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cinematography: theory and practice imagemaking for cinematographers and directors
By blain brown
Focal Press Copyright © 2012 ELSEVIER INC.
All right reserved.
Chapter One WRITING WITH MOTION
The term cinematography is from the Greek roots meaning "writing with motion." At the heart of it, filmmaking is shooting — but cinematography is more than the mere act of photography. It is the process of taking ideas, words, actions, emotional subtext, tone, and all other forms of nonverbal communication and rendering them in visual terms. As we will use the term here, cinematic technique is the entire range of methods and techniques that we use to add layers of meaning and subtext to the "content" of the film — the dialog and action.
The tools of cinematic technique are used by both the director and DP, either working together or in doing their individual jobs. As mentioned, cinematography is far more than just "photographing" what is in front of the camera — the tools, the techniques and the variations are wide ranging in scope; this is at the heart of the symbiosis of the DP and the director.
Building a Visual World
When we create a film project, one of our primary tasks is to create a visual world for the characters to inhabit. This visual world is an important part of how the audience will perceive the story; how they will understand the characters and their motivations.
Think of great films like On the Waterfront, Apocalypse Now, or The Big Sleep. They all have a definite, identifiable universe in which they exist: it consists of the locations, the sets, the wardrobe, even the sounds, but to a large extent these visual worlds are created though the cinematography. All these elements work together, of course — everything in visual storytelling is interrelated: the sets might be fantastic, but if the lighting is terrible, then the end result will be substandard.
Let's look at this sequence from early in Blade Runner: (Figures 1.2, through 1.5) Without a single line of dialog, we know it is a high-tech, futuristic world; giant electric signs and flying cars tell us this. The extravagant skyscrapers and squalid street life tell us a great deal about the social structure. In addition, it always seems to be raining, hinting at dramatic climate change. Picked up by the police, Deckard (the Harrison Ford character) is taken by flying car to police headquarters, landing on the roof.
Once inside, there is a sudden shift: the interior is not futuristic at all; in fact it is the inside of the Los Angeles train station — it is Mission Revival in its architectural style. Why an 18th-century looking building as a location choice? One thing you will learn as a filmmaker is that everything has to be for a reason — for every choice you make, whether in the story, the location, the props, whatever. Random choices do not help you tell your story. These choices may not always be conscious decisions (although all the major ones should be), but to simply "let things happen" will almost never result in a coherent, smooth flowing story that conveys your original intentions in the way you wanted.
The camera cranes down to the roof of an office and we discover ... trash. The camera continues down and we find ourselves in the captain's office. Again, its style and set dressing seems completely anachronistic and odd: wood filing cabinets, a desk fan, an old TV. Why is this?
Then Deckard enters and his trench coat with the upturned collar provides the final clue: this could easily be a scene from a film noir detective story. The director is sending us a simple message: this may be the future with flying cars and replicants, but at the heart of it, this is an old-fashioned detective story with the hard-boiled sleuth and the femme fatale — and all of this is communicated entirely through visual means.
So how do we do it? As cinematographers, directors, production designers, and editors, how do we accomplish these aims? What are the essential elements we work with and manipulate to create this visual world?
If cinema is a language, then we must ask: what is the structure of that language? What is vocabulary, what are the rules of grammar, the structure of this cinematic language? What are the tools of cinematography and filmmaking — the essential techniques, methods, and elements that we can use to tell our story visually?
THE [CONCEPTUAL] TOOLS OF CINEMATOGRAPHY
What we're talking about here is not the physical tools of filmmaking: the camera, dolly, the lights, cranes and camera mounts, we are talking about the conceptual tools of the trade.
So what are they? What are the conceptual tools of visual storytelling that we employ in all forms of visual storytelling? There are many, but we can roughly classify them into some general categories.
Light and color
Selecting the frame is the fundamental act of filmmaking; as filmmakers we must direct the audience's attention: "look here, now look at this, now over here ..." Choosing the frame is a matter of conveying the story, but it is also a question of composition, rhythm, and perspective.
Take this opening frame from Punch Drunk Love (Figure 1.6). It gives us a great deal of information about the situation and the main character. Instantly, we know he is isolated, cut off from most of the world. The wide and distant shot emphasizes his isolation and loneliness reinforced by the color scheme and the lack of wall decoration. The dull shapeless overhead fluorescent lighting underscores the mood and tone of the scene. Finally, the negative space on the right not only plays into the isolation and loneliness but into the possibility of something about to happen.
The strong lines of perspective, both horizontal and vertical, converge on him, "pinning" him in his hunched-over position. Without a word being said, we know a great deal about this person, his world, and social situation, all of which are fundamental to the story.
This frame from a beach scene in Angel Heart (Figure 1.7) also communicates a great deal: something is odd, out-of-balance. In unconventional framing, most of the frame is sky: negative space, we barely see the beach at all. One man is bundled in a coat, the other in a T-shirt, even though it hardly seems like good tanning conditions. The viewpoint is distant, observational. We know this is going to be no ordinary everyday conversation. Even when the dialog begins and you would normally expect the director to go in for close-ups, the camera hangs back, reinforcing the strangeness of the situation.
In this scene from The Verdict (Figures 1.8 and 1.9) the entire story is at a climactic point: the trial has reached the end, the lawyer (Paul Newman) has had his entire case thrown out, witnesses disqualified, evidence excluded. He has nothing left but his final summation and everything depends on it. Even though the courtroom is crowded, he is surrounded by empty space: isolated and alone visually, this reflects his situation — he is utterly on his own at this point. Strong lines of perspective cut him off and lead the eye constantly back to him.
A lamp hangs over his head like the sword of Damocles as if it might come crashing down any instant. All eyes are turned toward him at the almost exact center of the frame; clearly the weight of the world is on him at this instant. Everything about the visuals tells us that this is his do-or-die moment — that everything about the case, and indeed about his entire life, depends on what he is about to say. As the scene builds in a continuous shot, the camera slowly pushes in to a medium shot, thus excluding nearly everything else in the courtroom and focusing the viewer's attention on him alone: other people still in the shot are out of focus.
Again, we are not talking about the physical lens, what concerns us here is how various lenses render images in different ways. This is a powerful tool of visual storytelling — the ability of optics to alter our perception of the physical world. Every lens has a "personality" — a flavor and an inflection it adds to the image. There are many factors involved: contrast and sharpness, for example, but by far the most influential aspect of a lens is the focal length: how wide or long it is. A short focal length lens has a wide field of view, and a long focal length lens is like a telescope or binoculars; it has a narrow field of view.
More importantly, a long lens compresses space and a wide lens expands and distorts space. Look at this frame from Seven (Figure 1.10): at the climactic ending of the film, the detectives are taking John Doe to a place only he knows; as a part of their deal they are kept in the dark. The extremely long lens compresses the space and makes the transmission towers seem like they are right on top of each other: the visual metaphor it establishes is a spider's web, a trap — which is exactly what it turns out to be. It is a powerfully graphic and arresting image that precisely reinforces the story point at that moment.
We see the opposite effect in the frame from City of Lost Children (Figure 1.11). Here an extremely wide lens, a visual constant in the films of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, expands our perception of space and distorts the face — it has an effect that is both comedic and ominous.
Light and Color
Light and color are some of the most powerful tools in the cinematographers arsenal. Lighting and controlling color are what takes up most of the director of photographer's time on most sets and for good reason. They also have a special power that is shared only by a very few art forms such as music and dance: they have the ability to reach people at a gut, emotional level.
This is the very definition of cinematic language as we use the term here: visual tools that add additional layers of meaning to the content of the story. In this frame from Apocalypse Now (Figure 1.12), the single shaft of light powerfully communicates the idea of a man alone, isolated in his madness.
In a climactic frame from Blade Runner (Figure 1.13), the stabbing shafts of light and silhouetted bars on the window instantly communicate a man ensnared in a high-tech nightmare world from which there is no escape.
These days, we rarely shoot anything "straight" — meaning a scene where we merely record reality and attempt to reproduce it exactly as it appears in life. In most cases — particularly in feature films, commercials, and certainly in music videos — we manipulate the image in some way, we add some visual texture to it; this is not to be confused with the surface texture of objects. There are many devices we use to accomplish this: changing the color and contrast of the picture, desaturating the color of the image, filters, fog and smoke effects, rain, using unusual film stocks, various printing techniques, and of course the whole range of image manipulation that can be accomplished with digital images on the computer — the list goes on and on.
Some of these image manipulations are done with the camera, some are done with lighting, some are mechanical efx, and some are done in post production. A particularly dramatic example is O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Figure 1.14). Cinematographer Roger Deakins experimented with many camera and filter techniques to create the faded postcard sepia-toned look that he and the director envisioned. None of them proved satisfactory and in the end, he turned to an entirely new process: the digital intermediate (DI). The DI employs the best of both worlds: the original images are shot on film and ultimately will be projected on film in theaters. But in the intermediate stages, the image is manipulated electronically, in the digital world, with all the vast array of tools for image making that computers afford us — and there are many.
Some similar techniques are used in this music video Come to Daddy by English music video director Chris Cunningham (Figure 1.15) for Aphex Twin. In this video, Cunningham uses a wide variety of visual texture devices, including making film look like bad video, stutter frames, slow motion, and many more. Most visible in this frame are the shadowy lighting, contrasty look and the green/cyan shift of the entire image, all of which reinforce the ghastly, surrealistic imagery of the content.
Excerpted from cinematography: theory and practice by blain brown Copyright © 2012 by ELSEVIER INC.. Excerpted by permission of Focal Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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