Crescenzo Notarile, ASC, AIC, is based in Los Angeles, but his latest project, the new season of the Fox TV series Gotham, has brought him to the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. Gotham centers on the character of Commissioner Gordon in the time before Batman comes to the big city, and much of the show is filmed at Steiner Studios, at the former Brooklyn Navy Yard, and throughout the borough.
Spending time in Williamsburg has reminded Crescenzo of his first job as a camera operator: for Tonino Delli Colli, AIC, on Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984), an epic production that was filmed partially in Brooklyn. Crescenzo recalls that he landed the gig because he was working as an on-staff camera assistant for Dino De Laurentiis at the time, and one of the film’s producers, Fred Caruso, also worked there. Crescenzo admits he may have exaggerated the fluency of his Italian to help seal the deal.
“I was very young, eager and impressionable, of course,” says Crescenzo. “Tonino was a very gentle, sweet man, soft-spoken and unpretentious, and a flirt with the women. He had a great sense of humor on the set. I loved him dearly. He mentored me with a pat on the back and an occasional lesson about visual dramaturgy.
“What really struck me was that he would only take his light-meter readings at the very end, and he had a $25 Sekonic. Most cinematographers I had worked for prior to that had such a technical way of executing the job, with an arsenal of fancy meters. Tonino was the antithesis of all that. He lit from the heart; he squinted his eye and relied his soul. I always had him in my peripheral vision, and I wanted to be just like him when I grew up.
“Seeing that primal and organic sensibility changed me,” continues Crescenzo. “I’m not by nature a very technical person, although I need to be in my occupation. I go with the flow of my heart and feeling, my creative sensibility. I realized then that I like to be around that kind of energy, where things are creatively spontaneous. I think you’re more alive and true to yourself that way.”
Crescenzo started Once Upon a Time in America as a first assistant. Two weeks in, a third camera was added, and he was moved up to operator. He was introduced to the technique of hiding zooms in a camera move on that assignment, and it’s a technique he uses to this day. “Sergio Leone was very curt and impatient with the crew, but I was certainly aware he had a unique vision, a definite slant on how to tell a story,” he says. “I tried to see and learn as much as I was able to. But at the time, I didn’t realize how grand this movie was. Had I known the reputation of the film, I might have smelled the roses more and appreciated what a blessing and an opportunity it was. But truthfully, I was so panicked and stressed that a lot of that went over my head. I was concentrating so completely on my job, and on stepping up to the plate as an image-maker each and every day.”
These days, while shooting Gotham, Crescenzo often comes across locations that remind him of that time. He recently watched Once Upon a Time in America again, after not seeing it for many years. “It brought back very sharp and distinct memories, all of which were deeply emotional. It’s amazing how when you see a project that you gave your blood, sweat and tears to, you recall very specific things. Filmmakers travel around the world and meet so many people who work in a universal family. When you see a project years later, your mind immediately goes to certain moments, certain faces, certain smiles and hugs, and the eternal bonds we form. It’s a wonderful aspect of our business, and it shows you the power of the medium.”
Another passion of Crescenzo’s is still photography. “I’m relentlessly taking photographs, every day, no matter what I’m doing. It’s how I breathe — my heartbeat. It keeps me fresh; it keeps me trained and alert. Even if it’s just with your iPhone, it’s important to use your artistry and sensibility to create. When a cinematographer’s instincts are sharp like that, it helps you on the set to see faster and create without thinking. When young cinematographers ask me for advice, I tell them still photography is the most important element of their education.
“I think the word ‘cinematographer’ is used lightly in this new age. It’s nice to see kids making images with 5Ds and computers because it opens up the world to a fresh generation of young minds, but many of them don’t know how to tell a story with an image. They can take pictures, but they don’t know what it means to create the narrative outside the frames. To me, that’s what makes a cinematographer.
“There is a discipline, a protocol and an etiquette to being a cinematographer. I learned that from Tonino Delli Colli on Once Upon a Time in America, from my ASC mentor and friend Owen Roizman, and from many other filmmakers around the globe. I cherish this knowledge as I cherish the breaths I take each day.”
The new season of Gotham will premiere Sept. 21.