Vittorio Storaro is the most florid yet eloquent of cinematographers, a man who loves to talk about his work in terms of metaphor and symbol, but who also expresses excitement over the advances in technology he's spearheading. Indeed, the director of photography backs up his most fanciful-sounding notions with the skill and means to achieve them. Some of Storaro's technically grounded ideas can be glimpsed in Tango, his latest project, which Sony Pictures Classics released in December for a short Oscar-qualifying run, to be followed by a wider release this month. Tango is the cinematographer's third collaboration with Spanish director Carlos Saura, after Flamenco and Taxi. The Italian-born DP, winner of many awards including three from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, sees the film as another step on a specific journey.
"I had a kind of special moment with Bernardo Bertolucci, with whom I made eight pictures," says Storaro, referring to The Spider's Stratagem, The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris, 1900, La Luna, The Last Emperor, The Sheltering Sky, and Little Buddha. "Then with Francis Coppola, with whom I made four pictures [Apocalypse Now, One From the Heart, Tucker, New York Stories], and Warren Beatty, with whom I made three pictures [Reds, Dick Tracy, Bulworth]. It seems that this part of my life is distinguished by a journey I'm doing with Carlos Saura."
That journey began in 1995, with the performance film Flamenco. "The trilogy he did several years ago--Blood Wedding, Carmen, and El Amor Brujo--established him as the kind of film director who was telling a story through music and dance," says Storaro of Saura. "He called me for Flamenco because he thought he needed a vision from outside Spain, to bring a new dimension in lighting and color. But he didn't want to put a story into it, because his idea was that the rhythm of the music and dancing, and the camera and lighting, was telling the story." Yet because there was no traditional narrative involving characters and a plotline, Flamenco was considered a quasi-documentary, and received a limited distribution.
After completing the dramatic film Taxi, Saura and Storaro, along with Argentinean-born Hollywood composer Lalo Schifrin, got a call from Argentinean producer Juan C. Codazzi. "He had seen Flamenco, and his vision was to do a movie about tango on the same level," says the DP. "We went to Buenos Aires and looked at every possible show, talked to every possible person connected with the history of tango. And at the end we were thinking how to put the vision into a story, because without that guideline, we realized that once again the movie would not be perceived as a feature." Saura wrote a script centering on a director making a film about tango; the character, played by Miguel Angel Sola, infuses the dance sequences with his personal memories and images of his country's recent, traumatic history of political strife and repression. The director becomes involved with a beautiful young dancer (Mia Maestro), while his ex-wife (Cecilia Narova) looks on jealously. There's not much else to the story, but there are appearances by such renowned dancers as Julio Bocca, Juan Carlos Copes, and Carlos Rivarola; there is much classic tango music, besides Schifrin's original compositions; and there is the dancing, staged as stylized set pieces on an enormous soundstage outside Buenos Aires.
Apart from a few location scenes, the movie's settings consist of a series of large translucent panels, which serve as both backdrop and occasional silhouetting foreground to the choreographed action. "In Flamenco, we established this design architecture, these frames that we can light the way we want," says the DP. "We can put in any color, any kind of dramatic form, creating our world--kind of like a Mondrian painting." This approach is like creative manna to the famously conceptual Storaro. "Step by step, I came up with the structure," he says. "The leading character is taking a journey through Argentine history, through tango history, and through his own history. To visualize this, I was trying to make a connection between life and light. Every single step of his story I visualized with a single color, because in my opinion, the only way you can go on an inner journey and come out in a balanced way, is to go through every single step of your life, every single emotion and sentiment. And those are represented with color."
It's a familiar artistic theory of Storaro's, and one which can be most clearly seen in The Last Emperor, recently reissued with an extra hour of footage. The emperor Pu Yi's life is charted across the color spectrum, from the yellow of childhood innocence to the violet of life's twilight. In Tango, it was more of a "backwards journey," the cinematographer says. "In the first sequence, you see very aged people dancing, so I started with violet. After that, I go to indigo for the tango class, because that is the color we reach when we transfer our knowledge to other people." For a sequence of tango musicians playing, Storaro settled on blue, which he connects to the pure sound of music. "Then I was using green when we see the dancing between one man and two women, because green is between two segments of the color spectrum." There's a historical reference here: "Tango was created by the immigrants trying to express themselves with a new kind of music and dancing, sometimes using native music," he says. "It was mainly danced between single men, immigrants who had left Spain or Italy by themselves, or it was danced with prostitutes. So it was a kind of dancing that was very provocative for high-class people."
When the protagonist enters a reverie of his childhood, Storaro bathes the imagery in yellow, cast, like all the film's colors, by liberal use of Rosco gel on the lights. But when the film embarks on a political examination through dance, it suddenly explodes into more passionate colors. "I went to orange for the repression, which was a very dramatic moment in Argentina," says the DP. "And when this repression becomes so violent that many people lost their lives, I went to red." A montage, scored to Verdi, milonga (a precursor to tango), classic tango, and new music by Schifrin, moves through 100 years of immigrant experience, as the light moves from dawn to sunset. This effect was created by moving from front to backlight on a Rosco mural, which was projected on one of the frames. For this and many other of Storaro's techniques, he needed a lighting console.
The cinematographer, in fact, has used a light board on all of his films since One From the Heart, shot in 1980. "I saw one at an electronic exhibition in Las Vegas, and that was my dream, to be able to control all the lights from one place," he says. "Francis loved the idea, and he bought a light board for his Zoetrope studio. >From that moment on, I always use it, and I think I was the first. After that, all my friends, Vilmos Zsigmond, Laszlo Kovacs, Haskell Wexler, came to see me, and I explained the ideas. I brought it to China for The Last Emperor; I take it everywhere. It was a really big revolution in lighting systems, and it still is, because not everyone is in sympathy with it. Unlike in theatre, in cinema we normally can change every shot physically, so that's why nobody was thinking to have a system that can change the lighting during a shot itself. But I love moving the light according to the mood of the shot, according to the story, according to the kind of fantasy I want for the audience. I love the system and will never go back."
So enamored is Storaro of the lighting console that he and his operator, Fabio Cafolla, have collaborated with DeSisti Lighting in Rome to create a board expressly for cinematographers. This console, dubbed the Eclissi (Eclipse), will soon be available, but was employed in "handmade" prototype for Tango.
The Eclissi is not the only customized piece of equipment to be found on a Storaro set. The DP says that 99% of the lighting instruments he uses on a film are Jumbo lights, focusable, multi-use tungsten units invented by his longtime gaffer, Filippo Cafolla (father of the console operator). Banks of these instruments are visible in shots at the beginning of Tango; like the light board, they follow Storaro everywhere. Yet with all the tools the cinematographer has put at his disposal, there are areas that remain frustratingly out of his control.
Yet he plans to do something about it. And that's where Univision (or the Latin translation Univisium, as Storaro is apparently redubbing the process) comes in. Designed by the cinematographer's son Fabrizio Storaro, and developed with the financial and technical support of Technovision, Technicolor, and Sony Classics, Univision--meaning, simply, unity of images--is an attempt to achieve a format standard for moving images in this confused era of movie screens, home video, and pre-high-definition television. It's an attempt to eliminate what the DP refers to as "the nightmare of compromising the images, of looking into a viewfinder and facing at least two images of the same subject." What it boils down to, essentially, is a new aspect ratio, a simple 1:2 that ideally will be adapted by both film and video. Tango is the first movie shot in Univision.
"Something special happens in a frame, and you can see that on a film screen soon afterwards," Storaro elaborates. "When that same image reaches the videoscreen, it's destroyed: It's cut on the side, to fill the normal TV screen. Practically every film being done today is either 1:1.85, or anamorphic or Super 35, which is 1:2.35. The TV screen today is 1:1.35, but even in the future, when high-definition systems will be a reality, the new electronic screen will be 1:1.79. So we can never see our work properly."
These are indisputable facts, and an indisputable dilemma. But then, Storaro switches to theory: "In my opinion, more and more cineplexes will be filled with videoscreens, and most of the pictures done today in 35mm can be easily done in high-definition video. But also in my opinion, there are epic pictures like Apocalypse Now and The Last Emperor that will always need the bigger screen; 65mm will be the answer for that kind of big picture. If this will be a reality, that in future we are going to use either high-definition or 65mm, why not make a common standard between the two, to later see them in DVD or laser or what-ever, but at least in the same aspect ratio, and the same frame speed? So I came up with the new aspect ratio, 1:2, which is the best balance between the two."
It was partly the wasted space on today's positive and negative film that led Storaro to this solution. "On the left side there is a huge waste of negative area because that is left for analog sound, which is not used any longer, since all pictures now have digital soundtracks," he says. The 1:2 frame would effectively use up this space. But the cinematographer, whose mind is always seeing new possibilities, envisions many other benefits: "If you're looking at the area on 1:1.85 film, between one frame and the other there's a huge space. The new ratio, 1:2, will bring the two frames much closer together. First, the negative area is bigger, so the quality will be better. And second, I will use only three perforations instead of four, which means I will save 25% on negative, printing, developing, and shipping costs."
In addition, he points out that more frames on a magazine (moving through the camera at 25fps) will result in more creative time for filmmakers, and will be an especially welcome boon for smaller-budget productions. Not only that, but the consequent obsolescence of anamorphic lenses will preclude the need for larger lighting packages. But most importantly, a movie transfer to video would cease being a traumatic experience for the director and cinematographer, and a compromised viewingexperience for audiences.
Whew. Who knows what sort of life Univision will have beyond Tango? Certainly the brochure produced by Sony Pictures Classics is full of both technical specifications and provocative ideas, a few of which may be of the pie-in-the-sky variety. But at least Storaro dares to innovate, and gets some pretty heavy players lined up behind him. Technovision has produced the camera for the Univision system, and Technicolor Rome, the DP's valued laboratory base, printed the footage. And Storaro has said he will never go back.
"I'm sure I'll never do another anamorphic picture, and Bulworth was my last picture in 1:1.85 ratio. The last few years, in order to have minimal damage, I was using a gauge for television, and a reference by eye for cinema. When I did a transfer, I was in Technicolor one day to see the answer print, and the following day I was in a transfer facility, and I was looking at two different pictures. Univision is like a new wind, a fresh air--finally I look at the future and the image will not be distorted."
Clearly, the journey Storaro is on with Saura is very much wrapped up with this new wind. Perhaps shooting dance has even played its part; as the DP says, "framing a dancer is like framing a piece of art. Shooting Flamenco, I started to think, how is it possible to respect the same composition you see on film screens on television?" But the journey is about more, as well. In One From the Heart, the cinematographer says that Coppola's unrealized dream was to create backgrounds not with real three-dimensional elements, but with screens, images, a single layer of material. With Saura, Storaro has vicariously fulfilled this dream for Coppola. Playing color and light on frames backing the Tango dancers, Storaro stretches the definition of film space, just as he does in his experiments with the shape of the image.
And more is to come. The DP just finished shooting Saura's next feature, which takes the great 18th-century Spanish painter Francisco Goya, master of the savage and grotesque, as its subject. "In Flamenco, we used the frames just with light and shadow, and in Tango we added color. In Goya, we push the style even more; we're using images. We project Goya's paintings, as well as any kind of set you can imagine, into one single layer or frame."
Storaro, who has shot some of the most spectacular movies ever made, in locations across the world--in Russia, China, the jungles of Southeast Asia, the deserts of North Africa--embraces the stylization, the studio theatricality. "I never thought that cinema had any connection with reality. From the moment you make the decision where to put the camera, you're making a personal choice. So, in my opinion, reality does not exist in film." Just the persistent reality of light and shadow and color.