Two weeks before winning his Academy Award for Best Cinematography on Avatar, Columbia alumnus Mauro Fiore toured his alma mater’s new Media Production Center. His guide was Bruce Sheridan, chair of the Film & Video department, who provided behind-the-scenes details such as the inspiration that architect Jeanne Gang found in films like Citizen Kane and Rear Window as she developed her design.
Fiore clearly enjoyed his return to the campus where he earned a degree in cinematography in 1987. He graciously posed with a camera for students shooting a Columbia promo video. In a few takes, he nailed his single line: “Mauro Fiore, cinematographer. I am Columbia.”
Ninoos Bethishou, artist-in-residence in the department, introduced Fiore to his Lighting I class. One tip from the alum for these young filmmakers: think of “what attitude you bring to a film set,” because, as he learned in Hollywood, “people love enthusiastic people around.”
Enthusiasm was plentiful at Columbia in the 1980s, when there were only 670 film majors—“It was very much like a small town,” observed Fiore. Although majors in the department now number around 2,200, that small-town spirit remains, and is evident in the new, collaborative-style curriculum. “Students learn more from each other than from us,” noted Sheridan.
Another thing that hasn’t changed since Fiore’s days at Columbia: the importance of networking. “I have a really good friend who graduated the same year,” Fiore told Bethishou’s students. He was speaking of classmate Janusz Kaminski (’87), who got a gaffer gig on Saturday the 14th Strikes Back (1988) and brought along his friend as a key grip. Both soon moved up to become directors of photography: Kaminski shot Schindler’s List and many later films directed by Steven Spielberg; Fiore’s pre-Avatar credits include Training Day, Tears of the Sun, The Island, and The Kingdom.
That evening Fiore screened clips and took questions from the audience as part of the Conversations in the Arts: Media in the 21st Century series at Columbia’s Film Row Cinema. Fiore’s former instructor Doreen Bartoni, who is now dean of the School of Media Arts, introduced him. “Even then I knew that this is a person who had incredible drive to be an amazing cinematographer,” she recalled.
At a reception afterwards, Fiore hung out with an entourage of proud friends and relatives. Born in Marzi, Italy, he came with his family to the Chicago suburbs in 1971. Classmates of the 1982 Palatine High School grad offered some backstory. “He really was very creative,” recalled one. “In high school he was the one with spiky hair in yellow pants.” Another noted, “Our biggest movie experience was going to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show at The Biograph.”
At the earlier Q and A, a New Trier ninth-grader who had seen Avatar three times asked Fiore the usual question about getting his proverbial foot in the door. The answer: “You can start by going to Columbia College.”