Cinematography 101: Intro to the Art of Visual Storytelling in Film/TV - Careers in Film
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Female Cinematographer examines her shotAn actress in front of the cameraA writer works in a coffee shopFilm Producer works with teamA woman and a man edit a film in the studioPeople on an action film set
Female Cinematographer examines her shotAn actress in front of the cameraA writer works in a coffee shopFilm Producer works with teamA woman and a man edit a film in the studioPeople on an action film set

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.

What Does Cinematography Mean?

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 makes good 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.

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What Are the 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.

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!

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 Has Cinematography Evolved Over the Years?

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 film 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.

Getting Started as a Cinematographer

Which films do you recommend aspiring Cinematographers watch?

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

There’s this list from the ASC. Probably all of those on the list, I agree [with]. But just off the top of my head, I would say Blade Runner, the original one. Then The Godfather saga, especially One and Two. There’s so many good things—like The Conformist and pretty much anything that Roger Deakins has shot.

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

This is very simple: Citizen Kane. Every modern technique of camera movement, angles, and lighting is used in this masterpiece. The beauty of being a Cinematographer is all you have to do when watching someone’s work is look to where the shadows are and then you know where the light sources are coming from.

How do you become a Director of Photography?

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.

What Are Some Common Cinematography Terms?

If you’re looking to enter the field of cinematography, there’s no better way to get a jump on your education than by familiarizing yourself with some key terms of the craft5:

Aerial Shot

A type of shot that films a scene from an aircraft, drone, crane or other high, overhead apparatus. Also called a bird’s-eye view shot.

Backlight

Part of the often used three-point lighting system in filmmaking. A backlight is a light that emanates from the back of the set. Creates separation between the subject and background.

Close-Up

A type of shot that frames a character’s face and sometimes shoulders. Used to convey the character’s expressions and emotional state.

Deep Focus

A way of filming a shot through use of a particular lens that allows all elements in the shot–foreground, background and in-between–to be in focus.

Dolly Shot

A type of shot that uses a camera affixed to a wheeled apparatus to allow camera movement on a single plane. Also known as a tracking shot.

Dutch Angle Shot

A type of shot that films a character with a tilted camera. May be used to reflect the character’s imbalanced state of mind or an imbalanced world.

Extreme Close-Up

A type of shot that frames only a part of a character’s face, such as the eyes or lips.

Extreme Long Shot

A type of shot that is typically used as an establishing shot, especially with a scene taking place in a new location or environment. Used to convey scale and distance. Also called an extreme wide shot.

Fill Light

Part of the often used three-point lighting system in filmmaking. A fill light is a secondary light that helps to soften the harsh shadows created by the primary light, or key light.

Floodlight

A type of lamp that creates a diffused light.

Hand-held Camera

A technique used when the camera is not affixed to a tripod or other stabilizing apparatus. Rather, it is held by the Cinematographer or Camera Operator for a deliberately shaky effect.

High-Angle Shot

A type of shot where the subject is filmed from above.

High-Key Lighting

A type of lighting scheme that produces little contrast between the darks and lights in a shot.

Key Light

Part of the often used three-point lighting system in filmmaking. A key light is the primary light source in a shot.

Lighting Radio

The relationship or balance between the key and fill lights used in a shot.

Long Shot

A type of shot that includes the character’s full body, as well as some of their immediate surroundings. Also called a wide shot.

Low-Angle Shot

A type of shot where the subject is filmed from below.

Low-Key Lighting

A type of lighting scheme that produces strong contrast between the darks and lights in a shot. Results in deep shadows and is sometimes referred to as chiaroscuro lighting.

Medium Shot

A type of shot that frames a character from the waist up. Most frequently used shot in filmmaking.

180-Degree Rule

A system used to orient the viewer within a scene. Follows the rules of keeping the action in a scene advancing along a straight line and keeping the camera on just a single side of that action. Also called the axis of action.

Over-The-Shoulder Shot

A type of shot that frames two characters with the camera placed behind the shoulder of one character who is directly facing the other character.

Pan

A type of camera movement with the camera affixed to a stabilizing apparatus. While on this apparatus, the Cinematographer can move the camera from left to right or right to left.

Point-Of-View Shot

A type of shot that allows the viewer to see what a character sees from their point of view.

Steadicam

A type of camera that is carried by a Cinematographer or Camera Operator to move with a character or through a set without the shaky effect of a hand-held camera.

Three-Point Lighting System

A popular filmmaking lighting scheme that uses key, fill, and backlights. The key is the primary lighting source with fills to reduce the harshness of the key and backlights to create depth in the shot.

Tilt

A type of camera movement with the camera affixed to a stabilizing apparatus. While on this apparatus, the Cinematographer can move the camera from up to down or down to up.

Two Shot

A type of shot that frames two characters. Usually a medium shot.

Zoom Shot

A type of shot where the subject is magnified by manipulation of the lens.

Cinematographer Gonzalo Amat
Gonzalo Amat

New York-based Cinematographer Gonzalo Amat is known for his work on Fargo, Outer Banks, Seal Team and The Man in the High Castle, for which he received two American Society of Cinematographer Award nominations and one Emmy nomination.

Amat grew up in Mexico and Spain. He studied fine art photography at the Centro Cultural Arte Contemporáneo in Mexico City and painting at Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design in London. He earned his MFA in film from the London Film School, and his MFA in cinematography at the AFI Conservatory in LA.

Cinematographer John Schwartzman
John Schwartzman

JOHN SCHWARTZMAN ASC (Director of Photography) is an award-winning Cinematographer whose work encompasses some of cinema’s biggest action and comedy blockbusters, including Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spiderman, Michael Bay’s Armageddon, Jay Roach’s Meet the Fockers and, more recently, Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World.

Twice nominated for the coveted ASC Awards for Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography in Theatrical Releases, Schwartzman won in 2004 for his work on Gary Ross’s Seabiscuit, for which he also received an Academy Award Nomination. His additional film credits include Michael Bay’s The Rock and Pearl Harbor, Michel Gondry’s The Green Hornet, Rob Reiner’s The Bucket List, John Lee Hancock’s The Rookie, Shawn Levy’s Night at the Museum: Battle for the Smithsonian and Richard Donner’s Conspiracy Theory.

The Los Angeles native attended the USC School of Cinema, before spending six months under the tutelage of Vittorio Storaro on Francis Coppola’s biopic Tucker: A Man and his Dream. During this period, his friend (and aspiring filmmaker) Michael Bay asked Schwartzman to shoot spec TV commercials with him while he studied directing at the renowned Art Center College of Design. That led to assignments with Propaganda Films, where Schwartzman shot music videos for artists such as Madonna and Paula Abdul. As the industry’s tastes changed, he moved with his Directors into mainstream advertising.

In addition to his work on the big screen, Schwartzman is one of the commercial industry’s most sought after cameramen.

His commercial work includes work for a wide range of national and international clients, such as HBO, Chevrolet, Visa, Nike, Toyota, American Express, Mercedes Benz, AT&T, Honda, Victoria’s Secret, Chobani Yogurt, Coca-Cola, Canon, Pepsi, Reebok,
and more.

  1. 1Encyclopaedia Britannica. "Cinematography". Encyclopaedia Britannica. published: . retrieved on: 8 January 2021
  2. 2Holben, Jay. "Where Do You Put the Camera?". American Cinematographer. published: 26 January 2020. retrieved on: 8 January 2021
  3. 3Studiobinder. "What is Cinematography? Defining the Art and Craft". Studiobinder. published: 7 December 2020. retrieved on: 8 January 2021
  4. 4MasterClass. "Film 101: What Is Cinematography and What Does a Cinematographer Do?". MasterClass. published: 8 November 2020. retrieved on: 8 January 2021
  5. 5Singh, Anisha. "What is Cinematography and How to Become a Cinematographer?". Pixpa. published: 28 November 2019. retrieved on: 8 January 2021
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