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?
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.