As part of our mission to get to know our community in a bit more depth, we’re very happy to introduce Mario Cavalli in our latest ‘Meet a vtraveller’ post. Mario is a prize-winning filmmaker, photographer and animator who, in a career spanning more than twenty years, has produced and directed dozens of commericials, music videos and short films along with many more interactive and experimental works.
A passionate adventurer who is permanently on the search for new places, new foods and new ways of looking at the world, Mario is completely Italian on both sides though he was born in the UK and grew up in South Wales. We delve a little deeper to find out what makes him tick.
Mario, tell us how you came to do what you do now?
When my father wasn’t driving back and forth to Italy, which was most of the time, he worked ridiculously long hours in the family business, a local grill restaurant, fish and chip shop and snack bar in the centre of town. His work schedule allowed little time for his favourite leisure activities, reading and watching films, but he was an insomniac like me and so we built a small cinema out of two attic rooms in our old Victorian house and he would rent 16mm prints of all kinds of movies: mainstream Hollywood and European art-house (before the term was even invented), at least two-a-week and maybe one or two more that he would swap with a similarly inclined friend in town. So I saw everything, often many times over.
By the time I applied to go to art school, I already had an extensive portfolio of sketches, paintings, fashion and graphic design and I was advised to apply directly to a degree course. By chance, Manchester had at that time just started a film and television course. All at once, entering the film business, an ambition that had previously seemed impossibly remote even to a film-obsessed boy growing up in South Wales, suddenly appeared to be within arm’s reach. There was simply no choice to make!
You have eagerly embraced the iPhone camera on your travels. Has this forced you to be more creative?
I think the iPhone camera has forced me to see that I no longer need to travel everywhere with an entire studio full of photographic and computer equipment on my back.
The new iPhone4 camera has excellent stills and moving image quality and contains most of the editing software I need to create the kind of imagery I like. It’s an amazing revolution in portability and accessibility. A real gift for someone like me!
For your advertising and other commercial work that has taken you overseas, how do you assess the suitability of a location? What are the challenges of working in an alien place, and what’s most exciting about it?
Usually, the suitability of a location is determined by its appropriateness to the demands of the script. In advertising, the script is normally written by the advertising agency and it will specify the location but a notable exception to that was a series of titles, stings and idents for a season of James Bond films on ITV, sponsored by Martini, devised and directed by myself that required underwater ‘dance’ photography. (A re-edited version is below.)
Never having shot underwater, I had imagined that we would hire a pool in the UK but all were too small and it was too early in the year and too cold to film in the Mediterranean. So our Director of Photography, Mike Valentine, an expert in underwater photography, recommended the Red Sea, filming close to Sharm el Sheik in Egypt. That project got me into scuba diving for the first time and into whole new world of submarine life and discovery. Through one of our crew who knew the area well, I also had the opportunity to drive into the Sinai Desert and spend time with the Bedouin, a wonderful and unforgettable experience.
A lot of your work has a very impressionistic and painterly quality. What creative approaches do you take to really capture the essence of a city or other location?
After graduating, I entered the film industry at a time when the film and television trade union of the time, the ACTT, still operated a strict closed-shop policy. The only exemption was in the field of animation and because of my drawing ability, I immediately found employment as an animator and took it, thinking that once in, I would move across into live action.
In the event, I unwittingly began a major detour in my career! By the time I steered my way back to live action, I naturally found that I would apply ideas and approaches from animation, ideas to do with the use of colour and composition, often derived from painting, to the way I would conceive of and design the live action.
Nowadays, I look upon it as a process of reduction and simplification: how much detail can I remove and still retain the essence of a place? I am also intrigued by indistinct, foggy and out-of-focus imagery. I don’t have a photographic memory (alas!) and that’s how I remember places and things, as more of an impression, which is also the imagery of my dreams. And as we know, dreams can be incredibly poignant, evocative and powerful!
What would you say your favourite filming locations have been and why? Would you say you look at places with a different eye when you’re there for work as opposed to leisure? Are you able to just ‘be on holiday’ or is it always a busman’s holiday for you?
I always enjoy the strangeness of the Far East and I love Japan. I was also very taken with the ‘time-travel’ quality of Cuba. Havana, in particular, is extremely photogenic but I don’t know if I have a favourite location, exactly. My favourite thing is to go somewhere I’ve never been before.
I always travel with a sketchbook and a camera, or rather, several cameras! There’s no real difference between travelling for work or for pleasure. In any case, my work is my pleasure. My family don’t necessarily see it that way, though!
Tell us a little bit about your early travel experiences and what originally sparked your wanderlust?
As the eldest child of Italian parents living in South Wales, I was accustomed to making regular and prolonged trips to Italy, by road, from a very early age. Typically, my father would drive, which before the ubiquity of motorways, was a journey of at least three days but which for us would often be considerably longer. This was partly due to my father’s fondness for taking detours en route to explore but also because my mother’s siblings had all emigrated to Switzerland after WW2 and visiting them for a week or two, either on the way to Italy or on the way back, was considered a vital component of every trip.
Even as a child, I always loved to discover new places, and the excitement I felt then in anticipation of a long journey across Europe (a far less homogenised continent in the 50s and 60s than it is now), I still feel now as an adult setting off for different cultures much further afield, be it China, Japan, or Cuba or North America.
You are a dual UK/Italian citizen, spent extended periods of your childhood in Italy, but essentially grew up in South Wales. Where do you feel your roots are?
I’ve always felt that my roots were in Italy, specifically Bardi, my parents’ home town, high in the Apennines in the Emilia-Romagna, where in those days my paternal grandfather had a lovely villa and where my maternal great-uncle worked as the local gardener, sexton and caretaker of the castello, the 11th Century castle that overlooks the town and surrounding landscape. He was also the town drunk!
Later, when as a schoolboy I started drawing and taking an interest in art and design, my parents, though not artistic themselves, nevertheless encouraged me by taking family trips to Rome and the Vatican Museum and also to Florence, to the Uffizi Gallery and so on. One of my mother’s sisters also married a man from the Veneto region, so Venice was also a place of regular pilgrimage.
So I had a great grounding in Roman antiquities and the Renaissance but I was also aware of Italian contemporary design, in interiors, furniture and fashion and would browse magazines like Domus and Arredare while collecting my copy of the Corriera dei Piccoli from the local newsagent. And of course, I loved Italian films! So I grew up with a very strong sense of belonging to this great heritage of Italian art and culture.
For those who have never visited South Wales what would you describe as the highlights of the region?
I grew up in Bridgend, originally a market town in the Vale of Glamorgan, which was transformed into an ugly industrial sprawl and strip-mall development in the 60s, 70s and 80s and is now in a kind of modest, post-deindustrialised revival. In spite of which Bridgend is still of little particular interest in and of itself but the surrounding countryside in the Vale is incredibly varied and often very beautiful.
Along the coast lies a rocky shoreline to rival Big Sur at Southerndown, and going the other way towards the seaside town of Porthcawl is what was once the largest expanse of sand dunes in Europe, the thatched cottages and ‘swing bridge’ of Merthyr Mawr and much more, all within a few miles walking distance of the house I grew up in and more to the point, the school I would abscond from at games time, with my sketchbook clutched in hand!
Not far to the north of Bridgend, we leave the Vale of Glamorgan and enter the Welsh mining valleys, a landscape that recalls the mountains around Bardi. Little wonder that so many Italians from that region came to Wales from the late 1800s, to sell ice-cream, open coffee shops and fish and chips shops and restaurants and generally educate the gastronomic tastes of the South Wales miners. Odd to think that a hundred years before Starbucks, the best cup of coffee in Europe, not to mention the best ice-cream outside of Italy, could be found in the Welsh mining valleys!
Describe your ideal commission – do you still have a burning desire to film in any particular part of the world?
Yes, absolutely! Many many places, too numerous to mention: cities teeming with life as well as remote and desolate landscapes. But mostly places with people in them. Ever since my school days, when my art teacher encouraged me to ‘fill a sketchbook every week’ (an insane assignment back then!) I have mainly drawn people and the observation of human activity, in all its diversity, still remains a major passion and a great pleasure.
Would you like to be featured in our “˜Meet a vtraveller’ slot? If so, then use the “˜feedback’ button at the bottom of this page to send us a link to your vtravelled profile and tell us a bit more about yourself. We’d be very happy to hear from you! In the meantime, if you have any questions on Cuba or Italy or Wales or any of the other places Mario has mentioned, we’re sure he’d be willing to help – just fire away in the comments below.