Some budding film buffs’ understanding of what a cinematographer does is usually limited to that of a technician who figures out a way to slavishly execute the director’s vision. If they’re given a bit more credit than that, then they’re seen as expert photographers, only interested in bringing an artistic perspective to the shot they’re asked to frame in any given moment. The cinematographer doesn’t have much of a stake or insight into the film’s story, that’s the job of the screenwriter and the director.
While this might apply to some gun for hire cinematographers who are simply interested in a paycheck through a cash grab Hollywood project, a lot of the master cinematographers deserve almost as much credit as the director and the screenwriter in visualizing the way a great film’s story affects us on a deep emotional level.
Vittorio Storaro is one of those masters. Winner of three Academy Awards and legendary cinematographer of such masterpieces as “Last Tango in Paris,” “Apocalypse Now,” and “Reds,” Storaro was just as interested in telling great stories that profoundly changed the audience’s lives, he just chose the lens instead of a typewriter as his tool. “I’ve always been chasing the sun and the moon, trying to tell a story through cinematography”, says Storaro, at the beginning of “Writing With Light,” a rare 1992 TV documentary on his work. Here’s a true perfectionist who understand the importance of framing and colors in constructing any story.
Thanks to YouTube channel UK TV-Cinemania, you can watch this 50-minute documentary in its entirety. The doc mostly focuses on Storaro’s work for American cinema, even though it briefly touches on his working relationship with Bernardo Bertolucci. Predictably, a large chunk of the documentary focuses on his work on “Apocalypse Now,” and how he came up with a distinct color scheme that mirrored Captain Willard’s emotional journey into the heart of darkness.
This writer is also delighted to see that Coppola’s underrated “One from the Heart” gets a good amount of attention here, which makes sense considering the massive responsibility Storaro had on the film, making a sound stage look as much like a lived-in exterior location as possible. The doc also outlines Storaro’s early adoption of HD digital photography, showing that he wasn’t afraid of using new technology in order to capture his vision.
The YouTube video seems to have been digitized from a VHS copy, which explains the low resolution and the tape hiss on the audio track. But hey, beggars can’t be choosers. One understandable problem is that the uploaders used a fish-eye lens effect whenever clips from Storaro’s films were used, perhaps to make sure the video wasn’t taken down due to copyright claims. This wouldn’t be as big of an issue if the documentary’s subject matter wasn’t directly linked to those visuals. If you’re not familiar with the films depicted here, please seek out unaltered clips, or better yet, rent or buy the films themselves, in order to get the full Storaro experience. You can watch the documentary below: