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Watch: Vittorio Storaro and Ed Lachman’s 70-Minute Cinematography Master Class

Written by Joshua Encinias on November 1, 2017 

vittorio-storaro-and-ed-lachman

The 55th New York Film Festival brought together cinematographers Vittorio Storaro (The Conformist, Apocalypse Now) and Ed Lachman (Carol, The Limey) for a master class on the occasion of both having films in the fest’s main slate. Lachman lensed Todd Haynes’ Centerpiece film Wonderstruck and Storaro did Woody Allen’s Closing Night film Wonder Wheel.

Festival director Kent Jones hosted the two at the Walter Reade Theater on October 11 for an all-encompassing talk of their cinematic philosophies and the cinematographers’ 40-year friendship.

Storaro and Lachman showed clips from films that inspire them and clips of their own work. The clips were a launching pad to discuss the difficult-to-pin cinematic language of photographic storytelling. We’ve included key quotes from their talk and the complete video of masterclass below.

Lachman on Storaro

Vittorio has done more in the last 50 years for the recognition and esteem of cinematography than anybody.

Becoming conscious of cinematography

Vittorio Storaro: “Charlie Chaplin, for me. In the sense that my father was a projectionist at a major company, Lux Film. I was probably seven years old. My brothers and my sister saw him coming with a little piece of machinery that was probably leftover from the company with some kind of roll of film. And he asked myself and my little brother to paint the courtyard white the back wall. We played, we destroyed everything. By the end of the day when the moon rise, we had our own little chair, we had the first time we saw the pieces of City Lights. I was enchanted that so much that stayed in my memory a long time. Until I grow up and started to study photography, cinematography, I become the living dream of my father. My father was screening films so he was trying of course to be part of the kind of images. I put his dream on my shoulder and I really started to feel that that dream can be mine. And I have the chance to study, I went to school, the most incredible school in Europe at that time, Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, which was the photography school. The photography teacher was screening Osaka and Renoir, but I was always looking for the female Charlie Chaplin.”

Ed Lachman: “Strangely enough, my father owned a movie theater and he imported carbon lights which he projected on the screen. So I didn’t take cinema very seriously so I used to go to the theater with him and I put popcorn in the bags. I didn’t take it very seriously and then I was at art school at Harvard and we so took this co-called easy course in film appreciation and Gideon Bachman taught it and it was Italian Neorealism. I saw this film De Sica, Umberto D., and the idea that he constructed images to tell a story almost without words. It so touched me how it was photographed and the idea that you could pick up a camera and tell a story with images. That’s really what excited me about what cinema could be.”

Plato’s Cave and the philosophy of cinematography

Storraro: “Plato said that there are an enormous amount of people being shaded ever since they were born into into a cave. They watch at the end of the cave, they see a fire behind them, and it was interrupted by people passing by with statue and flags creating shadows. The prisoners plateau when looking at moving shadows on the back wall, thinking that was reality. Only when the philosopher takes the decision to understand what was reality, what was interpretation, what was different to fantasy was he able to unchain himself and went outside and discovered what reality was. Practically it said very clearly death was an image of reality. If you think for a moment, it’s a perfect metaphor for cinema. The prisoner is you and me when we are spectators. We are watching into this cave which the theater in the back wall, images created by the projectionists instead of the fire. Cinema has nothing to do with reality. When they say we do cinema verite, real cinema, is not true. Cinema is an interpretation of reality. We can be believable for real elements. My sober interpretation [is that] that’s fantastic, this kind of concept.”

Lachman: “What Vittorio touched on is so essential to what images are because it’s very hard to explain what we do. For me they’re either a psychological or poetic way of expressing what the illusion we’re creating as our images express. They’re the subtext for the story. There are ways of understanding what the story is. Why is film different than theater or literature? It’s the means of using the images, and for me the images are almost like music. They’re a nonverbal way of communicating emotions and that’s what we’re involved in, it’s an intuitive process Vittorio is talking about, but it’s also a certain educational process of how you approach those images to tell your story. Every film has a different mythology, a different way of approaching a story. […] Photography for me isn’t a representational media, but a psychological.”

vittorio-storaro-and-ed-lachman-1

Digital cinematography

Storaro: “The first time I saw an image in high definition while we were shooting I said, ‘Oh my god, this is what I’m doing. For the first time in my life, I went back to the hotel and my wife and children were waiting for me, I was serene. There was no question mark. On Apocalypse Now, we were waiting for two weeks to see dailies. They were weeklies, not dailies. That kind of innocence, that kind of mystery, maybe we don’t need it any longer. We need conscientiousness. We need to know what we are doing. Because if we know what we are doing — first of all, we feel it is something appropriate for us or not. If we know the elements that form the image we will be able to change, to modify, and make it better, more appropriate to the story.”

Lachman: “I look at the digital medium as like photorealism, if I had to compare it. Look, I’m an old guy and I’m trying to hold on to photographic process.”

Lachman on his work with Todd Haynes

Lachman: “Far from Heaven is kind of a reference to Douglas Sirk and All that Heaven Allows, but again, they aren’t just there or because it’s cool to shoot in the 1950s. Douglas Sirk was using these kind of image, these mannered expressionistic images as a form of repression of middle-class values. He was actually using it as a social critique. He came out of Brechtian theater in Germany emigrated to the United States very late, and he got to make in the film industry what they considered weepies, they were like soap operas. But he imbued them with social and political commentaries about American life. So actually the beauty is a form of repression. What was interesting to me about the Dylan film (I’m Not There), Todd Haynes used cinematic language to tell a story about not one Dylan but six Dylans because Dylan always reinvented himself as an artist, eschewing his music and to move on. So what better way to do that but to show sixties and seventies cinematic language, because in a way, Dylan was like an actor reinventing himself. So he did that through the anti-hero Western of the 70s, like Peckinpah and Altman, and then Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid — that’s the Richard Gere character. Then we did early 8 ½ Fellini when Cate Blanchett plays Dylan when he goes electric. There’s a Godardian section with Heath Ledger, so we used all these different textures to create the format for this storyline.


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