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Sadly, it was a tragedy that propelled Rotunno to prominence as a director of photography. He was operating for revered cinematographer Aldo Graziati on Visconti's Senso, and in November of 1953, near the end of production, the company moved from Verona to Venice. Meanwhile, Rotunno went to Rome to discuss L'Oro di Napoli, Graziati's upcoming collaboration with De Sica. There, he received word that Graziati had been killed in a car accident. Devastated, Rotunno returned to Senso, and production resumed for a time with British cinematographer Robert Krasker, BSC. When Visconti and the Englishman failed to click, the director asked Rotunno to take over as director of photography.

Because of Graziati's death and other factors, De Sica's L'Oro di Napoli remained an unrealized project for Rotunno, but in 1955, the director remembered Graziati's talented camera operator when he was preparing to shoot Pane, Amore e... (A Scandal in Sorrento), which would star Sophia Loren and De Sica himself. While Dino Risi is the film's credited director, Rotunno recalls that De Sica controlled the production. The 30-year-old Rotunno's first major film as a cinematographer was especially demanding because it was shot almost entirely on location. The project was also one of the first CinemaScope productions in Italy.

To prepare, Rotunno traveled to London to observe production of the Anatole Litvak CinemaScope romance The Deep Blue Sea, which was photographed by Jack Hildyard, BSC. The experience helped Rotunno immeasurably when shooting commenced on Scandal in Sorrento, although the challenges were considerably different on De Sica's seaside, location-based romantic comedy. "Because we were shooting in CinemaScope, and due to the quality of the film stocks at the time, it was very difficult to balance our interiors against the bright light of the ocean exterior," Rotunno remembers. "After all, we're talking about 43 years ago."

But Rotunno's years of experience working with De Sica (he had also served as camera operator on Umberto D and Terminal Station) made his transition to director of photography a smooth one, and his success with the difficult Cinema-Scope production attracted the attention of one of the world's greatest directors. "I prepared a film with Orson Welles as director, but it never started," Rotunno laments. "We had many meetings for a film called Operation Cinderella, and we also looked for actors and locations. We had even found some adequate solutions for the photography. But at a certain point, Orson quit and the picture was never made. Nevertheless, I had enough time to get to know him, talk to him, and 'steal' some ideas from him. He told me he always liked to place the camera at a low angle; because he had also directed in the theater, where the stage is higher than the floor, his point of view was always from the floor looking up at the actors. It was really a shame for me that our lost production was never 'found' again."

During that same year, 1955, Rotunno shot The Monte Carlo Story, which again starred De Sica, this time alongside the great Marlene Dietrich. The picture was the first directorial effort by the fine screenwriter Samuel Taylor, but once again, De Sica controlled the reins. Although Rotunno shot the film in yet another unfamiliar widescreen format, Technirama, his greatest challenge was the temperamental Dietrich herself, who was then in her late fifties and fearful that the camera would show her age. Dietrich had been absent from the screen for some time, and the lighting technology had changed, which made her nervous. Rotunno recalls, "When she could not feel the warmth of the light on her face, she believed that she wasn't getting enough light. To gain her confidence, I did some tests alone with her before we started shooting. I tried for a simple crosslight on her face, because she needed it then. When I showed her the tests, she was very happy, and she made big publicity for me; she said, 'He is a genius!' Then everybody looked for the genius. Fortunately, my wife says I was very thin at the time, and not bad-looking!"

Rotunno quickly developed a reputation as a master photographer of the world's most beautiful women with films such as The Naked Maja (1959) and Five Branded Women (1960). "I worked with Ava Gardner, Sophia Loren, Gina Lollabrigida, and many others," Rotunno says. "I was very, very lucky. It's really a pleasure to light those kinds of faces. To start off, I always set up three lights so I could 'understand' their faces. The lady would be in front of the camera, and I would place one light behind the camera, another light exactly across my right and one on my left. Then I would see how the actresses' movements changed the light, and adjust my lights for them. I always use my eyes and my aesthetic taste to judge what is good or not good."

In 1963, Rotunno teamed with De Sica once again on the classic Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, which went on to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. The film starred Loren and Marcello Mastroianni in three separate tales, each of which depicted women using their sexuality to get what they wanted. Perhaps the most difficult sequence was one that took place almost entirely inside a Rolls Royce driving through Milan. Rather than shoot in the studio using process photography, Rotunno devised a clever method of filming the entire episode on location. "We built a fake Rolls Royce body and put it on this long, low truck with a platform used to transport boxcars to the train," he explains. "In front there was the camera car with a crane and lights all over it, plus a fog machine. We shot the scene in real time, and you could see the location outside the windows as the car passed through the city."

Following Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, Rotunno photographed his most epic production to date: John Huston's The Bible (1964), which was filmed in the Dimension 150 65mm format. He then worked on the anthology film The Witches (1966), shooting all of its three segments for directors Visconti, De Sica and Pier Paolo Pasolini. Working for such a trio of perfectionist taskmasters — on one film — was quite an experience. "I can tell you that all three directors tried to be as honest as possible with audiences," Rotunno says. "However, they had different backgrounds, sensibilities, tastes and points of view, so those films were really different."

Rotunno's final film with De Sica was The Sunflower (1969), but the two men remained friends until the latter's death in 1974. "I still have a relationship with his daughter," Rotunno says. "I knew Vittorio very well, and we worked with complete freedom. It was fantastic."

Both before and after his lengthy collaboration with De Sica, Rotunno had also forged a strong artistic bond with Luchino Visconti. "In certain ways, Visconti was my father in my job," Rotunno says. "I did many films with him from 1951 on, first as a camera operator, and later as a director of photography. I had that relationship for work, for life, forever."

Rotunno's first solo effort for Visconti was White Nights (1957), an elaborately plotted love story based on Dostoyevsky's novel. His black-and-white photography enhanced both the reality and artificiality of the film, which marked Visconti's transition away from neorealism. "We shot everything on stage, where we built a section of the city with the canal, because Visconti wanted the audience to recognize it as real but still artificial. It was quite complex — sometimes the city had to look real, and sometimes it had to look fake — but we got it, I think."

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