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The Young Pope

The Young Pope

Published in the April 2017 issue of American Cinematographer.

Italian cinematographer Luca Bigazzi reteams with director Paolo Sorrentino for the HBO series on the first American Pope.

When Italian writer/director Paolo Sorrentino first conceived of The Young Pope, he had no idea how timely it would be. That was 2012, when he was still at work on his Oscar-winning The Great Beauty. The television series, coproduced by Sky, HBO, and Canal +, wouldn’t air until five years later. Its American debut was on January 15, five days before the presidential inauguration. Commentators couldn’t help but note the similarities between Sorrentino’s mercurial, reactionary, isolationist Pope and our president elect. But the director had other things in mind.

He’d long been fascinated by the Vatican. So when Wildside producer Lorenzo Mieli approached him about doing a series, possibly about the popular saint Padre Pio, Sorrentino countered with the Pope himself. That character coalesced after the election of Pope Francis, the most liberal and open-minded pontiff in recent memory. Sorrentino wanted a foil, a Pope who’d never been seen before. What he created was Lenny Belardo, aka Pope Pius XIII (Jude Law), a young, chain-smoking, Cherry Coke–loving American, one who was personally devote and rigidly dogmatic, capable of Machiavellian maneuvers but also vulnerable, insecure, and suffering from a mid-life crisis of faith. Sorrentino’ script follows the upheavals in Vatican City after the Pope’s election and offers enough intrigues, scandals, big life questions, and visual splendor to keep viewers hooked for 10 episodes—all shot by Sorrentino’s longtime director of photography, Luca Bigazzi.

The memorable opening credits, backed by a cover of Jimi Henrix'  All Along the Watchtower.  All photos courtesy HBO

The memorable opening credits, backed by a cover of Jimi Henrix' All Along the Watchtower. All photos courtesy HBO

The two have been on a roll. They first teamed up in 2004 for The Consequences of Love, then continued with The Family Friend, Il Divo, This Must Be the Place, The Great Beauty, and Youth, earning piles of awards along the way, including 19 wins and 11 nominations for best cinematography. “I work with Luca on all my films,” Sorrentino said by email. “We get along well, we’re fond of each other, and we have an immediate understanding without having to talk too much, which I detest.” For his part, Bigazzi considers Sorrentino a genius and a good friend.

They share at least one common denominator: neither had formal film training. What Bigazzi calls his “absurd and improbable experience” as a cinematographer began in 1983, when he and former high-school classmate Silvio Soldini embarked on the feature Paesaggio con Figure. Bigazzi, then a 23-year-old neophyte, produced and acted as director of photography. Having no experience setting up lights, he used very few—a philosophy he continues to this day. (He and Soldini reteamed several more times, including on the break-out hit Bread and Tulips.)

The Young Pope was Bigazzi and Sorrentino’s first foray into television. Their approach was to treat the 10-hour series like a very long feature. “Paolo and I wanted to make a TV series as similar as possible to a movie, both in terms of frames and the visual look—with no fear about using wide shots and decisively extreme contrasts,” the cinematographer said by email. 

No cameras can be placed on Vatican soil, so Vatican City had to be conjured from scratch.

Still, The Young Pope was a whole different scale. It was shot over 24 weeks, “so half an hour of edited material each week. A terrifying pressure,” Bigazzi says. The 122 days of production resulted in 2,777 shots and 189 terabytes of footage. London’s Double Negative created around 900 visual effects. The fixed crew numbered 131, with 464 daily crew added as needed. Locations spanned Italy, the U.S., and South Africa.

The settings were big too: St. Peters, the Sistine Chapel, the Pope’s expansive office. During prep, “our main preoccupation was undoubtedly the vastness of the environments,” Bigazzi says. “Working with Paolo is a source of great gratification, but his requests are often the source of nightmares! Extreme speed; the use of several cameras at the same time, often alternating wide-angle and telephoto lenses, which means finding a light that will work both for the close-ups and the more extreme full shots.”

Sorrentino in the full-scale replica of the Sistine Chapel, with the production's Red Epic Dragon.

Sorrentino in the full-scale replica of the Sistine Chapel, with the production's Red Epic Dragon.

No cameras can be placed on Vatican soil, so Vatican City had to be conjured from scratch. At Cinecittá in Rome, production designer Ludovica Ferrario (another Sorrentino veteran) supervised the creation of a full-scale replica of the Sistine Chapel, measuring 581,251 square feet. Other sets included the Pope’s private office, the Vatican balcony, and the balcony of Saint Mark’s Cathedral in Venice. The rest were practical locations in and around Rome: Santi Luca e Martina standing in for St. Peter’s Basilica; Villa Doria Pamphili and Villa Medici for Castel Gandolfo, the pope’s summer residence; Villa Lante for the Vatican gardens; and Palazzo Venezia for the Vatican’s passageways and stairwells. “Rome is a city where every corner hides environments historically connected to the Church,” Bigazzi notes.

Jude Law in full papal regalia

Jude Law in full papal regalia

When picking locations, Sorrentino says, “I wanted a great deal of half-lights and the sun entering the windows with a beautiful light. Priests always live in places with a wonderful orientation and an enchanting light.”

The play of extreme light and dark was key to the show’s look. In particular, the whites of the papal wardrobe often seemed to radiate light. “From time to time, I wanted Jude to be struck by a glow reminiscent of sainthood,” the director notes. Bigazzi adds, “From the very beginning, we said that our pope should have an evident opalescence. His very white clothes had to be a source of light. The Pro-Mist filter was extremely useful for this. In the bright scenes, I often had to overexpose the image. In other scenes, we verged on the deepest darkness—an attitude far removed from the style of TV and one I could assume only thanks to the courage of a director like Paolo.”        

As in their previous project, Youth, they utilized the Red Epic Dragon, shooting mostly 4K, sometimes 5K or 6K. “This allowed us to sometimes use medium lenses and obtain a wide-angle effect without suffering the distortions typical of extreme lenses,” Bigazzi says. Two cameras were always deployed, often three, with LTO-6 tape drives for data storage. They carried a double set of Leica Summicron primes, a 10mm Zeiss Ultra Prime, and Canon zooms (14.5–60mm, 15.5–47mm, 30–105 mm, and 30–300mm). Pro-Mist filters were used throughout.

Bigazzi also made frequent use of the Dragon’s HDR settings “to selectively increase the exposure latitude without losing detail with bright lights,” he says. “This also allows me to use exclusively natural light on the set without being forced to worry about overexposure from the windows or other light sources. It’s a system that has once and for all freed me from the constrictions linked to light balance and represents for me a definitive turning point that has convinced me about the superiority of digital shooting techniques,” he states.

The series’ overall look is signature Sorrentino: long, winding camera moves as sinuous as calligraphy, and grid-like configurations as geometric and symmetrical as Renaissance one-point perspective. Except for dialog-heavy scenes, the camera is always gliding, floating, probing. “I’m a curious person, and to satisfy my curiosity, the camera needs to investigate,” Sorrentino says.

One bravura example opens episode 9: The Pope and his mentor, Cardinal Spencer (James Cromwell), are alone in the Sistine Chapel, engaged in a complex theological dialog about abortion. The shot goes for seven uncut minutes, during which the camera travels behind and over the cardinal, across the vast room towards the pope, then around them in loops, going in and out of two-shots. The scene ends when the pope mentions his mother, who abandoned him at an orphanage. As he exits, the camera pushes in on the faces of the damned in Michaelangelo’s Last Judgement.

Extreme contrasts in lighting was one major part of the visual aesthetic.

Extreme contrasts in lighting was one major part of the visual aesthetic.

“This is a long sequence shot that Paolo conceived as a complex Steadicam movement, which in my opinion is surprising and successful,” says the cinematographer. “Paolo has this great ability to understand when sequences should be edited with several frames or when they should be kept as long sequence shots. The actors’ performances are a determining factor in several dialogue sequences like this one, and sequence shots force everyone into a remarkable concentration.”

 Bigazzi continues with another example. “One of the most effective scenes from the chorographic point of view was Jude Law entering the Sistine Chapel in episode 5: an entrance reminiscent of ancient Egypt, powerfully formal, but also full of meaning in the way it illustrates the complex personality of Lenny Belardo. We shot it using a Technocrane, with lighting balloons suspended on the ceiling, because the shooting field, as always with Paolo, was 360 degrees. The scene was very complex and required several frames, so we decided to use four cameras. Of course, we had to reconstruct the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel using special effects, and this allowed me, in the most extreme full shots, to frame the lights, counting on the fact that they’d be erased in VFX—a great advantage in terms of speed and light quality. It was a long scene with a lot of extras, and we managed to shoot it in a single, very tiring day.”

Remarkably, Sorrentino and Bigazzi do not choreograph their shots in advance. “I used to storyboard when I was younger, but not anymore,” Sorrentino states. “I don’t know why. I prefer going to the set, hanging around there for 10 minutes on my own and in those 10 minutes invent all the frames for that day’s shooting.” Sorrentino presents Bigazzi with very precise ideas, whether conjured that day or earlier. “Every day he brings a secret list of frames that he keeps jealously hidden,” the cinematographer attests. “And this, I think, is very fair, because it forces those working with him to be ready for any occurrence.”

The speed at which Paolo works, the concentration he requires from everyone, make the set an electrifying but extremely tiring experience. Twenty-four weeks at a ceaseless rhythm was the limit of the humanly possible. Only today can I say that I ‘survived’ The Young Pope.
— Cinematographer Luca Bigazzi

A 360º lighting strategy was maintained throughout the series, leaving actors and camera free to roam. “I never conceive a light for a single close-up as different from the full shot,” he says. “Besides, shooting with two or three cameras at the same time, it wouldn’t be possible. I light starting from the environments, being aware of the kind of look the scene requires, but never favoring technique or elaborate light positioning. Above all, I try to never change the position of the lights during one sequence. I detest wasting directors’ time or distracting the actors with long waits. I think that in this way the realism of the lighting is guaranteed, and this is very important to me. It’s also a form of respect for the spectator, who should not be distracted by artificially unnatural and scarcely credible lighting.”

Contrary to common practice in Italy and elsewhere, Bigazzi operates camera. “I think this is the crucial aspect of my work,” he asserts. “Building geometries to guide the spectator’s gaze is one of the fundamental aspects of working with light, often a decisive one. I’m convinced that a correct position of the camera is the main aspect of our contribution to a film’s success. Besides, I’m also convinced that the operator’s relationship with the actors, the mutual nonverbal communication that develops, is one of the most exciting aspects of our job. Working with Jude Law was an authentic camera operator’s paradise, an unforgettable experience.” The other primary operators were Daria D’Antonio and Luan Amelio, plus Alex Brambilla on Steadicam.

On location on Venice's St. Marks Square.

On location on Venice's St. Marks Square.

“Throughout the 24 weeks of shooting, we used every possible medium: dolly, cranes, Technocranes, Steadicam, drones, aerial and underwater shots,” Bigazzi says. “But also handheld camera, slider, mini jib, everything you could think of. It was a conclusive experience: I could say I authentically learned the job of cinematographer only after completing The Young Pope.”

Likewise, every kind of light was deployed: “Very often helium balloons, because of their soft quality and to tackle the hugeness of the environments. Then, as always, HMI and fluorescents, light bulbs, candles,” Bigazzi says. “Throughout the series, in the daytime the light of the window had to be the main light, often a blinding one. Even if it was daytime, the large Vatican practicals were on, and this gave us those warm tones that contrasted the cold lights of the exteriors.”

“I must admit that in recent years I’ve been using the new LED lights more and more,” he adds. “They’re particularly well-suited to digital filming, which requires a very delicate use of lighting because of its great sensitivity in reading shadows. Today any light risks being too invasive. Lightness, softness, speed—this is what digital cinema requires. I could say I tried working this way in the past, but with great difficulty, because film stock wasn’t sensitive enough. Now it’s finally possible. I feel liberated and able to be much more daring.”

Color timing occurred at Margutta Digital in Rome, with two colorists, Andrea Orsini and Paolo Verrucci, devoted to the series. For Bigazzi, “it’s a decisive moment of my work. Digital printing makes it possible to render the true sense of a scene and to correct every single defect that speed sometimes forces you to accept. It’s a thrilling phase, and my relationship with the colorist is a source of great confidence and comfort even during the shooting phase.”

Keeping their feature-film standards for a 10-part series wasn’t easy. As Sorrentino says, “Being Italians and this being the first time we tried our hand at such a huge production, the whole series was a challenge.” Bigazzi’s lingering memory is of the brutal pace. “The speed at which Paolo works, the concentration he requires from everyone, make the set an electrifying but extremely tiring experience. Twenty-four weeks at a ceaseless rhythm was the limit of the humanly possible. Only today can I say that I ‘survived’ The Young Pope.”


Digital Capture
Red Epic Dragon
Leica Summicron, Zeiss Ultra Prime, Canon


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