Even then, it seems, lighting meant everything.
It's been over 35 years since the 58-year-old Marco started in the advertising business, first as a photographer and then as a director and effects wizard who specializes in still life. Known primarily for his exacting and dramatic lighting techniques and his meticulous attention to detail and nuance, Marco is seen by some as the consummate tabletop director. His work has won scores of awards over the years. He's developed a deep set of professional relationships that seem to include most of the top creatives who worked in New York during the '70s and '80s. It's a reputation that Marco believes both helps and hinders him. It continues to provide him with a flow of work he feels he can still get excited about, but tends to close people off to the idea of giving him what he'd like to do more of-cars, people and performance, for starters.
His reputation brought him what is likely the most satisfying collaboration of his career: his work for Martin Scorsese. "I have no idea how we got in touch," he says. "All I know is I got a call one day and I showed him some of my stuff and he was knocked out. So I did some initial things for him and that really set the hook, and we've been working together ever since."
Marco's first work for Scorsese was on The Color of Money, for which he created the image that pops into mind when you think of the film: that high-speed shot of the pool stick smacking a cue ball, tiny flecks of blue chalk dust erupting around the point of impact. Marco went on to shoot some title design sequences for The Last Temptation of Christ and also worked on Casino, photographing closeup tabletop tableaux as well as a larger set piece.
Most of this will pale in comparison with Marco's contribution to Scorsese's upcoming Disney film, Kundun. Slated for a Christmas release, the film, about the Dalai Lama, has already sparked a controversy between Disney and Chinese officials, who have objected to its storyline. The movie will open on Marco's footage of an elaborate ceremony in which a group of seven monks creates an intricate mandala made of colored sand, at the end of which the Dalai Lama destroys it. This version of the ceremony took place not in a monastery but in Marco's cavernous studio on lower Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.
"What Marty wanted to do was get so close to this at times and move it in such a way that it was almost like animation," Marco says. To capture the effect, Marco had the monks stop and start so that he could time-lapse the mandala, which he did with both stationary cameras and with a motion control rig that moved in small increments during the entire time it took to build the mandala.
He also shot in extreme closeup and had some scenes double- and triple-printed, allowing Scorsese's editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, to create ethereal, ghostlike images of the monks working on the sculpture as it unfolded.
"Phil is an incredible problem solver, and he always comes to the job with a wealth of visual ideas," Scorsese wrote in a letter to Steven Spielberg last year, just as his discussions with Marco about Kundun were getting underway. "It seems that it's his passion to take an everyday object or event and show it in an entirely new and exciting way."
One of the problems Marco had to solve on this job was how to squeeze commercials assignments into his schedule, "but what I got from it spiritually and creatively more than makes up for it," he says. "I mean, there's a limit-how many donuts, how many beers, how many people on a cyc can you shoot?"
He recalls being moved by the ceremony and its symbolism; at the same time he was bedeviled by the challenges of shooting it. "I had focal problems I've never had before, because I got so close that the front element of the lens wasn't even functioning anymore, so I'd get light bouncing in some of the inner elements because they weren't coated. I solved it by putting a polarizing lens behind the main lens element itself and focused it. But it drove me crazy, and I thought maybe it was a curse, because we were shooting down there in what used to be the Peppermint Lounge. Maybe it was some kind of a purifying thing."
Marco admits to having a vaguely defined sense of spirituality. "I was raised by nuns, and that dwindled my spirituality for good," he jokes, then gets serious. "Actually, maybe I am searching for something now."
As far as his work goes, he's searching for a wider acceptance and acknowledgement, as well as an opportunity to turn that into jobs that will allow him to stretch as a director. One recent package of spots that allowed him to do that was for BMW's Eastern Region dealer group, out of Publicis/Bloom in New York. Marco is not particularly known as a car shooter, but here he put together a nice package that mixes traditional sheet metal beauty shots with often comic vignettes of Beemers either performing on the road or being lovingly appreciated by their boomer-aged owners.
Whatever he does next, be it cars or performance or dialogue, he wants to do it in a way that's visually driven-one that "mixes the microcosm and the macrocosm." Which means? "I can make a droplet on a pea look magnificent and overwhelm the screen," he explains, "and at the same time, I can shoot the field it's growing in, and then bring them together. I want that breadth."
Given the way he's kept to himself for most of his career-he's never had a rep, he's never had another photographer or director associated with his studio and he works for a small group of loyal U.S. clients as well as a growing number of agencies in Europe-the problem for Marco is broadening his base here at home. Does he believe that many creative people may know who he is but don't know much about him or his work? And that people identify him with a couple of signature images, like the pool cue shot or the colliding slo-mo beer mugs from "Crashing Glasses," his famous mid-'80s Ad Council drunk-driving PSA? "That's possible," he allows. "At the same time, I shot 300 people exiting a building for Casino. A lot of people don't know me. I'm surprised I still get boards every day," he says with a deep laugh.
Born in Chicago, Marco grew up in Brooklyn in a lyrical environment. His father was an opera singer who had emigrated from Italy to America. So not only was Marco's house always filled with music, he spoke mostly Italian up until the time he started grade school. He says he was always musically inclined, and claims to have played Bach and Beethoven when he was only 5. Later, after rebelling against his father's desire that he pursue a career in music, he studied fine art at Pratt Institute and the Art Students League in New York.
He got into photography merely as a way of paying the bills while he pursued painting, and he used the camera mainly to shoot studies for his paintings. But the speed with which he could realize a photographic image hooked him. That fascination has in turn led him to develop an obsession with the Avid, which he says he plays with regularly as he cuts much of his work. His next purchase is a Flame for his studio's effects department.
His wife, Pat, serves as both his partner and executive producer, and Marco seems to rely heavily on her support for his work. They live on the West Side of Manhattan, but most of their attention is devoted to a 200-acre estate on the North Fork of Long Island, where they cultivate dwarf trees and make wine.
Marco is no fan of the current rage of raw, underproduced imagery that litters commercials and music videos, but he understands that it's the look of the moment. "It bothers the hell out of me," he admits, "but at the same time, I have to look at it as, you know, someone who's going to fly and break the edge. I mean, look at Jackson Pollock. The classicists thought he looked like a total shithead."
When it comes to making film, Marco is clearly a classicist, and he doesn't dislike that label at all. He believes it's a look and style that will never fade. Meanwhile, he ponders his next move as he looks to reinvent himself for the next decade. "There's a reputation I have-some people say they're afraid of me, but I haven't thrown too many people out of the studio," he says, laughing. "I'm just stating where I am and where I'd like to go to people who are not