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Italian DP Matteo Cocco on “Hidden Away,” shot with ALEXA Mini

Giorgio Diritti’s film, captured with ALEXA Mini, has earned cinematographer Matteo Cocco prizes at the European Film Awards, Italian Golden Globes, and David di Donatello Awards.

Born in Tuscany in 1985, cinematographer Matteo Cocco made his professional debut in Berlin, where he lensed his first film: Philip Groening’s “The Policeman’s Wife,” winner of the Special Jury Prize at the 2013 Venice Film Festival. Nine years on, he has 15 films under his belt, including “Anna” (“Per amor vostro”), “On My Skin” (“Sulla mia pelle”), and now “Hidden Away” (“Volevo nascondermi”), by director Giorgio Diritti. Captured with ALEXA Mini, this biopic about painter Antonio Ligabue (1899-1965) is a journey into the inner world of a deeply troubled artist, whose wild talent was only recognized late in his eventful, often traumatic life. 
 
How did you meet Giorgio Diritti?

He called me when he was starting to prepare the film on Ligabue, which he had been thinking about for years. He had heard about me from Silvio Soldini, with whom I’d made “Il colore nascosto delle cose.” This was my first collaboration with Giorgio, but I knew his filmography well, including his debut, the beautiful “The Wind Blows Round” (“Il vento fa il suo giro”), one of the rare examples of true independent Italian cinema. “Hidden Away” is a very different exploration of the cinematic image than his previous films, but it respects the essence of his filmmaking.

What visual approach were you looking for?

I wanted to create an image with a strong cinematic impact, while at the same time conveying an idea of naturalness. The cinematography needed to be believable in its perception, but slightly elevated compared to reality. A kind of poetic realism that takes us elsewhere.

How did you relate to Ligabue’s pictorial world?

Referencing his paintings was one of the most complex challenges. During preproduction I spent several days in Genoa studying Ligabue’s paintings up close. I observed their colors and technique; I tried to understand his mood behind each brushstroke. Ligabue had no artistic training and his way of putting color on canvas was very raw, the surface of the paintings is dirty, the brushstrokes wild. His suffering has a material representation. I wanted to bring out that primordial energy, which I think is at the heart of the film. I relied on the temporal fragmentation of our narrative structure and assigned specific colors to different historical periods. 

There are no single shots that emulate the artist’s paintings, but all those images and colors are recomposed in the viewer’s mind and evoke the painter’s worlds. In the film there are all of Ligabue’s colors: his greens, his blues, his reds, his yellows. But they are deconstructed colors, which are reconstructed on an emotional rather than rational level.
 
Why did you choose to shoot with an ALEXA Mini?

It was essential for me to have a small and compact camera, as we always worked in real or adapted environments. The lightness of the camera meant that it could be mounted in any location and position. The workflow management was also a key factor in the choice. My DIT, Lorenzo Capra, took care of all the material on set, monitoring the delicate management of the images with Laserfilm laboratory in Rome.

How did you get on with the ALEXA Mini in different shooting situations?

I don’t think I’m the best person to talk about the ALEXA because every time I work with it I try to destroy it! The camera is a masterpiece of engineering and electronics, but I always push it to its limits, using “imperfect” lenses and exposing the image in an extreme way. I’m always curious to see what the sensor can capture. There’s a scene in the film that explains this well: Ligabue is in his room at night and can’t find peace. A candle is lit, he is enveloped in darkness, he can’t stand still, he paces back and forth in front of a newly painted picture. You could hardly see anything with the naked eye on the set, and it was precisely this atmosphere that allowed our actor, Elio Germano, to feel alone, even though he was not. In purely technical terms it is an imperfect picture: there is noise, there is dirt, but the scene works very well on an emotional level.
 
The choice and use of lenses had a strong expressive impact.

I rely on the rental company D-Vision, with whom I have built up a strong relationship over the last few years. They know my desire to explore older, less-used lenses that are often found at the back of the warehouse. I’m interested in getting to know the extremes. I did tests with Elio Germano, trying out different lens sets, some of them very modern. When I mounted an old Leitz series on the camera, I fell in love! The 15 mm of that series has an aberration that on the ALEXA sensor creates a strong blurring at the edges of the image. This is clearly a defect, but both Giorgio and I were delighted with it. That 15 mm was used a lot in the film, and determined its visual character. Of course, working like this is complicated because lenses of this type perform unpredictably and this brings a margin of risk, but my assistant Eugenio Cinti Luciani made sure everything went smoothly!
 
How did you manage the lights?

In this film I used light to create accents, to elevate the film from realism. I played with a mix of natural and artificial light. The film is shot entirely with incandescent lights. There are no LEDs or HMIs, nothing contemporary or modern.

What camera settings did you use?

Very simple indeed. The sensitivity was usually between 800 and 1000 ISO [EI]. Even outdoors during the day I often use high sensitivities. The ALEXA Mini already performs amazingly well with highlights and strong contrasts, but when I move the sensitivity upwards those highlights get a further variety of tones that I find very interesting. I shot the entire film with the same color temperature of 5,600 degrees Kelvin, both outdoors and indoors, because for me it was a great benchmark for color control.
 
Did you shoot in ARRIRAW?

Yes, although in previous films I never needed it; everything I got in ProRes was more than enough for the work I had to do in color correction. For this project I did some tests and realized that I needed to shoot in ARRIRAW, because of the intense work on color hues.
 
Did you create specific LUTs for the film?

During testing with my colorist Nazzareno Neri we found the basic LUT for the film, the one used for Ligabue’s adulthood. Then we developed others for different moments in the story. We shot in two blocks: six weeks in summer and two in winter, for the childhood part. The LUT was constantly being adjusted because I knew where I wanted to go, but it was very difficult to get there. During the shoot, I had my DIT capture key frames of the scenes shot each day, then processed them on the computer and meditated on the photographic and color choices. I then shared these images with the crew, which was a very useful way to reflect on the work and adjust if necessary. Week after week, this archive of images grew and allowed me to see if my ideas were working.
 
How was the color correction?

It was very long, it lasted 16 days! There were breaks due to editing adjustments. This gave me the opportunity to detach myself from the film. With each color change, I pushed the film more and more in terms of color and contrast. I wanted the image to be the result of a contemporary look at the past.