The Film Doctor team are honoured to be able to present to you a brand new addition to our interview series.
So according to your bio you studied to become a primary school teacher originally – what was your relationship to film and the arts growing up? Were you from a creativity-encouraging family? When did you realise that film/the arts was for you?
My grandfather was Fedele Toscani – a pioneer of photojournalism. He had his own agency, RotoFoto, and I grew up in the dark room. I was measuring my growth with the height of the developing tray. I still remember the great satisfaction when I was finally able to witness the magic without the aid of a stool!
My mother is the only one who did not follow her father’s footsteps. My aunt Marirosa married Aldo Ballo and they became Ballo&Ballo, probably one of the most sophisticated photographic firm in the 60s and 70s. They specialized in interiors and still life. In their enormous studio they were constantly dealing with art, design and furniture. Those were the golden years of design, advertising and architecture.
As a result I was exposed to all this and very early on I learned all the technicalities of photography. Still photography, though. In my teens, while in Rome studying to become a teacher, I cannot say that I had a passion for it [photography]. Yes I liked it, I had my own dark room at home (in fact it was the bathroom I shared with my sister, you can imagine the issues…) I took my own pictures and I would assist my uncle Oliviero Toscani whenever he would come down to Rome to shoot fashion.
So it happened that by the end of high school I realized that I did not have enough of the sacred fire that, in my opinion, is needed to be a good teacher (it is a real tough job and the responsibilities are enormous, you need to dedicate your whole being to it) nor any particular urgency to attend university. I knew I could learn whatever I wished regardless of going to Uni, all you need is method and access to books (nowadays not even books, just an internet connection).
I went to work full time assisting Oliviero, moved to Milano and started traveling around the world with him.
So what did you learn from your uncle Oliviero Toscani, both generally and in reference to cinematography?
Tough question to answer: what did I learn from him? In reference to cinematography probably the most important lesson has been the importance of detail, the pursuit of excellence all the way to the smallest, most insignificant detail. But maybe that lesson also came from working at Ballo&Ballo. They were shooting large format, 13×18 or even 18×24.
With Oliviero the technicalities of the shoots were quite straight and simple, almost routine. When in the studio there were a couple of lighting schemes, when shooting exteriors not even those. We just made sure we had all the lenses, kept them clean and that we had enough film rolls to make the day (lots of film rolls!)
From him, I mainly learned the non-photographic aspects of the profession: how to relate to the “clients”, how to treat (or not to treat) your subordinates, how to mediate between your own vision and the practicalities of the circumstances. But I did not spend much time with Oliviero. I started in August ’76 and by early ’78 I moved to Switzerland. I spent most of ’77 in NYC working with other photographers and of course Oliviero those few times he came to shoot in town.
So you moved onto working for Swiss Television – how were you getting work around this time? Simple applications? Perseverance? Contacts? Luck?
As I said before the fashion photography at the time was routine. Fashion week in Rome, then Paris, then New York, then fly to the sun to shoot a catalogue, then back to Rome and so on. I know it can sound glamorous but after a short time I really grew bored of it, even more so when I started taking pictures of my own. Yes, somehow it was rewarding, it told me that I could do it myself but that was the scary bit, I did not want to get into that circle.
It all happened by chance. My father is a journalist and at that time he collaborated with the Swiss State television. When I was in NYC I “translated” for one of their crews that came to shoot a few days in the big apple and befriended Carlo “Pelo”Pellegrini, the cameraman.
In early 1978 in Milano I bumped into Pelo, we went for a coffee and I vented my doubts and frustrations about my current situation. He asked me if I would consider moving to Geneva to work as cameraman for his company that loaned out film crews to Swiss TV and other TVs that needed footage from Switzerland. The next day I was driving to Geneva.
They gave me an Eclaire NPR 16mm and two 400’ rolls of reversal stock and told me to come back with enough footage for a 3minutes “generic portrait of Geneva”. Luckily the NPR was really easy to load and use. I knew how to use a light-meter and judge exposures and I started learning everything else. I was mainly working for the Geneva office of the Italian RAI TV. We were covering all sort of news from that part of the world, from the UN sessions to the SALT nuclear talks, endless hours waiting for absolutely meaningless statements from Gromyko or Cyrus Vance. From ski races to the street riots for the independence of Jura.
After about a year, Pelo called me to be based in Lugano and work for the Italian speaking branch of the Swiss TV. Lots of sports: football, hockey, ski, cycling, athletics, car racing. But also local news and then more and more special reports from all over the world. The crew was minimal: me with my NPR and a kit with 4 quartz lights and the sound mixer with his Nagra.
In 1980, they finally gave us the first video cameras. ENG they called them. I hated them. You were tied to the sound man with a cable. It was like stepping back 20 years before they invented the quartz synch. When I returned my NPR it was a sad day. With it, I shot over 1 million meters of 16mm stock. It was a wonderful learning experience. No film school in the world would have provided me with that opportunity.
Soon after, you met Garrett Brown (the inventor of Steadicam). How did founding Steadicam Operations Inc (1988) come together and can you contextualise, for our readers, what Steadicam meant and felt like (to you and the film industry) at that time?
How had similar effects been achieved before its creation?
In the spring of 1981, I finally had the time to take a break and I flew to NYC to see friends and cool down. In American Cinematographer I saw an ad for a Steadicam Workshop held by Garrett Brown in Monterey, California. I did know about the existence of the Steadicam but had no real idea of what it was. But the main thing was that I had never been to California and that was an excellent excuse to go there. I signed up, flew over and immediately fell in love with the tool (and with Garrett too).
As I said, I was used to working with no crew, no tools. One of my constant problems was to achieve camera movements that would not look handheld, so much so that I always carried roller skates (I was pretty decent on them) and a skateboard. When I discovered the possibilities of the Steadicam I had to follow that road. I purchased one and started playing with it.
The best thing was that, at that time, the Steadicam was quite primitive. Garrett invented and built it but every day you could discover new uses, little improvements, clever modifications, brilliant gadgets. Lots of the tools that are used everyday on a modern film set were developed because of the Steadicam: remote focus and iris controls, video transmitters, lightweight matte boxes, to tell a few.
It was great to be part of that group of “pioneers” that helped develop both the technique and the language of this amazing tool that definitely changed the way movies are shot and stories are told. And we were constantly in touch with one another, exchanging gadgets, gears, rods, ideas. Before the Steadicam there were less options to smoothly move the camera. It was like adding a whole new set of notes on the pentagram.
You were then an in-demand Steadicam operator with ‘the opportunity of working with a very large number of filmmakers and experiencing a very large spectrum of styles, techniques, attitudes and philosophies’. Can you tell us a bit about that time? What did you learn about film sets and the industry?
I moved back to Italy with my Steadicam in early ’82. Apart from mine, there were very few Steadicams in the country or even Europe, but especially there were even less reliable operators. Nobody that took the time to learn how to play the instrument. I say play on purpose. It’s like expecting to pick up a violin and get out a decent sound without taking at least a few lessons. Therefore, at the beginning, I slightly suffered the bad reputation the tool had. Why bother using a tool that delivers bad footage ? Footage that makes you sea sick or that frame light fixtures and off the set.
Little by little, they started realizing that, in the right hands, it was a wonderful instrument and I started working a lot. I would jump from one set to the next and often, where I was called for just one scene, I would then be asked to stay longer or come back. This gave me the privilege of working with lots of directors, cinematographers, actors, producers. Each one with their very peculiar modus operandi. At times it was tricky. I would drop into a well-established crew and – at times – break certain very precarious balances, trigger jealousies, unwillingly step on some toes. Film crews are very much like families, especially in being dysfunctional.
And I still thank the skills that I learned at high school: dealing with filmmakers is not much different than dealing with kids.
In the spectrum, what were the similarities (of good or bad projects/moments) that bonded them together? Or the major differences?
It is very hard to pinpoint generic similarities or differences. What I can say is that once there were more passionate people working in films. Nobody was in it just for the business part of it. Not even the producers. They genuinely loved cinema and, most important, they knew cinema.
Nowadays, too many people are attracted either by the “glamorous” side of it or the greedy approach to the business. Most executives now come out of business schools, not film schools, and that I believe is not right.
If I have to name common denominators I could say that most (luckily not all) directors suffer from inflated egos, that most actors are extremely shy and insecure (strange for someone who exposes his/her soul for work…) and that most of those below the line are extremely cynical.
With Vittorio I worked on 6 movies and various other projects. I feel lucky. He definitely is one of the all time greats and I learned a lot about consistency, following a plan, implementing well-conceived choices, sticking to the plan without becoming tangled in it. And John, too, is a master in handling the complexity of a shoot.
But I’ll always be grateful to a lot of other masters I had the chance to work with; first of all Tonino Delli Colli (Life is Beautiful, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), he was the opposite of Vittorio, no great plan, no plan at all actually, pure instinct, pure talent. But also Sven Nykvist, Owen Roizman, Ennio Guarnieri, Alex Thompson, Ronnie Taylor, Beppe Lanci. They are all greats and I learned a lot from them.
But I can promise you that sometimes you learn even more from the not so great ones. Sometimes experiencing how NOT to tackle a problem is more enlightening than to be given the solution.
You have worked with Terry Gilliam a lot, so let’s talk about him for a while. Your first project together was on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas which is a legendary cult film for its style. What was the pre-prod and production process like on this project? Did you guys design different shots/movements/looks for different states of mind?
On Fear & Loathing we certainly discussed the various states of mind we had to put on screen. We also shot lots of camera tests, different optical solutions, carefully selected color gels for specific situations, established the use of this or that tool for this or that scene.
Some we followed to the letter, especially when others elements were involved, like the use of Steadicam on the Bazooko Circus exit scene when Gonzo and Duke start walking horizontal. We built a ramp and off-level stalls and people and compensated with the camera level.
In other cases, we completely disregarded our wonderful plans and did what we felt was right and would work better. Keep in mind that even though it was not long ago (’97) it was mesozoic in terms of VFX. Therefore we had to do as much as we could on camera. Not to mention that we did not have the budget to have too many VFX shots anyway.
And you sent quite an interesting tape to Terry to audition for the job, right?
Yes, it was quite an unusual “demo tape” – it wasn’t only footage that I shot but mainly people I worked with/for that would talk about me on camera. It was particularly funny and surprising because lots of them were making fun at me being one-eyed (I lost it when I was 16 months old, I have no idea what it means to have stereo vision, maybe that’s why I never did anything in 3D…). You can see the tape on my site: http://www.nicolapecorini.com/biography.html
And since then you’ve both created films that feel very at home with each other but also very different in subject matter and style..what kind of conversations do you have about story, character and shots and how they all influence each other?
Terry sends me the script as soon as he start thinking about making it. Normally with the script, he sends me some pictures (nowadays links) of some artist that he relates to within the story. And we start from there; I send him my ideas and at some point, well before the real pre-production starts, we sit down and go through the script, scene by scene. I take all the notes I can and then, when pre-prod starts, we keep going from there with everybody else; production designer, costume designer, props, VFX etc.
Of course, sometimes we even drag the others [HODs] in earlier than pre-prod. Often we need to decide how to tackle certain needs well before time – they will influence the budget, the schedule, everything.
How would you describe your favourite approach to work?
The method we established with Terry is very much my favorite. The question that I ask before anything is: what do we want to say with this scene? What do we want to convey? Is it mainly info? Is it an emotion? Is it a doubt? Once you answer that question you can choose the path to follow.
Normally, I create a Cinematographic Breakdown that tries to keep the thread. Terry calls it the Bible. It’s much less important than that but it certainly help us to remember all the things that we discussed, all the decisions taken, all the choices done.
Sometimes we completely disregard them but most of the time it is very useful. And it also helps in bringing all the crew that boards the project after us up to speed.
I make “the Bible” on every movie I work on, not only with Terry, but at times I find it difficult to receive all the information. Some directors are not as open and inclusive as Terry is (and they say that the fish always start stinking from the head…).
When you do not share information problems become bigger, solutions more expensive and so on.
How involved are you in post?
It depends from project to project. Generally, I always perform the DI. Sometimes I also get involved with the VFX process.
What are your top 3 most complicated shots you’ve achieved and why?
That’s a very difficult question to answer: I do not have a scale to measure the difficulties.
A straight forward shot can become complicated for contingencies, from bad weather to an actor foible, as much as a very complicated shot can turn out to be easy when properly thought and planned. Very hard indeed is to be consistent in the look when scenes are shot in a variety of locations at different times: color temperatures, lights, state of mind and body of actors.
I must say that from this point of view the DI process has been a great help. Before DI came along and got perfected grading the exterior scenes could be a endless, painful process. Now, with the right colorist, is a breeze !
One of the most technically complex shots I can recall was the “pull back” in the lizard lounge in Fear & Loathing: Rob Bottin delivered only a third of the promised “Lizard Suits” therefore to achieve what Terry wanted we had to use a Motion Control rig and do 3 or 4 passes. I did work with MoCo before, although not in charge, but the whole thing was complicated by the fact that the set was clad with mirrors, including the central columns that could not pivot.
I remember that, as not to risk anything, the whole crew had to dress up in style, including afro wigs and 70s makeup. We pulled it off but we lost the whole day.
What are everyday considerations and issues that pop up when working as a DP that many aspiring filmmakers may not understand just yet?
That the job is not as glamorous as it might seem. It can be a very dirty job. We are expected to deliver a good – if not “outstanding”- product and we are not given the adequate time or tools or circumstances. But we still have to deliver.
It does not matter that the sun is setting, we have to stretch the day. It does not matter that the director got tangled up into a shot and shot 100 takes, if at the end of the day we’re 3 or 4 or whatever number of set ups short, it’s always our fault.
Being a cinematographer is much more than knowing the technique and possibly some movie history. We are not just responsible for shooting a script, we are also shooting a budget. Not that I like this state of things but it’s the reality.
Last, but not least, remember that you are part of a team. You are to the movie as much as the production or costume designer, the dolly grip or the make up artist. But at the same time remember also that a movie set is not democratic; there is a dictator that will always have the last word. Yes, the Director !
Are there common mistakes that inexperienced cinematographers or directors make when choosing kit or technically (when capturing) that you can warn them against?
There is an infinite array of mistakes. Some are committed as a result of ignorance and not being able to admit it: never be ashamed to ask !
Everything has been done before, there is very little to invent anymore. If you watch movies of the early age of cinema you realize that they experimented with everything already: dutch angles, flying shots, free falls, double images… you name it! Everything has been done, we should know enough to be able to suggest and pick those solutions that we consider most appropriate for the story we are trying to tell.
From your interview in ‘Dreams’ you clearly don’t like to work long form for the sake of working – you care about the screenplays. What do you look for in a story?
It’s quite simple: do I care about helping in telling this story? If the answer is yes I definitely want to be part of it.
What do you feel are the most exciting technological advances in the years you’ve worked? What could be perhaps bad technological advances and what are you looking forward to seeing more advance in?
I talked before about the Steadicam, it has definitely been exciting. The DI as well has been quite exciting. Most recently the drones have been quite an amazing achievement. But here we have to talk about “Digital Capture”. I believe that digital imaging has made it possible for anybody with a story to tell to do so: with an iPhone and cheap software you can actually make a movie. It certainly made the whole process more accessible, more democratic maybe.
But digital capturing is harsh, unforgiving. If you have a pimple, you show it. Even if it’s not yet showing it shows! Somehow the digital image kills the magic: with film it is so much easier to make an actor look his/her best. With digital, it is so much harder. It’s in the nature of the pixels. They will always be pixels, no matter how many there are, no matter how round the German engineers can mould them.
If you still consider cinema as something to be watched on a big screen – and I’m not even talking about the ritual aspect of it, I’m just talking the “larger than life” wonder – then you have to value quality, and so far the best quality is still provided by shooting film – 65mm preferably …
It’s not the case that Film is coming back quite fast, like vinyl. I think also because actors were fed up of looking poor and having to share the expenses of the “digital cleanup”.
As for the future I’m waiting for the age of holograms, when people will sit in a circle and the scene is in the middle, each spectator will have a unique experience
You’ve worked with some huge directors including Bernardo Bertolucci, Terry Gilliam, Warren Beatty, Roman Polanski, William Friedkin, Rob Reiner, Norman Jewison – is there one common trait that they all share?
The instinct, and the deep culture from where to pick ( fish?) for inspiration, ideas, solutions. Other than that they are all very different animals.
Are there some smaller films from your body of work that you’re proud of that you feel didn’t quite get the attention they deserved and you’d like more people to see that you can recommend to our readers?
Harrison’s Flowers directed by Élie Chouraqui, with Andie McDowell, Adrien Brody, David Strathairn, Brendan Gleeson, Elias Koteas, Marie Trintignant. The dramatic story of the bloody split of Yugoslavia through the experiences of a group of war photographers.
It’s a movie I’m really proud of, we shot it in the Czech Republic in 1999, only a few years after the end of the war and we hired plenty of real refugees from Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia. They had this urgency of telling their stories and I do believe that their contribution made the film very powerful.
What are the major pieces of advice you can offer to aspiring cinematographers looking to follow in your footsteps?
Never follow anybody footsteps. Find your own path!
What are 10 films you think all filmmakers should see?
And filmmakers that every filmmaker should see the whole work of?
Henry Alekan, Sergio Leone, Akira Kurosawa, Alfred Hitchcock, Tonino Delli Colli, Roman Polanski, Terry Gilliam, Sven Nykvist, Stanley Kubrick, Ken Russell, John Huston…. too many to name them all but not too many to enjoy them!
Thank you very much, Nicola, for your time!