Painters use a palette and canvas. Composers rely on notes and instruments. Authors prefer words and a laptop. In the art of cinematography, shadow and light are the tools of the trade. The ability to creatively manipulate those two elements is what separates the great cinematographers from the ones who pop a Panavision on a tripod and start rolling.
Crafting the perfect film image takes patience, care and a keen eye. Anyone can point a lens at actors and shoot. It requires a unique understanding of theories and practices to construct true beauty on the big screen. The writer and director may conjure the vision, but it’s the cinematographer who brings it to life.
Cinematographers employ several techniques to tell a story. Combining some or all of these is critical to successfully relaying drama, emotions and ideas. Images should serve to enhance plot and theme, not hinder. The masters know all too well what it takes to shape awe-inspiring works that will last for generations.
To pay homage to this often unsung profession, I’m going to analyze what in my mind are some of the finest examples of cinematography in the history of the medium to see how they utilize these tried and true methods. This is not a “best of” list. There are hundreds of gorgeous looking movies to choose from, so narrowing it down to an arbitrary few and proclaiming them the best would be a foolish endeavor.
The following films and concepts are worthy of study and admiration because they represent the greatness that can be achieved in the hands of a skilled technician who understands the art of cinematography.
Ever since Russian filmmaker Sergie Eisenstein developed the concept of montage, it has become a staple in the movie making process. Stringing together seemingly unrelated shots to advance a particular idea can be quite powerful when devised by the best in the game. Such was the case when writer/director Woody Allen and cinematographer Gordon Willis began collaborating in the 1970s. Willis, known for his brilliant work on the Godfather films, transitioned to B&W for 1979’s Manhattan and helped assemble one of most stunning opening montages ever put to film. Allen’s superb narration and George Gershwin’s poetic composition adds to the wonder, but watch it with the sound muted and you’ll still be amazed by its artistry.
If the script is set in a futuristic environment, it’s imperative to build locations that seem otherworldly in nature. A surefire way to ruin any flick, no matter the genre, is to skimp on production design and hire a shooter who lacks the necessary vision required to capture the appropriate atmosphere. In Ridley Scott’s seminal sci-fi classic, Blade Runner, Director of Photography Jordan Cronenweth applied intricate mood lighting to highlight the baroque architecture and stark landscapes of Los Angeles circa 2019. Never once during the film do you feel as if you’re looking at a movie set. The world of Blade Runner is real, and unlike few others I’ve ever seen.
Darkness and light. Good and evil. Innocence and sin. All of these opposing forces, and many others, are commonly found in dramatic storytelling. The best practitioners in film are those who use the entire frame to further contrast juxtaposing characters and themes. For 1955’s The Night of the Hunter, director Charles Laughton and cinematographer Stanley Cortez chose an expressionistic shooting style that concentrated on heavy symbolism and contrast. Ominous lighting and long depth of field contributes to the eeriness and terror being enacted inside the plot. In the following scene, note the array of camera angles used, the framing within the frame and the importance of foreground and background action. It’s a technical masterpiece.
To move the camera or not move the camera, that is the question. In today’s cinema, herky-jerky handheld pomp and circumstance has become all the rage. Sometimes it’s effective, other times it’s mind-numbing excess. Stanley Kubrick was without argument one of the most talented filmmakers to ever live. He eschewed flashy camera moves and instead concentrated on subtle maneuvers, or more often than not, no movement at all. He let the action inside the frame dictate pacing and plot progression. The long take is still one of the most powerful techniques at a cinematographer’s disposal. It can convey much more information than a track, dolly or truck shot. In this profound chapter from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, DP Geoffrey Unsworth leaves his camera perfectly still until the very end. The results are astounding.
Not all movies can be told in stillness. Some scream for the camera to not only move, but follow the characters closely. The invention of Steadicam in the late ’70s helped put the audience smack dab in the middle of conflict. When done correctly, a Steadicam sequence can leave the audience breathless. Such is the case in Alfonso Cuaron’s dystopic nightmare Children of Men. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki guides us through the war ravaged streets of a city in ruin by pinning a camera to the hip of his protagonist, played by Clive Owen. Finding this intense footage online wasn’t easy. There’s no natural sound, but the “uprising” scenes are money. Beware: lots of spoilers dead ahead.
Not all stories can be told on a grand scale with lots of locations and special effects. Some are quiet, more personal tales set in constricted venues that call for closeness between characters. Shooting within the confines of narrow halls and cramped apartments takes a special skill-set not easily perfected. Throughout his stellar career, cinematographer Christopher Doyle has employed a rich spectrum of colors and inventive angles to reinforce images. His collaborations with director Wong Kar-wai have given birth to some of the most beautiful films of the last twenty years. In the Mood for Love is all about intimacy: intimacy between men and women, intimacy between camera and subject, intimacy between characters and audience. Doyle and Kar-wai insert us into scenes, allowing us to eavesdrop on their principals as they fall deeply in love.
Hidden meanings, or subtext, exist in most films of merit. If you know what to look for, they are easily spotted. A recurring object or person may be introduced to advance a specific emotion or motif inherent in the plot. In cinematography, it could be the angle at which a character is filmed, or a purposeful coloration that emphasizes a significant trait or message not otherwise obvious. Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski chose colors as metaphors in his epic Trois Couleurs trilogy. The first in the series, Blue, is about the coldness and isolationism of Julie, a circumspect woman mourning the death of her husband and daughter. Slawomir Idziak coats the frame in a bluish hue throughout the film. It is meant to signify liberty, but for Julie, it represents loneliness and loss.
All filmmakers possess their own thoughts and ideas on different subjects. Hand the same exact screenplay to two directors and you will likely end up with two separate visions. Perspective is what makes film such an enjoyable and thought-provoking form of entertainment. Not all interpretations are the same. Francis Ford Coppola’s depiction of the chaos of war in Apocalypse Now was wholly his own, and that of cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. The pair combined to illustrate a descent into madness rarely seen in any war flick before or since. It’s impossible to accurately portray the feeling of being on the front lines in a work of fiction, but the level of horror reached in Apocalypse Now is probably as close as it gets. Welcome to the “asshole of the world.”