Affonso Beato, ASC, ABC - Photo by D. Kirkland
“I was a still photographer, and studied art and tried painting when I was a teenager in Brazil. But if you are a still photographer or painter, you are a solitary artist. Filmmaking isn’t like that. It is a global language and a collaborative art form with people working together as families to tell stories. The first time that I saw an original Edward Hopper painting was at a 1980 exhibit in New York. It was like looking at the world through his eyes. I think that is the same as having a vision for a story and deciding how to capture it on film. I love the richness of the resolution, contrast and colors that you can get with film. It is like the difference between speaking with your heart and your brain. Film has the power to transport you to new universes where you learn about different people and places.”
Affonso Beato, ASC, ABC has earned cinematography credits for shooting hundreds of commercials and more than 50 narrative films in 14 countries, including Love in the Time of Cholera, The Queen, Dark Water, The Fighting Temptations, Price of Glory, The Big Easy and the upcoming Nights in Rodanthe.
[All these films were shot on Kodak motion picture film.]
A Conversation with Affonso Beato, ASC, ABC
by Bob Fisher
QUESTION: Where you were born and raised?
BEATO: I was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1941. I was raised, educated and started my career in Brazil. I moved to the States in 1970.
QUESTION: What was it like growing up in Brazil at that time?
BEATO: It was a fantastic time. I got a wonderful education. When I was a teen, a wonderful museum of modern art was built in Rio. It was a new world with fantastic architecture, modern paintings and other art, and free workshops that paralleled my academic studies. I went to college at an art school and originally studied painting.
QUESTION: Tell us about your family. What did your father do?
BEATO: My father was born in Portugal. He came from a very poor family and immigrated to Brazil. He became a Ford Motor Company representative and later owned a glass manufacturing factory, which had fascinating technologies. He was determined to assure me a good education. Starting when I was around 4 years old, we would ride a trolley to church every Sunday. Afterwards, he would take me to see a movie. That was during the mid-1940s. There were newsreels, short films and cartoons. I saw all the originals of Superman, Flash Gordon and The Rocket Man.
QUESTION: How did you get from painting to photography and cinematography?
BEATO: I tried painting. I was not good at it, but it was good training to learn how to see. My family had a Leica II camera. Later I got a Hasselblad camera and started photographing architecture. I attended photography classes at the museum. I was also interested in movies. I would skip school to go see a movie instead. That was the time of Cinemascope and Nouvelle Vague films from France. That was also the beginning of the Brazilian Cinema Novo.
QUESTION: What did your family think of your interest in filmmaking?
BEATO: My father always wanted me to follow my own path, and my mother wanted me to become a naval officer. I failed the test for the Naval Academy after high school when I was 16 years old. I went to work instead. By the time I was 18, I was completely economically independent. We had the support of the government in different times and ways, but mainly found ways to produce small, independent movies. Antonio das Mortes was nominated for the Golden Palm Award at Cannes in 1969. Glauber Rocha was the director. It was only my second color film. I remember that I pushed the film two stops and the lab got to change the printer’s light bulb to print my negative. I was already starting to play with the photograph process.
QUESTION: You eventually moved to New York. Tell us about that?
BEATO: The political situation in Brazil got difficult. The military government started arresting filmmakers, musicians and other artists. My wife and I had an opportunity to go to New York. We planned to stay there for a couple of years. I met Jim McBride, a director in New York, who had seen Antonio das Mortes. We have done 13 pictures together; the first one was Hot Times (in 1974). I lived in New York City on the west side of Manhattan for 15 years. It was an interesting place and time to live.
QUESTION: You lived in New York, but also shot films in other places.
BEATO: I shot my first feature film in Los Angeles in 1978. It was called The Boss’ Son. The director was Bobby Roth. We did another film in Los Angeles together a few years later. It was called Circle of Power. He knew my work in Brazil. Filmmaking is an international language. We all know about each other. I was mostly influenced by the Italian cinematographers who came onto the scene during the 1960s. I consider Giuseppe Rotunno a mentor just from watching his films. I still remember seeing his work in the black-and-white film On the Beach that was directed by Stanley Kramer. If you are a still photographer or a painter, you can be a solitary artist. But, filmmaking is not like that. You can’t bring your style to every film, because every film is different.
QUESTION: How did living in New York influence you as a filmmaker?
BEATO: It was a time for reflection. There was Andy Warhol and great freedom in all of the arts, pop culture and a great time in music. All of those things had a great influence on me personally as a human being as well as a cinematographer. It was a feeling of freedom with no limits to what could be done. It was the time of Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces. … The first time I saw an Edward Hopper original was at an exhibit in 1980 held in New York. It was like looking at the world through his eyes. I think that is the same as having a vision for a sorry and deciding how to capture it on film.
QUESTION: You said you lived in New York for 15 years. What was next?
BEATO: I went back to Brazil for about five years as one of the heads of Embrafilme, the state film production house. I was vice president for cultural affairs and also for a film technology center that provided support for students who were making short films.
QUESTION: Were you still shooting films during that period?
BEATO: I came to the U.S. to shoot The Big Easy with Jim McBride and later I came back again to shoot Great Balls of Fire with him. But, I primarily dedicated five years of my life to Embrafilme and building support for film schools in Brazil. I also shot features in Brazil and Chile, and one in Germany during that period.
QUESTION: You have collaborated with directors on a diverse variety of narrative films and commercials that were produced in 14 different countries, sometimes in different languages. Share your thoughts about that.
BEATO: Filmmaking is a global language with no geographic or cultural boundaries.
QUESTION: When did you move to Los Angeles and why?
BEATO: A lot friends whom I have worked with had moved to California, including Jim McBride. I moved there around 1999 when I shot Price of Glory for New Line Cinema. Claire Best was one of the producers. I first met her when she was a script supervisor on earlier films. Now she’s my agent. That same year, I worked on my third film in Spain with (director) Pedro Almodovar. It’s called All About My Mother (Todo sobre mi madre). I like living in Los Angeles. It has everything from desert to ocean and the people living here are from all over the world. It reflects the real culture of this country and heart of the film industry.
QUESTION: During the next several years, your credits included a number of very diverse studio films, ranging from Plainsong, a television film for Hallmark to The Fighting Temptations, The Queen and Love in the Time of Cholera. That was your first project with director Mike Newell. How did that come about?
BEATO: During my first meeting with Mike, he asked me if I had seen Antonio Das Mortes, a 1968 Brazilian movie that he had admired. I told him, yes, I had seen it through the lens of my camera when I shot it. I was hired.
QUESTION: How did you and Mike Newell decide on a visual grammar?
BEATO: The film is based upon a novel that takes place in Colombia, stretching over a 50-year period beginning in the pre-1900s. During the daytimes, it was intensely hot, so people close all their windows because the sun bring heat. They used to live in the shadows, but dressed formally like people living in Madrid or Lisbon. So, we formulated a theory on lighting, color saturation, contrast and cenographic decisions with the great production designer Wolf Kroeger.
QUESTION: Why did you decide to produce it in Super 35 format in 2.4:1 aspect ratio?
BEATO: We chose the wide frame, because it visually emphasized the loneliness of a man that could live his love, and the story takes place in incredible spaces that were generously visual. It would have been a sin not to give the audience that experience.
QUESTION: Most recently, you went to North Carolina to shoot Nights in Rodanthe, a feature directed by George C. Wolfe with Diane Lane and Richard Gere in the leading roles. Tell us about that film.
BEATO: It’s a serious, romantic drama based on a book written by Nicholas Sparks. The story is set in contemporary times. Adrienne Willis (Diane Lane), a woman with her life in chaos, retreats to the tiny coastal town of Rodanthe, in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, to tend to a friend’s inn for the weekend. Here she hopes to find the tranquility she so desperately needs to rethink the conflicts surrounding her — a wayward husband who has asked to come home, and a teenaged daughter who resents her every decision. Almost as soon as Adrienne gets to Rodanthe, a major storm is forecast and Dr. Paul Flanner (Richard Gere) arrives. The only guest at the inn, Flanner is not on a weekend escape but rather is there to face his own crisis of conscience. Now, with the storm closing in, the two turn to each other for comfort and, in one magical weekend, set in motion a life-changing romance. There is drama and dialogue between the characters, but they are mostly moving rather than sitting and talking. We had to light and set the mood for a budding romance and show the audience how he sees her. The director and I spoke about the spaces where we were shooting during preproduction. This was the second time I’ve worked with incredible production designer Patrizia von Brandenstein. She won an Oscar® for Amadeus. That relationship is crucial for determining the look.
QUESTION: What about the choice of format? How was that made?
BEATO: We decided to compose in 2.4:1 (aspect ratio) in Super 35 rather than anamorphic format, because we planned to do a DI (digital intermediate). We knew there would be lots of visual effects and that the weather for exteriors would be unpredictable. There were times when we shot on bright, sunny days when it was supposed to be raining. In those scenes, we knew we would be able to change the sky in DI or with visual effects.
QUESTION: Did you have a chance to film makeup tests with the actors?
BEATO: I shot tests with Diane and with Richard. That’s important in any film, especially a romance. We want the audience to see her through his eyes. Diane Lane is glamorous and beautiful at some moments, and distraught and stressed at other moments. There are times when Richard’s character is angry and other times where he’s sweet and happy. They also have different skin tones. We balanced the light for that. It’s not something you can control even in DI. They both had their own hair and makeup people, who really know what works for them, and they couldn’t have been more cooperative.
QUESTION: With all of the different choices you have today, how do you decide that you want to record a particular film or certain scenes on a particular emulsion?
BEATO: A few years ago, I worked on a picture called Dark Water about a family involved in a bitter custody battle. The mother and daughter move into an old apartment that is dreary and worn out. I chose to shoot only with (KODAK VISION2) 5218 film because it recorded the right look for the mood and settings. It was not just for the speed. Sometimes you want a very fine grain look that let’s the audience see deep into the background with sharp resolution. Other times, you want some grain. There are endless possibilities. We could shoot a daylight scene and play with the color temperature of the film a bit to create a slightly colder look, because that piece of grammar was right for that scene. In The Queen, I shot some scenes handheld with 16 mm film, because we wanted a little more subliminal feeling of action. Every scene in the royal palace with the royal family was produced on dolly and 35 mm film for a more composed and richer look.
QUESTION: You sound like an artist discussing why you chose oil rather than watercolors to create a particular painting. Does DI technology change that equation?
BEATO: DI is a tool that you can use like deciding to use a handheld camera to get an effect that is right for the grammar. Cinematographers use the technologies which serve the grammar of the stories. For example, I have used DI to desaturate colors and make a darker sky on a sunny day because that was the right grammar.
QUESTION: Will DI become the standard for timing films?
BEATO: I think of DI as a tool that is right for most of the movies, and it has been proven that is the right workflow for resolution and sharpness. But, I love the richness of colors that you can get on the photochemical workflow process.
QUESTION: Please share your thoughts about filmmaking being a global language.
BEATO: Filmmaking is a universal language. It’s not just about communicating with people who speak different languages. You can also travel in space and time. One of the first scenes in The Queen is a shot of her in bed waking up in the morning. Helen Mirren was playing the queen. At that moment, she was Queen Elisabeth. Who else could be there but a film camera? Film has the power to transport you to different universes where you learn about different people and places.