×

‘Cafe Society’ Cinematographer on the Importance of Art, Light, Color

BYDGOSZCZ, Poland — Triple Oscar-winner Vittorio Storaro was not easily won over to digital cinematography. But, as he told a packed room of admirers at Camerimage this week, “Progress can be sped up or slowed down; it cannot be stopped.”

Thus, in working out the best approach for following Woody Allen’s vision for “Cafe Society,” he said, the two joined the digital age armed with old school craft.

Working deliberately to create two visual worlds for the film’s main characters — a cramped, cold, pre-World War II New York, and a sunny, wide open Los Angeles of the same period, they studied modern art, Renaissance lighting and German post-expressionism.

The bold images of Tamara De Lempicka and Georgia O’Keeffe helped inspire shots of the world of the larger-than-life Hollywood producer played by Steve Carell, said Storaro.

Vintage Manhattan nightlife, meanwhile, was helped along by studying Modernists, while cramped Bronx apartments during family dinners were informed by Felix Vallotton and Georges de La Tour.

“The language of light has such power,” said the 76-year-old master lenser who shot “Apocalypse Now,” “The Sheltering Sky” and “The Last Emperor.” Storaro added that a critical mistake of many young DPs today is shooting only with available light.

Popular on Variety

There’s nothing wrong with using natural sources, said Storaro, but a filmmaker’s job as an artist hardly ends there.

Asking which light is right for the characters, the scene, the time of day or night, is just as critical — just as shifting it during the scene can be. Throughout “Cafe Society” Storaro supplemented natural light — to West Coast dusk he added smatterings of lamps that added idyllic reflections to swimming pools.

Sunlit L.A. offices were mellowed with warm lamplight while strong sun light was attenuated and tempered. New York clubs became more mythic with blue-lit jazz bands in the background.

Another critical tool often overlooked, Storaro said, recalling his early work with Francis Ford Coppola on “One From the Heart,” is the technique of a master dimmer board like those theaters use. If all film set lighting can be run through such a command center, it gives the cinematographer not just flexibility but sustainability, Storaro said.

He recalled actors fainting under hot lights and film crews being barred from sacred temples while on location in Asia, explaining how both situations can be remedied by setting up a board, then pushing the lights to full only when shooting.

Arguing that motion pictures are the predominant art form of modern times much as painting held this position during the Renaissance and sculpture did in ancient Greece, Storaro added that the role of color is rarely given enough weight.

“We need to know how the body reacts to color,” he said, pointing out that humans have always lived according to the sun’s journey, becoming active where it rises, then pausing, reflecting and exploring consciousness as it fades at the end of day.

What’s more, warm tones boost our blood pressure, metabolism. “Whoever built Las Vegas, knew the physiology of color.”

The critical lesson for young DPs, Storaro said, is not to succeed based on “how fast and cheap you are but on your ideas.”

More Artisans

  • A still from Miles Davis: Birth

    Film Editor Lewis Erskine on Finding the Rhythm for Miles Davis Doc 'Birth of the Cool'

    On-the-beat editing for the documentary “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool” comes courtesy of Lewis Erskine who brings rhythm to the images apace with that perfect flow of the jazz icon’s horn. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2019 and earned a nomination at the NAACP’s 2020 Image Awards for outstanding documentary [...]

  • Robin Thede

    Robin Thede: 'Turn Black History Month Into Black History Year' (Guest Column)

    From “The Queen Latifah Show,” “The Nightly Show,” “The Rundown with Robin Thede” and “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” my career has been dedicated in large part to the representation, advancement and celebration of black people year-round. And I know what you’re thinking: “Robin, you’re black (I think, right? Googles ‘Robin Thede ethnicity’ Yes, got [...]

  • Kasi LemmonsNew York Women in Film

    Kasi Lemmons: 'African American History Is American History' (Guest Column)

    My influences were literary initially. I was a big reader of books so my influences were Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and southern novelists. In terms of film, I liked Bergman a lot and Hitchcock, but there were a lot of different people that I admired. I realized recently that Lina Wertmuller was one of [...]

  • The Invisible Man

    How 'The Invisible Man's' Production and Costume Designer Avoided Horror Tropes

    While Universal’s “The Invisible Man” is based on the studio’s popular 1933 horror feature of the same name, director Leigh Whannell didn’t envision his remake as a fright fest. That provided the marching orders for his artistic team: Production designer Alex Holmes and costume designer Emily Seresin sought to avoid horror tropes, turning the Elisabeth [...]

  • call of the wild

    'The Call of the Wild' Editor David Heinz on Creating Emotions for a CGI Dog

    “The Call of the Wild” editor David Heinz has worked on “The Jungle Book” and “War for the Planet of the Apes,” but this movie starring Harrison Ford and an animated dog named Buck was different. “If you think about it, the lead of the movie is fully CGI and never speaks,” he said, also [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content