Working alongside writer/director Paolo Sorrentino—one of Italy’s most revered cinematic talents, nominated six times for the Palme d’Or—for nearly 15 years, The Young Pope cinematographer Luca Bigazzi feels that their collaboration has taught him a lot, spurring the evolution of his craft by virtue of Sorrentino’s unrelenting ambition.
Having never worked on a television series, Bigazzi initially had reservations about the project Sorrentino was pitching, though the fruits of his labors are now clear, with The Young Pope joining the ranks of the premium cabler’s most highly regarded dramas. Speaking with Deadline, Bigazzi reveals the immense amount of thought and coordination that went into the limited series’ entire visual aesthetic, from lighting, to framing and composition, to the subtle use of camera movement.
The Young Pope marks your first television endeavor. What were your thoughts as you set out down this road?
When Paolo suggested we shoot our first TV series together, I was very worried about the extremely long shooting time of 24 weeks. Working with Paolo is extremely gratifying, but it is also a great commitment. What makes us similar, however, is a passion for speed on the set: Paolo is very determined in his choices, and I adapted to his style of working.
Today, I also think that fast, instinctive decision-making is the basis for good cinematography, and for the success of all the jobs I undertake with other directors. Following your instinct, making fast decisions, is a source of cinematographic inventiveness free from already tried and tested stereotypes. Another basis is the acceptance of any possible errors, which very often turn out to be fortuitous and unexpected formal inventions.
Can you expand on the process of working with Sorrentino, and the shorthand you have at this point in time?
I’ve been working with Paolo for around 15 years now. Our cooperation is made up of few words and mutual understanding. I can say that working with him has definitely made me a better cinematographer; I have learned even better than before not to put the photographic interests before the general result of the film.
The making of The Young Pope would have put any work cooperation to the test, because of the length, the effort and the difficulties. We came out of it alive thanks to a miracle, but with an even more solid professional relationship.
Were there any specific visual inspirations you brought to the table for this series?
The Young Pope is mainly set in the Vatican, in inaccessible places. Therefore, visual references had to be completely reinvented: none of us had ever had access to the rooms of the Vatican. It is also true, however, that being born in Italy, having a knowledge of Italian art—so pervaded with religiosity—having always been a curious tourist of magnificent cathedrals and mysterious convents, was certainly a cultural (and typically Italian) common ground that allowed us to face a difficult reconstruction with a wider margin of credibility.
The visuals of The Young Pope are truly ambitious. Is storyboarding a part of your process, or how do you go about preparing for a shoot?
I’m not a fan of preparation. I think that a certain degree of intuition and improvisation helps to have a more flexible relationship with the unexpected situations that always turn up on sets. From this point of view, the storyboard is a certainty of risks turning into a constriction.
Every day on the set, Paolo brings a sheet of paper, which he keeps scrupulously secret, with notes on the frames to shoot. He never shows it to anyone, so that he feels freer to change his mind according to the needs of the scene. This is an attitude I fully share, and that obliges me to be ready on the set with the lights, usable at 360 degrees, with the contemporary use of several cameras, and with a light, therefore, adequate for every position of the camera—a difficult challenge, but one that, with Paolo, has become a working method.
Over the course of several projects, you both have cultivated a surreal floating camera technique seen in The Young Pope, which Paolo attributes to Spike Lee. Where did that technique come from exactly, and what does it bring to the atmosphere of this series?
Paolo is a great director. First of all, in the way he works with the actors, but also for the way he manages to conceive camera movements that are always surprising, but often also complementary to the scene, and never gratuitous.
The interesting aspect of work on The Young Pope is that, despite the limited production times, we managed to come out of the constrictions of the TV series: fast editing and elaborate camera movements alternate with scenes in which the importance of the dialogues allows a longer and less action-filled framing. There are some fundamental dialogue scenes for which the audience should concentrate on the faces of the actors without being distracted by excessive circumvolutions of the cameras. With The Young Pope, Paolo proves that he has perfectly understood this teaching of the old masters of cinema.
To expand, what was your approach to camera movement on The Young Pope?
We made great use of small camera movements, using sliders of various sizes. This is a tool that allows the cameraman to perceive just when it becomes necessary to move the camera imperceptibly, freeing him from dependence on the dolly. Then, of course, we used just about everything during the 24 weeks of shooting: dolly, crane, mini jib, steadicam, handheld camera, camera car, helicopters and underwater shooting. The entire possible repertoire.
What was your intent and approach in the way you lit the series, which is often—appropriately—quite painterly in feeling?
From my very first meeting with Paolo, we agreed that the [series] should feature a strong anti-TV contrast. Bright lights, at times blinding. Strong darkness, to the limits of the visible. Ours didn’t wish to be merely a sterile challenge against the old outdated TV conventions, but also wished to be a visual mode of interpreting a story that speaks about saintliness, perdition, reality and mystery; about mysterious secrets, and revealed truths.
Throughout shooting we kept wondering whether we weren’t getting a bit too carried away, from the TV point of view, with the exaggerated whiteness and deep shadows. The result, and the reception of the series, seem to confirm that we were right. Some conventions are sometimes the product of self-persuasion. Today’s TV audiences are ready for any formal risk, thanks also to the high quality and popularity of HD TV sets.
How did you go about lending your images such softness?
We used a ProMist filter, which brilliantly accentuates bright lights and gives every window, every table lamp, a magical, bright halo. The contrast with the deepest darkness hence comes across as well accentuated. From this point of view, the choice of colors and costumes turned out to be much more important than in many other films. We tried to avoid too much color intensity and chose pastel tones, which seemed to us more suitable for the rooms of the Vatican. The intense red of the cardinals’ gowns is thus enhanced.
The series is also very formal in its approach to framing and composition, lending the shots immense power.
We tried to achieve a very symmetrical framing. Jude Law had to be at the center of the audiences’ gaze. The use of even very extreme wide angles allowed us to convey to the spectators the magnificence of the Vatican environments, and of the churches we were able to film in.
For the first time since I began working with Paolo, we had to give up on the anamorphic format and concentrate on 16:9 TV composition. In some aspects, this was difficult, particularly during the early days of shooting, but I think that, in the end, the series gained a lot from it, in terms of the grandeur of the papal rooms, and the height of the ceilings. Churches develop vertically too, and the faithful must be awed by them. The semi-square format of TV came to our aid in this case.
Given that none of the series was actually filmed in the Vatican, can you describe the collaboration that went on between yourself and the series’ production designer?
The work of set designer Ludovica Ferrario was certainly crucial. We shot in the studios some of the fundamental environments, such as the Pope’s private study and the Sistine Chapel. The fusion between the studios and existing locations is imperceptible.
I am convinced that set designers share in the merits usually attributed to cinematographers. The choice of the table lamps, of the set lights—the practicals—is a fundamental part of the film’s visual success. As someone who makes a very limited use of cumbersome projectors, and who shoots with maximum sensitivity and with very open diaphragms, I often found myself using set lights as the only sources of light. The choice of these and the ensuing quality of the lights are entirely to the set designer’s merit.
You’ve spoken in the past about embracing digital over film, saying, “Let’s forget the past”—a sentiment that takes on interesting resonance in relation to the thematic explorations of The Young Pope.
A series like The Young Pope, due to the speed with which it was filmed, because of the limited use of artificial lights, which allowed us to shoot rapidly and in situations of semi-darkness, would have been unthinkable with traditional shooting media linked to the use of film. The fact we were able to shoot with three or four cameras at the same time was also thanks to digital.
I fervently support digital technologies. For example, the opportunity the HDR system offers of filming with two different exposures, one for bright lights and another for shade, turned out to be crucial. I’ve always thought that the increase of exposure latitude is a suicidal choice in digital filming. The HDR system allows me to limit contrast when necessary, and to respect the darkness when the scene allows it—a flexibility only modern digital techniques offer, not to mention the limited cumbersomeness of the camera itself, which everyday reveals itself as more and more useful for facing in an original way the formal, sometimes unpredictable, requests of brilliant filmmakers like Paolo Sorrentino.
What were some of the biggest creative challenges you faced with this series?
Every single day of shooting presented huge difficulties. One of the most complex scenes was definitely the one shot in the studio reconstruction of the Sistine Chapel—difficult, both because of the vastness of the environments, and the requirements, due to time limits and the quantity of extras. It became immediately clear that we needed to shoot using four cameras at the same time.
The use of very large helium balloons was decisive. It’s very difficult for me to shoot, thinking that a large part of the environment will later be reconstructed using special effects, and to imagine the extent to which this can influence photographic choices, in terms of windows or light sources absent in the actual scene.
I sometimes think that after surviving The Young Pope, I’ll never be afraid of facing any other challenge.