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Digital Cinematography Smackdown: Vittorio Storaro and Ed Lachman Debate, With Love

The legendary cameramen behind "Wonderstruck" and "Wonder Wheel" shared the stage for a New York Film Festival master class.

Wonder Wheel

“Wonder Wheel”

Cinematography legends Vittorio Storaro (“Apocalypse Now,” “The Conformist”) and Ed Lachman (“Far From Heaven,” “Carol”) have been friends for 40 years. Lachman reveres Storaro’s work and leadership — but doesn’t hesitate to say he doesn’t share Storaro’s love for digital cameras.

“They can talk about 14-stop exposure range, but the color separation is different,”said Lachman. “The chemistry of R, G, B the three [color] layers — to me, it’s like an etching in the chemical process of the development. For me, there are certain films that should be photographed photographically, chemically… I can tell there’s a difference in the feeling of the film.”

The debate was part of a 90-minute conversation at the New York Film Festival October 11, moderated by festival director Kent Jones. Storaro talked about his positive transition to digital cinematography, which came largely through his collaboration with Woody Allen who directed the festival’s closing-night film, “Wonder Wheel.”

Bernardo Bertolucci and Vittorio Storaro in 1979

Bernardo Bertolucci and Vittorio Storaro in 1979

Fox/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Storaro believes too much emphasis is placed on the medium itself, pointing to the history of how painting evolved from the caves, to wood, to canvas and different types of paint. However, Lachman countered: “I agree we use light, space, and time to create our images from our heart and from our mind, but if I look at painting movements like Pointillism, Impressionism, German Expressionism, even Modernism, they all used different tools to create those images. I just don’t want to limit the tool.”

Vittorio Storaro, Kent Jones and Ed Lachman discuss cinematography at NYFF

Vittorio Storaro, Kent Jones and Ed Lachman discuss cinematography at NYFF

Daniel Rodriguez

However, Storaro believes digital technology helps make him a happier cinematographer by providing the ability to see the image while on set, versus having to wait nervously for dailies.

“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,'” said Storaro. “For the first time in my life, I went back to the hotel and my wife and children were waiting or me, I was serene. There was no question mark. On ‘Apocalypse Now,’ we were waiting for two weeks to see dailies. They were were weeklies, not dailies.”

The great Italian DP also believes being able adjust the image on set has been important. “That kind of innocence, that kind of mystery, maybe we don’t need it any longer. We need conscientiousness,” he said. “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.”

Storaro did say that biggest fallback of digital cinematography is that cameras have become so light sensitive it’s becoming possible to shoot anywhere and everywhere. He worries that people too often settle for exposure, rather than light.

“That kind of available light, is [it] correct for that sequence, for that story, for that emotion? Sometimes it can be, sometimes not,” said Storaro. “The most important thing is that concept.”

WonderStruck

Wonderstruck

Myles Aronowitz

Still, Lachman said the way digital captures color gives images a realism that isn’t appropriate for his films, including his New York Film Festival Centerpiece “Wonderstruck,” which references the poetry of black-and-white silent films.

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

That said, Lachman’s respect for Storaro remains unbowed: “[Vittorio] has done more in the last 50 years for the recognition and esteem [of] cinematography than anybody.”

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