“If it’s a good movie, the sound could go off and the audience would still have a perfectly clear idea of what was going on.” – Alfred Hitchcock, legendary filmmaker
The art of making films cannot happen without the image; the visual is the driving force that is compelling the story to be told. The cinematographer (or the director of photography – the DP) of a film is charged with capturing the artistic vision of the director, and in many ways the relationship between the two is symbiotic. They must each understand the thoughts, the strengths, the weaknesses, and the visual language of the other for a successful shoot to occur. That’s why so many times you will find the same director and DP working together on film after film after film. They become one in their ideas and approaches to filmmaking. This crew-member must be both a creative visionary, and a masterful technician.
Selecting the right camera, lens, angle, focus-style, composition, color palate and lighting are all areas the DP must fully grasp and be able to control. Without the talents of this crew-member, the editor will be challenged to find something worthy of putting together for the final cut.
The DP must first understand how to tell a compelling story with the images; everything else is secondary to that clearly defined goal. These moving images are the primary pathway to reaching audiences. You may remember, that before we had sound on film, the silent flicks ruled the screen, and the actual imagery associated with the medium of cinema is still at its core, a pictorial landscape. The visuals are paramount, and if they are not, films are nothing more than “radio theatre.”
The DP is the chief of the entire camera crew, and it is her/his responsibility to make the story live and breathe. The DP also handles the grip and electric departments (power, lighting, and the gear support crews). She or he must study every concept and idea for framing, camera movement, types of camera options for shooting, and the blocking (setting up) of the actors. The DP must also be highly aware of exactly what types of lighting (and how much) are needed for each individual scene; this helps determine how to achieve a particular look.
Sound like a tough job? It is!
The following will provide a brief overview of some key elements of understanding for any camera operator as well as critics evaluating cinematography styles.
“I Can’t Think How Anyone Can Become a Director Without Learning the Craft of Cinematography.” – Gus Van Sant, Director
There are numerous camera choices available today for shooting a film, and the DP decides (with guidance from the director) what camera-type best fits the story. Sometimes multiple cameras are used to enhance the narrative (Oliver Stone’s “JFK” is a prime example). Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” had a budget of $100 million, yet the DP chose to use $500 GoPro cameras to assist in the story telling. For 1999’s “The Blair Witch Project” , filmmakers used a 16mm film camera and an RCA Hi8 Camcorder purchased from Circuit City to create a found footage look. This film cost just $60,000 to produce, while earning $248 million at the box-office. Other films like “Paranormal Activity”, “Cloverfield” and “Chronicle” have all used similar principles of shooting styles and camera choices. Christopher Nolan, on the other hand, chose to use massively expensive IMAX cameras to shoot grand scale action scenes for his films like the “Dark Knight” , “Inception” , “Dunkirk” andTenet. A Filmmaker like Oscar-winner James Cameron prefers shooting films on innovative 3D cameras he creates himself. Choices are vast and varied, and the DP must examine and match the needs of the story with that of the camera. The directors of most films have very specific ideas for what they want, and most of the time, they get it.
Film vs. Digital
While some filmmakers prefer old-school 35 mm film shoots, most today are choosing to shoot digital footage, due to cost, and immediacy. Some filmmakers will opt to “go big or go home” and shoot on 70mm. While many film experts can tell the difference visually when the film shows on the big screen, most general audience members have no idea what the original film medium was for the shoot. With this fact in mind, and the understanding that filmmaking is a business, most studios and producers opt for shooting on a digital format these days. There are also many creative manipulations that can be done to this footage in post production editing to change the look of what was shot (and it is much less expensive than doing it with film footage). The debate between film and digital will be on going, but as long as the financial business is the driving force, and the story can still be told effectively, digital will usually win out.
“Photography is Truth. The Cinema is Truth Twenty-four Times Per Second.”
– Jean-Luc Godard, Director
Movement and Action
If you’ve ever watched a film produced in the last seven decades (and I bet you have), you’ll become aware that it is not just the talent who moves on screen; it is also the cameras. There are several support devices for camera to assist in capturing motion (or igniting it). A dolly is used for tracking shots and moving the camera towards or away from the subject of the scene. Dollys are usually flat platforms with wheels placed on a set of tracks, and the cameras are fixed to that platform. The first dolly system was inspired after the creation of the automobile.
A crane or jib is used to grab extremely high angles (or bird’s eye view); today most of these types of shots are duplicated using drone technology. Camera drones are incredibly inexpensive and accessible to many general consumers today as well.
In the 1970s, camera stabilizers were created to allow the camera operators to move fluidly with the subjects while running or walking. These devices are called Stedicams, and they were revolutionary for the film industry. Today, many consumer video cameras (or mobile devices) have built-in stabilizing systems, modeled after this same concept. Stedicams allow the camera operator to go anywhere the character goes.
You Got Framed (shooting the character)
“Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.”
–Charlie Chaplin, Film Legend
In early cinema, motion pictures were shot using a camera set up to capture the action as if it were a stage play. As time progressed, so did the techniques of using framing to enhance (and even influence) storytelling, and audience interpretation.
When you watch characters on screen today, you’ll notice that most of the shots feature the characters at eye-level with the audience (and the camera). This type of framing places the audience on a balanced visual plane with the character, providing a connection.
Legendary director Orson Welles was the type of director who was a master of framing shots to tell his story (and that of the character). For many directors and cinematographers, their style and approach to framing gives birth to trademarked shots that become standard in each film they create.
“Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.”
– Martin Scorsese, Director
Check out this young filmmaker as he offers some thoughts on framing and movement: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I8GvlDyJbQg
Move it on Over (The purpose of camera movement)
Anytime a camera moves it should be done so with purpose and meaning. There should be a living connection between the camera and the subjects of each shot (human or scenic). According to the Winkokur & Holsinger book “Movies, Flicks and Film” (2001) there are normally five justifications for camera movement:
- The camera should move in relation to the characters.
- The camera should move in relation to objects (or landscapes).
- Characters should move in relation to the camera.
- Characters should move in relation to other characters or objects within the frame.
- Objects in the frame move in relation to themselves or each other.
“I think the point of cinematography … is intimacy … is intent, is the balance between the familiar and the dream. It is being engaged and yet standing back and noticing something that perhaps other people didn’t notice before.” – Christopher Doyle, Cinematographer
Focus and Depth (what the audience sees)
Many DPs find ways to change space and interpretation by playing around with camera focus and depth of field. Deep focus photography for example allows the foreground, middle ground, and background to all stay in focus, allowing the DP to capture several layers of action at once (this technique is a benefit at times for editors).
Foreground framing, size/object close-framing, background in motion framing, menacing framing, focus theory, and the like, are all additional elements a seasoned DP will conquer, but for our time here, those items will have to wait for future lessons (or research projects).
To explore what some of the greatest cinematographers in the world have to say about the art of cinematography –watch now. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MhOMCtHHN3o
Lighting is also a major companion piece for cinematographers, see one example here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QdvWcO62ABA
N.T. Manning II – 2-6-21
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