Dante Spinotti (I Saw the Light, Heat) was the 2015 recipient of the Distinguished Cinematographer Award at the Middleburg Film Festival. The self-described “good craftsman” (rather than “artist”) was interviewed by film critic John Horn in Loudoun County, Va. The discussion felt like a film class, as Spinotti paused frames from film sequences. He sought to illustrate his approaches to capturing onscreen emotions effectively, maneuvering changes in natural light, and including or omitting set pieces.
However, don’t expect Spinotti to copy his own techniques so readily. “I try to forget everything I’ve done before,” he stated. The focus, as he sees it, should be on the scripts: the best of these written materials enable a skilled cinematographer to create a powerful visual “language.” The development of his skills first started in Kenya with an uncle who was a cinematographer. Later, Spinotti worked in Milan on low budget television programs, which offered ample opportunities to become self-taught and experiment.
He emphasized that some of the most important decisions can occur as little as “three minutes before you start” filming a scene. Cinematographers need to be extraordinarily flexible and think creatively to overcome challenges such as difficult directors, actors with allergies (LA Confidential), and unexpected occurrences. For one Hercules battle scene, he erected nearly fifty focused spotlights to produce a consistent and sustained light source. “We were ready to shoot anything at any time at any angle,” he declared.
He touched on those behind-the-scenes details for his other works, too. Spinotti revealed that the memorable shootout at the end of Heat was described in production notes as “World War III.” A scene of such intensity required the strongest loads possible for the set weapons. Filming transpired over the course of three weekends, with as many as seven cameras.
His most recent project, I Saw the Light, was screened here in Middleburg. The film, directed by Marc Abraham, will continue to move through the film festival circuit. Spinotti’s next project is a film headed by producer and director Trudie Styler, which has an intense schedule of only 23 days for shooting. With a career spanning several decades, he shows no signs of slowing down.
This article was first published under the same title on Blogcritics.org.