light the scene needs. That isn’t cinematography, that’s recording an image. … I was never happy in any set to just see available light,” said Storaro, who has won Oscars for Apocalypse Now, Reds and The Last Emperor. "Even in very important films that take Academy Awards, you can record an image without location lighting. But that's not necessarily the right light for the character. We have to always move a story forward, not step back."

"You need to find the balance of technology and art," continued Storaro, who also raised an argument against the use of the term "director of photography" to define the role of the cinematographer. “That’s a major mistake. There cannot be two directors. … Let’s respect the director,” he asserted, saying that "cinematographer" is the appropriate word, and adding that it’s not interchangeable with photographer. “Cinematography is motion, we need a journey and to arrive at another point. We don’t create a beautiful frame, but a beautiful film. That's why I say ‘writing with light.'"

Storaro screened and discussed the 1930s-set period drama Cafe Society, which opened Cannes last month and debuts in the U.S. on July 15, during his session at the main theater on the Paramount lot. He had arrived hours earlier in the day to make sure the projection was just as he intended. The gorgeous imagery was, uniquely, screened from a 12-bit uncompressed 4K DPX file (rather than a commonly used Digital Cinema Package), playing off a Clipster postproduction system and displayed with a Sony 4K projector — meaning that the Cine Gear presentation of the movie had more resolution and color tonality than come from today's most commonly used digital cinema projectors. Storaro asserted that today’s projection needs improvement, to at least be able to project 4K and 16-bit imagery.

Lensed with Sony’s top-of-the-line F65 digital cinematography camera (and lighter F55 for Steadicam work), Cafe Society was both Storaro's and Allen’s first feature-length motion picture shot with a digital camera. The cinematographer related that he’s been examining digital for a long time — testing Sony’s early HD camera technology as far back as 1983, and he felt this approach was the most creative choice for Cafe Society.

“A few years ago it was film or digital; it was a difficult choice. Producers thought [digital] was cheaper — not true. Or it’s faster — not true,” Storaro said, noting that after looking at the options, he felt the Sony camera technology was the way to go. “When Woody called me, I said, ‘You can’t stop progress.’ [With 2K], I thought, ‘What about the rest of the information?’ You lost it. The camera had to be 4K 16-bit. When I met the Sony F65, I said, ‘This is the camera we are supposed to use.'"

Asked during the session if the F65 was too sharp for skin tones, the cinematographer said, “In my opinion, the best thing a company can do is give us the best chance to record tonality, and after that it's up to us to use more or less or some."

He added that on set, “Woody would look at the actors and also see the monitor. [As a result] Woody never came to the dailies any longer, because he could see the dailies while we were shooting. He said to me, ‘It’s different, but I didn’t change my way of directing.’”

A upcoming story in THR's Behind The Screen will detail Storaro's creative decisions on the cinematography in Cafe Society.

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