“Lighting an environment, whether outdoors or indoors, is always very difficult. It's hardly surprising, it's difficult just to light your own home. If, however, you go somewhere and find the wrong light, it makes you uncomfortable, you don't like it”. Giancarlo Basili is a passionate advocate of the importance of proper lighting. He knows that his work as a set designer for theatre and film can be enhanced or ruined by the lighting, and his trained eye can see when lights enhance or ruin squares, streets and facades in our towns.
Recently, he built a whole housing estate in an abandoned factory in Caserta for My Brilliant Friend, the TV series based on the novel by Elena Ferrante and produced by RAI and HBO. From the eighties to the present day, he has worked with some of the most important directors of Italian cinema, including Nanni Moretti, Gabriele Salvatores, Gianni Amelio, Marco Bellocchio and Pupi Avati. He won a Nastro d'Argento award for the set design of The Man Who Will Come (2010) and four Ciak d'oro awards for his work on Nirvana (1997), Wild Blood (2001), Paz! (2002) and Light of My Eyes (2009). In 2015 he oversaw the preparation of Pavilion Zero at the Milan Expo.
The Luzzatti district in Naples, where My Brilliant Friend is set, was reconstructed in Caserta, in the former Saint-Gobain factory. © Photo: Eduardo Castaldo
In the near future will dedicate an article to the interaction between light and the set design in My Brilliant Friend, but today we talk to Giancarlo Basili about the importance of light in urban spaces.
Do Italian towns have the lighting they deserve?
I don't think so. Because of my work in film, I often find myself visiting town squares or streets, even some important ones, before preparing a set, and most the time I find that the lights are wrong.
What do you mean?
For example, they may be too hot or too cold, and the atmosphere they create doesn’t do justice to the architecture, it doesn’t enhance its qualities. The same thing happens in many galleries; rather than helping to view the pictures, in many cases the light disturbs, it distorts the colours.
Can you give me some examples of Italian towns or museums where the lighting leaves much to be desired?
I don't really want to be controversial. The important thing for me is to repeat something I often say to administrators, that they should contact someone who understands light, and have them analyse the lighting in their town. From this point of view, there is a lot of room for improvement in Italy, but to enhance these places, the light has to be designed.
A photo of the set of My Brilliant Friend. © Photo: Eduardo Castaldo
As a set designer, do you also have a professional interest in light?
My sets could not live without the right lighting. When I design them, I always think about the kind of light they need, and while making a film, I often have to discuss it with the director of photography. The light is essential when telling a story through cinema, even though the viewer doesn’t realise it.
The lights that illuminate a set are also much stronger that they seem on the screen. That's true. For an outdoor night scene, the viewer sees the light source is a street lamp, but in fact there's a whole system off-screen with which we “reinforce” that street lamp. When we used film, we practically had to triple the light sources, otherwise the camera would not see anything; now we need much less because we can work on the image digitally.
How do you design the lighting for an outdoor night scene? For films set in other eras, we study the kind of lighting used in that period and reproduce it. That's what happened in My Brilliant Friend, which is set in the fifties, when hot lighting was used a lot. For films set in the present day, I visit the location at night with the director of photography, we chose a square or street, look at the lights there and then decide how to change them. We cannot afford to light a whole town from scratch, so we tend to use the public lighting already available on location as much as possible, but often to get lighting of the right temperature, we have to change the whole internal lighting system (the bulbs in the street lamps, for example).
A scene from the set of My Brilliant Friend. © Photo: Eduardo Castaldo
What is your relationship with public administrators?
They cooperate willingly with us, usually because they are keen to host a film production in their town, so the film will promote it.
Are they not offended when you say their towns are badly lit?
Typically, when they come to the set and watch the filming, they are fascinated; they are the first to want to preserve the atmosphere we have created for the film in daily life. Our work, however, is ephemeral; we may revolutionise the lighting of a town, but then we dismantle everything when we have finished shooting. It's a different technique from that of the lighting designer; in our case, it’s the images that remain at the end – on film, once, and today in digital form.