International Award recipient Giuseppe Rotunno, ASC, AIC reflects upon his visionary collaborations with an array of legendary directors.
by Ron Magid
The scene could best be described as Fellini-esque except that the guest of honor wasn't the great Italian director, but his brilliant collaborator, cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno, ASC, AIC. The location was New York's famed Tavern on the Green, and the occasion's host was renowned director/choregrapher Bob Fosse, whose modern musical classic All That Jazz was about to out-Fellini Fellini with a little help from Rotunno. "It was a big party for me," the cinematographer recalls. "Bob sat me down in the middle of the restaurant, and then he improvised a number with his dance troupe; everybody was dancing around me, improvising with my name. I was really moved, and then Bob whispered in my ear, 'Peppino, have I embarrassed you enough?' I answered, 'Yes, please stop. Because I cry.' He was like that. Fantastico."
A man less modest than Rotunno might have come to expect such kudos, especially after spending nearly 60 years behind the camera, capturing beautiful and mind-boggling imagery dreamed up by the world's greatest directors. Although Rotunno has collaborated with many top American filmmakers, including Orson Welles, John Huston, Stanley Kramer, Robert Altman and Mike Nichols, he will be best-remembered for his multiple collaborations with the brightest lights of the Italian cinema: Vittorio De Sica, Luchino Visconti and Federico Fellini. "You know, I am just one of the people who has worked with those great directors," says Rotunno, who was honored for his artistic contributions to cinema history with the American Society of Cinematographers' International Award during the ASC Outstanding Achievement Awards gala, held on Ferbruary 21 at the Century Plaza Hotel in Century City. "At the moment, I am the star, and I'm very proud to be talking about working with them. De Sica, Visconti and Fellini always put very different and unique moods into their films; they were also different in terms of [their approach to] the acting, the makeup, and everything else. I simply tried to follow all of those things with my light, and put them in the best condition to be received by the audience. It's very difficult to explain my work, but it's like being a painter. I think painters feel something inside through the paints and the brush as they put their ideas on a canvas. That is also what I do."
Although Rotunno has received many honors during the course of his career, including a 1980 Academy Award nomination for All That Jazz, he says that he was particularly proud to accept the ASC's International Award. "This honor means a great deal to me, because it comes from my colleagues, whom I hold in very high regard," he says.
Rotunno started out from very humble beginnings. As a boy, he never entertained ideas of going into the film business; it was the death of his father, when Giuseppe was just 17, that prompted him to seek work anywhere he could find it during the difficult pre-war days of 1940. Thankfully for audiences everywhere, the gods steered the young Roman to the doors of Cinecitta Studios, where he landed the only available opening: a job helping out in the studio's photography lab, which was run by the three Bragaglia brothers, who were famous for having researched and invented "photodynamism." One of the brothers, Arturo, recognized the young man's talent and gave him a Leica still camera to experiment with on his days off. "On Saturdays and Sundays, I started to make some photographs of my own," Rotunno recalls. "Then on Monday, Arturo gave me permission to bring in my photos. I got deeply into the photo department, accumulating more knowledge. I started to learn about what was happening with the light, the film, and other things, and I began to love it. It soon became part of my life."
Within 18 months, Rotunno graduated from developing pictures in the studio's darkroom to becoming an on-set still photographer at Cinecitta. "Arturo, who was actually the chief of the photography lab, helped me move to the camera department, because he felt it was important for me. I became a camera assistant." The young man soon found, however, that working as an assistant at the busy studio was akin to being a glorified manual laborer. "I did all of the work in the camera department," Rotunno remembers. "I just cleaned up the camera, loaded the camera, or put it in a box."
Nevertheless, the experience paid off; by the early 1940s, Rotunno was serving as a camera assistant and operator. Meanwhile, he was also getting his first experience as a director of photography by working on documentaries, which were all the rage in Italy at the time. Before breaking into dramatic features, future directorial giants such as Visconti and Michelangelo Antonioni were making 10-minute short subjects for theaters. Rotunno shot some 10 documentaries for Michele Gandin, the director he considered the best in the field. While most everything he shot was black-and-white, Rotunno's first color film with Gandin anticipated his later stylized work with Italy's cinematic masters: "We shot in a village in southern Italy, where the old houses were painted bright white and all of the women dressed in black. So it really was a black-and-white film but in color!"
Rotunno earned one of his first big breaks while working as an operator on Roberto Rossellini's World War I drama The Man With the Cross. "It was 1942, and the first time I really put my eye to the camera's viewfinder," he remembers. "I was operating one of three or four cameras while we were shooting a night battle scene, from inside a Russian house that had a big hole in the wall made by a cannon shell. Even though our set was an 'interior,' it was actually built outside. Because the battle covered such a large area, we could not shoot it 'night-for-night,' so we were shooting 'day-for-night.' Unfortunately, it was a sunny day, and the contrast between the interior and the exterior was impossible. I had to make it even, so I sandwiched a red and green gel between two big pieces of glass, creating a 'filter' that we placed over the hole. After that, Rossellini started to talk to me, and began giving me a little more importance at work."
Before he could make any more headway in his homeland's film industry, Rotunno was drafted into the military during the darkest days of World War II, serving as a combat photographer in the Italian army's film unit. Suddenly, the battles he was shooting were all too real. "I was in the service, shooting alongside reporters, from 1942 until April 11, 1945," Rotunno says. "That's when I was liberated by the American Army in Germany, where I was a prisoner. I never left my work, from the beginning of my career until now."
Landing a job in Italy was much harder after the war, however. Although Rotunno returned to Rome in September of 1945, it wasn't until 1948 that he was able to pick up where he had left off. "I started again as a camera assistant, made a little salary, and occasionally worked as a camera operator very occasionally," he notes wryly.
One of Rotunno's first jobs after the war was a stint on Henry King's epic Prince of Foxes (1949), starring Tyrone Power and Orson Welles. The film was photographed by the great Leon Shamroy, ASC, who recognized the star quality in the young camera assistant he had hired. "I got on very well with Leon, the man who put me on the camera again," Rotunno reflects. "The shoot was very long, and we worked very closely together. It was my first chance to work on a big production, and it was a spectacular film. I had never seen something so complicated for a cameraman: battles, exteriors, night stuff, many things. Shamroy was really admired by all of the artists there; he could light so beautifully. He was also a great man with a big heart, and he gave me the opportunity to stay close to him and watch everything he was doing. That set, for me, was really a university; I relied on my eyes and my ears to pay attention to what was happening around me."
Rotunno was soon back on track, working as a camera operator. During this time, Rotunno amassed more technical knowledge while working on at least 25 films. He recalls, "They often used more than one camera in fact, they used three cameras sometimes. They would put me by a camera and say, 'Stay there!'" One of these pictures was the sword-and-sandal epic Attila the Hun (1954), co-starring Anthony Quinn and Sophia Loren, and photographed by the famed Aldo Tonti. The other two operators on this picture were future ASC fellows Karl Struss and Luciano Trasatti, both of whom also became famed cinematographers in later years.
[ continued on page 2 ] © 1999 ASC