César Charlone – A Shared Vision


The visual success of any film surely depends on the bond between director and DoP. Together, celebrated cinematographer César Charlone and movieScope’s Adam Thursby examine why this dynamic is so important-and how it is changing.

When William Goldman wrote that ‘nobody knows anything’ in the film world, he was alluding to the inherent unpredictability of what makes a successful movie. The magic of the moving image is not guaranteed by great writing, sublime performance or even singularity of vision: it’s an alchemic process fuelled by the collaborative nature of the medium, and the partnership between a director and cinematographer is a key element within this process. Mix correctly and sparks can fly.

One particularly fruitful pairing of modern cinema has been that of Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles and Uruguayan cinematographer César Charlone. Their three films (City of God (see image above), The Constant Gardener and Blindness) have showcased some of the most visually arresting imagery of recent times and their evident rapport speaks volumes about what can happen when great artists collide.

“I think film is changing and we have to think about it and reframe ourselves.” – César Charlone

“Even before my relationship with Fernando, I always observed how some directors tend to have this relationship and some directors tend to change all the time,” reveals Charlone of this delicate balance. “I think it was John Huston who didn’t repeat the director of photography from one film to the other. Some directors are very faithful; it’s like a marriage to their ‘husband’ photographers. And others are very playboy, going around with all different types of photographer!” Invariably it’s the cinematographer-the silent partner-that gets overlooked in this marriage; they may be known as the ‘masters of the light’ but they reside in the shadows. Most cinema fans could identify a Wes Anderson film, but how many would know how to spot a Robert Yeoman feature? The celebrated cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (The Conformist, Apocalypse Now, The Last Emperor) said that cinematography was a shared art that couldn’t be articulated by any one single person. Orson Welles recognised this: he gave cinematographer Gregg Toland equal billing by putting their names together in the final credits for his chef-d’œuvre, Citizen Kane.

“I know the importance that Toland had on Welles,” says Charlone. “It’s a dynamic; everybody gives what they have to give to the scene, and the DoP will give as much as he can. There often isn’t a very clear delineation between what directing is and what cinematography is because some directors like to frame. For example, the Scott brothers [Ridley and Tony]: they are so image driven, they know exactly what they are looking for and I would guess that there is a smaller space for the cinematographer to help, while other directors that are more actor-driven leave more space. It’s up to us cinematographers to find what exactly the directors need; where you can help them.”

Another prominent cinematographer who absolutely understood how not to put ego or personal taste before the project was Raoul Coutard. He worked alongside many of the renowned French New Wave directors, from Godard to Truffaut. Indeed, the distinctive look associated with that period would most certainly be radically different had Coutard not been allowed to flex his own artistic muscles, yet he forever stressed the importance of tailoring his work to the needs of the director and story.

“It depends very much on the cinematographer as well,” Charlone explains. “In my case, I direct and I’ve been directing for some time now. When I was working with Fernando in feature films, I was already directing commercials and documentaries, so I wanted to have a bit of space. Fernando gave me that space. I prefer to work with a director that doesn’t just expect the technical approach.”

There has always been an interesting dichotomy at play between the technical and creative side of cinematographers. From Toland and his experiments with lenses and deep-focus techniques to Gordon Willis, nicknamed the ‘Prince of Darkness’ due to his penchant for under-exposing shots, the one connecting factor is an underlying sense of artistry borne out of experimentation. Great cinematographers are notorious risk takers and, when channelled through the right director, that energy can be compelling. Just consider for a moment the flashing technique that Vilmos Zsigmond used to create the wonderfully desaturated look in Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs Miller or Néstor Almendros’ wilful use of the infamous magic hour in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven.

“When I lecture, it’s a subject that I very much enjoy talking about, this relationship between a director and cinematographer,” continues Charlone. “One episode that I enjoy is with Bernardo Bertolucci who was ‘married’ to Vittorio Storaro for a long time. And Storaro is-or at least he was-very rigid in using interior/ exterior; you wouldn’t often see a film of Bertolucci and Storaro that included interior and exterior windows, or situations like that, which can be very boring for a cinematographer because you have to take care of how the sun behaves outside, how it affects the light inside, and so on. You would notice that the majority of Bertolucci’s films from that period didn’t have the interior/exteriors. Then at a certain point, he didn’t do a film with Storaro. I don’t remember the name, but he did a film with another guy and it had complete interior/exterior situations all the time! Like if he said, ‘Okay, now that I’m not with Vittorio, I’ll do all the interior/exterior he didn’t let me do before!’ It was funny to notice that. He had a chance to be free…”

So just what kind of relationship produces the best films? Is there a magic formula? Do opposites attract, like Janusz Kaminsky and Steven Spielberg, or is a successful partnership more likely founded on harmony, being part of the family team, the regular crew, like that of Ingmar Bergman and Sven Nyquist?

“When a director approaches a film, he just wants to get the film well done and the best he can,” says Charlone. “So he might go, ‘Okay, I’m accustomed to working with this guy here, and it’ll be easier if he understands me’, or he’ll say, ‘Well maybe for this film I need somebody that has more experience in exteriors or in cars or whatever’. I honestly don’t know what goes on in a director’s mind when he chooses.”

Not unsurprisingly, for his feature-length directorial debut, 2007’s El baño del Papa, Charlone chose to do the camerawork himself. “Cinematography and directing are so linked together. For example, on television you have the producer and then you have the guy that directs, and he directs camera and framing and lighting and everything. I feel very comfortable in working with the actors and framing them and looking at the light at the same time.”

Thus, despite Charlone’s positive experiences with Meirelles, with his own directing the established roles become somewhat blurred. “The other day I was lecturing some students and I gave this scenario: suppose the film that you’re gonna do is a story that happens in one battle-a battle that starts at 11 in the morning and lasts until two in the afternoon. You’re going to film it during the day with some light all the time. I was questioning what is more important for that film: a DoP or a military adviser? And the general feeling was that the military adviser was more important. It’s a little bit daring or pretentious what I’m thinking but, with these new cameras and all this technology, we have to adapt ourselves to what the film needs. If the director, like this generation that are coming up now, is very familiar with camera operating, well maybe they don’t need a DoP for their film. We just can’t inherit a union structure where we have to have this complete crew. Maybe you’re doing a film inside a house and it’s all handheld and you don’t need a grip for that, or you’re doing a very natural thing and you don’t need a make-up artist. Or you’re doing a film that has a lot of effects and you need three makeup artists. You have to make your crew according to the film that you are telling.”

In this rapidly shifting environment with its exponential leaps in technology, the question of how conventional structures and relationships are affected is a timely one.

“I think film is changing and we have to think about it and reframe ourselves,” states Charlone. “Maybe this young generation go out with their video cameras and capture very interesting images and afterwards they go onto the computer and they do the retouching of the image themselves and there was never a ‘relationship’ there of the traditional director and cinematographer.”

One result then of the so-called democratisation of filmmaking could well be that we see a move towards a more auteurist sensibility in future cinema. “But isn’t that beautiful! I love it! I think it’s great!” Charlone enthuses. “Now it’s not just the privilege of the few that have access to the tools and money. We wouldn’t say that literature is bad because everybody can write, but not everybody is a writer… So now everybody can film, and now we’ll see who the real filmmakers are…” ♦

Related: Bonds of Trust: DoP Rain Li and Director Christopher Doyle