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Sep. 19, 2023

ARRI tools behind the migrants' journey of “Io Capitano”

Cinematographer Paolo Carnera relied on ALEXA Mini LF and ARRI Signature Primes to capture “Io Capitano,” the story of two African men and their dangerous passage from Senegal to Europe.

Sep. 19, 2023

Feature film “Io Capitano” tells the tale of two young men from Senegal, who go on a journey in pursuit of a dream called Europe—a contemporary Odyssey from a tiny, ramshackle house in Dakar into the desert, Libyan detention centers, and the perils of the open sea. Director Matteo Garrone’s film premiered in the main competition at Venice International Film Festival 2023 and was awarded with the Silver Lion for Best Director, while also earning critical acclaim for its authenticity, technical elegance, and excellent cast. 

“Matteo didn’t want to make a film just about the hardship of the journey, of men and women fleeing war or hunger. Instead, he wanted to tell the story of two young people who, starting from Senegal, discover a world they don’t know and that is precluded to them,” says DP Paolo Carnera, who captured “Io Capitano” with a stunning, immersive immediacy. For him, it was the first collaboration with director Matteo Garrone, who had previously worked with DP Marco Onorato for a long time, while also partnering up with cinematographers Peter Suschitzky and Nicolai Brüel. In “Io Capitano,” the filmmakers tell the story of “the journey,” as it’s called by migrants who cross parts of Africa and the open sea to reach Europe, with Italy as their first landing. Interviewed by ARRI, DP Paolo Carnera shares his experiences of working with ALEXA Mini LF, Signature Prime lenses, and ARRI lighting fixtures during the shoot.

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Director Matteo Garrone on set in the desert

What was the initial cue for making “Io Capitano”?

If an African boy wants to take the “journey of knowledge” that many of us did when we were young, for him the only possible way to reach Europe is to go on an illegal journey, with all the risks involved. Starting from this idea, director Matteo Garrone and I developed a visual style, using a lighter look than one might think, given the subject matter. With “Io Capitano,” the director wanted to make a film for everyone, including young people. It’s the story of an adventure, a coming-of-age movie, at times dramatic but always exciting, describing the journey of young men ready to discover the world. 

Where and for how long did you shoot?

We shot two and a half weeks in Senegal and four weeks in the desert. Then we continued in Casablanca, in an urban area by the sea, where we simulated Tripoli and the detention centers. Finally, we braved the sea with a fishing boat for three weeks. Matteo shot in sequence, so the filming, as well as the journey of “Io Capitano” began in Senegal, the world where our protagonists come from. The language spoken in the film is Wolof, one of Senegal's native tongues. Some parts of the film are in French and, at times, in Italian.  

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“Io Capitano” was shot in sequence, with the crew following the journey that is described in the film

Thinking of the desert and the sea, one imagines a narrative with orange and blue color dominants.

Actually, there are many colors in the film. During location scouting I took a lot of photographs. I needed them to communicate with the director and to preserve the memory of the wonderful things I saw that I wanted to include in the film. Senegal’s colors are stunning, its night lights very evocative. Then there was the desert, a boundless expanse of rocks and sand, with its difficulties and infinite beauty. We shot for five days without stopping, also at night and in the middle of a sandstorm. The images turned out beautiful. We went through “the journey” together with our protagonists, who had never been out of their country before. Traveling with Seydou and Moussa, I understood Matteo Garrone’s deep narrative needs to shoot in sequence. We tried to capture their astonishment and fears in the film, while at the same time experiencing the difficult journey together with them. 

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DP Paolo Carnera on set at Dakar's Medina market

Did you shoot with Steadicam or handheld?

We almost always shot with Steadicam, operated beautifully by Matteo Carlesimo and used as if it were a handheld camera. Only the last block, a very tense part of the dramatic sea voyage, was shot with a handheld camera. 

What kind of research did you do before shooting?

Long before I joined the crew, director Matteo Garrone did a lot of deep research, not only on the images, but also through lots of interviews with people who have actually made “the journey.” Those interviews were the basis for writing the script, as well as for the scenographic reconstruction. But in a film, there must always be room for free interpretation. The goal is to be able to emotionally enhance the story and carefully construct the visuals. The colors of Dimitri Capuani’s set design and Stefano Ciammitti’s costumes are a direct result of the desire to make a film that is adventurous, light, painful, simple, and complex at the same time, while also being respectful of the protagonists’ culture. I drew inspiration from great reporters, above all my teacher Ernest Haas, but also from the colors of American photographer Steve McCurry and the composition of Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado. 

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We chose ARRI Signature Primes for their quality, light weight and extreme reliability. They are sharp but not hard lenses; they held up very well to the stress of harsh conditions, dust, sand, and humidity.

Paolo Carnera

Cinematographer

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Seydou Sarr, the protagonist of “Io Capitano,” won the Mastroianni Award for best emerging talent in Venice

How did you come to the decision to shoot with ALEXA Mini LF and ARRI Signature Prime lenses?

The first stimulus came from the director, who had “Joker” in mind, which was shot with the ALEXA 65. Starting from that reference, the ALEXA Mini LF was a feasible solution for our budget, which allowed us to get more agility in small spaces and complex situations. For the lenses, after much testing, we chose ARRI Signature Primes for their quality, light weight and extreme reliability. They are sharp but not hard lenses; they held up very well to the stress of harsh conditions, dust, sand, and humidity. My glasses got scratched but the lenses did not. The camera continued to work perfectly throughout the shoot. Despite the logistical difficulties, we always managed to take the utmost care while working with the equipment—not only myself but also DIT Andrea Cuomo, focus puller Tiziano Saraca, and the entire technical crew. Thanks to that, our working copy almost became the final copy. We did the color correction in just one week with colorist Angelo Francavilla, with director Matteo Garrone always present in the room. 

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“The ALEXA Mini LF continued to work perfectly throughout the shoot,” says DP Carnera

How did you technically handle the large variations in brightness?

On the highlights, the ALEXA Mini LF responded beautifully. My problem, if anything, was managing the quality of the light, because the sun can be harsh in the desert. In low-light settings, the ALEXA Mini LF’s reduced noise allowed me to use higher sensitivities, comfortably reaching 2000 ISO and beyond if necessary.  

What aperture did you shoot at?

Especially with the ALEXA Mini LF, I usually don’t go beyond 2.8. But I try to stay more open if possible. The beauty of the format is related to the shallow depth of field, which produces an image with a strong pictorial impact even with spherical lenses. There is none of the blur distortion of anamorphic lenses but there is the collapse of depth of field, which makes backgrounds a beautiful mixture of colors rather than a defined world behind the characters. Plus, you can approach characters with fairly wide lenses, use wide angles without much optical distortion, and not distort faces.

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The last part of “Io Capitano” was shot on a fishing boat, on which the crew traveled for almost three weeks

I know you used lenses in combination with rear adapters. 

Yes, in some scenes, because I wanted to make the edges of the frame less defined. I especially used them in the detention center, where I wanted to create the feeling of a loss of balance, of instability in the image, to visually translate Seydou's psychological dimension. I wanted to evoke a reality that is difficult to bear. I hope we managed to tell this story with respect, without distorting reality, but at the same time without shirking the tough nature of the journey. We tirelessly sought to combine ethical consistency with aesthetic strength. 

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“I hope we managed to tell this story with respect, without distorting reality, but at the same time without shirking the tough nature of the journey,” says Carnera

Is that why you shot at sea?

We shot the last part of the film on a fishing boat from Marsala, beautifully set by Dimitri Capuani, on which we traveled for almost three weeks, day and night, sleeping on land, with 110 migrants on board. The first idea had been to work in a studio, reconstructing the sea on blue screen, but director Garrone eventually wanted to shoot in a real-life environment. He did not feel like artificially reproducing certain situations because he thought the protagonists would not react in the same way.

What lighting system did you make use of?

I always use a little bit of everything, but often, for ease and in conditions of low electrical power availability, ARRI SkyPanel S60s and S30s or Astera LED tubes. When we had to balance, fight, or reproduce the powerful sunlight, we opted for the ARRI M-Series and Jumbo lights. For the recording format, we used ARRIRAW with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Our goal was to tell the story on a human scale with a deliberately less spectacular format.

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DP Paolo Carnera: “In low-light settings, the ALEXA Mini LF’s reduced noise allowed me to use higher sensitivities, comfortably reaching 2000 ISO and beyond” 

On what other projects did you work with the ALEXA Mini LF recently? 

I recently used the ALEXA Mini LF in Stefano Sollima's “Adagio,” a technically very complex film, shot entirely in Rome. It is a metropolitan western about a very hot summer, and the protagonists are three retired survivors of the criminal organization “Banda della Magliana,” who take action to save a boy that has gotten into trouble. The story takes place in an almost apocalyptic world of unbreathable heat, causing suburban fires and blackouts. We were able to enlist the cooperation of Rome's public lighting managers, who safely shut down entire city streets at night—the Tangenziale, the Prenestina, Corso Francia—at our request.

Technical equipment provided by D-Vision Movie People