Cinematography is generally defined as “the art and technology of making motion pictures.1” It involves multiple cinematic elements, such as scene composition, also known as mise-en-scène; choice of camera along with lenses, filters and stock if shooting on actual film; camera movement and camera angles; the lighting setup for each shot; and potentially the inclusion of special effects.
But another definition 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.
However, 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.
As we explore the art of cinematography in this piece, we’ll be hearing from the following Directors of Photography:
- Gonzalo Amat (The Man in the High Castle, Seal Team, Fargo)
- Shane Hurlbut (Terminator Salvation, Act of Valor, We Are Marshall)
- Anastas Michos (The First Purge, Man on the Moon, Mona Lisa Smile)
- John Schwartzman (Seabiscuit, Armageddon, Jurassic World)
What makes good cinematography?
Cinematography is the art of visual storytelling, and good cinematography tells the story effectively. That encompasses many aspects of the actual art form, including camera placement, lighting, the grammar of film and knowing it well, and understanding the script and the story. Then it’s the symbiosis of all of that with the collaboration of a Director that makes a particular film effective with its cinematography.
That is a tough question to answer because every viewer sees the work of a Cinematographer differently. I think the goal of the Cinematographer is to try to tell the story using images as a way to engage the audience.
The key is to make your work as invisible as possible, it is the means of storytelling without drawing attention to its self. My own work on Pearl Harbor was bold and brash. That was the goal of the Director and yet I followed that film with a picture called The Rookie–that film was subtle and was very much about the landscape of West Texas, it was as far away in tone and style from Pearl Harbor as I could get and yet that little film landed me Seabiscuit.
As a Cinematographer, it is your job to find the best style and tone and disappear into the story.
I would say visual storytelling. The images tell you more about the story, and make you feel a certain way that helps the story to be told–not just because it’s pretty.
What makes good cinematography is the understanding that it is implementing the Director’s vision based on the story, that blends art and technology. The script is the foundation because it defines the emotional arc of the story and every character’s emotion. The light, the way the camera moves, the way the story is told, the composition… Everything is driven from character emotion.
Roger Deakins told me this several times, “Shane, if they notice what we’re doing, we’ve failed.” That’s the truth. You want to avoid the “look at me, look at me” trap many Cinematographers fall into where you are so focused on the visuals that it takes you out of the movie. I think the best Cinematographers are people for whom the story drives their vision, composition, lighting, camera movement… Everything is based on story.