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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.

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)

Cinematography: An Overview

Two-time Oscar winner and Cinematographer Roger Deakins discusses his approach to shooting movies.

What exactly is cinematography?

Anna Keizer

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.


What is the difference between filmmaking and cinematography?

Anna Keizer

Filmmaking is very much a catch-all term for the major steps that go into the creation of a movie: development, pre-production, principal photography (also known as production), post-production, and distribution.

Similarly, the term filmmaker is about as broad as you can get when it comes to describing someone who helps in making a film. Is a Director a filmmaker? Yes. Is an Editor a filmmaker? Yes. Is a Cinematographer a filmmaker? Definitely.

Cinematography and the professionals who practice it comprise a vital, albeit very specific part of the filmmaking process. It’s the Cinematographer who generally is the lead figure in terms of how the movie will be shot and look. They collaborate closely with the Director to ensure that their vision is the one the Cinematographer captures on film.

Technical and stylistic choices such as type of cameras, lenses, and shots used are all within the realm of cinematography. In addition to their own Camera Department, the Cinematographer will also work with the Gaffing and Grip Departments to ensure that the lighting elements likewise are used to help realize the Director’s vision for the film.

What Are the Different Aspects of Cinematography?

In the most general sense, cinematography is the art and craft of capturing moving images. But that art and craft is made up of multiple elements, many of which involve technical details.

Aspect ratio

Aspect ratio is the ratio of an image’s width to its height. Since the inception of motion pictures, aspect ratio has varied greatly. With the introduction of high-definition video in the 1990s, though, it has become industry standard to use the 16:9 aspect ratio.

Camera movement

Some famed Cinematographers of the past like Gordon Willis relied heavily on static shots where the camera would stay in a single location as it captures the action in front of it. But as cameras have become lighter and more mobile, it’s become easier than ever to use camera movement as another element to help inform the storytelling process in filmmaking.

Depth of field/focus

Have you ever noticed that in some shots, you can see in detail everything in the frame? And that at other times, perhaps only what is in the foreground or background is discernable? This aspect of cinematography ties back to depth of field and focus. Citizen Kane (1941) is a famous example of shooting a film in deep focus to allow everything in frame to be crisp and clear, and it’s the purview of the Cinematographer to decide what they want to say with depth of field in every shot.

Film stock

The type of film stock used for a movie was once a key consideration in cinematography, as the inherent nature of a particular type of stock could impact how the captured image would look in terms of exposure, graininess, and other filmic qualities. Given that filmmaking has largely shifted into the digital space, though, this particular aspect of making movies is no longer a main concern, as a film file can be altered to achieve any stock effect.

Filters

Filters are not a necessary component of cinematography, but their use can help in affecting a certain wanted look. For instance, color filters can help to heighten particular hues or block others. Diffusion filters can be used to smooth out any noticeable blemishes on the Actors or to create a specific lighting effect.

Lenses

Lens choice can make a huge impact on the look of a film. It is through a particular lens that a Cinematographer can achieve deep focus, a zooming effect, or other specific visual qualities.

Lighting

Lighting choices can greatly impact the emotional effect of any given film. Film noir, which enjoyed its heyday in the 1940s, relied on low-key lighting to emphasize the oftentimes dark and even criminal tales being told on screen. In contrast, high-key lighting, which minimizes shadow and darkness, is the usual go-to for broad comedies and other genres that tend to be more optimistic or upbeat.

Special effects

Special effects are hardly a new aspect of the filmmaking process. The Georges Méliès short A Trip to the Moon (1902) is a perfect example of just how long special effects have been used to help tell cinematic stories.

However, with the introduction of computer-generated effects, Cinematographers now have more options than ever in terms of having available resources to get a desired shot. Special effects can be in-camera effects, practical effects, or digital effects. Pending the type of effect, a Cinematographer will collaborate with other filmmaking professionals to ensure that the shot is achieved as envisioned.

What makes good cinematography?

Anastas Michos (The First Purge, Man on the Moon, Mona Lisa Smile)

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.

John Schwartzman (Seabiscuit, Armageddon, Jurassic World, Pearl Harbor)

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.

Gonzalo Amat (The Man in the High Castle, Seal Team, Fargo, Outer Banks)

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.

Shane Hurlbut (Terminator Salvation, Act of Valor, We Are Marshall)

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.

What Are the Responsibilities of a Cinematographer?

This video takes a look at the stylistic choices that Oscar-nominated Cinematographer Rachel Morrison often makes on her films.

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.

Among those responsibilities are the consideration of the following factors:

  • Camera Placement
  • Camera Movement
  • Composition
  • Focus
  • Lighting
  • Equipment

Camera Placement

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 scene2.

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

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.

Composition

One of the most important choices that a Cinematographer makes for every single shot is its composition—or what will be seen in it3. 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.

Focus

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.

Lighting

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.

What Does a Cinematographer Do?

We’ve gone over what a Cinematographer is responsible for, and while there’s some overlap, what those responsibilities are differ from the execution of them.

So let’s talk about what exactly a Cinematographer does once hired onto a project4!

How do you become a Cinematographer?

Gonzalo Amat (The Man in the High Castle, Seal Team, Fargo, Outer Banks)

When people are looking at reels they want to see what they wanna achieve in the reel. If you’re doing a horror movie, they wanna see something similar to what they visualize. It sounds kind of silly but that’s the way that people’s brains work, you know? People who hire you wanna see stuff. So I would say the best thing to start getting jobs is to have a decent portfolio reel, in terms of having a variety of looks, having a variety of situations like drama, horror, action.

A little bit of everything is what gets you your first job, and then once you have a few things, then you can start polishing and say, “Okay I want to do drama, I want to do action, I want to do this,” and you can start getting rid of stuff that you don’t like.

I personally started on horror but I was more [inclined] towards drama and action and I ended up doing more of that now. I would suggest shooting as much as possible. Even if you work for someone else, you have to work on your own material.

Building a portfolio’s the most important thing. Sell it. You have to show it. People have to know that you’re working, that you’re shooting stuff…even if it’s not paid. Now there are so many good outlets–like social media. Just really show it to people. Show it to friends and really let people know that you’re doing this.

John Schwartzman (Seabiscuit, Armageddon, Jurassic World, Pearl Harbor)

Make friends with aspiring Directors. Directors hire DPs; my career was built on my relationships with Directors. I grew up with Michael Bay before he was “Michael Bay”, I shot his student films for free and I never turned a job down no matter how menial it may have seemed.

Directors remember your effort and over time the groundwork you put in will be rewarded. You reap what you sow, you just have to be patient.

Anastas Michos (The First Purge, Man on the Moon, Mona Lisa Smile)

The business is vast. It’s huge, you know? And the range of kinds of stories people can want to tell is also huge. It ranges from the $300 million Marvel projects to the very small independents. This year it ran from Chris Nolan’s Tenet to Chloé [Zhao’s] Nomadland. So, how to get into the business?

One of the ways to get into the business, for a Cinematographer, is to be true to the stories you want to tell. Finally–The business side of the world is opening up to not only women, but people of color, and the reason I say that is because it’s always been an industry that has been squarely in the patriarchy. The entire film business has been—like many businesses have.

So, I would encourage young Cinematographers to join with like-minded people and make their own movies. And through that constant process, not only will your skills develop, because it is as much a skill set as it is a talent set, but the kinds of film you will be doing will be broader and broader. So start small in order to go big. The bigness will come. I mean, I’ve done films that cost many many millions of dollars, and I literally have done tiny things where it’s been me and college students.

I do those back to back. It’s not that I’ve forgotten how to do the one for the other. The other criteria I would say is persistence. Like many art forms, it’s a meritocracy, for the most part, once you get past the gender and color bias. You get the next gig because of how good you were on the last one. You don’t just get it because, you know, they’ve got nobody else to move up.

So keep on striving to get better. The only way that can happen is by perseverance. Keep on shooting, honing your visual knowledge, going to art museums, reading about it, going to films, pulling out your iPhone and taking photographs. Why does that particular photograph tell the story? Why does that painting tell a story? What is the emotional context behind it?

Understanding how people actually look at frames, and why does that in particular–literally, technically, physiologically–why does one frame speak to somebody and a different frame does not? We’re human–We have evolved to look at the world a certain way, as a species and we’ve also evolved to look at the world a certain way culturally.

Whether or not we’re from Western Europe, or whether or not we’re from Asia, or whether or not we’re Black, white or whether or not we’re African, Chinese, Latino or whatever. We have cultural biases within us, we have gender bias as well–and when we recognize those biases, we recognize the storytelling behind them.

Then there’s the sense of constantly learning. I’ve never stopped learning. I constantly read articles about who we are and what is visual expression, and that way, when the door opens, you’re ready for it.

Like in my case, for example, the only reason I became a DP is I was a Camera Operator. Then I was on a film in Florida and Miloš Forman, who I’d worked with as an Operator before, had a movie coming up. I was working with the DP that normally shoots for him, so I turned to him, literally coming out of dailies, and I went, “Are we doing this next movie together?” And the guy said, “No, I’m going back to France. I have some health things to take care of” and I looked him in the eye and I said, “Oh. Tell him I’ll shoot it.”

And I just went along with my day. But then six weeks later I get a phone call from Michael Hausman, who is Miloš’ Producer, and he says, “Miloš wants to see you.” And I go, “Great! As soon as I wrap, I’ll come back to New York.” I wandered to his amazing Fifth Avenue apartment and sat down, and we hugged each other, and I said, “So what are you doing?” And he says, “This movie called Man on the Moon. Andy Kaufman.”

I was like, “Okay cool, cool. I’d love to read the script,” and, “How’re you gonna shoot that? What’s the aspect ratio and all that?” I’m just asking a couple Operator questions. He says, “I don’t know. You tell me. You’re the DP.” Literally. I got the biggest movie of that year. That was ‘97, I think it was. Being prepared and letting people know I was ready.

It’s also a story about mentorship. I had done some movies with this particular DP. Obviously, I was an accomplished Operator when I met him, but also, he had mentored me. When I thought about it, it was like, “Oh yeah, that’s why he invited me on that scout. Oh yeah, that’s why he invited me to that production meeting. Oh, that’s why he let me do this, and why he went off and did that and said, ‘No, you go do this.’”

There’s a process in this business that we respect, which is the idea of mentorship and finding people that can mentor you. By understanding that you have to give excellence every day, and if you do that, people will recognize it.

If you show up on a project and you’re a Loader, and you are the best Loader you can possibly be every day, then you get the bump up. You get to not be the Loader. I do that all the time. I go, “Oh, wow. Look at that Second, she’s amazing. Go get her,” and we talk movies.

Next thing I know, somewhere along the way, I say, “Hey, why don’t you grab a camera and go off and shoot that little thing for me?” Because they’re expressing their desire and they’re expressing the enthusiasm and the persistence.

Shane Hurlbut (Terminator Salvation, Act of Valor, We Are Marshall)

This business is one of the most difficult ones to succeed in. If you do not have resilience and alligator skin, you need to turn around and do something else. That being said, there are many resources that exist now that did not when I was starting out.

One is the Hurlbut Academy. My wife, Lydia, and I created it after I completed Act of Valor because she felt that cinematography should be shared and not secretive. I was doing innovative work on that movie—showing that a DSLR camera could be used to shoot a feature film. I took a very small camera that wasn’t a traditional movie capture device—it was a still camera—and I basically turned it into a movie-making machine. It was the first feature that I did not shoot on film.

Being a great Cinematographer means starting at the bottom and learning all the way up. If you look at a lot of camera people out there, they did 2 to 5 years as a loader, 5 years as a 2nd assistant, 5 years as a 1st assistant and 5 to 10 years as an operator. They put in their time. It takes that long to start to master cinematography. It’s not easy to learn all the skills necessary to do the job well. It takes time and effort to challenge yourself and practice the craft.

Over the last five years, I’ve gone to tax-incentive states like Georgia, up to Vancouver, down to New Orleans and now upstate New York… What I’ve seen is a lot of younger people entering this industry from other fields. They are coming into the industry just to make more money. They’re not filmmakers. They didn’t go to film school. They don’t really care about film. They’re just doing it for the money. That has been a massive shift within our industry.

Cinematography is not a job. It’s a lifestyle; something you cannot live without. If you cannot do cinematography, you would feel so miserable, you would feel life had no meaning. That’s the mentality you have to have going into this business because it’s very hard on relationships and families. It is stressful. A movie like Terminator Salvation; my grip, electric and camera team were 272 people, that I was the department head. Having to lead this team to success—it’s a lot of responsibility. You have to be all in when you go into this business and if you choose to be in a relationship, you need a very understanding partner who embraces the lifestyle and adventure. In my opinion, cinematography is the greatest profession in the world.

1. Creates the visual look of the film

This might sound like a given, but this duty goes further than face value. For instance, what if Raging Bull hadn’t been shot in black and white? Or Blade Runner was shot entirely in natural daylight?

Both would be entirely different films and not just because of how they would look. It’s because the look of the film helps to inform both the world is it portraying and the themes its story is conveying.

2. Lists out the setups for every single shot in the film

For every shot in a film, the Cinematographer must decide what camera will be used and where it will be placed. They must also consider the type of lens and filters used.

In many cases, the camera may not be static during that shot, so considerations such as panning from one side to another, tilting up or down, or dollying towards the action must also be planned.

3. Chooses the lighting arrangement for those shots

Should a character in a particular shot be cast in shadow or front and center in the light? Should an entire room be visible to the audience or obscured to hide someone or something?

These are just a few examples of what a Cinematographer must think about for each shot–how to make the lighting work for both picking up those images on camera, as well as underscoring the needs of the narrative being told.

4. Uses rehearsals to determine blocking needs

The Cinematographer might have in mind how they want to position the camera and set up the lighting for a particular shot, but the reality of filmmaking is that it’s not a great shot if the Actors aren’t captured successfully in it.

That doesn’t necessarily mean having an Actor perfectly centered in a shot–in fact, that might be boring!–but that’s why the Cinematographer will often attend rehearsals to see how the Actors are moving in a particular shot and adjust their set-ups accordingly.

5. Studies the possibilities of each scene’s location

A scene’s location can be a help or hindrance in filmmaking–and a good Cinematographer will know how to make it the former.

As an example, let’s say a production is filming in winter. While a prairie landscape covered in snow might be stunning in person, that same location may fall flat on screen because of the lack of texture and color. The Cinematographer will know how best a location can support the acting, story, and other cinematic elements.

6. Supports the creative vision of the Director

The Director is typically thought of as the leader of the filmmaking team. That’s why a Cinematographer’s primary job is to realize, through their technical and creative tools, the vision of the Director.

That being said, no one–not even a Director–is immune from needing a little guidance from time to time. An accomplished Cinematographer knows that their knowledge and expertise can be a great asset and that sometimes means offering a differing opinion that ultimately is the better one for the production.

How Do Storyboards and Shot Lists Factor into Cinematography?

Oscar-winning Cinematographer Wally Pfister gets into the specifics of what takes place during the previsualization process, as well as how he approaches visual effects.

Both storyboards and shot lists are fundamental aids to the work of a Cinematographer.

Storyboards

With rare exception, the Director, Cinematographer, and the rest of the production team know what each and every scene in a film will look like prior to walking on set… All on account of the storyboards that are created during pre-production.

Storyboards provide a visual guideline for how each shot will be captured during principal photography, and their importance cannot be overestimated.

It’s critical that the Director and Cinematographer are in agreement about how the film will look once they move into production. By viewing and discussing the storyboards beforehand, they can sort out ahead of time any miscommunications or differences of opinion they may have about the film’s look.

Not only do storyboards help to solidify the creative vision behind a film, but also they assist in making sure no time is wasted on set trying to figure out the who, what, where, and how to shoot a particular scene.

Shot lists

Similarly, shot lists are fundamental to a well-oiled and smoothly running film set. No matter if you’re shooting a super indie film or huge blockbuster movie, time is very much money when it comes to filmmaking.

A shot list clearly and concisely tells the entire production crew