The master cinematographer discusses his lifelong passion for color, in part inspired by the great painters he so admires.
Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC describes his career as a journey through art. He often recalls a turning point he experienced in a small Italian church where he saw Caravaggio’s painting “The Calling of St. Matthew” and saw how the master had visualized and recreated a beam of light that perfectly realized the relationship between divinity and humanity. But the first steps on his artistic journey came earlier in his professional career, when he became fascinated with primitive painting, especially that done on unusual surfaces like glass or cardboard.
In the early 1970s, Vittorio traveled to Hungary and to what was then Yugoslavia, to shoot Aeneid, a serial for Italian television. There, he used his time off to explore the countryside and pursue his nascent interest in local painters working in a primitive style on glass and other materials. He was enchanted. “I was fascinated to meet them, and by the emotion they were putting on glass,” says Vittorio. “With glass, the oil paint is not absorbed — it stays right on the surface, and, as a result, it’s very saturated. That saturation of color made an incredible impression on me. I was discovering a different way of painting, different from the official, classical way that you see in museums.”
Vittorio began to collect, and he recalls reading scripts in his hotel room while surrounded by such paintings, until he fell asleep, “leaving my unconscious the task of meshing the myth of cinema with the myth of primitive painting,” he recalls. “I’ve since been mesmerized by painters in many cultures — in China, where people draw on marble or ceramic; in Russia, where they do lacquer Palekh, which is history with tiny brushes and perfect design; and near Parma, where I met and befriended Pietro Ghizzardi,” he says. “The more I searched, the more I learned how people need to express themselves.”
He says that images of this type have inspired him throughout his subsequent career. In his book Storaro-Covili – The Sign of a Destiny, a collaboration with the painter Gino Covili, Vittorio goes into great detail, film by film, about the relationship between his appreciation for painting and his work as a cinematographer. The cinematographer recounts how he came to work on the short film The Great Yugoslavian Naïfs in 1973. He says the project allowed him to learn more about the personalities of the artists.
“This experience confirms, without any shadow of doubt, that people nearly always wind up resembling the works they produce,” says Vittorio in the book. “Rabuzin’s tranquility, Laskovic’s simplicity, Vecenaj’s mysticism, and Kovacic’s drama leapt off the canvas into the camera lens, verifying that a creative quality always mirrors a specific individual personality. This lighting and painting experience was made more complex by the entire surface of glass being reflective, but more rewarding by the chromaticism of the paintings, so much so that the short film became a palette showing how much negative film can render chromatically if well-lit and developed properly by a laboratory.”
Vittorio says that his early education had been mostly technical, leaving him with a thirst for the artistic. I reminded him of our first meeting. In 1989, I was given a break from proofreading classified ads in the American Cinematographer offices in Los Angeles and dispatched to the nearby Chateau Marmont hotel to interview him about his chapter of the anthology project New York Stories, which he photographed for director Francis Ford Coppola. I was prepared with a long list of technical questions, which Vittorio politely but firmly refused to answer. Certain I would be fired for incompetence — he wouldn’t even say which film stocks he'd used — I glumly returned to the ASC Clubhouse. Only later did I realize the value of Vittorio’s lesson — that virtually anyone can reproduce a setup by setting a lamp at a certain distance and intensity, or mimic certain color and composition traits. And Vittorio adds that with today’s tools, it’s even easier. The important part is the human aspect: What’s in your heart and how it connects with the audience. It’s the same with the folk painters that Vittorio met in his youth.
“When I saw that first image painted on glass it was as if I had been awakened by the crowing of that rooster, and I trained my senses on every single colored sign that spoke to me directly at an emotional and therefore expressive level,” says Vittorio.
The story of the glass painters is only one of many fascinating revelations in Storaro-Covili – The Sign of a Destiny. The elegantly illustrated and beautifully printed book is available through the ASC Press.