Large Format Expands Little Buddha

By Fisher, Bob | American Cinematographer, May 1994 | Go to article overview

Large Format Expands Little Buddha


Fisher, Bob, American Cinematographer


Bertolucci and Storaro reunite on epic film that combines 35mm anamorphic scenes with 65mm footage.

At a January presentation at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Technology Council of the Motion PictureTelevision Industry demonstrated to an audience of some 400 filmmakers and students the aesthetic and technical differences of six different film formats, including Super 16, 65mm, and the four most popular 35mm formats. The seminar was capped with a presentation by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC, who previewed two scenes from Little Buddha, a Bernardo Bertolucci film scheduled for early summer release by Miramax Films.

The first scene, shot in 35mm anamorphic format (2.4:1 aspect ratio) was an intimate, contemporary scene filmed in a church in Seattle, where a Buddhist holy man is introduced to a boy and his mother. The second scene, set in India some 2,500 years ago, depicted the young Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama of the Sakyas, skirting the ugliness of poor village life by travelling on a private road his wealthy father has built for him. Shot in 65mm (2.2:1 aspect ratio), the images in this second sequence were incredibly sharp, bringing out even the distant horizons which seem many miles away. Pristine and devoid of grain, the colors lushly saturated, the spectacular visuals brought a hush over the audience.

After the two scenes were presented at the film seminar, Storaro told the audience that he believes the 65mm format will take filmmaking to a higher plane in the HDTV era. He also surprised everyone by announcing his intention to work on feature projects only in 65mm.

Storaro's extraordinary decision to combine formats in Little Buddha came about as he debated how to handle the two stories being told concurrently in the movie. The first depicts the life of the original Buddha, while the second explores the relationship between a contemporary Buddhist and a boy he suspects to be Buddha's second coming. Early in the film, the story of Buddha is interjected sparingly, via flashbacks. However, the two stories soon parallel each other, and the visual contrast between the past and present is an important element of the film's pictorial grammar.

In a more traditional film, the flashback sequences would be dreamlike and somewhat softer and hazier than the contemporary content of the film. In the case of Little Buddha, however, Storaro felt it was important for the audience to see the scenes as being bigger than life.

"When I explained my idea for shooting the flashback sequences in 65mm format, Bernardo became very excited," Storaro says. "He immediately recognized how the contrast in the quality of images would become part of the story."

Based on a concept developed by Bertolucci and produced by Jeremy Thomas, Little Buddha is Storaro's third collaboration with the duo, following The Last Emperor and The Sheltering Sky. Bertolucci and Storaro have worked together for almost 30 years; their collaboration began when Storaro was a 23-year-old assistant cameraman just getting his career underway on the director's Before the Revolution. Storaro has also photographed Bertolucci's The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris, 1900 and Luna.

The plot of Little Buddha revolves around Lama Norbu, an aging holy man, who believes that his master, Buddha, may have been reborn. While visiting with three possible candidates in Seattle, Nepal and India, Norbu tells the story of Buddha. The film's cast includes Keanu Reeves as Siddhartha; Chris Isaak, Bridget Fonda and Alex Wiesendanger as the Konrad family; and Ying Ruocheng and Jigme Kunsang as, respectively, Lama Norbu and his aid, Champa.

"It's a story within a story," Storaro explains. "When Norbu talks about Buddha, it is as if he is opening a beautifully illustrated storybook. We wanted it to be a perfect world seen through the eyes of a child."

Storaro, Bertolucci and costume/production designer James Acheson discussed a visual frame of reference inspired by highly-detailed and colorful 19thcentury miniature paintings by Indian artists, depicting the life of Buddha. …

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