Tonino Delli Colli, AIC, went to work at Cinecittà, the Italian film studio, in 1938, barely a year after it opened. He was all of 16 years old. Asked whether he wanted to work in the sound department or with the cameramen, he said, “With the cameramen.”
“Life is always a matter of luck,” says Delli Colli. “At the time, I had no idea what being a cameraman meant, or that those few words would determine the course of my life. Sometimes just a word or two can change everything.”
Sixty-seven years later, Delli Colli’s life and work were hailed by the American Society of Cinematographers, an organization that was almost 20 years old when he began his career. Last month, the cinematographer was honored with the ASC International Achievement Award. “What astounds me about Tonino’s career is not only its duration, spanning six decades from the late 1940s to the early ’90s, but the amazingly eclectic breadth of his work,” says John Bailey, ASC. “He worked with an amazing number of auteur directors, including Pier Paolo Pasolini, Federico Fellini, Roman Polanski, Jean-Jacques Annaud, Claude Chabrol and, of course, Sergio Leone. The film titles alone mark the diverse nature of his work: Lacombe Lucien; Intervista; Bitter Moon; The Good, the Bad and the Ugly; Accattone; The Name of the Rose and Life Is Beautiful.
“His resistance to thematic or stylistic predictability has always fascinated me,” Bailey continues. “He adapts himself to the director and the dictates of the scenario rather than forging a consistent, signature style. He has been a beacon for me and for many others.”
Delli Colli took his first steps toward greatness under the watchful eyes of such master cinematographers as Mario Albertelli. “For a long time I served as an apprentice, something that doesn’t exist anymore,” says Delli Colli. “Craftsmanship has disappeared along with it. When students graduate from film schools they might call themselves cinematographers, but what does that mean? These clever, young fellows ‘earn their spurs’ with one of us.
“Fortunately, I grew up professionally with a fine cinematographer. I worked with Albertelli for about three years, and he was like a father to me. I never went to film school, I never read any books about film, and I never knew what went on in the development bath or during the printing process. I learned this trade hands-on, watching what the professionals of the era were doing and valuing the advice they gave me. That was all I needed, because in the projection room I was able to grasp all of the mistakes that were made during shooting or development, and/or the flaws caused by the resources that were used. It was a natural instinct, an intuition. It’s not a tangible thing, it’s just part of me.”
When Albertelli fell ill, Delli Colli took on more responsibility. “Albertelli was suffering from an ulcer, and often he let me do what I wanted,” Delli Colli recalls. “He gave the instructions, and I did the preparatory work and went forward with it. He shot the scenes and made the corrections. That’s how you learn how to do things. I wasn’t the boss, but I could still create the images. However, I can’t deny that at a certain point I was upset when he changed things!”
Delli Colli proceeded to make films with directors Carlo Ludovico Bragaglia and Mario Bonnard. After the war, he honed his operating skills by working with cinematographers Ubaldo Arata and Anchise Brizzi. “I made so many films I can’t remember them all,” he acknowledges.
The postwar period saw the flowering of what is now known as Italian Neorealism. Delli Colli was at the heart of this movement, which had a strong influence on world cinema and inspired numerous American filmmakers. The style was born in part because money was short and filmmakers had to make do with what was at hand. Real locations were used instead of sets and stages, and lighting was often done with the sun or natural ambient sources. “Black-and-white was the type of film that best represented these types of stories,” says Delli Colli. “The photography was very different from what is done today. I really liked working with black-and-white, and I have to say that we got better results and more satisfaction from our work in comparison to color.
“Neorealism is a completely Italian thing,” he continues. “The defining characteristic of these films, which later gave their name to this particular period, was that they were shot in a ‘real-life’ environment. That is, there were no ceilings or superstructures that would have helped light the scene or even out the lighting for the entire setting. We could use only the ambient light or the light that was coming through the windows, and that was the starting point for the photography. Cinecittà was full of displaced persons. The Neorealist stories were all dramatic, unhappy stories of postwar life.”
In the 1950s, Delli Colli made a contractual commitment with Carlo Ponti and Dino De Laurentiis to make five films a year. He worked on every kind of film, including comedies and “Totò” films. Totò was a popular Italian comic who worked in theater, film and television. It was on one of his films that Delli Colli first worked in color: Steno’s Totò a colori (Toto in Color, 1952). The story concerned a musician (Totò) who hopes to sell his composition to one of the most important Italian impresarios. It was the first color film made in Italy, and Delli Colli used a monopack color process developed by a company called Ferrania. The ASA of the film was 6. “No one else wanted to do it,” recalls Delli Colli. “They told me, ‘You’re under contract so you’ll do what we tell you.’ The only lights we had available were for shooting with black-and-white film; color lamps didn’t exist yet. The lighting became extremely complicated. In short, what they wanted was an avalanche of light, and poor Totò was subjected to showers of light. Poor little guy he was already prone to eye problems! As soon as the director called ‘Cut,’ Totò was off. He wanted to get out of that inferno as soon as he could.”
Delli Colli notes that the arrival of color film changed every aspect of the cinematographer’s job: film stock, exposure, lamps, lab equipment, processing and other factors. “Like everyone else, I had to study the new product with help from Kodak and from the labs. I got furious with Kodak whenever a new negative came out because with each new product, I had to start again from scratch.