In his book, On Directing Film, David Mamet tells a story of how he once had to adopt a medication regime, taking certain pills in a certain order, as per his doctor’s instructions, and how he had the overwhelming sensation that he’d carried out this procedure before. The little row of boxes, the capsules inside of them and the days of the week assigned for their taking. The ritual was strangely familiar. He knew how to do this. Not exactly a unique sensation but at the same time a reassuringly human one. He then adds, ruefully, that when it came to him taking the reins of a movie, he never once experienced such deja vu. Everything was as alien and ‘other’ as could be and the comfort of even the most vaguely familiar was conspicuously absent.
That pretty much sums up the anxiety I feel (or perhaps more accurately, anticipate) when I get back on to set after a long absence such as has been forced by COVID. Back in the saddle, I subliminally search for muscle memory.
I used to think that was a fault of mine until I realised that that’s exactly how it should be and I would want it no other way. Perversely, I enjoy the feeling of being in unchartered territory. We all want control - and by that I mean knowing science and the instruments of measurement and recording remain true - but one’s emotions and one’s eyes, one’s take on the scene in front of you should ask as many questions as if it was the first time you’d ever seen such a thing.
Light does that every time. Occurring naturally, it is never boring, never meh, no matter how old one gets. If that in itself is not inspiring I don’t know what is. The task is to capture its essence. To run with it, to slow its advance or to anticipate that next degree of turn on the Earth’s axis, either real or imagined.
I’m currently shooting in Rome and after many months of being between fifty and sixty degrees latitude I’m seeing light anew. Perhaps it’s because upon landing in the Eternal City I was immediately handed a tomb of Vittorio Storaro’s philosophy on colour as if it were an official document of entry. Or maybe it was a taste of the exotic after many months at home and having my senses fired by Rome’s theatricality, its contrasts and hues of terracotta and cool marble.
I was interested to read Steven Poster’s article about the 6P colour system, designed to expand the range of reproducible colours on monitor and TV screens. To see advances in technology built around cinematographic expertise is reassuring and it made me think about the distance between reality and what we as storytellers do with light and colour. It also got me thinking about the colour depth of film.
But I’ve always found that gulf interesting - not just in work but generally, when watching films, looking at photographs, art, etc; seeing the interpretation. I get it, having several hundred crayons is better than having just several and the correct reproduction of a colour can be more than a matter of taste, such as in the commercial world.
And let’s face it, most of us are lucky to have time to tweak a light or move a reflector on set these days, so talk of painting with light is something that can sound gloriously throw-back or self-aggrandising. If we have something that we know we can work on in the DI, then that is often the most we can hope for given the brutal shooting schedules. The advanced tools, both on set and in post, allow us a greater palette. To reference another writer, Joan Dideon, quoting director Tony Richardson; “I want it to be magic”. Data is now where the magic is.
Meanwhile, I’m up to the chapter on Yellow (‘Awareness’) with Vittorio.
The fire that destroyed much of the Cinemateca Brasileira on July 29th was stunning as it was tragic. Home to the country’s film archive including 90,000 titles, one million documents, early television, concert recordings and iconic sports footage as well many historical items such as film cameras and projectors, the São Paulo site, first opened in 1940, represents Brazil’s cinematographic treasure. Sadder still - and cause for righteous anger - is that the disaster was wholly preventable, even foretold. President Bolsonaro’s decision to lay off the facility’s entire staff in 2020, thereby leaving the archive unmonitored and vulnerable, was wilfully negligent and, many in the country believe, politically motivated. For a man who cannot see the value of the Amazon rainforest other than in terms of logging rights, it is perhaps no surprise that Bolsanaro considers his own country’s cultural heritage to be dispensable, abandoning it in attempt to press home his own cultural and political dominance.
Our hearts go out to our Brazilian friends and colleagues and we hope that the Cinemateca Brasileira will rise again. We also hope the Brazilian people get to see a brighter and more enlightened future.
Mike Eley BSC