What Is Cinematography?
Before a film ever makes it to the screen, it’s first a script— descriptions of what the characters do and say, as well as the events that happen to them. But for that script to become a movie, it requires the transformation of those descriptions into moving images. That’s where cinematography becomes essential to the filmmaking process.
Cinematography is generally defined as “the art of making motion pictures.” But a truer description is that without cinematography, there is no motion picture. A Screenwriter might create the story and a Director may guide how the Actors perform, but it is the Cinematographer who permanently captures that story and the Actors in it.
But cinematography is so much more than just recording what happens on location or a sound stage. It is a language that is not spoken but seen. Because beyond what the Actors do or say is how the audience watches it all unfold. At its core, cinematography is the visuals that support the story being told.
Not only do those visuals show the audience what is happening from scene to scene, but they also have the ability to influence their response to what they are seeing. How? Through the many different elements that cinematography encompasses, including camera placement, camera movement, focus, lighting, composition and equipment choices.
Responsibilities of a Cinematographer
The Cinematographer, who may also be referred to as the Director of Photography, is the person who heads up all decisions relating to the visual component of a film. As mentioned, they must consider multiple factors that all impact both how a film looks and how an audience may respond to those images.
A film is only a live performance without a camera to capture it for future viewing and enjoyment. But where a Cinematographer chooses to place the camera in relation to the action or conversation unfolding in front of it can heighten the meaning of a particular scene.
For instance, perhaps the scene being shot is a date at a restaurant. If the Cinematographer decides to place the camera far from the couple at dinner, the audience may sense that they are spying on an intimate moment. Or the space between the camera and couple might be used to mirror the emotional distance between the two individuals on the date.
Conversely, should the Cinematographer decide to place the camera right at the dinner table, the effect could be one of claustrophobia. That one or both of the individuals on the date feels pressure to be or act a certain way. With every single shot, the Cinematographer is making a choice about how the camera placement will influence the emotional weight of the scene.
Camera movement — or the choice to remain static — can also change how an audience views a film. Consider the difference it would make while shooting a car chase if the Cinematographer decided to keep the camera in a single location instead of following the action. Would the scene hold as much intensity if the audience watched the chase from a distance as the cars gave pursuit instead of staying in the thick of the conflict with the vehicles?
That is why action and adventure movies typically involve a great deal of camera movement to maintain that feeling of rapid motion both from a storytelling point of view, as well as the literal change of one location to the next by the characters.
A Cinematographer might also make a choice not to move the camera. For example, this tactic could work well in a courtroom drama, as a static camera could be used to heighten tension. With nowhere to escape, the audience is immediately forced to watch and wait while both sides argue their case to convince the jury to hand over a guilty or innocent verdict.
One of the most important choices that a Cinematographer makes for every single shot is its composition—or what will be seen in it. Composition refers to how each shot is framed and all the elements within that frame. This aspect of cinematography plays a crucial role in determining what the audience knows and when they know it.
While important in all genres of film, composition can be especially critical in horror movies. Let’s say a young teen is walking through a supposedly abandoned house by himself. A Cinematographer might make the decision to tightly frame the Actor so that the audience has no idea of what’s around him or what danger might be lurking until it confronts him. Or the Cinematographer might choose to have a wider frame that shows each room that the protagonist walks past. And while he may not see the murderous villain hiding in the corner, the audience does! Both options can heighten suspense, yet each differently informs how the audience will react to the story.
At first glance, the issue of focus might appear very cut and dry. A film should always be in focus, right? Otherwise, the audience may become frustrated by the blurry images and assume that the production must have suffered from a filming mistake.
But for a Cinematographer, playing with focus can actually enhance the impact of the story being told. Let’s say that the scene in question is an older person who is retelling a tale from her youth. A Cinematographer might intentionally make that flashback somewhat blurred or hazy to mirror the protagonist’s fond yet fuzzy recollections of the past.
Focus can also be used to emphasize certain elements in a scene. Take a seemingly mundane shot such as someone sitting at a table and paying their bills. However, behind them is a window. A Cinematographer might choose to put the focus on the background element of the window to show the character’s long-lost spouse walking to the front door, thus highlighting the impending emotional reunion between the two. At the same time, the person at the table might be slightly unfocused to reinforce their ignorance regarding what is about to happen.
While the Gaffer — or Lead Lighting Technician — is in charge of the execution of the lighting design, the Cinematographer typically is the person who decides what that design will be.
Lighting has become such a fundamental component of supporting a film’s story that many people take for granted its use in different genres. For instance, to highlight their lighter tone and emotion, comedies are often filmed with high-key lighting that removes any areas of darkness or shadows. In direct contrast are thrillers or noir films, which tend to favor low-key lighting to emphasize the moodiness and mystery of the stories being told.
Regardless of genre, lighting is always a fundamental consideration that a Cinematographer can use to subtly influence the tone of the film and the audience’s emotional response to it.
Equipment & Additional Duties
While the job of a Cinematographer involves making many artistic choices, all of those choices can only be executed through the use of technical equipment. From cameras and filters to dollies and lenses, a Cinematographer has at their disposal a wide array of devices that can help to realize their vision on film.
A Cinematographer is responsible for deciding what equipment can best serve the needs of their production. That being said, depending on the size of the production, a Cinematographer may likely have an entire camera department that can help in making those decisions and bringing the vision of the Cinematographer to life. That is why one of the most important decisions that a Cinematographer can make is who they want to collaborate with on the film.
It should also be noted that the relationship between the Director and Cinematographer can also greatly influence the look of the film. Some Directors may choose to largely concentrate on the performance of their Actors and other filmmaking elements, allowing the Cinematographer complete discretion regarding the visual storytelling aspect of the movie. Other Directors may collaborate very closely with the Cinematographer and regularly offer their input as to how the film should look.
A Brief History of Cinematography
In the earliest days of cinema, the Director of the film was often also the Cinematographer — or Camera Operator, as the position was typically called at that time. This is because the medium was just beginning to find its way, and so a filmmaking unit might have been just one or two people, requiring them to wear multiple hats.
But as filmmaking began to flourish and became more sophisticated, the need to separate responsibilities was more apparent. And so the role of Cinematographer was created. As the visibility of this position grew, more than a dozen of film’s earliest Cinematographers, among them Robert Newhard and Victor Milner, decided to organize and form the American Society of Cinematographers in 1919.
The American Society of Cinematographer’s purpose: “to advance the art of cinematography through artistry and technological progress, and to cement a closer relationship among Cinematographers to exchange ideas, discuss techniques and promote cinema as an art form.” Just two years after the formation of this still-running organization, the first ASC credit in a film was given to another founding member, Joseph H. August, for Sand in 1920.
Ever since, the prominence of cinematography in film has only continued to grow. Its importance is evident not only through recognition at ceremonies such as the Academy Awards but also by the growth of higher education programs focused solely on the craft of cinematography. Multiple films schools across the United States and throughout the world now offer classes for aspiring Cinematographers. Given the dual nature of the profession, one that encompasses both artistic vision and technical competence, the role of Cinematographer can be a highly fulfilling one for a person passionate about both pursuits.
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