Vittorio Storaro’s Language of Light

Wonder Wheel
Wonder Wheel, by Woody Allen, 2017

I would like to begin our conversation by distilling one idea of yours, in which you often talk of “energy that transmigrates”, a concept very close to that of Light as a physical, mathematical, and philosophical entity, rather than being an aesthetic entity. 
In reality, it is one of the most important aspects of our lives. It is our life! We do not think about it when we are young, but as we grow up we start to sense something… That something seeks to answer the three famous questions: Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going? What is the meaning of our life? In my case, everything began with a push from my father. He was a projectionist for a large cinema company in the 50s and 60s, and since he would have loved to take part in the making of those images, he prompted me to study photography, which is what I started doing for five years. I am a bit like that kid from the film Cinema Paradiso by Tornatore. 

Vittorio Storaro
Vittorio Storaro photo©Nafis Azad

What determined the switch from studying photography to cinema?
It happened thanks to a suggestion made by an important character who worked for Lux, Piero Portaluppi, who at the time defined himself as the “director of photography” – and he was indeed one of the greatest. He told my father that studying photography would not be enough, pushing him to make me study cinematography. And just like that, step by step, I started understanding the difference, by walking it… living it. I continued studying to prepare myself for the competition put forth by the Experimental Film Centre of Rome. If, up until that point, I had tried to understand what the expression of a single image was, I started feeling the need to comprehend an expression composed by multiple images, therefore of a pace, besides the rhythm inside this pace. I started liking it, beginning to understand what that expression could look like for me, something which, until then, I had only observed through the eyes of a student. 

How did your awareness take shape so early on? 
I had luck on my side! The schools I attended helped me rapidly evolve in the professional sphere. Starting out very young as a camera operator, I had the opportunity to work on movement, description, and visual narrative. I owe a lot to Bernardo Bertolucci, who I met when I was young and I was still an assistant operator. I attentively observed his way of working: through the viewfinder, he would study and picture how he could write the story of a film using a camera.

What astounded me was the switch from the production process with the necessary technical means: a camera, lenses, a film unwinding, a carriage moving. In that moment, in which one would stop and face a white panel, while waiting for those numbers we have now forgotten – 10-9-8, up to 0 –, everything became energy in a flash! Images would appear! It was a mystery when I was a student and it remains that way even today as a professional. 

A mystery that tastes of origin, birth and transformation all in an instant! 
I would be shocked, asking myself… “is that the image I imagined?” But it was a little lighter… or maybe a little darker.
This transposition from a physical process over to the flow of energy generated by images would push me to ask the question: where does all this come from? At age 28, I shot my first film in black and white, Giovinezza Giovinezza, and that was only because it was what my professors were familiar with, as well as the general opinion within the industry at the time being that colour was captured poorly by film, especially in the image’s more shadowy parts. If you watch films made between 1960-70, you will notice they are often lit by one light in which there is no bearing in the third dimension and through the perspective, so images seem flat because technicians at the time were not solving the problem. This was an issue that I could not comprehend at the time. Since my first black and white film, I searched for novel equilibriums between natural and artificial light. 

Caravaggio, Vocazione di San Matteo
Caravaggio, Vocazione di San Matteo, 1599:1600, Cappella Cantarelli, chiesa di San Luigi dei Francesi, Roma

What happened with the advent of colour film? 
When I did my first colour film, with Bertolucci, I started instinctively feeling different emotions without understanding why. I had no idea of this at the time, but I had followed my feelings intuitively. In The Conformist, the city of Paris has a certain type of vision; I felt that blue was right for the entire Parisian tale. In my subconscious, that colour represented that man and his intelligence, along with freedom. Last Tango in Paris was the opposite! Artificial light was the protagonist, not natural light at dusk, so everything became orange. For 1900, I used a primitive vision that I had learned in those years. I consider myself primitive! I never did classical studies, but technological studies. Want an example? One day, in Piazza Navona (Rome), I stepped into the Church of St Louis of the French and witnessed a Caravaggio. I realise that nobody had spoken to me about Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, who cut obscurity with a mark of light in The Calling of St Matthew, 1599, setting out the journey of a man moving from obscurity to light, from humanity to divinity. There is another extraordinary person who wrote a formula that is poetry:

E = mc 2

Albert Einstein tells us that energy is nothing more than mass moving extremely rapidly and vice versa. These are the spaces and ideas I experienced throughout my 20s. I understood that knowledge of technology was not enough, I needed to know and nourish myself with the arts. Because I do not paint a single picture, despite utilising my knowledge of painting. It is all about writing a story that has a beginning, an event, and an ending; but not only. It needs to have a certain rhythm, music, so I then felt the need to delve deeper into these aspects that nobody had ever taught me.

Was it with Bertolucci that you reached what you defined as “the abduction of Light across nature”, a state of mind that is almost cathartic in 1900
We used to live in Via delle Cave, in a little neighbourhood submerged within the greyness of the Roman outskirts. A place where there was no freedom in nature – it certainly was not a nice city living. But, between the ages of 5 and 15, my father would take us to our cousins in Siena during summertime; we would stay with them for two months, cradled by our aunties and mother nature. In the morning I would head out with the local farmers, strolling about the countryside pretty much all day. I would nourish myself with the greens, the blues, the colour of the earth and I would return home under the red of sunset. Those days and those colours remain imprinted in my memory. Before filming The Spider’s Stratagem, I had the chance to stay in Zagabria, where I met the great and primitive Croatian painters (Ivan Generalić, Mijo Kovačić, Ivan Večenaj). When Bernardo invited me onto this journey – which lasted 25 years –, I proposed an idea to him: “why do not we stage a strongly chromatic vision, a primitive one? Antonio Ligabue lived near Parma!” He liked the idea a lot, despite his pictorial point of reference was René Magritte. I remember us going to a library in Piazza di Spagna, where he showed me two versions of The Empire of Light, the painting that depicted a little villa at dusk with a streetlight in front of it, immersed in the surrounding trees. For me, it was a clear sign! A primitive vision; primitive just as I was. 

Novecento by Bernando Bertolucci, 1976

How would you work on the set? 
In the film 1900, we shot the whole first part with the children during summertime. Bernardo wanted to stop and follow the natural cycle of the seasons, so we had to realise four visions and that is when I remembered myself as a child. We ended up conceiving a scene on a farmyard in the early 20th Century, and I remember telling Bernardo that I did not feel like using 10,000 Watt projectors: “Sorry, but I do not feel that switching those lights on is appropriate, considering the historical period…” He asked, “So, what do you want to do, leave?” I replied, “If it is necessary, I will leave!” He then said, “Let’s go to sleep, we will talk about it tomorrow…” Bernardo put his foot down about the lighting, and I, on the other hand, did not want to illuminate the naturalness of that scene with artificial light. 

What technical solution did you adopt to convince him? 
He rang me two hours later saying, “Vittorio, I understand you! But try and understand me too… try and imagine that, in that period, farmyards were lit using bonfires…” I replied, “that is true, it is a beautiful idea. I remember when I was seven years old in Siena, we would have dinner outside around a table, fires were lit and we kids would play around the flames.” Those summers as a child helped me as an adult to understand what light is all about! The primitive vision has always been of fundamental importance to me… those farmers were my first painting teachers. With the same principle, we conceived the sunset scene in which you see a long table illuminated by a ray of orange light. Then, in the next scene, filmed in the house where the sun had set, in come the waiters holding lanterns to brighten up the place. Our generation was beautiful because we had the chance to work with the greatest Italian directors, from Visconti to Fellini, from Antonioni to Zeffirelli. These are authors who carried forth the idea that every film had to have a specific vision; a fundamental rule that Bernardo taught me very well! 

Apocalypse Nowfinal cut recently returned to theatres to celebrate its 40th anniversary! In one of your books, you claim that “Apocalypse Now would have changed the lives of almost all of us.” What do you mean? 
The reason is simple! Every moment of our lives is identified with the professional moment we are living, other than that precise, personal phase: meeting a woman, the birth of a child, the death of a person dear to us. This space of life acquires its own specific identity within our memories.

Apocalypse Now
Apocalypse Now, by Francis Ford Coppola, 1979

Throughout my experience as a professional, when I start shooting, the film I am working on reflects what I am in that moment: I am young! I am a married man! I have just become a father… these emotions, along with what I am learning and developing under the creative and professional worktable, also affect my relationship with my wife and kids… or vice versa! That slice of life is exactly what I am.

While I travel on this journey, no matter how much I have studied, researched, and prepared for the road ahead, it always alters as I live it, it changes… collaborations have their influence, so does the emotionality of that particular day. I am growing, I am learning, I am aging, I am loving. I know that we are different at the end of a path than we were when we took our first step. If this road is far, long, costly, dramatic, and therefore also a dangerous road, the possibility of me changing something is very wide. When we shot Apocalypse Now, I stayed in the Philippines for almost two years, and the path I took during the production phase was long, tiring as well as dramatic. Nevertheless, I felt it was the most wonderful one because I could feel myself changing. 

What do you feel after coming back home from an experience of that magnitude? 
When I got back to Rome for a planning break after the first six months, right in this house where I live, what did I do? I did not speak, did not go outside, did not drive… I was like Martin Sheen in that room at the start of the film! I could not wait to return to the jungle, as I needed to complete the line of reasoning I had been following, from an ideational point of view. I felt the weight of this idea on my shoulders. I had to see it through! There was a moment, after Apocalypse Now, in which I no longer knew how to go forward, stopping for a year to study colour, its symbolic importance, delving deeper into the aspects related to perception and physiology. Contemporarily, I started receiving various invites from universities to talk about my work, so I figured writing books was a way of being all over the place and, thanks to my editor and the Accademia dell’Immagine who supported me with this project, I was able to release my books. 

You studied in great detail the masters of painting from all periods. This year, we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the passing of Leonardo da Vinci, at what point in your artistic research did Leonardo play his role? 
I saw Leonardo’s works for the first time in 1975, while visiting the Cenacle, the period I was doing 1900. Walking into the dining hall, I was immediately struck by the perfect compositional equilibrium of the fresco. After observing it at great length I wondered what the dimensions where: 440 x 880 cm, they told me. I was astounded! The format was 1:2! Leonardo da Vinci, before Giordano Bruno, before Copernicus, before Galileo, placed the human being at the centre of the world within the character of Jesus! From his head, which is referred to as “point of man”, all lines in the universe radiate and converge! With The Last Supper, Leonardo surpassed everybody! 

Ultimo tango a Parigi
Ultimo tango a Parigi |Last Tango in Paris, by Bernando Bertolucci, 1972

You are currently working in Belgium on a project dedicated to The Last Supper, could you give us any sneak peeks? 

Last year I was working on the monographic project for The Last Supper and I had started doing research and looking at locations in Milan, Amboise, and Vinci. At the start of this year I was called to Belgium by the Sadhana Academy to reconstruct and carry out a real-life version of The Last Supper. They called Dante Ferretti for the scenic framework and me to illuminate it.

The project is centred on one shot that starts from outside the windows and unveils a landscape, slowly approaching a location, arriving in a seemingly empty room. Then you start to see the apostles. Initially, the centre of the composition is empty and the apostles wait for Jesus, who soon walks in placing himself at the centre, carrying out his blessing. Everything will last a few minutes. We will also make portraits of the apostles and the project will go into many museums around the world. I am happy about this project being carried out in this unique form… bit by bit, it is getting there. 

This piece on The Last Supper has a strong theatrical approach to it, according to your description. Other than films, you have collaborated with Luca Ronconi in the incredible TV version of Orlando Furioso, a piece that marked an era, in Italy and not only. How was that experience born? 
Pier Luigi Pizzi, the set designer, called me. It was very late… They had both seen The Conformist by Bernardo Bertolucci. This project arrived at the perfect time, in which I instinctively felt the need to mix what I had acquired on film set with theatre. Luca described his version to me, reciting Orlando off by heart, while I was there trying to grasp his concept involving unusual shooting angles which had nothing to do with naturalness, but all to do with inventiveness and imagination. At first I was blown away! But being blown away caused me to take a great leap. 
I understood that in order to re-elaborated and translate the play to suit TV, the light needed to move in an even more dynamic way. It was a matter of recreating a dreamlike world shot indoors. The footage was taken in Villa Farnese, the Baths of Caracalla, and in the theatres of Cinecittà, through a mise en scène that echoed the tradition of Renaissance painting and architecture. The locations and settings were steeped in a magical realism that, like in the theatrical version of Spoleto, displayed the scenic mechanisms and secrets that allowed for long pathways, getaways in perspective, and movements within the evocative atmospheres, creating pursuits, escapes, and describing the deeds of Angelica, as well as those of the Paladins and their adversaries, the Saracens. 

A film shot entirely on a “real” set, but not only? 
Shedding light and moving in those spaces with the camera through the enfilade of frescoed rooms, along vaults of inundated basements, going up those helical stairs to reach the abandoned attics, having to relate to the obstacles, filters, and interferences caused by the architecture; this all helped me complete my linguistic expression. Ronconi would recite how he imagined the visual frameworks and I would offer solutions. I was lucky enough to work with an extraordinary and helpful group of actors, among which Massimo Foschi, Mariangela Melato, Luigi Diberti, Ottavia Piccolo, Edmonda Aldini, Michele Placido, and others. I asked them to recite scenes, allowing me to prepare and calibrate the movements of the camera, to then propose my solutions to Luca, which did not always go so well! 

Luca would then explain his idea to me, all over again! The meaning behind the words, the poetics, and I would have to retranslate everything through his vision. “I messed up, sorry!” That is what I would say to the actors on set, then I would start from scratch, until Luca gave me his OK. I understood just how flexible I had to be in order to arrive at the desired result! Once again, I connect myself with Albert Einstein and his statement: “Imagination is sometimes more important than knowledge”. I find that a shocking notion! 
It was an extraordinary experience. I was just disappointed that I could not complete it, because it had already been organised by the executive producers in a way that was not as complex as Luca had imagined, which would have required a much longer processing time. I did 2/3 of the shooting, and then had to leave to start Last Tango in Paris, so the job was finished by Arturo Zavattini. It was a very complex project, but Luca was right! 

This article was originally published on LUCE n°329, 2019.