Spinotti: Forever young & curious

ASC Awards 2012

The problem with lifetime achievement awards is their sense of valediction. Of finality. Of farewell. Dante Spinotti had that feeling when he heard he was getting his.

“I wanted to say ‘Yes, thanks, why not call me back in 10 years,’ ” he laughs. “But I didn’t want them to change their minds.”

Slim chance of that. Spinotti, 68, who will receive the American Society of Cinematographers Lifetime Achievement Award on Saturday, is a long way from hanging up his viewfinder. Known for moving gracefully from genre to genre while maintaining years-long relationships with certain directors (notably Michael Mann and Brett Ratner, with whom he’s done at least a dozen projects), the Italian-born cinematographer is also renowned for his adaptability to new technology, and his devotion to story. “You feel proud about what you did, if what you did made for a better film,” he says.

In this regard, sometimes, the audience may not even be aware of what Spinotti is up to. “Take the exteriors in Chicago in ‘Public Enemies,’ ” says Mann, referring to his 2009 gangster epic. “Part of the reason they have a period feeling is because Dante made the observation that street lighting was different in 1933: narrow columns of light and then it got dark until the next streetlight. And while audiences may not even know why it feels period, in addition to the period vehicles and the wardrobe, the light is a reason they’re feeling it.”

Spinotti is an artist with lighting, Mann adds. “It sounds simple, but it’s the simple truth.” The director says his longtime d.p. — their other films together include “Heat” and Spinotti’s first U.S. feature, “Manhunter” — is capable of using light to create a sense of time having slowed down, “because the anxiety is so torqued up.”

“I’m thinking of the lobby of the Seelbach Hotel in ‘The Insider,’ when Pacino (as “60 Minutes” producer Lowell Bergman) shows up to see if Wigand (the tobacco company whistleblower played by Russell Crowe) will be there and the scene is basically a man in an armchair reading a newspaper,” Mann says. In addition to Pacino’s performance, the director says, “the effect comes from the very concentrated, directional lighting with intense lights, illuminating the newspaper, and the dust in the air, and providing a hyperawareness of the anxiety of Lowell Bergman.”

Spinotti’s impact doesn’t always have to raise the hairs on your arms. “His work on ‘Last of the Mohicans’ was exquisite,” Mann says, recalling Spinotti’s use of candle and firelight and the soft glow of real flames.

“As good a cinematographer as he is, he’s a better man,” says veteran producer Marc Abraham, whose directorial debut, “Flash of Genius,” was shot by Spinotti. “He’s one of these people who seems devoid of ego. He’s got one somewhere in there, but it doesn’t drive his decision.”

Abraham says when they were making “Genius” he’d tell people “I’m going to do it exactly the way I want to do it, until Dante gets here and tells me how I ought to do it.” He added that as much as he’d always expected his first directed feature would be shot on film, Spinotti persuaded him to shoot in HD. “You’d think it would be the opposite, but he’s also got the energy and attitude of a very young man and is super curious.”

Back in 2003, Spinotti and other ASC members collaborated with Digital Cinema Initiatives to develop standards for digital projection. “Dante said the one thing that happens with new technology is, it always feels cold,” says fellow member and former ASC president Daryn Okada. “So we came up with this idea to develop scenes that would test color, movement, technical challenges to digital projection, but at same time have emotional value.” What they finally decided on — predictably, Okada says — was an Italian wedding scene. “But the genesis was Dante, scenes with emotionality.”

For Okada, Spinotti’s standout trait is an ability to maintain his art in any genre. “I’ve watched a lot of his movies and what I always found amazing, regardless of any challenge in production, is the incredible level of artistry no matter what genre he’s in. And without calling a lot of attention to himself.”

Spinotti — whose filmography includes such disparate titles as “L.A. Confidential,” “Wonder Boys,” “Crimes of the Heart,” “Beaches,” “Frankie and Johnny,” “Red Dragon,” “X-Men: The Last Stand” and “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” — says what he feels mostly about his award is gratitude.

“Making a movie is not a lightweight affair,” he says. “But you have to be thankful to all the people you meet in this fantastic industry. There are challenges. And risks. But they all are worth facing.”

TV’s big-screen canvas | Digital’s increasing domain | Forever young & curious

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