“Café Society,” which opened the Cannes Film Festival on May 11, marks the first time Woody Allen has worked alongside cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. It’s also the first time either has shot a theatrical movie outside his traditional comfort zone — switching from film to digital cameras.

The picture opens in the world of a poor Jewish family in the Bronx in the late 1930s, then shifts to Hollywood, and finally returns to a New York milieu of high society. Each setting required a distinct visual style and color palette.

“The Bronx is more a lunar light, cloudier and desaturated, a colder tonality,” Storaro says. “Los Angeles is much brighter and warmer. When the lead character returns to New York, he brings back some of the tonality of L.A. It’s a brighter New York, on a higher societal level compared with the Bronx, a world in which they wear tuxedos to dinner.”

Storaro’s visual reference points reflect each period. For the Bronx sequences, he drew inspiration from painters like Georgia O’Keeffe and photographer Alfred Stieglitz. The California scenes were influenced by painters Edward Hopper and Otto Dix (the latter reflects the influence German expressionists had on Hollywood at that time), as well as photographer Edward Steichen, known for his portraits of stars such as Gloria Swanson.

Storaro — who won Oscars for “Apocalypse Now,” “Reds,” and “The Last Emperor” — had shot on digital for Carlos Saura’s documentary “Flamenco, Flamenco,” but that had been produced primarily for television. As the proportion of movies shot on film kept diminishing, and with the closure of Technicolor’s film labs in New York and Rome, Storaro decided it was time to jump to digital.

“The language of light is one of the most important things that we have in the visual arts.”
Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro

When choosing cameras, he opted for Sony’s CineAlta F65, which allowed him to shoot at the high end: 4K with 16 bit-color, and a 2:1 aspect ratio. For sequences where the narrator recounts past events, Storaro switched to a Sony F55, which is lighter and can be mounted on a SteadiCam to create a more fluid effect.

The DP had been warned that Allen wouldn’t look at a monitor on the set, as he prefers to look directly at the actors, but Storaro persuaded the director that the images on the monitor would be of the same quality as those in the dailies. From then on, Allen kept the monitor close by.

Despite technical differences between film and digital, Storaro’s approach to his craft was unchanged, and the main challenges remained creative ones. Above his desk at his house in Rome hangs a reproduction of a painting by his favorite artist, Caravaggio, and he shares the painter’s preoccupation with light and shadow. One issue for the cinematographer was the digital camera’s high sensitivity to light, producing a very detailed image when that may not always be appropriate.

“The language of light is one of the most important things we have in the visual arts,” Storaro says. “By using the proper light, you get to see an image that is appropriate for that moment, for that sequence.”

During production, Storaro was aided by digital imaging technician Simone D’Arcangelo, who had assisted him on past projects, and by colorist Anthony Raffaele.

But there came a point when he had learned as much about the technical aspects of shooting digitally as he needed. “I said, ‘I know what I’m doing, so now I need to go beyond the technical limits. I need to use the emotion of the light in relation to shadow, in relation to color, in order to portray the story in a proper way.’”