After an education in Arts and Sciences at Bishop's Stortford College, I moved to Italy straight after school and started looking for work in the Eternal City. First of all, I managed to convince the Daily American newspaper, which broadcast a radio news programme on Sunday mornings, that I would be an excellent host for the programme. It was exciting because I was running the whole radio station myself, at least on Sunday mornings. I would watch the teletype for news and cut out the (in my opinion) newsworthy articles. Then I went on to read a main news bulletin with my chosen articles.
I enjoyed being a radio presenter, and little did I know that it would serve as the basis for television not long afterwards, after a brief interlude as a stills photographer for lesser known TV shows. I found it difficult to get reimbursed for rolls of film, so I soon gave that up.
Then it was the turn of sound dubbing. I had discovered that English dubbing was being done quite a lot in Rome at the time, and I had the good fortune to meet John Gayford, a true master of dubbing, and very patient with a beginner like me.
Looking for further job opportunities, I contacted a local TV station called SPQR TV. Although my Italian wasn't all that brilliant then, I remember sitting patiently in director Giuseppe Coliizzi's office for the better part of an entire day, watching numerous colourful personalities come and go with various TV programme proposals. Surprisingly, at the end of the day, Colizzi turned to me and said that, since I was still there, I should come back the next day. I didn't fully realise then and there, but this was actually the beginning of a paid job in his television station.
Rather uniquely for the day, Colizzi had put together a television crew using his talented editors, cinematographers and film crew. I was lucky to have been able to work with them one after the other. This is where I learned a lot about editing and studio work.
I was privileged to be able to learn my trade from experienced professionals, and I fondly remember a series of jobs that I did with Donatella Palermo (now a renowned film producer) where we were helped by a Friulian doc, affectionately known as 'Lasseter'. In Donatella's words, and with a much better memory than mine: "Our first documentary made together was called "Cinema and Television, what's the difference?". We had taken some boring shots at the Socialist party congress and in order to edit them, we had taken images, sketches, etc. from all the other television channels, which together made a nice 30-minute film. In fact, we were ahead of a highly successful programme called Blob, which Enrico Ghezzi was to make years later. In the same way, I remember that together we made a video on kisses and one on punches. In short, we had fun.
Unfortunately, on a hot day in late August in Rome, Colizzi suffered a massive stroke that took his life immediately. Subsequent battles for his estate put an end to the station's activities. Every now and then, when I'm in Rome, I pass by the SPQR headquarters on Via Trionfale, and I feel sad for that concentration of positive energy cut short by Collizzi's untimely death.
Round about the same time Antonio Balsamo, a highly successful entrepreneur in the growing field of post-production, would often come to SPQR to talk to the station staff, and he would also say hello to me. He was a television service provider. He must have been pleasantly surprised by the visual quality of a programme I was directing regularly with the astrologer Anna Maria Semprini, because he asked me if I would like to work for him as an editor in his new and fast growing post production company SBP.
Looking back, I think Balsamo made a good bet by taking me on, because I poured over to his clients the technique and motivation I had learned from the talented "Colizzi film professionals". In the following years I also travelled the world with him to look at and evaluate new technologies. He had a great passion for his work and I can't help but remember what I learned from him when I watched him deal with clients and tell them about the next new things there were going to be in the facility. He had the ability to move the bench mark ever forward, anticipating what the market would want next. This was for me a master class in how to work commercially, the all important customer care, and entrepreneurship generally.
In the meantime, I was also working on a lot of RAI television projects, which were to gain me some notoriety within the industry. My graphic, aesthetic and editing talents, which had also evolved with new technologies that Balsamo continued to invest in, were used for the opening titles of "Disco-Ring", "Domenica In", "Mr. Fantasy", "Marco Polo" and "Appuntamento al Cinema", among other national television programmes, and I also worked on RAI's main news programmes opening titles.
After five years of working at SBP, the sirens that wanted to attract me to Milan, including my future wife, got the better of me, so I decided to move to what was then a lively and thriving city in the Italian television sector, before Silvio Berlusconi had conquered all of his competitors, creating a monopoly. Anyways, I decided to set up my own company in Milan, because I could see that there was room to create a new, more modern post production reality for the Milan commercials market. With Balsamo we discussed a possible SBP Milan, but we didn't agree on the conditions, however, I managed to obtain financing for a Quantel paint box and a Sony one-inch machine and created the company Imaginaction. This proved very successful and, using my strategy of running its activity in other established post production facilities, quickly drained them of clients.
Once in Milan I worked intensively on high end commercials shot in Cape Town, Johannesburg, London, Los Angeles, Milan, Paris and Rome - and these commercials, which were becoming more and more challenging in terms of the complexity of their visual effects helped me to develop my supervisory skills, often using motion control, blue and green screens, and increasingly sophisticated combinations of cgi, real and virtual sets. These ranged from the 'Mulino Bianco' commercials with idyllic country views transported to major Italian cities, to 'Zebra Zulu' for the newspaper il Corriere Della Sera', which won an award for its visual effects, to the first HIV awareness ad in Italy - designed by the famous and pioneering advertising guru Armando Testa himself, who drew a purple line around the HIV 'infected' subjects.
In essence, I was honing the skills that the film industry would then look to me for - solutions that could put production value and creative ideas on screen with ever lower aggregate budgets. To this end, I specialised in offering combinations of digital sets, real and virtual, along with set extensions for films, helping creatives and producers achieve their often challenging goals in production design.
I had spoken to the artistic director of the Venice Film Festival, Gillo Pontecorvo, thanks to Maria Grazie Mattei. Gillo agreed that most Italian film directors didn't know what could be done with digital technologies, and many thought they were useful only for Jurassic Park type cgi, so he suggested that we put all our technological 'wares' inside the beautiful Salone degli Specchi at the Hotel Excelsior in Venice during the Festival, and spend time explaining to many of the filmmakers present at the festival that technology and our know-how could do useful things for their stories; digital visual effects offered savings and opportunities to create virtual sets.
As soon as I explained the possibility that Gillo had offered us, Mike Connor enthusiastically agreed to bring his motion control systems to Venice, so that we could show the filmmakers what could be done by shooting and post-producing with real equipment there and then, while Quantel provided a Domino.
Well, the ten-day demonstration was a great success, thanks in part to the fact that Gillo convinced many directors to come and see us one by one. We didn't have to wait long before a major film project asked for our services. The first Italian director to understand the potential and want to use digital techniques was Giuseppe Tornatore. He told me that he wanted to make his next film 'The Legend of the Pianist' look like a film produced with a much higher budget than it actually had. So, I asked him to explain to me what he wanted in terms of visuals, and we worked on resolving his creative needs, and helping production costs, discussing with Mike how we could achieve these visual effects and virtual sets. I felt very confident in Mike's expertise in cinematography and motion control, and we came up with a number of solutions to help achieve our goals and save production money overall.
In the end we worked on about 450 shots, and I put together a temporary consortium of visual effects companies across Europe to work on them. See this link for more on the visual effects of the "Legend of the Pianist on the Ocean".
I often consulted in teamwork with designers and creatives in film production. I have offered my services as visual effects supervisor on numerous films following a career during which I have also founded and successfully managed several of Italy's leading post-production facilities. A pioneer in intermediate digital film techniques, I have been involved in early d-cinema trials, innovative digital film restoration techniques, d-cinema mastering, digital 3d film shooting and post-production, and advanced digital lab techniques.
I have long believed in disseminating knowledge and know-how to my colleagues in order to create new benchmarks for myself, and I have often recounted my experiences, starting with helping to de-mystify various digital processes to the often very attentive and packed audience of "Cinecittà Tuesdays". I have also specified, supervised, trained others and helped refine the technicalities, workflow and creative aspects of the Digital Intermediate (DI) mastering processes in general.
Over the last decade I have been a supervisor of native 3D during filming, and have learned how to use operationally the relevant post production equipment. Recently, together with Mike Connor, we have designed and set up the Mobile Digital Lab.
Of course, none of these various tasks that I have set myself and have made up my career would have been anything without the Italian family that my wife Bettina and my two sons Alexander and Sebastian have represented for me. I was able, from time to time, to have them on film sets for a few days, so I could show them what I was doing, but I certainly realised that I had been too far and too long away during their formative years. In spite of this, both Sebastian and Alexander thank me for the help I have given them over the years, and I am happy that they now live their lives independently of mine and Bettina's.
A special mention in the Italian family goes to Piero Ottone, grandfather of my children and a shining light for all of us. Piero understood many different cultures, spoke many languages and had that rare ability to extract the truth from practically anyone. No wonder he was one of the best journalists Italy has produced, and I miss the many brilliant conversations we had when we were sailing. Piero taught me the pleasures of cruise sailing, and I accompanied him from Lisbon to Madeira, from Madeira to Casablanca, from the Azores, many Greek islands, and of course, many trips to Corsica, Sardinia, the Islands of Elba, Capraia and many others (see books Piero wrote below).