Cinematographer Luca Bigazzi discusses his work on Paolo Sorrentino’s film “Youth”

Luca Bigazzi falls for HDR

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Cinematographer Luca Bigazzi and Paolo Sorrentino together form one of the most successful tandems in Italian cinema today. Winners of over sixty awards, including the Oscar for Best Foreign Film with The Great Beauty in 2014 – which, although it was screened at Cannes in 2013, was ignored by the jury – the two men meet again this year at Cannes with their movie La giovinezza (Youth). This film portrays two octogenarians played by Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel and was shot between Switzerland and Italy. (FR)

The Great Beauty and This Must Be the Place are both films in whose cinematography long, carefully-choreographed master shots play an important role... How would you describe the visual choreography of your latest film ?

Luca Bigazzi : It is true that Paolo’s films are often known for those long camera movements, and we used them frequently in our last two films. In this latest film, we’ve decided to break with those camera movements. The film is more static, with a lot of dialogue, and its visual composition is very calculated. We both share that obsession for composition, and I have a hard time signing my name on the image of a film on which I didn’t operate the camera myself !
 What’s really innovative about Youth is that Paolo filmed in digital for the first time in his career ! Although I was the first to push him to take that step, he has always been very suspicious of digital cinematography. And I think that I’ve been able to change his mind about it !

So you’re an avid fan of digital cinema ?

LB : Nothing in the world could make me go back to working with traditional film stock. The freedom and rapidity that digital cinematography has granted us is a complete break with the methods of the past. When you imagine that we filmed 30 to 40 scenes per day with Paolo, using two cameras, often in 360° on every set, you can imagine to what extent digital cinematography has changed our lives. Compared with the last film we did together (The Great Beauty), I can tell you that I really felt the difference, be it in terms of exposure – we went from 500 ISO, pushed up to 1000 ISO with a lot of graininess, all the way to 1600 ISO with almost no interference – or in terms of shooting flexibility, especially thanks to HDR.

The film was shot with a Red ?

LB : Yes, I’m a fan of the Red Epic because it has this feature that doesn’t exist on other cameras. Indeed, it takes care of almost 80% of the lighting problems that I might run into on set, such as having to put gels the windows when shooting inside during the daytime or having to manage the excessive contrasts by re-lighting massively and struggling to keep it looking natural.

So I use very little lighting, and I still have enough flexibility in colour timing to keep the details on the faces or on sunbathed objects... What I like also about that feature is that you can activate it when you need it (it doesn’t have to be constantly activated), because as we know, having an extreme useful exposure range isn’t always necessary for a given image.

Does HDR sequential mode cause you any problems during camera movements ?

LB : Honestly, I have never felt that sort of problem. Indeed, the film is fairly static, but there are still some movements, and the few scenes that involve them didn’t cause us any particular problems in postproduction.

What challenges did you experience on this film ?

LB : For example, there is a party scene at night in the gardens of the hotel, with shots taken from all angles (360°). In order to successfully film it, I used a range of LEDs manufactured by the Italian brand Via Bizzuno. They aren’t designed for the cinema, they’re usually used for lighting buildings, and so I could put them inside of the frame. Because Paolo and I were each operating a camera, we were often filming from all angles. At 1600 ISO, it worked very well.

Why not a helium balloon ?

LB : I really only use balloons in an emergency, when I don’t have any other choice. I find it very hard to control the light from those systems, it bleeds out everywhere, and you have to go to terrible lengths to maintain any sort of contrast whatsoever. I often prefer to put lightsources inside of the frame, rather than trying to use hard-to-manage off-screen lights. Other sorts of “unacademic” lightsources I use include sodium or mercury lamps for nighttime city scenes, which lets us set up quickly and, most of all, not be invasive in terms of the image.

What mode did you shoot in and what lenses did you use ?

LB : We shot in 5K at 2.35 spherical using Arri Ultra Prime lenses, as well as compact Angénieux zoom lenses. I’m not really a fan of the most modern digital lenses. The result is often too sharp, too constrated, I generally prefer using slightly older lenses. I also like the image produced by Cooke S2s, which I also often use.
Lastly, postproduction was done at Margutta Digitale in the very heart of Rome, with a team that I have worked with before and who used to work at Technicolor before it closed. Once again, I cannot describe my joy at being able to enjoy the city during the finishing process instead of having to spend two or three weeks wandering around in grim industrial areas the way it used to be when we had to deal with developing the negatives !

(Interview conducted by François Reumont for the AFC, translated from French by Alex Raiffe)