In conversation with: Vittorio Sacco

An Italian in America, an American in Italy….

An extremely lucky man, Vittorio Sacco was able to make from his occupation an overwhelming sense of passion. Inexplicably, from this infatuation, he’s still a circumstantial victim. A man that is always chasing his challenges, wherever they happen to occur and with any means they need to be dueled with. Rarely satisfied from his own performances, but always deeply convinced of being able to improve. Daring, provocative, arguable, problematic and extremely curious. Since his youth, he finds himself unveiling every subject he lays his eyes upon, with an innate desire of knowledge and a spasmodic search to fully eviscerate its content. 

Agnieszka Celej: Some photographers started out as assistants, others photographing their own children, how did you start your career?

Vittorio Sacco: Mesmerized by witnessing the process of a black and white paper sheet as it developed in its bath.. Love at first sight! It happened in a professional photo studio that soon became my preferred playground. I was only 14… My enthusiasm and stubbornness forced the Studio Manager to finally hire me as a third assistant. From there a long and winding road that eventually brought me to Mecca, London. My career was definitely set.

Why have you decided to be a professional tabletop photographer and director?

It was then that I was introduced to a world renowned Still Life Photographer, Mr. Lester Bookbinder.

His work was sublime, his approach on set almost ritual. Those were the days where the most celebrated print campaigns shot at his studio were art directed by Ridley Scott and Adrian Lyne to name a few. In the very few hermetic conversations I had with the Master, he highly recommended me to enroll in a formal Professional Photography School. 

Four years later I graduated from Brooks institute, California. Illustration was my Major and, at the end, table-top was a direct consequence. Years later, in NYC, another mythological figure in the Advertising World, Mr. Ed Bianchi, sponsored my very first showreel, and triggered my professional future as a Director Cameraman.

Is there a difference between photographing and filming? 

I can only answer this question for what involves me specifically. Over the years I have profited from these two disciplines on a regular basis. Most probably unconscious of it. The most relevant example that comes to mind is perhaps to compare Filming and Photographing as for a chef Baking to Sauteing… One needs precise temperatures and timing, the other energy and improvisations. At the end they both need to astonish you, as Alexey Brodovitch would say….

We went digital a long time ago. What important changes have you noticed, having used film and Polaroid films for years?

Digital processes brought a tremendous and inestimable advantage to image making altogether.

Ethically speaking, I personally feel that analog shooting procedures had the tendency to bring the level of concentration and attention to the details far more intense and rigorous. So I tend to simulate that passed orthodox approach as much as possible in today’s reality of image capturing.

Needless to say, though, these techniques nowadays are as intriguing and fascinating as dangerous lethal weapons that often are in the hands of image criminals…

What really inspires me is being able to manipulate an image digitally and reflecting the output into analog glorious printing processes, such as Platinum/Palladium and the likes.

Can you describe how your creative process evolved within the years? How do you come up with concepts and ideas?

Truly speaking I feel that the undiscussed role to come up with concepts and ideas in a broad sense, definitely belongs to the Agency’s Creatives more than to the selected Director… Nonetheless, the Director’s interpretation and her/his point of view are vital elements of the outcome.

When a board is handed over to me, the very first thing I assume and take in serious consideration, is all the painstaking process that finally led the Agency/Client to that particular visual concept… So, despite the urge and the enthusiasm that immediately arise, one should make an enormous effort to analyze the same with respect and admiration before expressing her/his thoughts. That’s no easy task, trust me. But a necessary one. I learned it the hard way.

So, to fully answer your question, the “creative process” is, at its very beginning, a bit like walking on very thin ice, where your eagerness and compulsion needs to be tamed, controlled and slowly whispered to your audience.

That’s definitely one form of my personal evolution over the years. Learning to listen before shouting nonsense….

Over the years, what significant changes or trends have you observed in the field of tabletop directing for food commercials?

I have seen innumerable ‘trends’, but rare significant ‘changes’. Unfortunately, to my dismay, ‘trends’ come and go, some lasting longer than others, but inevitably they fade quite quickly. But bear in mind that ‘significant changes’ demand courage and may easily lead to potential failures.

The lack of authenticity and visual sacred respect that ‘food’ inevitably demands, often mesmerized and entranced by means of technical virtuosity, is what I detest the most. On the contrary, I’m greatly impressed and often astonished by the peculiar, un-expected and singular approach by a live-action Director when confronted with a typical Table Top sequence. Coincidentally, the above frequently triggers a ‘Significant Change’!

Lighting plays a crucial role in making food look mouthwatering on screen. What are some of your favorite lighting techniques or setups for food shoots?

I believe that ‘mouthwatering’, in its orthodox sense, is a combination of flavors and textures that happens once you bite and savour deliciously prepared food. Sensoriality explodes in your mouth, and nirvana takes over your senses. But I trust that texture plays a key role, perhaps unconsciously, but highly efficiently. Hence, when faced with the task of lighting food, it has been my very first priority to enhance, caress, and shape my subject’s textures and volumes.

Food in itself, either raw, cooked, steamed, broiled, baked, whipped…you name it…once on set, demands the same lighting approach you would apply to exquisite portraiture. Each of its cooking stages requires different lighting  techniques, often diametrically opposed…

More so, I’m a believer that a ‘twist’ of theatrical stage lighting often helps the cause. My lighting work has been very often described as “low key”. I’ve found it a compliment.  There’s nothing more challenging than to create life and interest in the shadows….

What were the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your career as a tabletop director, and how did you overcome them?

My biggest challenges in my career as a TableTop Director-Cameraman did not happen on set. Never once. On the contrary, there’s a countless series of very serious challenges I’ve faced in a crowded meeting room during a Pre-Production meeting.

Some I overcame with discreet success, some left my audience confused and actually wondering if they made the right choice! No matter how you rehearse your lines, I’ve found over the years that being convincing in describing your very often complicated intentions to an audience of Product Managers and the like, is a real challenge. Obviously it is no-one’s fault!

It’s a bit like showing an orchestral partiture and pretending to play and hear the music. Tough, eh? To this day I haven’t found a magic formula as yet. There’s always hope…

Can you share some memorable moments from your experience directing commercials?

Memorability is a big word. But I do actually recall a few milestones, so to speak. In my late twenties I was awarded a print and TV campaign for a leading Japanese Motorcycle Firm. The bikes were set in Space, riding on different Planets surfaces of our Universe. Obviously at the time there was no 3D, PS and the like. We hired an Oscar Winner Set Designer, Mr. Harry Lange. He was awarded for 2001, A space Odyssey by S.Kubrick. I went to London, met the gentleman and successfully convinced him. It took over 49 shoot days. All 8”x10” still reversal film and 35mm Arri… I remember taking the full day to expose on the same sheet of film over and over, an average of 14 exposures each sheet. You do the math.

Ten years later, I was awarded another quite ambitious project for an American Boot Company, highly popular in the EU at the time. We traveled the States, depicting the most iconic landscapes of the Country. Again, all 8”x10”… Filtering the rusty water of Louisiana Plantations to process E6 on set, trucking equipment on route 66… Fun!

‘Grana Padano’ was my real breakthrough as a Director. Again, at the time there was no Flame, no Inferno, no MoCo. All practical, wire tape and rubber band style. Very successful, brought a load of awards worldwide.

Relatively recently I was awarded a Greek Yogurt leading brand Campaign. Twenty nine spots at once. A record? Who knows… I had the feeling of being on a Feature Film set with a Feature Film Crew. By the fifth day you were ready to fire them all… Just joking…. A wonderful, unrepeatable experience!

Are there any specific campaigns that you’re particularly proud of or that you believe pushed the boundaries of tabletop directing in food commercials?

‘Pushing the boundaries’ is very subjective…. If by ‘Pushing the Boundaries’ we intend developing  new softwares for High Speed Robotic Arms interfaced with 3D Maya related programs, I’m not the one to ask. There’s a gigantic Army out there, fully loaded with the most recent  lethal weaponry.

I personally find the above as un-interesting as sterile. More so, highly indistinguishable. Which leaves me dry mouthed, to say the least.

On the contrary, I’m fascinated by a more pictorial, authentic and truthful approach based on lensing, lighting and, more so, settings. Years ago, I had the privilege to shoot a Mozzarella Leading Brand set in an actual old roman farmhouse. It felt like depicting the honest authenticity of the location intertwined the mouthwaterness of my hero.

No state of the art technique was spared, rest assured, but it all blended seamlessly. Perhaps, in a few words, being able to mitigate the cruelty of nowadays technicalities is what to me represents “pushing the boundaries”. Alongside pictorial image manipulation, always well dosed and elegantly applied.

What advice would you give to directors and filmmakers entering the field of tabletop directing, based on your extensive experience?

Compared to just a decade ago, the market out there is oversaturated with Food Director-Cameramen. I would not like to be in the shoes of someone that has to shortlist one of them. What I find sort of unique is that there’s hardly any distinguishable difference amongst them all. Nonetheless, there’s always room for new talent, as we all have experienced that.

Advice? Sure…Roll up your sleeves, stop monkeying around your favorite colleague, turn off your browser and go to work. Your latest MoCo, Hi-Speed Gizmo, LED spotlight and everything else you may have purchased will not make you stand out. These aren’t the days when you could count the number of Photosonics on the planet  with your fingers…

Experiment, experiment, experiment!


*Some excerpts from the interview were quoted from the Naima Zagholul interview in GATE, issue # 32, Sept 2023 

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