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Dante Spinotti, ASC

CreativeCOW presents Dante Spinotti, ASC -- Cinematography Feature


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Dante Spinotti is this year's winner of the American Society of Cinematographers' Lifetime Achievement Award, which he will receive at the 26th American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) Outstanding Achievement Awards on February 12 in Hollywood.

My story as a cinematographer has a lot to do with coincidence. As a child, I was very fond of still photography. I started learning dark room work and practices when I was 10 years old. In high school, I wasn't very fond of studying. It just wasn't made for me. My parents thought about a way out for me, and ended up sending me to live with my uncle, Renato Spinotti, a cinematographer/director, who was working in Nairobi. He had been the founder of a cinema club in northern Italy; he shot documentaries there and did some productions in Rome. Then he started working internationally; during the wartime, he went to Eritrea and Somalia. And he loved Africa so much that he ended up staying there and working.

As his guest, I started doing helping him by doing any kind of job he had for me. At that time, he was creating a lot of newsreels for United Press and other newsreel companies. At one point, I also participated in a German film as a boom operator. Secondly, I started to learn English. In those days, it wasn't a very common thing for kids my age to speak English fluently. Later on, the fact that I learned English ended up being a very strong factor helping me to find work.


The teenaged Spinotti at work in East Africa in the early 1960s.
The teenaged Spinotti at work in East Africa in the early 1960s.


In 1961, Kenya had become independent. Production worked really dropped because the Western world was waiting to see what was going to happen in an independent African nation. For that and other reasons, I went back to Italy and, after a year, started to work for RAI, the Italian state TV, in Milan. I started as an assistant and very quickly moved up to the position of cameraman. In that role, I had a chance to do documentary film work and also narrative films, one-hour long movies made for TV with directors who were already cinema directors. The same time, I also worked on documentaries, shooting mostly 16mm B&W and color, but also 35mm for many productions.

Spinotti readies some firepower on the set of 'La Freccia nera' (1968)
Spinotti readies some firepower on the set of "La Freccia nera" (1968).
Working in TV was a mixed bag. On one hand, it didn't require the technical exactness of work for the big screen, but it also gave me the chance to experiment. Don't forget, it was state TV, so I had to do something really bad to be fired, maybe hit someone in the nose. That allowed me the chance to test different looks. I remember one time I did a 5-hour docu-film on Italian history and language, and I experimented with high contrast and handheld cameras. The results were kind of similar to what Spielberg and his cinematographer achieved on Saving Private Ryan, in a smaller way. It was 16mm, but it was about the same thing.

I felt that I needed to move on from Milan and working in television. I had an offer from a very fine director, Marco Ferreri who had heard about me. He had done a number of very interesting and successful movies, and all of a sudden he called me to shoot Chiedo asilo, a relatively small picture but for cinema starring Roberto Benigni. At that moment, I didn't feel that I could fire myself from TV, which was a safe job, and try to become freelance. But this kind of offers pushed me to finally make a decision.

In 1980, I left RAI and moved to Rome, with my family, to try my hand at freelance work. It went fine. I did a movie, then a bigger one and I had fine directors like Lina Wertmuller (Sotto...sotto, 1984), Liliana Cavani (The Berlin Affair, 1985) who called me to do feature films. After a couple of years, I was a full-time freelancer. Then the producer Dino De Laurentiis, who was operating out of a big studio in North Carolina, wanted to meet me. I accepted his offer, and that led me to meet Michael Mann, with whom I shot Manhunter in 1986.


Johnny Depp in Public Enemies. ©2009 Universal Pictures.
That was definitely a turning point in my life and my career. I moved to the States and I had to cope with the American way of working, as well as working with the Italian crew I had brought in. It was obviously an important encounter for me.

Then, shortly thereafter, I did another film, Crimes of the Heart, with director Bruce Beresford. I was really was finding my way. This is what I wanted to do. I wanted to move to the States because this is where the big quality movies are made with well-written screenplays. Italian filmmaking was past its magic time in the 1970s. It didn't have the number of great authors that it did in the past. The U.S. was always my final desire, partly because I was a reader of American Cinematographer since Kenya where my uncle was a subscriber. At that age, reading about the way the movies were made in Hollywood and these legendary cinematographers was very fascinating.

At the same time, Italian cinematographers were doing important international work. Vittorio Storaro was a big inspiration to me as was Giuseppe Rotunno, ASC, AIC, Fellini's cinematographer who received a 1999 ASC International Award, another big inspiration to me. These cinematographers worked during an important era in filmmaking in Italy, an intellectual cultural movement started with neo-realism. An important privilege in my working life, also, was the fact that I could also go back and forth between the U.S. and Italy. I had the opportunity to stay and film in the US and also maybe choose projects back in Italy. That was something really great for us European cinematographers.

Once in the States, my first film in Los Angeles was Beaches with Gary Marshall, starring Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey. That was very significant for me because, first of all, it was really the first step in Hollywood. I actually had come to Hollywood in the early 1980s because a production company wanted to do a movie for WB in Italy and they sent me on a tour of Special FX facilities in Los Angeles. I was there when they had just produced Tron, the first one, and met a number of people who were working on it. It was an amazing trip and I went back to Italy with information about what we could use from these Los Angeles visual effects studios. I remember on that trip walking through a Hollywood studio to get to a meeting and thinking, This is a dream. When will I have the chance to work here?

I had that chance with Gary Marshall for what was my first union movie in the U.S. and in Hollywood, with a great crew. After that, Disney offered me a contract in which I could choose to do other films with Bette Midler and even have the chance to direct. But I turned the contract down because, after my long experience connected Italian TV and knowing what I was going to do without the possibility of surprise, I wanted to be freelance as opposed to working for a company or institution. I liked the idea of being in a not quite certain situation...but with lots of freedom.


The Insider: Al Pacino and Russell Crowe as Lowell Bergman and Dr. Jeffrey Wigand. ©Touchstone Pictures. All rights reserved.


I went back and forth between the U.S. and Italy for some time, depending on the movies offered to me. But at some point, I felt I had to make a decision. I was spending most of my time in the U.S., so in August 1997, my wife, my son and I decided to move here. We gave it a try. Within no time, Gary Marshall called me to do The Other Sister and almost at the same time, Michael Mann had The Insider. It all started to happen.

We settled down here. After one year of shooting here, I became a member of the ASC. And so I would say the fortunate transition to the U.S. was completed in a couple of years, little by little. I got a chance to work with Michael Mann, Curtis Hanson, Brett Ratner, Barry Levinson, Michael Apted...


(Photo by Andrew Cooper, SMPSP) Spinotti works with director Michael Apted (right) on Nell (1994).
(Photo by Andrew Cooper, SMPSP)
Spinotti works with director Michael Apted (right) on Nell (1994).



The relationship with the director is the kind that that develops naturally. In fact, in making movies, you learn by interacting with a number of different collaborators, everyone from the art director to the costume designer, and now the VFX supervisor. But you can't have a good movie without a good story. You can't have good photography without a good story, and a good story can only be made by a great director.

I was at Camerimage recently and on a jury with a number of jury members, great people. I discovered that the moment you try to give an award for cinematography, instinctively you go for the better movie, the movie that catches your soul. The one that gives you some emotion is what you, in the end, give the prize to. So, when it comes to my relationship with the director, I think it is fundamental to first read the story and have some inspiration from the story. That is so very important. Then, when you start the relationship with the director, you have to bring input and information. Directors, like cinematographers, are very different from each other. I work with directors who really care about the story in a literary way but they will leave it up to the cinematographer to find the shots and the way the story is going to be told. Other directors are much more technical and know exactly how they want to tell the story what kind of filmic language they want to use. So there are different kinds of collaboration, depending on the director.


(Photo by Merrick Morton, SMPSP). Spinotti and director Curtis Hanson share a laugh on set for L.A. Confidential (1997).
(Photo by Merrick Morton, SMPSP) Spinotti and director Curtis Hanson share a laugh on set for L.A. Confidential (1997).


I had a wonderful experience with Curtis Hanson on L.A. Confidential. I was sent the screenplay, which I read while I was on holiday in Italy. I was surprised by the quality and beauty of the screenplay. Curtis' decision to hire me happened very late so we had a short preparation. Curtis has a very special way of working; he really likes to talk and get a lot of input from the cinematographer. For that film, I was looking at some photography exhibitions of Robert Frank who had done a book, published in 1955, called "The Americans," based on a series of road trips around the country. His way of photographing was interesting, so I brought that book in to my talks and proposals to Curtis. Since he likes collaboration and input, it was a wonderful way to work.



Daniel Day-Lewis in Last of the Mohicans (1992) ©20th Century Fox.
Spinotti comments, "Michael [Mann] always has an very interesting vision of the film...he has an interesting theory about art, that art is only art when it makes a step forward and renews itself in the way it communicates."



I've had an extremely long relationship with Michael Mann has. Michael always has an very interesting vision of the film. He has an interesting theory about art, that art is only art when it makes a step forward and renews itself in the way it communicates. That is what Michael tries to do all the time; he tries to change the way to communicate with the audience. Every time he makes a movie, it's a deep immersion into the material to find the way to tell it. That was true with Last of the Mohicans, with Heat, The Insider and, most recently, with Public Enemies. This was definitely a very interesting step for me, because working on a film with Michael is the kind of enterprise. It allows you to cope with a different number of question marks, it's a different way of moviemaking with multiple cameras and then again it's great to work on different kind of stories.

Panavision Genesis
Panavision Genesis
Working with Brett Ratner is another happy collaboration. I did three titles for TV with him, and three or four films. He's a very accurate, precise filmmaker and very enthusiastic. I was happy to shoot Chronicles of Narnia with Michael Apted. That movie is an adventure, a fable, a magic movie with a lot of visual effects. The idea of telling the story that had a fantasy element was also great for me.

I also like shooting commercials, because of the quickness and the directness of what you do and the fact that you encounter so many different people, especially new, young directors. It's good to confront yourself with all these different personalities and ways of seeing things. Commercials are very concise projects, shot in a short time, edited in a short time. And that brings the need of extreme precision. It's a real chess game.

I've been through the whole change of technology, from the days where film was clearly a more powerful medium to collect an image. I only started using digital technology with Slipstream, directed by Anthony Hopkins. I felt that was the right project to do digital technology because it was an indie film with a rather tight scheduled and a lot of surreal moments. I felt that was a good time to use digital technology that was coming out. I used the Panavision Genesis for this movie and on another occasion.


ARRI Alexa
Since then, I've used the Sony F35 and now I use the ARRI Alexa. Michael Mann usually makes modifications inside the camera; he did that on Public Enemies by shooting with the Sony F23 in Rec 709 color space and de-saturating the color in-camera. We were at times underexposing the footage. I used the same camera in a totally different way with Chronicles of Narnia.

There is no doubt that there's a historical transition going on. With digital technology, for the first time, a filmmaker can see exactly what he is doing on the set, exactly what's happening. You don't have to decode the image through the viewfinder and try to imagine how it will be when you're screening dailies the next day. Digital allows you to see exactly what you have done. It also allows me to color images on set and carry that through to the DI and the film print.


Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy in Tower Heist (2011) ©Universal Pictures
Except for the last film I did with Brett Ratner - Tower Heist - all my other films since Slipstream have been made with digital technology. All of this is still in a fast evolution, with better cameras almost every year and new ways in post. At the moment, I must say, digital has reached film in terms of technical qualities. The extra advantages is seeing exactly what you're doing with the monitor on set, doing your color timing right there and then examining the image to see if it works exactly the way you want it to work. It's a historical first. It's a transition with complexity definitely as big as the introduction of sound.

The most important thing for me when I work on a film is to look for the film language. My goal at the beginning is always to find how to shoot the movie, how to use the cameras. The film language is so inclusive: it includes the way it's written, the locations you're going to use, the actors, the director's ideas. All this brings about a language that is so very specific to that particular film. I remember saying to Michael Apted before the Chronicles of Narnia shoot, 'They had already done two beautiful Narnias before. How can we do this different?' I suggested a more cinema vérité style. That is why we chose the Sony F23, so we could handhold it and make the camera a participant of the adventure rather than illustrating the adventure. In that movie, we, the audience, live with the kids and participate in their adventure. The search for a language for me is always the key.


(Photo by Murray Close)
During production on 'The Quick and the Dead' (1995), Spinotti checks the light on Gene Hackman, who portrays the film’s villainous sheriff.
(Photo by Murray Close) During production on "The Quick and the Dead" (1995), Spinotti checks the light on Gene Hackman, who portrays the film's villainous sheriff.







Comments

#Freddy
by Debra Kaufman
If you are making a documentary on his uncle, I'm sure Dante would be interested in speaking with you. I would try to reach him via his agent or the ASC. Best of luck. Debra
Re: Dante Spinotti, ASC
by Freddy Dewe Mathews
What a great article. Really fascinating, I must admit i'm not really a cinematography buff but i found this so interesting to read. I came by this because i was looking into Renato Spinotti, Dante's uncle and the work he did in Africa. I wasn't even aware of the impact he must have had on his nephew.

I've been looking into a documentary Renato made with the Italian polar explorer Silvio Zavatti and had little luck. Its mentioned in an obscure book by Zavatti about a journey he made to Bouvetoya. I've been hoping to track it down... I don't suppose Dante could help!! thanks.
Re: Dante Spinotti, ASC
by Stuart Page
So deserving is he for that award. Long been a favourite of mine, the handheld running shots in the dark through the house in THE INSIDER are absolutely stunning to watch. There's so many others as well. Congratulations Dante! From a big fan of your organic style. Best, STUART PAGE.
Re: Dante Spinotti, ASC
by Debra Kaufman
Hello Diane -- I do not know, but I'll forward your question on to Dante and perhaps he can answer you! So glad you enjoyed the article. I agree that Dante's imagery from Last of the Mohicans is truly unforgettable! Best, Debra
Re: Dante Spinotti, ASC
by Diane Reid
Thanks, again, Debra, for your wonderfully written articles. I enjoy hearing insights from cinematographers of all stripes. I am still enamored, haunted, fascinated with The Last of the Mohicans because of the cinematography and the location shooting, not to mention the story, the soundtrack, the acting! Do you know what lenses were used for those riveting final sequences where Daniel Day-Lewis aims the rifle to shoot the British officer and the vista shots as they fought on the rocky trail?


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