‘Avatar’ cinematographer re-visits campus

By CiaraShook

Mauro Fiore sat in an armchair before a filled auditorium at Film Row Cinema as part of the Conversations in the Arts series. He reminded students of the importance for everyone to find their own path.

Students, faculty, alumni and members of the public sat in on a conversation between Bruce Sheridan, chair of the Film and Video Department, and filmmaker and alumnus Fiore on Feb. 16 at the 1104 Center, 1104 S. Wabash Ave.

In a welcome speech, Columbia President Warrick L. Carter, said, that although Columbia cannot take credit for the success of an alumnus, the college can feel good about the final product.

“The real icing on the cake is when we see alums rise to the top,” Carter said.

Doreen Bartoni, dean of the School of Media Arts, said Fiore’s appearance was advantageous because of his recent Oscar nomination as best cinematographer in “Avatar” and his cover story in American Cinematographer in January.

“He was in the first class I taught—a film tech class in 1984,” Bartoni said.

Bartoni introduced Sheridan and Fiore to the audience with a retrospective speech about Fiore’s time as a student and Sheridan’s arrival at Columbia in 2001.

During the conversation with Sheridan, Fiore said he did not always know he wanted to be involved in film, but was interested in photography.

In an exclusive interview with The Chronicle, Fiore said he developed an interest in photography in high school, but attended a junior college after high school because he didn’t know what he wanted to study.

“Film really appealed to me because I was always interested in combining arts like photography and music,” Fiore said. “Film incorporated all those interests and I thought, ‘Why not?’”

Fiore said after graduating from Columbia in 1986, he had a gradual realization of a career while working on film sets, such as the 1993 blockbuster “Schindler’s List” when he worked as a gaffer, whose job is the head of the electrical department on a set.

The conversation took a series of breaks during which the audience viewed sample clips of Fiore’s work from feature films such as “Training Day” and “Avatar,” and Fiore’s commercial work for Audi and Nike.

Fiore critiqued the clips, noting the importance of subtlety during certain scenes in “Training Day,” and the importance of pre-visualization before shooting a scene on the set of “The Island.”

Despite his success in film, Fiore said he enjoys making commercials because of the quick execution involved.

“You get hired [to make] a commercial and two days from then, you have to come up with an idea of how to film it,” Fiore said. “The problem solving happens so quickly on a commercial and I think the pressure of that quickness helps the process along much quicker.”

He said he became involved in “Avatar” because director James Cameron admired his treatment of jungle landscapes, drawing from past projects “Tears of the Sun” and “The Island.”

As a movie that relies heavily on 3-D effects, Sheridan noted that “Avatar” marks a large innovation in film with the real-time rendering technology. This technology allowed Fiore and the film crew to see the results of computer-generated imagery (CGI) work as the actors performed the scenes.

“Avatar” has been nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Cinematography.

Although “Avatar” made strides in the film industry, the movie still maintains a good amount of traditional filmmaking, Sheridan said.

“It’s interesting that 18 months of [motion capture] didn’t make the movie, but the cinematographer did,”  Sheridan said.

Fiore’s visit excited Sheridan to see an alumnus engage with the students.

“We had sessions today with student groups that were fantastic to listen to,” Sheridan said. “It’s fantastic when the learning people get from Columbia gets poured back and gets plugged in.”