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2012 ASC Lifetime Achievement Award Winner: Dante Spinotti

The Magic of Capturing Images With Light

By Christine Bunish

Dante SpinottiWhen Dante Spinotti, ASC was awarded the 2012 ASC Lifetime Achievement Award it celebrated a career in cinematography that began when a boy discovered “something magical” about capturing images with light.

From his start in Italy to compiling more than 60 narrative credits, including Beaches, True Colors, The Last of the Mohicans, Red Dragon, Public Enemies and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Spinotti’s work spans genres. He earned Academy Award nominations for L.A. Confidential and The Insider.

Certainly the young Spinotti never had Oscar dreams when he got his first still camera and began working in a homemade darkroom at the age of 11. “It was a perfect craft for a little kid,” he says. “I was able to create photos of my parents and see landscapes come up on a print. What more could you ask for? Back then you had to physically make the images; working with a computer today takes away some of that chemical magic.”
Spinotti was born north of Venice close to the Austrian border, but he grew up near Venice on the farmland plains. His high school studies did not go well, so his parents grew “desperate,” wondering “what to do with this kid.”

Young Spinotti admired his uncle, a cinematographer who shot newsreels, features and documentaries, and who had given him his first camera. Halfway through high school his parents decided to send him to Kenya to join his uncle, who was doing newsreel work for UPI. It was a seminal time for post-colonial Kenya and for Spinotti who used his uncle’s old, 35mm spring-loaded Eyemo to cover the prison release of Jomo Kenyatta, soon to be the first president of an independent Kenya.

“It was a great adventure, and learning English there gave me a big advantage,” he recalls. “It was the ideal school for me. I came back [a year later] much more responsible and mature.”

Spinotti also returned home with a budding career. He began working as an assistant cameraman, on a freelance basis, with RAI Italian television in Milan. He was also an AC on commercials, often assisting UK-based cinematographers, such as David Watkins, because he spoke English.

Dante Spinotti in Italy early in his career as a cinematographer.
Dante Spinotti in Italy early in his career as a cinematographer.

Although Spinotti found his freelance jobs with RAI a little frustrating at times, having a safe gig with state-owned television allowed him to experiment and try techniques of his own such as shooting high contrast to evoke the look of wartime photography for a documentary film. He started to make short features for TV “with almost no equipment and available light, pushing the 16mm film almost like the Danish Dogme 95 movement,” which stripped filmmaking down to the basics of story and performance, would do years after Spinotti’s early work.

“I was really impressed by realism in filmmaking,” he says. “Cinematography is a medium based on realism. It can be romantic, pictorial, many things. But the environment, nature, faces, characters were all enhanced by the time I spent shooting documentaries as a kid.”

Dante Spinotti on location in the Bahamas for After The Sunset, directed by Brett Ratner.
Dante Spinotti on location in the Bahamas
for After The Sunset, directed by Brett Ratner.

Spinotti had enough experience by this time to arrive at a kind of career crossroads. “I had to take a major decision. I had a good job in TV, a family; everything was nice and safe. But it didn’t give me the ability to test myself the way I wanted to. So, about 1980, I decided to become a freelancer and try my luck in the film industry.”

He expected to work his way up the ladder in Rome, but some directors had already seen his TV work and started Spinotti as a DP. Around 1985, Dino De Laurentiis was planning to open a film studio in North Carolina and was looking for collaborators. He offered Spinotti a three-year contract and the cinematographer moved to the United States to “try something new – in our profession that’s very important.”

In Spinotti’s case it proved to be life changing. De Laurentiis teamed him with an upcoming American director named Michael Mann, and the rest is history. From their first pairing on the Hannibal Lector-themed Manhunter, Mann and Spinotti have gone on to make The Last of the Mohicans, Heat, The Insider and Public Enemies. “Michael’s knowledge of and ability with the language of film is well known, but most important is his work on storytelling,” says Spinotti. “The aspect of his work I admire most is that he tries to renew himself each time, so I try to forget what I did on the last project and absorb a new story, new human situations and figure out how to shoot them.”

Most recently, Spinotti partnered with director Brett Ratner, with whom he’d served as DP on Family Man in 2000, on the New York-based Tower Heist. “Brett is a very enthusiastic person who has a great relationship with actors. He’s an incredibly talented storyteller and an absolutely wonderful human being – generous, respectful and a lot of fun.”

The cinematographer loved shooting in New York City with a crew comprised largely of old friends. “There’s such energy in the city, and it’s beautiful wherever you look. It’s a city where people still talk to each other – people have the same relationship with the owner of the corner shop as you would in a small town.”

Fortunately, Ratner started shooting exteriors in September 2010 and wrapped practical locations just as the big winter snowstorms commenced. By then, the production was lensing interiors in a warehouse space on the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Except for Tower Heist, Spinotti’s last five features were acquired digitally. “Any other craftsman can see and hear what they’re doing immediately, but with film you can’t see what you’ve done until it’s screened the next day,” he notes.

He concedes that it “isn’t that simple to make the transition” to digital, however, and he still loves film. “There are trade offs,” he points out. “With some recent [digital] cameras the sensitivity is unbelievable. It opens the world to night filmmaking – making gorgeous night features without any lighting.”

Dante Spinotti (left) shooting L.A. Confidential, which earned him an Academy Award nomination.
Dante Spinotti (left) shooting L.A. Confidential, which earned him an Academy Award nomination.

Spinotti is shooting his own project, a documentary on his home region of Carnia, located in Friuli northeast of Venice, south of Austria and west of Slovenia. The area is known as “The Pearl of the Italian Alps.” He’s shooting with Panasonic’s AG-HPX250 P2 camcorder. “Carnia has a strong cultural tradition, but all the mountain areas are abandoned. Years ago people started to emigrate, leaving the agricultural economy, and now the youngsters are abandoning it, too. I want to tell that story and show the beauties of the area.”

Spinotti hopes to complete the documentary in a year. “Thanks to the new technology, once you have your equipment, there are basically no additional costs until postproduction. You can just go out and shoot.”

He believes that “technology is the easy part” of any project today. “The hard part is getting the right ideas for what you want to do,” he said.

Dante Spinotti on location in the Bahamas for After The Sunset, directed by Brett Ratner.
Dante Spinotti on location in the Bahamas for After The Sunset, directed by Brett Ratner.

Between features and his doc on Carnia, Spinotti also shoots commercials. “They’re always fun to do,” he says. “When the concepts are good they can be extremely interesting, too. Commercials are short but intense experiences, and you always learn something new.” In January, Spinotti traveled to Chile to shoot a spot with a Canadian production company.

Spinotti first heard about the ASC when he was 17 years old, so being its new Lifetime Achievement honoree was “very touching and totally unexpected.” Michael Mann, who has been a key figure in Spinotti’s American career, presented his award.

The cinematographer seems to be on something of a celebratory roll these days. Two years ago, he received a lifetime achievement award from the Cameraimage Film Festival in Poland, and last October he was similarly cited by the Manaki Brothers International Cinematographers’ Film Festival in Macedonia. “Each award is incredibly special,” he declares.

November 12, 2012