"I was born in Peru and studied architecture at a school in Milan, Italy. I never worked as an architect but it has helped me as a cinematographer. When I'm shooting a film, I am looking at life through a viewfinder that speaks to my soul and my brain at the same time. Every film has its own visual grammar, just like writing poetry, novels and journalism. It is about creating an arc that flows with the emotions of the story, using contrast, colors, things happening in the highlights and shadows, composition and movement. A handheld shot could be used at a poetic moment or to punctuate an extraordinarily violent and aggressive scene. The only unbreakable rule is that it must serve the story. I believe filmmakers are the guardians of the memories of the 20th century."
Checco Varese, AMC began his career shooting television news, mainly in war zones, and documentaries for broadcast networks. He has shot hundreds of music videos and commercials, and has earned some 20 narrative credits, including El Aura, La Misma Luna (Under the Same Moon), the upcoming release Prom Night and the HBO pilot True Blood.[All these films were shot on Kodak motion picture film.]
A Conversation with Checco Varese, AMC
QUESTION: Where were you born and raised?
VARESE: I was born in Lima, Peru, but my parents were Italian.
QUESTION: Why was your family living in Peru?VARESE: My father was a lawyer in Italy. At the end of the war, he and my mother decided to find another place to start a new life. They chose Peru because they had a friend who lived there. They had three children in Peru, myself and two older brothers.
QUESTION: Did your father practice law in Peru?
VARESE: He was a very liberal lawyer in Italy, who got in trouble with the fascist government in 1936. He became a jeweler in Peru. In fact, my first job was helping him fix watches and jewelry that needed to be repaired. That actually helped me later, because I could take cameras and other equipment apart, fix them and put them back together. I have always liked building things. When I was a boy my hobby was building little boats. I ended up studying architecture because it was about building things. I studied at a school in Milan, Italy. I never worked as an architect, but it has helped me as a cinematographer. If I was starting again, I would start by studying architecture.
QUESTION: Why did studying architecture help you as a cinematographer?
VARESE: The first book that I read in architecture school was about why the great painters made decisions about things like whether to make something two or three dimensional and how to use colors to create perspectives. An architect's design affects the path people take walking from the kitchen to the living room and bedroom. They can design your house, so the first thing you see when you awaken in the morning is the garden outside of your window or the view of mountains in the background. Those are all the same types of decisions that you make as a cinematographer. The director owns the house, but I help them design the paths, chose the colors and build the walls.
QUESTION: Were you a movie fan when you were growing up in Peru?
VARESE: I remember my father taking me to see Tora! Tora! Tora!, but I wasn't a big movie fan. I mainly did a lot of painting when I was a boy. After I moved to Italy when I was around 20 years old, I became a huge movie fan. It started with one of my teachers suggesting that I see a movie and watch how they used colors as a form of expression.
QUESTION: How did you get started in cinematography?
VARESE: I was at the right place at the right time. A friend asked if I knew anything about photography. I said yes. I had taken some black-and-white still pictures a couple years ago. She took me into the next room, and introduced me as the new assistant cameraman. Pretty soon, I was traveling around the world shooting news and documentaries. I worked on 10 National Geographic documentaries, and covered news stories for NBC, CNN, CBS, CBC, in the U.S., BBC in England, RAI in Italy, and TVE in Spain, from 1985 until 1994. It helps that I speak five languages, English, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and French, and also some German.
QUESTION: What types of news did you tend to cover?
VARESE: A lot of news is standing around with a camera waiting for someone to make a speech or statement. I was usually assigned to cover stories where guerilla and other wars were being fought. I've been on the Amazon River, in Africa, Haiti, the Middle East, and a lot of other places. I filmed underwater for a Dutch documentary, and BBC had me parachute into a location. At one point, I had apartments in three different countries.
QUESTION: Did you ever have any close calls covering news and documentaries?
VARESE: I've had my share. When I was covering the civil war in El Salvador, we had two helicopters warming up to take us to a location. The one that I was supposed to be on was filled, so I got on the second one. It was shot down and seven people were killed. I ended up stuck in a tree until the guerillas got me down.
QUESTION: How did you get into shooting music videos?
VARESE: The first one was when a producer friend needed someone to go to Prague to shoot B roll for an Ozzy Osborne music video. I think he sent me, because I spoke a little German. Everyone liked what I did, so that led to chances to shoot other music videos. I've shot more than 200 music videos with a lot of talented directors and performers.
QUESTION: You earned your second MTV Video Music Award cinematography in 2006 for Black Sweat, a performance by Prince. Tell us about that music video.
VARESE: Prince is an extraordinarily, talented artist, and (director) Sanaa Hamri had a very clear concept. His performance was augmented by a female dancer. We filmed it in Prince's rented home in Los Angeles in one eight-hour day. There was a low ceiling, and Prince performed while standing on a mirror-like Plexiglas platform in front of a seamless white paper backdrop that was originally going to be gray. I decided to use white, because I could control the shades of gray we wanted by using more or less light in the foreground. I watched the dancer's movements and Prince's performance during a rehearsal, and decided how we could best help tell the story of the performance. I used Kino Flo Blanket-Lites to create soft light and a 24-290 mm zoom lens on the camera to draw attention to his eyes, her lips and other specific things as they performed. I used (Kodak Vision2 200T) 5217 film to record the tones. It aired in black and white. Selma had me work with the telecine colorist to convert the images to glossy, shiny and reflective black-and-white pictures with a silver-gray quality.
QUESTION: How did you get into shooting commercials?
VARESE: I worked on a documentary with a rented Steadicam, and thought that it was a fantastic tool. A friend and I bought a Steadicam together. I was living in Argentina part time. There was a small commercial industry there, and no other Steadicam operators. Every time a commercial was produced in Argentina or Chile, where they needed a Steadicam operator, I got the job. After I did my shots, I would offer to operate the second camera or to help with the lighting or translating for people who didn't speak the language. That led to opportunities for me to shoot some 300 to 400 commercials around the world. I also operated a Steadicam on about a half a dozen movies.
QUESTION: How did you break into narrative filmmaking?
VARESE: I have thing in my head about not getting pigeonholed as someone who is good at shooting certain types of commercials, music videos or movies. Maybe that comes from being a news cameraman where I did everything. I've had people say, you shot news, so you would be great for action movies. But, I also know how to shoot two people talking in beautiful light. My first narrative film was a television movie called Lost in the Bermuda Triangle in 1998. I've shot around 20 films.
QUESTION: How does your background influence your thinking on narrative films?
VARESE: I think filmmaking is today's version of what the storytellers did during the Middle Ages. They traveled from village to village with their guitars singing stories. My documentary and news experiences affects how I see things when a director asks me how I see a scene or a shot, and how I should light it.
QUESTION: What was the transition like going from television news to storytelling, whether it was music videos, commercials or movies for television or the cinema?
VARESE: When I was shooting video news I saw the world through a little black and white television monitor that was attached to my right eye. When I'm shooting film, I am looking at life through a viewfinder with colors and tones. Somehow that speaks to my soul and my brain at the same time, and I am automatically doing the math to get the exposure for the looks we want. Film works the way our minds work. There is more range for contrast, colors, and things happening in the highlights and shadows. I slept with my Beta cam camera when I was traveling around the world, but, if you have to tell stories that you want to fill people's souls and last forever, you should shoot on film.
QUESTION: Your wife, Patricia Riggen, is a director. Have you worked together?
VARESE: I shot a short dramatic film with her, and then a wonderful documentary about Gordon Parks that was called Family Portrait. Most recently, we worked together on a feature-length movie called La Misma Luna (Under the Same Moon). She had a very limited budget and an ambitious schedule, mainly in Mexico with one week in Los Angeles. Patricia asked me to help figure out the difference in costs between shooting in Super 16, 35 mm and digital HD formats with everything included. It would have cost a little less shooting in Super 16, and there was no difference between digital and 35 mm film. We chose to shoot on three-perf 35 mm film with a DI (digital intermediate).
QUESTION: What is La Misma Luna about?
VARESE: It's both a road movie and a love story between a mother and her nine-year-old son. She is living and working in Los Angeles, so she can earn the money to give her son a better life. He is living with his grandmother in Mexico. They haven't seen each other for six years. Something happens which causes him to try to cross the border to find his mother. The boy crosses the border somewhere in Texas and travels for seven days on the way to Los Angeles. All of that was shot in the northern part of Mexico, where the buildings, highways and backgrounds could be in America. We filmed scenes in Los Angeles when we needed familiar landmarks. It's a touching, sweet story that is a very emotional experience. The audience cried when they saw it at festivals.
QUESTION: Why did you want to do a DI on this project?
VARESE: I knew that we would be shooting exteriors at locations that had mountains with green trees in the backgrounds when the kid was supposed to be in the desert. They were very far away and out of focus, but they were still green. If we had more time, we could have made more moves. We also had to deal with the light changing at different times of day. Sometimes there was cloud cover, and other times there wasn't. I knew we could take care of the colors and make the light match for continuity in DI. It was affordable, because shooting three-perf, give us 25 percent more film on the same budget.
QUESTION: Do your experiences shooting music videos and commercials help when you are creating a visual grammar for a narrative film like La Misma Luna?
VARESE: Whether you are a cinematographer or a colorist working on commercials or music videos, there is a tendency to want to make every shot perfect. There is also a temptation to make every shot perfect when you are timing a film in DI. It is easy to put a window around something and make it brighter or and pop the color. It's a fantastic tool, but it is important to remember that every film has its own visual grammar. DI gives you the ability to make the sky a beautiful pink color in every shot, but it is not about creating shots. It is about creating an arc that flows with the emotions of the story.
QUESTION: When and how does the visual grammar for a film evolve?
VARESE: For me, the job begins when I am reading the script. In the back of my mind, I am beginning to apply basic rules, which I might decide to break later. I shot a movie with two main characters, where we decided that we would use eye light with one of them. In La Misma Luna, camera movement was motivated by the boy's actions. Sometimes we lowered the camera angle, so the audience can see the world through his eyes. When Patricia wants the audience to feel that the boy is in danger, the camera looks down at him from an adult's eye level. That translated into a very interesting sort of dance of subtly higher and lower camera angles that helps to convey the emotions of happiness, sadness or fear that his character is feeling. There are basic rules for visual grammar, but you can bend them as you interpret the story. Every movie has its own rules, just like writing poetry, novels or journalism have different grammars. A handheld shot could be used at a poetic moment, or it could be used to punctuate an extraordinary violent and aggressive scene. The only unbreakable rule is that it must serve the story.
QUESTION: There was a time earlier in the history of the industry when cinematographers only had one or two black-and-white or color negative films to choose from. Today there is a large palette of films with specialized imaging characteristics. Our question is how do you choose the right emulsions for different films or scenes?
VARESE: Like everyone else, I shoot tests, but there is also a matter of personal taste.
In La Misma Luna, I chose (KODAK VISION2) 5217 (color negative film) for exterior scenes, because it offered the flexibility of reaching into the darkness and shadows without losing highlights. The desert was very bright with a sandy color and blue skies that were filtered by the ozone layer. I wanted to use a stock that was very gentle in managing the highlights and would seamlessly match the faster film that we used for interior and darker exterior scenes. This was a low budget movie, so we only had one or two HMIs available. When I was running out of light, I used a 500-speed stock (KODAK VISION2 5218) that could reach into the shadows. No one in the audience will recognize when we switched films. That would interfere with the story. When La Misma Luna was entered in festivals, we used (KODAK) VISION PREMIER print stock.
QUESTION: Tell us why that decision was made on a low budget film?
VARESE: Maybe it's my documentary background, or the way I see the world in the back of my mind. I really like rich black tones and colors with details in shadows and highlights. This print stock has an extraordinary capacity for showing all those details.
QUESTION: You also recently worked on a Screen Gems movie called Prom Night that was produced in Los Angeles with director Nelson McCormick.
VARESE: I had worked with Nelson before on a couple of television movies (Global Frequency and Primal Force).
QUESTION: Tell us about Prom Night and how you prepared to shoot that film.
VARESE: Nelson is a very visual person and a great storyteller. It is a scary movie about a killer who stalks high school kids on their prom night, but it isn't a gory film. Nelson wanted to take the genre to a different level. I was finishing shooting a pilot when he first contacted me, so we met at one of our homes when we were both free on weekends. We decided to shoot it Super 35 (2:4:1 aspect ratio) format, because we wanted to compose shots with the killer and his intended victim on opposite sides of a wide frame.
QUESTION: It would probably be difficult to find two more different genres than La Misma Luna and Prom Night, do you agree?
VARESE: The nature of the stories weren't the only difference. We shot Prom Night in Los Angeles mainly on a studio lot, and also in a downtown hotel. There were a lot more resources available. There were days when we were shooting with four and five cameras, and we had two full crews all the time.
QUESTION: Will you share another memory about shooting Prom Night?
VARESE: The story takes place in one night, beginning at 8 p.m. and ending at 5 a.m. One important scene happens on the floor of the hotel where the prom was held. Originally, in the script, there were no lights on and no windows. One character was a very beautiful girl who had very dark skin tones and black hair. She was wearing a dark blue dress. The male character was wearing a dark green outfit. I spoke with the director, and we got a few windows designed in the background of the set. My gaffer used them to motivate a little moving light. We also designed a wooden wall that reflected a bit of light in a corner of the background. I used a low contrast, 500-speed film (KODAK VISION2 5228 color negative film) and pushed it a stop and a half. I think it is the strongest scene in the film. There is a rich, dark look with a few highlights reflecting off the wood. I think at times like this, I am drawing on my documentary experience.
QUESTION: Let's talk about a film called El Aura, which you won the best cinematography award for in 2005 from the Argentinean Film Critics Association.
VARESE: It's a movie about taxidermist who hallucinates about being a criminal who commits a perfect crime. He and a friend go on his first hunting trip in the highlands of Patagonia. Through a series of circumstances he robs an armored truck and commits a perfect crime. It was shot in film noir style at real locations in a national forest in Patagonia, where we had to be careful not to damage a branch of a tree or anything else. We also shot some scenes at locations in Buenos Aires. I used a new 50-speed (KODAK VISION2 5201) film for exteriors that we shot in the forest, because we wanted grainless images. We finished with a DI at a lab in Spain.
QUESTION: You have worked in all of the various sectors of the industry. From that perspective, do you think that film plays a role in society besides pure entertainment?
VARESE: I believe filmmakers are the guardians of the memories of the 20th century. Films are the same as literature. We are grabbing moments in life and freezing them for tomorrow. I know that I learn new things every time I go to a movie.