In The Mix

Step and Repeat

A DP thrives on pilots — and helping those who step into his shoes.

Neil Turitz
  • Beatrice Aguierre

It's no wonder people call Checco Varese "The Pilot Guy" — he's been the director of photography on 21 pilot episodes.

Still, he says, "I blush whenever someone says this." In an earlier time, as a war zone cameraman for CNN, he took two bullets and a chunk of shrapnel. But that job no doubt helped prepare him for the challenge of his current work.

"A pilot script is never the best script of a series," Varese explains. "They have to tell so many stories and introduce so many characters. My job as a DP is to find out where everything is going to go, so I can know who to highlight and who to feature, and so I can foreshadow a different lighting or a different lens — whatever it is. I take that very seriously."

When Varese first came to America from his native Peru in the early 1980s, CNN was a good option.

"I became a valuable guy in news, but that was my other life," he says. It helped that he speaks "six or seven" languages, and doesn't shrink from danger. To the contrary, he says, "Violence is the most unforgiving drug there is. It's like adrenaline. I get goosebumps even talking about it. If I weren't married and didn't have a 10-year-old daughter, I'd run off and go shoot a documentary in a war zone right now."

Looking for a change in the mid-'90s, he caught a break when the producer of an Ozzy Osbourne video shooting in Prague wanted a DP who spoke Russian. That video led to many more, including the clips for "Crash" by Dave Matthews and Prince's "Black Sweat," for which he was nominated for an MTV Video Music Award in 2006.

Varese shot the 1999 TV movie Primal Force, starring Ron Perlman, for director Nelson McCormick. When McCormick was hired in 2005 to shoot the pilot for the TV adaptation of a comic book called Global Frequency, he brought Varese with him.

Twenty pilots later, including the first episodes of HBO's True Blood, A&E's The Returned, The CW's Melrose Place and Reign and FX's The Strain, Varese recently shot the pilot for Fox's Proven Innocent — directed by his wife and frequent collaborator, Patricia Riggen. He's now working on It:Chapter Two, due in theaters in September 2019.

Being empathetic about his work is only part of what makes Varese so valuable, but it's a big part.

"You have to build something repeatable," he says, so he always leaves behind a bible filled with technical data for other DPs to follow, if they so choose. Why? "Because the poor person who has to follow me, that cinematographer has to do the same things that I did, but with 30 percent less money and 20 percent less time. I'm very conscious of what's coming after me."

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 8, 2018