When people ask me what I do, and I tell them that I am a cinematographer, the next question often is: what is a cinematographer?
I tell them that as a cinematographer or Director of Photography (DP) you decide where the camera's are positioned, what kind of movements they will make, what sort of optics you'll be using, how you are going to light a scene in a specific way and what colours you will be using. You do all of this and more, to tell the story visually in the best possible way. Apart from that, as a Director of Photography you are also in charge of the entire Camera Department and the G&E departments ('G' being the Grip Department and 'E' being the Electric Department).
Obviously, there’s a lot more to it than that, but these certainly are the basics. As a cinematographer/DP, you combine film techniques with creativity to tell stories visually. You're in charge of the Look & Feel of the film project and for this reason the DP is one of the key people throughout the entire production and works closely with the Director and the Production Designer - who together are sometimes known as 'The Magic Three' or the 'Trinity of Visual Style' - and other crew members to obtain the best possible results.
Story is always key. And film is a visual medium. So let’s dive into that a little further. The four images that are shown above are from Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982) as depicted in the book Cinematography: Theory and Practice by Blain Brown. Apart from Blade Runner being one of my favourite movies of all time, these images also serve as an excellent example to sort of explain the basics of the creative part of cinematography and introduce visual storytelling (and world building) in general. The shots above are from the first couple of minutes into the film.
With image 1, without even a single word of dialogue, the universe this movie takes place in, is established. It looks highly futuristic and we see a lot of rain coming down in the first outdoor scenes of the film, suggesting major climate change in the (near) future. When Deckard (played by Harrison Ford) gets picked up to visit his boss at the police station, more and more of the city that we are in is unveiled to us. Slowly but steadily, a certain shift is visible. In Image 2 it gets to the point where we see nothing futuristic anymore. Why would they choose such an industrial looking location from the 18th-century as a police station? We can see a lot garbage laying around. It does not match the first image at all. That shift is even stronger with image 3, where we see Deckard's boss surrounded by old archive cabinets, documents and an old TV. The office is a total mess and very much out of date. It is not before Deckard walks into the office in Image 4 when the final clue is revealed to the viewer; Deckard is wearing his trenchcoat with his collar up. This is the last piece of the puzzle. Blade Runner might be a movie that is set in the future where people live in a futuristic city with flying cars, but in its heart it is an old fashioned detective story. All this is communicated to the audience visually. There lies the true power of cinematography. Telling the story visually. Every shot in every scene is created with care and pushes the story forward in one way or another. This is often only noticed subconsciously by the viewer, but it's always there.
Let’s have a look at Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain (2006). In image 5 we see Hugh Jackman's character. In Image 6 we see Rachel Weisz's character. Though these compositions are somewhat similar, the backgrounds are not. Jackman’s character in this movie is very short sighted, with only one goal in mind, one road to take. In comparison, Weisz’s character is much more open minded and spiritual.
Again without words, this is visually represented to us within the background changes of many of the shots between these two main characters. In Jackman’s shots, the backgrounds are often less organic and more centred around him, in a way that he seems to be almost 'stuck' within the frame. Weisz’s backgrounds on the other hand, have lots of organic forms in it and she sort of blends into the background naturally that surrounds her, almost becoming one with it in a whole different way.
Wether you like these types of visual metaphors or not, in The Fountain, this way of visual storytelling really helps to convey the story and the character developments.
The use of light (either natural or artificial or both), shadow and color can be used to tell the story visually. Lighting is an incredibly powerful tool. You have the ability to set certain moods and reach viewers on an emotional level you otherwise might not be able to. This gives you a way to affect your audience subconsciously, while they're also following the story. Few tools can reach that deeper emotional level than the use of lighting in a creative way in a film or video. And often it is not so much about what you light, but what you don't light, as well.
For instance; imagine for a particular scene that we are looking at a stand-off with a good guy and a bad guy. You could decide to light the 'good guy', while the 'bad guy', who is opposite of him, stands in the dark. Good vs Bad. Or you could leave part of a face in the shadows, hinting visually that this character has got something to hide that will later be exposed. You can also use light in such a way to direct the eye of the viewer to where we want them too look, as seen in the images 7 and 8 that I shot some years ago.
These are just some simple straightforward examples perhaps, but light can be used in so many (creative) ways that I'll write an article that will solely focus on both the creative and technical aspects lighting a scene.
Image 9 is a still from a short film I DP’d for years ago and was shot completely in natural light. We had about 20 minutes to shoot the whole thing during an actual bus ride. I researched what the best time of the day - in terms of natural light in accordance to the bus route - would be, to still be able to achieve the look & feel that I was going for. So even though with natural light you can’t plan everything, you can prepare for every possible situation and base your decisions on that. This short was shot on a Canon EOS 5DMII, so the lack of Dynamic Range (we'll come to that in later articles) left much to my desire. But with proper lighting (natural light), you can do a lot to make it look as good as it can possibly be.
This was part 1 about Cinematography that touches the very basics of visual storytelling. In upcoming cinematography articles, we'll explore more about the visual language of filmmaking such as Design Principles, Visual Organisation and The Rule of Thirds. In other posts we'll explore the technicalities of the job as well, including the camera's and its sensors, the optics, how to use color, color terminology, exposure, waveforms, lighting techniques, image control, grading and much, much more.