Ketch Rossi: Evolution

Ketch Rossi is on the leading edge of the future of photography, capturing still and motion imagery with a single state-of-the-art camera. At the same time, he’s firmly planted in tradition, drawing upon his native Italy’s classic cinematic legacy. Whether he’s doing a fashion spread or a campaign against domestic violence, a part of his past is imbedded in the dramatic results.

At an age when children’s most used vocabulary is "give me," Rossi was sharing and giving away his candies and toys to children who had none. As he has grown, so has his philanthropy, using his success in Hollywood to help others. KETCH ROSSi TREE of LiFE™ and its sister nonprofit organization KETCH ROSSi HUMANiTAS™ have the alleviation of poverty-related human suffering as a primary focus.

DPP: Whether shooting stills or motion, you’re always telling stories with the cameras in your hand. Where does this come from?

Ketch Ketch Rossi: When I was about 10 years old, my mother drove my little sister and me to Rome to see her husband, my stepfather, who was working there. He was a specialized butler, in charge of the villas of this very wealthy Roman royalty. I was in the front seat because I was always prone to carsickness. It was during this trip that she drove on a street where they were photographing and filming Sophia Loren. All those lights—the cameras, the flashes going off—all this going on right before my eyes had a profound effect on me. It was like nothing I had ever experienced. As we passed by, I turned around to look on, but my mother grabbed my little head and turned it to face the front, as she knew if I continued looking back I would have gotten carsick. So I looked in the rearview mirror, and bam! It was as if I were looking at a movie. That was the moment when I knew exactly what I wanted to be.

DPP: How did you turn this revelation into reality?

Ketch Rossi: That same year during summer, my parents moved the family to a very small town on the island of Sardinia, which was my birthplace. We had no electricity during the seven years that I ended up living there, so I would entertain myself by taking photos and making movies. But it was with my mind. I had no camera. I would always have a small mirror in my pocket, and I would look at the world around me with it. This allowed me to take a small piece of that big unknown world, which was beautiful, but at times a bit frightening, as well. I was always making imaginary movies, or snapping a photo, freezing a moment through that mirror. So at the first moment that I could afford a camera, I bought one. It was after I left home and got a job in a restaurant kitchen washing pots and peeling potatoes.

DPP: After all those years practicing in your mind’s eye, how were your early forays with an actual camera in hand?

Ketch Rossi: Because buying film rolls and developing them was expensive for me, and the money I was spending was very hard-earned cash, I treasured every shot, framing and taking each photograph, and depressing the shutter only after making sure that everything was the way I wanted it. Also, because I had no extra money to buy flashes and had to depend on available light, at times I found myself waiting for hours for the sun to move so that the light hit that certain spot in a certain way. Being forced to do this was a great learning aid, giving me an appreciation and an understanding of light in the capturing of an image.

Shooting in a variety of environments beyond the studio, Rossi has become adept with setting up the camera properly. He thinks in terms of shutter angles, and his approach to lighting ensures that he gets what he needs at the point of capture instead of trying to "fix" things later in the computer. Rossi also has discovered that the models he works with prefer the motion + capture approach when he’s shooting. They feel like they’re posing actresses instead of models.

DPP: Growing up in Italy and being exposed to the story-driven classic Italian cinema seems to have had an impact on your eye and approach, as well.

Ketch Rossi: It’s because of it that I have become a very passionate cinematographer and photographer, paying extreme attention to the details—in the story, the drama of it, the composition—and always ensuring a story is told, as in a motion film or even more so in a photograph, there has to be a reason and it needs to say something, or it’s worth nothing. The films I watched growing up in Italy were so full of expression. These were all theater actors, and actors of an era with no sound, and in black-and-white, so their passion needed to come through their expressions and the way they moved. That was true acting.

But I also must give credit for who I am and where I’m going today, to Hollywood, as America is my second home, even now that I’ve moved back to Italy. I’m extremely fortunate to have had the teachings of both the passionate world of old Italian movies and the incredible movie-making machine called Hollywood.

DPP: How has your career evolved in the still + motion world?

Ketch Rossi: One word sums that all up: RED. It seemed that every time I had taken my still camera out for a shoot, I wished I could have also filmed, yet every time I was out filming something, I wished the opposite—I wanted to have photos of some of those images, but it wasn’t possible. Then came the RED ONE that records at 4K resolution, allowing one to pull RAW frame grabs out of the motion stream, but the camera just wasn’t a good transition for me at that time. It was, in fact, a few years later, when the RED EPIC camera came out, that I "evolved." Thanks to the friendship and alliance with Steve Gibby, Jim Jannard [founder/CEO of RED] and Jarred Land [president of RED], it allowed me to become second in the world to take delivery of a preproduction "EPIC-M," which was serial number 00008, aka M8. Jim kept serial numbers 1 through 5, and a colleague friend from New York got serial numbers 6 and 7. Ever since I’ve started using the RED EPIC, I’ve melded the arts of photographer and cinematographer, evolving into a *Cinephotographer.

DPP: Which came first, and why did you start incorporating the other?

Ketch Rossi: The passion for motion came first, with that little mirror, but the first camera I bought was a still camera, and the capacity of freezing a moment in time was such an amazing experience for me that I still can’t get over it. It’s because of still photography that I developed my skills as a director of photography, where the lighting is the most important element in an image.

It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I started incorporating them, and this was with the RED EPIC-M M8, the camera that changed it all for me. I can have the very best of both worlds. I now exclusively use the RED EPIC Digital Cinema Camera. For the first time, we can have both—still images and motion images to the quality of IMAX projection. My colleagues such as Ridley Scott used this camera for Prometheus. The given capacity to have still images via frame extraction from the motion stream, which now presents you with 14, 20+ megapixel images with the Dragon sensor, with a great dynamic range and strong files in R3D RAW to allow for post manipulation—it’s so important to us in this new world of digital.

This world
is ever faster evolving; in fact, we’re waiting for an email from the guys at RED to inform us that our RED EPIC M8 is to be sent in for the new sensor upgrade called Dragon, another reason I love this camera. It’s so modular that we can even get a new sensor, instead of needing to buy an entire new camera.

DPP: Do you light differently when giving priority to stills or motion?

Ketch Rossi: Ever since I evolved into the use of a single camera for both motion and still work via frame grab extraction, I have further evolved in the way I light my scenes, taking into consideration what I need from that image, for both motion and still needs, insuring that I preserve the feeling for each given scene accordingly to its particular needs to tell the story. I make sure that I don’t have to spend hours in post to correct what I could have done on set in a couple of extra steps. I Photoshop my own work; it gives me more appreciation for my own time. You absolutely need to light accordingly, which is different than just lighting for motion, as motion goes by you while a still image—in this case, a frame grab—sits there in front of you, to observe and criticize every pixel. Since most of what I do involves beautiful ladies, I wouldn’t want them not looking at their best, and neither do I want to spend hours in Photoshop.

I’ve evolved so much in frame-grabbing from the motion stream that I couldn’t ever go back to still photography alone, plus all my models love it, too; they feel like posing actresses, no longer just models, and every single one so far has preferred working in this way with continuous lighting versus flash, and so have the clients.

DPP: How are you working with shutter speeds?

Ketch Rossi: Same as in still photography, there are needs for different shutter speeds, and with the RED EPIC, I use a range of shutter angles, from 45 degrees all the way to 360 degrees, depending on what I’m looking to capture, from crisper images with less motion blur to ghosting effects in between frames. Here plays the importance of the motion material versus the frame grabs I might need to pull from the footage, in which case I would give priority to one or the other and adjust the shutter accordingly.

I was always making imaginary movies, or snapping a photo, freezing a moment through that mirror. So, at the first moment that I could afford a camera, I bought one. It was after I left home and got a job in a restaurant kitchen washing pots and peeling potatoes.

DPP: What’s your workflow in terms of shooting still and motion of the same project?

Ketch Rossi: The workflow really depends on which one has the priority. If motion is the priority, then it’s easier to light it up like a movie, but if stills have the priority, then more work is needed. If, however, both are equally important, then I need to do more takes, as I repeat some takes and change both the shutter and the frame rates, as well as add or change some of the angles on the lighting. This becomes more difficult if I’m shooting in 3D, which demands the use of a wider focal length, while for portraits I always use long focal lengths, my favorite being the 100mm, so in this case, I’ll need to do all the above, plus lens changes, or simply have an additional camera to shoot for the stills.

In general, I set up the scene, light it and shoot it, then in post I work on the R3D original RAW files until the very end, never rendering my work until I’m completely done with post, same as you would do with any RAW image coming from any camera.

DPP: Talk about your Carly project. Ketch Rossi: When we first received the RED EPIC M8 camera, I embarked on a countrywide trip in the USA, showing off the camera and giving free workshops. Chicago was one of these stops. We got together with a few colleagues and friends for a wonderful collaboration, which ended up as my first fashion film, Carly. I enjoy collaborations very much, and my TREE of LiFE™ project is that on a grand scale.

DPP: What’s the project about?

Ketch Rossi: KETCH ROSSi TREE of LiFE™ is an initiative we hope will change millions of lives for the better. It will be comprised of the world’s largest and most advanced movie studios, state-of-the-art R&D and production facilities, and much more. Once built, it will bring to life a new way of doing business, a new way of creating art, and a new way of helping humanity and the preservation of our planet by donating up to 50% of its yearly profits to serve honorable charity causes.

Its sister organization KETCH ROSSi HUMANiTAS™ will operate our School of Dreams, where initially up to 100 scholarships per year will be awarded to international students, and when completed and at full capacity, such facilities will have a capacity of up to 1,000 students. International students will come to Italy to learn the arts of cinematography and photography in inspiring settings, surrounded by some of the best international teachers, professionals and celebrities. Each group of film students will learn how to write, direct, produce, film, edit, postproduce and distribute their own short and feature-length films in an ultra-high-definition 4K finish, as well as how to integrate photography via frame-grabbing. They will be producing materials that will further educate and inspire many more around the world. While learning, they will also directly participate in helping others.

DPP: Difficulties in your childhood have had a major impact on your life. It seems like you’re the epitome of a person who can turn a negative into a positive.

Ketch Rossi at work on the set.

Ketch Rossi: I come from a very troubled childhood, where I needed to hide away to escape a horrible world that was darkening my life and that of my siblings. They were painful experiences due to the abuses suffered by the hand of my alcoholic stepfather. I would get my younger brother and sisters into the safety of a locked room and tell them stories. My stories would become our escape, our door to another world, to a safe haven.

And because of the nightmare at home, I spent much time deeply involved in my passion for photography. It seemed as if when I was photographing something—for years just with my mind and later with a camera—I just couldn’t think of anything else around me. My life would stop existing in those moments and I would become someone else. I would concentrate so deeply on capturing that frame, understanding the light on it and how I could change the way that light presented the subject to be photographed. And in doing so, I would just go into a dream status and create an image to freeze in time. It was through this process, that with every result, I would get inspired to try something else to see the results from those changes and always persevere to do better.

In truth, I get inspired every day, by so many different things, by life itself, or by observing someone else’s photographs or movies.

To see more of Ketch Rossi’s photography, visit

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