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Storaro Talks Shop

Originally published in our Web Exclusives section on June 8, 2007.

It is entirely without hyperbole to introduce Vittorio Storaro as one of the most singular and influential cinematographers in the progression of modern motion pictures. His color palette on films such as The Conformist and Apocalypse Now is without peer, and long-lasting collaborations with directors Bernardo Bertolucci, Francis Ford Coppola and Warren Beatty have been recognized with three Oscars for Best Cinematography (Apocalypse Now (1979), Reds (1981) and The Last Emperor (1987)).

Storaro’s latest film is Caravaggio, screening this week as part of Lincoln Center’s series “Open Roads: New Italian Cinema” (June 6-14). He considers Caravaggio to be part of a new period for him as an artist; the first started in the late 1960’s and lasted until Apocalypse Now,; the second phase continued through The Last Emperor; the third culminated with The Sheltering Sky (1990); most recent, his collaboration with director Carlos Saura served as yet another. He often takes yearlong intervals between these chapters to study subjects ranging from philosophy to painting to literature, just to expand his understanding of the meanings behind light and color; when he discusses a color, red for instance, he’s not just interested in the way we might emotionally react to it on a visual level, but also the manner in which the physical light particles affect our bodies when passing through them.

I met Storaro at the Walter Reade Theater the day before Caravaggio’s premiere. After talking a bit about his career thus far, our conversation shifted toward the technical aspects of cinematography and his feelings on digital filmmaking in particular. As it turns out, he’s just as opinionated about technique as he is regarding interpretation.

Filmmaker: You’re well-known for overseeing various printing methods on your films like ENR or the Technicolor dye-transfer used on Apocalypse Now Redux. Over the past 10-15 years, there’s been a great evolution to film stocks and the introduction of DI. How do you see technology influencing the medium?

Storaro: No doubt that when sound came out the camera’s possibilities were oppressed. The language of cinema was almost stopped — they put the camera within a clear box. Technology went on and finally the camera was liberated to continue its journey expressing through the language of the cinema. Color came up. Particularly to the German Expressionists — they used light in a conflict with the shadows, which made the dramaturgy very strong — everyone felt fear to use color in the darkness. There was a moment where there was no longer a relationship between light and shadows. It was a unique feeling. Until the ’70s, I think — The Conformist, The Godfather — then many films started to use color in a very dramatic way. We picked up again the journey of dramaturgy in light and color and so on.

Today in digital, no doubt there is a great chance to continue to amplify our ability to express ourselves. In this case, the electronic system amplifies, but in a very lower quality. This is why there was resistance from most of the cinematographers to use it until it can grow up. Upon my first experiment I realized how powerful the system was, but at the same time I realized the problems it had. I wrote a long letter to Sony to explain this, and I was glad to see that step by step the camera was picking up. I used it when I was teaching at the Academy of Images, the high definition by Sony, and no doubt, we proved that for some specific projects it can be great — particularly in a school, because today there is no time or patience to shoot not knowing what we’re doing. Today, you want to see it right away. There’s now a chance to study, teach and learn in a much faster way together. My problem is only that people know the level of difference with the two systems, so you can use film or digital according to the project itself. Unfortunately, still today, if you follow the number, a system like Univisium, the one I’m using…

Filmmaker: The 2:1…

Storaro: Yes, the 2:1. It’s three-perforation. It’s using the maximum negative space available. We’re talking minimum 6000 x 3000 information or eighteen-million. With a video camera, any subject, the maximum information is roughly 2000 x 1000, which makes two-million. Whatever you’ve got in front of the camera, in one, you’ve got eighteen-million; in one, you’ve got two-million. In one, you’ve got at least 32-bits; the other one, normally you record at 10-bits. Film has already proven it can last a hundred years. The electronic system, or digital, has to improve its longevity — particularly, it has a very short longevity. The systems are changing very fast, the material is not very strong. People are very ignorant in this area — they still believe that digital is permanent. That’s a major mistake. Major. So, in my opinion, the system should be used, because if you don’t use the system the company doesn’t have the chance to improve it. It should be improved till it reaches a much better level. But at the same time, I think we should be aware of the different levels, so you can use one or the other according to the kind of project that you’re doing.

Digital intermediate is a dream for a cinematographer, in the sense that you’re not only able to change the overall color and tonality, but you can change it during the shot. You can change a portion of the image itself. That’s great. But you have to go back from your eighteen-million of information to two-million. This is not good. Most American films today probably go through a digital intermediate, that’s a fact. So we have to just push the technology, particularly the digital effects companies, because everything is dictated by them. If they do their visual effects at 2k, you have to do the rest at 2k. Now we have a big hope that the technology is starting to improve. And my hope is DALSA.

Filmmaker: DALSA Origin.

Storaro: With DALSA, next year I can maybe use it, because it’s 4k 16-bit. Moving to that level is not exactly film, but it’s very close. Good luck.

Filmmaker: It was actually just announced that the Landmark chain is equipping its theaters with 4k Sony projectors. The first movie is Ocean’s Thirteen, but they’re also doing a restored Dr. Strangelove.

Storaro: Well, my dream is digital cinema, D-Cinema, at least in 4k 16-bit, 2:1 aspect ratio. Also, we should move to the European shooting frame of 25. We should discontinue shooting 24 because it doesn’t work. The interlock between America (NTSC) and Europe (PAL) doesn’t work. The pulldown doesn’t really work, it’s not a perfect balance between the two. In changing the algorithm, trying to do five-fields-plus-one we can easily do the 25 frames to the 30 frames. It will be much more linear and much more in synch. It would be a perfect 25, a perfect 30, not 29-whatever it is…

Filmmaker: 24p is usually 23.98, and NTSC is 29.97.

Storaro: That’s ridiculous. That’s my opinion.

Filmmaker: Apocalypse Now. Theatrically, it was amazing to see it in its Scope aspect ratio, in 2001. I know that at this point you’re preferential to 2:1, but some people were upset to see it on DVD cropped from the 35mm 2.35.

Storaro: Well, I always connected with one painting that Leonardo did, The Last Supper. The Last Supper is 2:1. At the time of shooting Apocalypse Now, I was not aware. I don’t really remember when I became conscious of the 2:1. Definitely when I started to originally transfer Apocalypse Now (to video). In my opinion, it wasn’t working in 2.35 — at that time, we were forced to do a pan-and-scan. That was the worst. So we had to find a common ground between film and television. The aspect ratio for 65mm is 1:2.21, and the new video aspect ratio is 1.78. If you remove 0.21 from the 65mm, and then you have high definition which is supposed to be the future film/television format, you’ll find the perfect balance between the two is 2:1. So any transfer I do is at 2:1. I remember with Bertolucci when we did The Last Emperor and we watched it on the television screen, we didn’t like it at 2.35. We found it was much better at 2:1. Now, I only shoot 2:1. I refuse to not shoot 2:1. And I only transfer with this, even the old films, because I know it’s the only solution for the future. It’s the only meeting point that we have. The DALSA at 4k gives me some encouragement to continue in this way.

Now, there’s this rumor they’re going to retransfer Apocalypse Now at 1:2.35 — I will not do it. I will not do it. Because on a television it doesn’t work.

Filmmaker: Not even if it’s being played on an HD 16:9 screen?

Storaro: 16:9 should be changed.

Filmmaker: There would still be black bars, but it would be less…

Storaro: No, no. We should change the screen and make it 18:9.

Filmmaker: 2:1.

Storaro: You can never be perfect. It could never work in television at 1:2.35. 2:1 is the perfect balance. Even if you lose something, you gain the most important things. Never again would it have to be chopped to 1:3.75 (pan-and-scan) like Americans do. In 18:9, easily you can see the Academy ratio with bars on the sides, or the French ratio of 1.66, even 1.85. The only thing that you miss a little from is the anamorphic.

I really do care about composition. Believe me. I even would discuss this with Stanley Kubrick if he could be here. You can never really do composition perfectly at 1:2.35. If you go in any theater and measure it, it’s not perfect 2.35 — because they don’t like to be so small.

Filmmaker: Stanley Kubrick hated 1.85. At the very least, he preferred 1.66. Because he started as a still photographer, he preferred to compose for the full negative. So he’d compose for 1.85 for theatrical at the same time using the whole frame at 1.33.

Storaro: I did the same thing for many films. When I knew that here in America we’d have to do the transfer at full screen, I did that with The Sheltering Sky.

Filmmaker: Super-35?

Storaro: Super-35. We kept the composition for theaters and instead of blocking it out had images at the top and bottom. At least we didn’t have to chop the sides. But, you know, it can’t work — you can’t have a painting at 2.35. If you go to Amsterdam, you go inside the Rijksmuseum, on the back wall you see a beautiful Rembrandt painting called Night Watch. You look at the painting… and something was wrong. It didn’t work. Then, next to the main painting there is a copy. It was a copy of the original. The painting by Rembrandt was cut because it didn’t fit between two windows. Somebody did the copy before that — so you can see the original composition. And that’s what’s happened to cinema on television. The answer: Univisium. 2:1. 25 frames.

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