Walter Volpatto, colourist from Rai to Christopher Nolan: "Making Star Wars Was a Piece of Cake
Born in Turin but reaching Hollywood's top league, Walter Volpatto oversaw the colour of what can simply be considered Oscar-worthy films: Green Book, Star Wars, The Hateful Eight, Dunkirk, Interstellar. Volpatto's story collides with the rise of digital post-production and a new role: the colourist, literally a product of hardware and artistic flair, until becoming an official acknowledgement at the Oscars. Chiara Del Zanno has interviewed him on these various topics together with DOP Davide Manca.
CDZ: You worked for RAI for ten years, then you abandoned everything and moved to the States: a moment of madness or a stroke of luck?
I worked for RAI in Turin from 1991 until about 2000 as part of the engineer team: installations, structures, maintenance, cameras. In the mid '90s, thanks to the Internet and to VFX, computers started to be part of the production process, so I began taking interest in visual effects: compositing, 3D rendering, lighting modelling... together with the graphic team in Turin. Then for a series of events I moved to the United States as a technician and I started collaborating with the greatest legends. Just to give you an idea, for some time I was supported by Dan Muscarella, a friend and colleague who recently passed away; someone who among many other things was the colourist for Titanic. The last project that we worked on together was Dunkirk by Christopher Nolan: he curated the film aspect while I took care of the digital side.
DM: Is the shot material you receive always as perfect as we see in American films? Green Book has a camera car with three cameras all recording at the
same time - difficulty level: 10. How much does the final result depend on the colourist?
Green Book was filled with challenges. The parts shot in the car driving through the plains had little to no control on the sunlight and on the weather in general. Mahershala Ali had a red blanket on his legs that allowed the light to bounce on his chin, his dark complexion illuminated on the backseat. I worked hard to balance the shots and give the impression of a true road trip with good solutions for continuity. To contrast that, Steve Yedlin, the DOP for Star Wars, spent about ten years of his life trying to create a mathematical model for printing: it has a perfect correspondence with what's usually done with a camera on a set (he was the creator of the LUT!), a substantial budget and the best costume and set designers in the world. I remember watching one of the frames of the sequence shot in Snoke's Throne Room and staring at Steve: "What do you want?" "To add a dash of red," he replied. Okay: click, done. That photography is already perfect. The only thing I had to work on a bit more in Star Wars is the island on which Rey goes to train with her lightsaber. It's a natural reserve close to Ireland where they only had two days of recordings and the sun kept changing all over. Other than that, making Star Wars was a piece of cake.
DM: That incredible depth of field I see in American films... how do you do that?! The imagery is so rich.
It probably has to do with lights. There is so much more light used on American film sets, especially fill and bouncing lights. A visual effect is born when you're missing the photography but you're in need of it. In my life, I only ever did two sky replacements, both in Green Book. In two moments of the film, the sky was too grey and dull, so Sean asked me to add a little touch of magic. I took the sky from a previous image, flipped it, added a raw compositing and he wanted to keep it that way, without even sending it to the VFX team.
CDZ: In an old interview you stated: "If the audience sees what we colourists are doing, then we've overdone it." I think nowadays the colour process often goes beyond that, almost towards an Instagram-like aesthetic. What does that depend on?
When the Impressionists appeared on the scene in Paris at the end of the 1800s, they wanted to use colours to represent a feeling. The "Instagram filter" and some of the colouring that we do nowadays are very much based on Impressionism; they're not realistic. Up until fifteen years ago, colourists were forced to work with the material shot and it was rare to find aesthetically-unnatural colours. When we got rid of that mindset, we started experimenting. A film like The Matrix today would be child's play. Back then, black suits on the set were actually green: that's how you got green colours in the shadows. Nowadays we wouldn't have coloured so much during the printing phase. On top of what we call "daily love" - the love for the daily rushes which the director and DOP can't distance themselves from - there's also a new visual language in social media where everyone pushes the image with filters beyond rationality. In the colour language, if you're creating a world, yellow and green can make a lot of sense. The problem is when the "filter" is added randomly just because I saw it on my phone.
CDZ: The debate on the artistic acknowledgement for colourists at the Oscars is very heated and you have taken part in it: in your opinion, why is it necessary at this point in history for the Academy to reward you?
It's a problem of perspective. The Academy, of which I am a member, only recognises those who bring an artistic contribution to the project. Until the invention of digital colour correction, the colour timer in the lab could not artistically alter the look of a film. Now, though, we are the ones doing it. And we aspire for acknowledgement. They tell us that our colouring is established by the DOP. Okay, fair enough, but isn't the director the one asking the DOP for a certain type of photography? Okay, fair enough, but isn't the director the one asking the DOP for a certain type of photography? Where do we draw the line then? The Revenant opened up this Pandora's box. Emmanuel Lubezki is a great cinematographer and I will never stop repeating that. But what you see in films is not just what he recorded with a camera. They spent four months in colour to work meticulously on every shot, the daily rushes are a completely different thing. Lubezki claims to have shot that way, knowing what to do with the colour later on. That's fine but, and I'm sorry to say this, it's not Lubezki who did it. The answer lies exactly there: the DOPs do not wish to lose their status on the images and recognise the artistic contribution of the colourists. After The Revenant, something changed: now colourists are allowed to be members of the Academy for their artistic contribution.
CDZ: If there were a prize shared between DOP and colourist, what film would you have been nominated for?
That's a hard one. I think the film on which my artistic input contributed the most was... maybe The Beach Bum (by Harmony Korine, 2019). At some point, Harmony told me: "Show me something that reflects the feeling I want, you have free rein. I want every shot in this montage to be like a painting, distant from the continuity flow." He wanted as much Impressionism as I could give him, that's why my contribution was much more artistic here than it was in Star Wars or Dunkirk, where I worked on a more refined technical match between film and digital.