Café Society: Vittorio Storaro’s Distinguished Cinematography

For his first collaboration with Woody Allen, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro embraced the new as he went about filming Cafe Society, shooting a feature digitally for the first time.  But he also reached back into the past, drawing inspiration from photographers like Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen as well as painters like Georgia O’Keeffe and Edward Hopper.

One of the greatest living cinematographers, the influential Storaro, 76, is a three-time Oscar winner for Apocalypse Now, Reds and The Last Emperor.  He has created the looks of Dick Tracy, 1900, The Conformist and countless other acclaimed films; and he has worked with such noted directors as Bernardo Bertolucci, Francis Ford Coppola and Warren Beatty.

Café Society displays Storaro’s masterful use of light in telling the 1930s-set story of Bronx-born Bobby Dorfman, played by Jesse Eisenberg, who seeks his fortune in Hollywood, where he falls in love with a secretary, played by Kristen Stewart, before moving back to New York, where he becomes involved in running a high society nightclub.

Storaro, who has long been examining digital production technology, decided to take the digital plunge with Cafe Society, using Sony’s top-of-the-line F65 4K camera, along with its sister, the lighter F55, for use on a Steadicam.

He told the Hollywood Reporter: “A few years ago, it was film or digital; it was a difficult choice,” Storaro says. “Producers thought digital was cheaper — not true. Or it’s faster — not true. But when Woody called me (this was also Allen’s first digital feature), I said, ‘You can’t stop progress.’  When I met the Sony F65, I said, ‘This is the camera we are supposed to use.'”

Describing the F65 as “the best quality today in the market” for a digital cinematography camera, he continues, “I always thought the minimum quality should be 4K 16-bit color. Companies should deliver equipment so that we can record the largest amount of information possible, [and cinematographers can then decide what we want to use] according to the story.”

Amazon Studios and Lionsgate are releasing Cafe Society in theaters in New York and Los Angeles before a national expansion. After its theatrical run, the film will be available to Amazon Prime members through Prime Video.

In a recent conversation with The Hollywood Reporter, Storaro described the visual styles he devised for the film to give movement to each of the “chapters of the drama.”

“For the first part, set in the Bronx, I tried to use a monochromatic, desaturated color with a low tonality of light, inspired by the photography of Alfred Stieglitz, and some work from Georgia O’Keeffe that she did about New York,” he says. “My inspiration sometimes is just the beginning of something. You don’t reproduce it, but [maybe it’s] a feeling to stay in a visual aspect.”

In the second part of the film, when Dorfman arrives in Hollywood, the cinematographer gave the images a very warm look. “I always loved that relationship; It’s like winter and summer,” says Storaro. “I applied that concept in this project. In this part, I was inspired by the photography of Edward Steichen and the German expressionist painters.

“Once we established that this is the Bronx and this is Hollywood, when the leading character goes back to New York, we find another New York,” he further explains. “This is the café society. We were showing that New York wasn’t just the Bronx and the poor people; there was a social class that was going to dinner in tuxedos. So the luminosity of the light became much higher and it had a more sophisticated color tone inspired by the Art Deco-style paintings of Tamara de Lempicka.”

Toward the end of the film, Dorfman once again travels back to Los Angeles, circa 1940, and Storaro said this time the tone was inspired by the work of Edward Hopper, the American realist painter “who pushed the light — sun, shade.”

“In the beginning of the film when he arrives in Hollywood at the office of his Uncle, [I used] a wide angle,” the cinematographer adds. “When he comes back, he knows this place, he’s an adult. Now it’s more natural. There’s a very subtle change in the focal length of the lens.”

Storaro plans to use the Sony F65 again, when he shoots Allen’s next movie, which is to star Kate Winslet, Jim Belushi and Justin Timberlake.

Meanwhile, the cinematographer is urging manufacturers to improve digital cinema projection. Now the fight is to change the projectors,” he says. “Most theaters have 2K projectors — so we record an incredible amount of information that isn’t exhibited. I want to push the industry to change this to 4K 16-bit.”