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'Avatar' cinematographer followed path from Palatine to Pandora
By Dann Gire | Daily Herald film critic

Intimidation doesn't have much effect on Mauro Fiore, the Palatine High School graduate nominated for the best cinematography Academy Award for his work on James Cameron's box office smash "Avatar."


Courtesy/Columbia College

Palatine High School graduate Mauro Fiore is nominated for the best cinematography Academy Award for his work on James Cameron's box office smash "Avatar."


Courtesy/Columbia College

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Published: 3/7/2010 12:08 AM | Updated: 3/7/2010 12:22 AM

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Try to intimidate Mauro Fiore.

Go on. Just try.

The 1982 Palatine High School graduate is up for an Academy Award tonight for his camera work on James Cameron's cutting-edge, science-fiction action blockbuster "Avatar."

He got the job - and the nomination - by being one cool cat in the face of challenges that might have turned other cinematographers into humanoid Jell-O.

"There's a certain openness and a calmness that I automatically have," Fiore said. "I don't get through a day without thinking how fortunate I am to do something that I'm really passionate about. That really keeps me going."

Intimidation Test No. 1: Fiore and Cameron meet for 30 minutes to see if the demanding, techno-savvy director of "Titanic" wants him to be his director of cinematography to shoot the live-action portions of "Avatar."

"There could have been a little intimidation there," Fiore admitted. "But I just accepted him for who he was and treated it just like any other interview. I just forgot about who he was and what he represented. I felt like the interview went pretty well."

Apparently, it did.

Intimidation Test No. 2: Fiore tackles the Fusion 3-D camera system and visual technologies so new that Cameron had to create terms to describe digital filmmaking functions such as "combo" (connecting a character from one shot with a character from another shot to put them in the same scene).

"Right away I could see that there were a lot of technological challenges to be met," Fiore said.

First up, "Avatar" used high-definition (HD) digital cameras. Fiore had previous experience on those.

Second up was the new 3-D camera system created by Cameron and his techies, one that used "beam-splitter mirrors" to capture 3-D images in ways no movie has done before. That was a toughie.

"It's something you really have to experiment with and it takes some time to see how the system works," Fiore said. "This is not something we did overnight. It took several months. It was an incredibly long process because there was so much information being exchanged."

Intimidation Test No. 3: Fiore encounters the Cameron Factor.

How many times did the cinematographer contemplate pulling his hair out while filming "Avatar"?

"Plenty!" he said. "Not so much about the technology. We were able to deal with the technology without being overwhelmed by it.

"It was more along the lines of how difficult it was to put 100 percent of yourself on the project like Jim does. That's a major amount of intensity. That's probably the only time I questioned continuing. The intensity of this man!

"Sometimes it was very difficult to deal with as a collaboration. He's this technologically proficient person who spends every waking hour of his day dedicated to this project, including weekends and whatever. That's when I felt like pulling my hair out ... along with every other guy."

After months and months of patience and study and shooting, Fiore finally saw his live-action footage worked into the final print of "Avatar."

"He (Cameron) pretty much achieved everything he set out to do. And that's pretty amazing," Fiore said.

Born in Calabria, Italy, Fiore, now 45, moved to the United States when he was 7. His interest in photography started at Palatine High School when he was introduced to shooting and developing photos using Tri-X film.

He attended Harper College in Palatine for two years and thought about becoming a sociology major.

Then, his life changed course when he entered Columbia College in Chicago, an institution he praised for not only teaching theory, but practical, hands-on training.

There he met fellow cinema student Janusz Kaminski, who would go on to win Academy Awards for shooting Steven Spielberg's war movies "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan."

Fiore's career kicked into forward drive after Kaminski moved to L.A. and started working with the legendary exploitation producer Roger Corman. Kaminski summoned Fiore to L.A. to help him on projects. The two were roommates for seven years.

Fiore has worked on many big-budget Hollywood productions, among them the Oscar-winning "Training Day," "Tears of the Sun," "The Island" and "The Kingdom."

It was the realistic, unfussy way Fiore shot the jungle scenes in "Tears of the Sun" that impressed Cameron, who wanted to replicate Fiore's jungle sequences for "Avatar."

Fiore now lives a very un-Hollywood lifestyle in Nebraska with his wife - a costume designer taking some time off - and their three children, a 6-year-old son and two daughters, ages 4 and 8.

But from the moment at Columbia when he first held a 16 mm. Bolex camera, Fiore has been transfixed by the opportunity to look through a view finder and trip the shutter.

"It's the anticipation of waiting to see what magic comes out of the camera after you've shot something," he said. "It's something amazing and enticing to see."