Vittorio Storaro’s 50-plus years behind the camera have produced some of the most celebrated achievements in cinematography. He has over 70 camera department credits and his piles of accolades including Oscars for Apocalypse Now (1979), Reds (1981), and The Last Emperor (1987). 

Amazingly, Storaro is still at it. In a master class at the 2017 New York Film Festival, he shared tales and lessons from his career, including the recent lensing of Woody Allen’s Wonder Wheel, which premiered on the festival’s closing night this year. Storaro regaled the audience with printouts of paintings from throughout Italy’s rich cultural history, and an emotional description of his lifelong quest for the balance between light and shadow.

With such an impressive filmography, propelled by a clear visual philosophy, you might guess that Storaro has strong feelings about the ongoing film versus digital debate. When Festival Director Kent Jones asks Storaro about that topic during the master class, his answer begins with an exasperated sigh.

You can’t stop progress

“We have to face it,” Storaro responds. “In the last few years, the industry of cinema has changed drastically. Almost completely in the years of digital.” 

He has veered more toward digital himself on recent projects, remarking that, in Italy, Kodak has closed down and there isn’t anywhere to process film. He shot 2015’s Muhammad: The Messenger of God on 35mm only because he felt it was the only medium guaranteed to work in the Iranian locations where they filmed.  

“If you alter the images you alter the concept of the film itself.”

However, he prefers the current era to the period just prior. He particularly bemoans the pre-digital era of 4:3, where we would cut off frames to fit movies on televisions. “Cinema is the language of images,” he says. “If you alter the images you alter the concept of the film itself.”

But he hasn’t just started shooting digitally out of necessity. In fact, Storaro has embraced it. He recalled meeting with Woody Allen before they started working on Cafe Society, their first collaboration prior to Wonder Wheel. “We spoke about how we both always used film,” he shared.” But let’s face it, progress is a word you can speed up or slow down but you cannot stop it.” 

The film was ultimately shot on Sony’s CineAlta F65, and the lighter CineAlta PMW-F55 for Steadicam shots, with Cooke S4 Lenses.

Cafe SocietyWoody Allen's 'Cafe Society', shot by Vittorio Storaro

The benefits of digital

Of his experience with Allen, Storaro said, “We decided to enter the digital world together, and I have to say that from the beginning we found ourselves very comfortable.”

In fact, digital had added benefits for the director, in that he could monitor the film in a way previously not possible. (Storaro quipped, “In Apocalypse Now we were waiting for two weeks to see dailies. They were were weeklies, not dailies.”) Today, he shoots with a high dynamic range monitor on set and uses ACES color tech to make sure that his directors are seeing an accurate picture.

Storaro insists that he didn’t change his approach or his lighting setup for digital work. “Of course,” he notes, “I selected a camera that was close to my personality, with the level of performance in quality and color shade and close to the one that I loved for almost 20 years,” which was the Arriflex 535B.

REDSWarren Beatty's 'REDS', shot by Vittorio Storaro

The film vs. digital debate doesn’t make sense

“I stopped shooting anamorphic, panoramic, whatever the format is. I am tired of numbers,” Storaro told the audience. Listing off a slew of aspect ratios, he dismissed them all, preferring to take a more classic approach. As classic as Leonardo da Vinci, in fact. The filmmaker commended the “search for equilibrium” in the painter’s celebrated ‘The Last Supper.’ 

Rather than chasing the latest sensor size, this is what Storaro aims to achieve in his own work. He says that once he saw the even proportions in daVinci’s painting, “I never used any other system.”

“I stopped shooting anamorphic, panoramic, whatever the format is. I am tired of numbers.”

“For me,” the DP insists, “this kind of war between film and digital doesn’t make sense. Because human beings forever had the feeling that they need to perform visual art, since we did graffiti in the caves.” He adds, “If you’re shooting in panorama, in digital, in 3D, what is the difference? Not the energy. Not the idea. Not the concept. The most important thing is that concept.”

It’s not that shooting digitally is without it’s problems for Storaro, the main one being the light sensitivity of digital sensors. He asks, “That kind of available light, is it correct for that sequence? For that story? For that emotion?” 

Digital or not, filmmakers should always be asking these questions about our tools. Do the features that they offer actually benefit our stories?

Muhammad: The Messenger of GodMajid Majidi's 'Muhammad: The Messenger of God', shot by Vittorio Storaro

Answer your own questions

Storarao’s feelings on the irrelevance of the film vs. digital debate run much deeper than storytelling philosophy: it’s about life philosophy. “There is no doubt, in any art, we put in ourselves,” he says. “Why? Because we are trying to understand who we are.”

Through years of practicing his art, Storaro finally began to feel that “I was able to answer my own questions. I was able to understand the meaning of my life. That’s what counts. Not this digital number.”

He applauds any filmmaker on this journey, using any tools at their disposal, recommending that anyone should use “love, dreams, and liberation” as driving forces in their work.

No matter what he’s shooting on, Storaro admits, “I don’t cry when I finish my movies, like I did my first movie, but I have the same emotion any time I start. Because there is always the unknown.”