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‘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.

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.”

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