Master of Light, Mauro Fiore, Oscar-Winning Director of Photography on ‘Avatar’
When I discovered a couple years ago that world-class cinematographer Mauro Fiore was living quietly in Omaha I added him to my checklist of persons I must interview. I didn’t do anything about contacting him until I found out he shot the live action sequences for Avatar, which of course blew up to become the highest earning film in history. That gave me a sense of urgency and soon enough I made arrangements to meet and interview him.
He has a great story, and I tried to do it justice in the following piece, which appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com) on the eve of the Oscars. He won an Academy Award and in his acceptance speech gave a shout out to his adopted hometown of Omaha.
Master of Light, Mauro Fiore, Oscar-winning Director of Photography on ‘Avatar’
©by Leo Adam Biga
Published in a 2010 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)
As if being director of photography for the highest grossing movie ($2.4 billion and counting) in history were not enough, Nebraska resident Mauro Fiore is Oscar-nominated for his work on Avatar. Since only a third of the 3D, largely computer-generated movie entails live action, he wasn’t expecting recognition.
“I don’t think in those terms anyway,” he said. “I just do my work.”
But fame is finding him anyway in the wake of the Avatar phenomenon. That’s making Fiore more than the Average Joe down the street who travels for his job. Now neighbors know his business is lighting and photographing mega Hollywood movies in far-flung locales.
He just wrapped The A-Team for Joe Carnahan in Vancouver, British Columbia. He spent months in New Zealand on Avatar, weeks in the United Arab Emirates for The Kingdom and extensive time in Hawaii for Tears of the Sun. He’s worked with filmmakers James Cameron, Steven Spielberg and Michael Bay. He’s lit and shot such stars as Sigourney Weaver, Jamie Foxx, Bruce Willis, Liam Neeson, Jessica Biel, Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke.
Busted. No more living under the radar for Fiore, who lives in Papillion with his wife Christine and their three young children. The couple will do the Hollywood thing at the Oscars, where they’ll be part of the Cameron-led Avatar contingent.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Fiore’s southern Italy hometown of Marzi, Calabria is abuzz over one of its own enjoying such success. His parents, who moved the family to Chicago when Mauro was 7, recently moved back there. His folks keep him updated on the celebration the village, situated in a picturesque valley, is planning in his honor. Mauro, who often visits Italy, finds all the fuss very sweet.
“The mayor’s going to give me the keys to the town. He’s in contact with the president of the republic,” said Fiore. “For them, it’s amazing. It’s such a small town and seeing my name on the screen means so much to them — that somebody came from their town and is now a household name. I think it’s more important to them than me, but I think it’s great they feel that connection, that pride.”
He recalls the first time he and his family returned to Marzi after emigrating to the States. The entire village turned out to greet them in the town square.
“It was really crazy. The same thing happened when we left. Whole households of people saying goodbye, bringing us gifts, giving us cheese, to bring back. So my view of Italy always represents this wonderful place to be from.”
His connection was strengthened on summer sojourns he and his sister, who now lives in Italy, made there as kids. They stayed with relatives but everyone in Marzi was extended family anyway.
“Pretty much we spent our adolescence there. It was really a great place to be during those tricky times of being a teenager. In a small town you have complete freedom. I have quite a romantic view of my time in Italy. For me it was sort of like this technicolor landscape.”
He’s retained the language.
Emigrating to America made sense as Mauro’s mason father, Lorenzo, had two brothers who preceded him here.
“My parents felt like this was the place they wanted to come to for opportunity, more for us than anything else. It was really important we got proper education. They packed up four suitcases and sold off all our furniture. It felt like a great adventure to me.”
Growing up in suburban Chicago Mauro worked at his dad’s imported marble and tile store. An interest in still photography led him to study film at Columbia College. An immersion in art “created this passion for film,” he said, “not even thinking it was a possibility for me to make a career out of it.”
“After I graduated I took one of those trips to Europe you take after college –some kind of vision quest I suppose. It was wonderful. I think that trip really created a point of view for realizing the freedom and the passion and the possibility to choose what you really want to do in life.”
He was set to rejoin his father’s business when opportunity called in the form of friend and former Columbia classmate, Janusz Kaminski, who’d been hired on a Roger Corman ‘B” movie in L.A. Fiore leapt at the chance.
“I moved out there with a backpack and I ended up staying.”
The two bachelors became roommates. It was 1988. Within a decade Kaminski was an Oscar-winning DP and Fiore a promising cinematographer to watch.
Their first paying gig found Kaminski as gaffer and Fiore as dolly grip on Not of This Earth, featuring Traci Lords in her first legit acting role.
“We were so excited to be there, to be anywhere, it was unbelievable,” said Fiore. ”We never talked about hours, we never talked about anybody taking advantage of us, we were just on cloud nine.”
A string of low budget exploitation pics followed, with Fiore and Kaminski joined at the hip as crewmates. When Kaminski’s career broke big, Fiore was right there beside him.
“When Janusz became a director of photography on projects I was his gaffer.”
A Lifetime movie they did, Wildflower, was noticed by Steven Spielberg, which got the pair hired for the Spielberg TV pilot, Class of ’61. The pilot never sold but it led to the friends getting Schindler’s List (1993). Kaminski’s black and white photography earned an Oscar. Fiore was the gaffer on that “grim, brutal” Auschwitz winter shoot that also afforded “a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
“A filmmaker like Spielberg is always great to watch, great to work with because he’s always on top of it, listening, observing. He’s just really an amazing filmmaker. It was an incredible opportunity.”
That film’s prestige led to new opportunities and finally to Fiore becoming a DP. He feels indebted to Kaminski.
“Along with Janusz’s career mine sort of followed along. As he moved up I started my own films as a cameraman. It was important for me to be a director of photography. I felt pretty strong about it and Janusz was really supportive. He would always recommend me, He’s been a really great friend and mentor. The confidence he showed to be able to stand up for yourself and make decisions on your own, to instinctually create lighting and really stick by it, really influenced me.”
For Kaminski’s directorial debut, Lost Souls (2000), he tapped Fiore. “That propelled me to another budget level of films and slowly by word of mouth I started building my career.”
Even before that things began moving for Fiore when Michael Bay brought him in as an extra camera operator on The Rock (1996). What was to be a couple weeks work turned into months of additional photography — inserts, pickups, second unit shots. The same thing happened on Bay’s Armageddon (1998).
A major career disappointment then led to a milestone. He was asked by Ridley Scott to lens Blackhawk Down. However, Fiore’s wife, Christine Vollmer, was pregnant with their first child and he didn’t dare risk being away in Morocco when she gave birth. “It was very difficult to not take a Ridley Scott film,” said Fiore. “But there’s things in life that are more important. I resigned myself to this career train taking a little longer.”
He and Christine, who’s from Nebraska, met on the indie pic Love from Ground Zero (1998) shot near Omaha. He was the DP. She was costumer designer.
After turning down Blackhawk Fiore interviewed for Antoine Fuqua’s L.A.-based Training Day. Cinematographer Slawomir Idziak was already on board. But Fuqua and Fiore were tight from working together on Get Carter (2000). Fuqua and Scott were sympathetic to Fiore’s plight and “a kind of exchange” was made, whereby Idziak did Blackhawk and Fiore Training Day. It proved to be Fiore’s breakthrough film.
He said he still considers it “my strongest work to this day. I feel very strongly about the photography in that film. I was really able to capture something there I wasn’t aware of at the time, just the sense of the life of the street and of that underworld cop scene and the color of those neighborhoods, some of the psychological moments in that film. It was a great experience.
“One of the great things about that film, it was a project where I could stop by the lab every day before work and look at the dailies. Everything was done photochemically, there was no digital process at all, so I was able to hold a real tight control over the film, and I don’t even know if that’s possible anymore because of digital intermediate.”
Fiore then shot two films that led to Avatar. The first was Fuqua’s Tears of the Sun. After shooting a BMW commercial for Joe Carnahan, the director offered him Mission Impossible III. The deal blew up when two weeks before the start of production in Berlin Carnahan quit over creative differences with Tom Cruise. Just having been attached to MI III though was enough for Fiore to land The Island (2005).
The look of those two films caught the eye of James Cameron, whom he said particularly “liked how I treated the jungle” in Tears (Hawaii standing in for Africa). “It didn’t feel ever artificially lit, there was the tonality of all the different plants, people were lit with sky light and there was a mix of color on the faces. That was why he brought me in for an interview.”
By the time Fiore joined Avatar Cameron’s digital team had been prepping the project for years. The producer ran all their motion capture and 3D tests for Fiore, who wanted in on what he, Cameron and others clearly see as the future of filmmaking — motion capture, CG and perhaps 3D.
“We’ll still expose in film, but maybe eventually we’ll end up completely digital just because it’s easier for everybody to deal with all the information,” said Fiore. “It’s simply something I wanted to experiment with before it took over. It is inevitable and after working on one of the most technological films of this century I would say I’m pretty open to it. It’s here and we have to accept it.”
Avatar plunged Fiore down the rabbit hole. The new challenge excited him.
“Definitely,” he said. “I like the feeling of being completely overwhelmed on a project. That I’m going off and doing something I’ve never done before and know nothing about. It’s an interesting feeling. It’s almost like being lost when you’re traveling. The journey and finding your way is the most interesting part of that. But there’s things I can rely on of course with my lighting experience and spending all that time on sets observing things. Those things are invaluable and I think that’s the only thing you can bring to a director.”
It was one experiment after another with Avatar.
“We did various tests with the 3D camera with lights and tried to figure out what were the issues with the camera, how we were going to use it, and what would they have to modify to make it easier for me and my crew to use.”
Famous for his hands-on control, Cameron often operated the camera himself.
“Most of the time, yes,” Fiore confirmed. “Jim wants to be in there at all times. If he could do it all, he would.”
Cameron strived for a future thick with the residue of life.
“In the photography it was important we created an environment where you could feel life, atmosphere, grit, and that rougher texture of the cold steel. What was very important to Jim was to bring the two environments — of the Navi and the humans — together. The live action and the motion capture really had to meld together. If either stood aside as its own element it would be obvious. He wanted to make sure those two worlds were intertwined photographically and that you still felt they were in the same world. What we created in the live action was a platform for the motion capture, which hadn’t been rendered at that point.
“The use of a longer lens makes it feel like you’re looking through a microscope. It’s giving us Jake’s perspective, it’s told through his point of view. We didn’t use much crane or Steadicam. Most of the time we used hand-held.”
Being so immersed in the project meant Fiore couldn’t see the forest for the trees and therefore was unsure if the sum would be bigger than the parts.
“I didn’t really know from working on it if this was going to be the most amazing film anybody had ever seen or the biggest flop.”
When he finally saw the finished product he was rather in awe of what Cameron’s perfectionism and insistence wrought.
“It’s amazing to see the commitment to a vision, the imagination and the amount of discipline he put into that project every day. You can’t argue with it. It’s there in the film and it’s an amazing accomplishment. He’s really created another world there almost like Walt Disney. Yes, it’s predictable and, yes, we’ve seen these storylines before, but the experience of the film takes you away from all that. It’s tough to criticize. I mean, the entire planet is interested in this film. It’d be like criticizing the way Mickey Mouse is drawn — it’s history at this point.”
Mauro is forever part of that history now.
His next feature is Real Steel, a futuristic boxing drama in which human-like robots do battle. The Disney-Dreamworks project stars Hugh Jackman and shoots in Detroit. Fiore worries being typecast as an action cinematographer but is guided by how strongly he responds to a script. He said despite its set-up Real Steel tells “a really good, heartwarming story” about a father and son who bond through boxing.
If Fiore should win the Oscar his undercover life in Omaha will be over. But aside from travels for films and occasional TV commercials, he’s settled in Omaha. He’s even shot a spot for the Omaha Film Festival, where he’s been a panelist.
He finds it “pretty unbelievable” that he, Oscar-winning editor Mike Hill and Oscar-winning screenwriter Alexander Payne “all find ourselves here.” He said hopefuls should glean from that that film careers are “completely attainable” wherever one resides.
- Barry Ackroyd wins Best Cinematography Award (telegraph.co.uk)
- About those Oscar nominations… (timeoutny.com)
- Oscars: What won? (timeoutny.com)
- Cinematographer William Fraker dies (variety.com)
- American Cinematographers Chose the 50 Best-Shot Films of the Last 10 Years (anyclip.com)
- Real Steel Review: Babes in Mad Max Land (time.com)
- James Cameron Talks ‘Avatar 2′ & Sigourney Weaver’s Return (screenrant.com)