Free Support and Outreach for Colorado's Filmmaking Community
At last night's awesome Emerging Filmmaker's Project, there were several movies that had very different and distinct looks. Some of this was most definitely done on purpose and some, I suspect, were shot in whatever way the filmmaker had available to them. In all the cases last night, the movies looked good in that very subjective sort of way.
I was surprised, however, by the very different opinions (during the Q&A and after) from the audience on their preference for the different styles and looks of the films. I was also struck by how the youngest members of our audience gravitated towards less-conventional cinemagraphic tehniques (hand held, lots of lens flare, inconsistent framing within shots) and how older audience members liked things that were a bit more traditional (fluid camera movement, controlled lighting, consistent framing along the rule of thirds, etc.).
Now I know that this is in many ways a generational thing. But with more and more content being delivered on smaller and smaller devices, I wonder if audiences care as much about cinematography as they used to. I'm not asking if filmmakers should care because that is part of the 'art' of movies, but I guess I was just reminded that we need to constantly remember that what we filmmakers want to do and what audiences want to see are often very different.
So how important is cinematography?
I'll take a stab. I think the general public probably doesn't know enough--or think about the topic enough--to parse out what they like and don't like visually, at least not in as much detail as filmmakers do. I'll go so far as to guess that for the most part, the average person doesn't consciously notice most cinematography. (Yes, if a movie is incredibly gorgeous, they're more likely to take notice.)
But subconsciously, I think it makes a huge impact. A well-shot commercial or industrial makes a business look successful and high-end. A poorly shot one leaves a lesser impression. For movies and TV, the cinematography impacts the audience's emotional response. It helps set the mood and tone. It also means the difference between a low-budget looking like a cheap first try and a high-end, polished film. I think cinematography is more important than the general public consciously understands. This makes it no less important.
Cinematography is a very important tool in the filmmaking process. That shouldn't really need to be said, but I guess it does from time to time. It effects how the story is interpreted, both cognitively and emotionally. It's sort of like asking "Is writing important?"
In my opinion, it's never about what's right or wrong. It's about what works and what doesn't work (and who it works for). It can be hard to separate our own tastes and predisposition from our assessments at times. I get a bit nauseous when the camera keeps moving, some people like it. That's not what's important. What is important is whether or not the choices you make work for what you are trying to do.
Before you just say, "well yeah, flying the camera around like the camera operator is a chimp on meth TOTALLY works for my movie" or "sure. I like that locked down look. It's classic" Ask yourself (as always) WHY you are making that choice.
Are you making it out of experience, experimentation and an open mind towards the creative possibilities? Or are you making it because: it's all you know, it's what's hip, or that's what someone told you was cool?
There are a million choices you need to make as a filmmaker. You should strive to make each of them out of knowledge, collaboration and creativity. Not out of ignorance, fear or a desire to be cool.
And remember, sometimes a beautifully composed and glamorously lit shot is the perfect choice for your reel. Sometimes it's the worst thing you can do for your story
But, that's just me.
In my small circle of 20 - 30 somethings, cinematography is the single most important aspect of movies - far outweighing things like story, mood, and even "the whole." When I hear about movies from my friends, the way a movie "looks" is always the focal point of conversation. And they are much more likely to dwell on a shot rather than an actor or a line of dialogue.
It's probably that I just don't have many friends.
Personally, I think it is difficult to separate cinematography and editing. As humans, what we see is dependent on what we just saw. Think of Jasper Johns and his green, black, and orange flag called Moratorium. Looking at it, one might think the flag was "poisoned by war" but when you stare into it and then look away, the visual echo of the flag in red, white, and blue remains - changing not only what you are trying focus on, but also changing your perception of the flag image in the first place.
Would the slicing the eye ball shot in Un Chien Andalou be as effective without the sharpening of the blade, the clouds across the moon, and especially the shot of the fingers opening up the girls eye which fools us into thinking that it is her eyeball? I don't think so.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dbTQ0m1E1NE
I think that what a shot is sandwiched between changes a shot into something wholly different from what it would have been if viewed by itself. I guess that's the point - the synergy.
btw -Working as DP on an indie a couple years ago, whenever I put the camera on the tripod, the director would come up to me and ask "You want a dead camera look for this shot huh?" He would then tell the actors to act "real big" because we were using a dead camera. Needless to say, not a single still shot made the final cut.
I own a tripod - a really heavy Manfrotto. And I haul it around to every shoot - as if to give me some sort of credibility - like "oh just look at that tripod - this guy must be a professional." But I just can't bring myself to put my camera on it.
Ooooh, don't get me started! This should be an interesting discussion. There have been some excellent points so far.
As we saw last night at the EFP, the cinematography can make the difference between the viewer loving a film or hating it. It's that important. (The rack focus to the hair on the back of an actor's head was classic!)
Of course different viewers have different tastes. There will never be a movie that absolutely everyone likes (except for maybe "Princess Bride"! ;-) Steven Soderbergh is an award winning director who often lenses his own movies. He's a big advocate of shooting hand held. As far as I know, he has never won an award for cinematography. I wonder why?
Sometimes a static camera serves the story and sometimes a dynamic camera is called for. I personally believe that moving the camera is always better if it's motivated. I've spent thousands of dollars on equipment that allows me to move the camera in the traditionally accepted "cinematic" ways. I also have thousands of dollars invested in tripods and fluid heads. If you feel the need to move the camera just because you can, then maybe what you are shooting isn't interesting enough.
I shoot between 300 and 500 shows every year. The vast majority of those are NOT hand held and I would undoubtedly lose my job(s) if I tried to make it otherwise. But, I shoot over 50 shows each year at Red Rocks and we always shoot hand held. Why? It's because that is what works best for what we are doing. It truly depends on the situation at "hand". HOWEVER, the cinematographer should really THINK about what needs to be done to tell the story in an effective and entertaining manner.
Here's a recent article that addresses this topic: http://www.salon.com/entertainment/movies/battle_los_angeles/index....
"...looks as if the cinematographer strapped cameras to the heads of a dozen baboons and fired a pistol in the air when the director called action."
Okay, that's a classic!
Oh yeah, one more thing.
I think that an excellent argument could be made for the opinion that if you are not shooting with "controlled lighting" (whether natural or artificial) then you really can't call what you are doing "cinematography". Lighting is a huge component of the craft of cinematography.
No doubt lighting is a huge part of cinematography.
But what about Italian Neorealism, the French New Wave, and Dogme 95? All these styles were shot using only available natural light to such an extent that I don't consider it controlled. Rule 4 in Dogme's Vow of Chastity is "The film must be in colour. Special lighting is not acceptable." Weren't Bicycle Thieves, Breathless, and The Celebration shot by cinematographers?
I knew this would spark some interesting discussion! I said that an excellent argument could be made for the opinion that if you are not shooting with "controlled lighting" (whether natural or artificial) then you really can't call what you are doing "cinematography".
Of course Bicycle Thieves, Breathless and The Celebration were shot by cinematographers. These movies have some beautiful imagery and it's quite obvious that the cinematographers had some amount of "control" over their use of available light. Seriously, what does uncontrolled light look like anyway? Even when shooting outdoors where the cinematographer is seemingly at the mercy of available light, he can still "take control" by using flags, silks, reflectors or by simply waiting for the light to be just right.
The cinematographer has the ability to control when the camera is rolling. Choosing the time of day for the right quality of available light is still a technique that cinematographers use all the time. The cinematographer has the ability to control where the camera and the talent is placed. Placing the actor next to a window to take advantage of available light is still a valid technique and a great way to take control of the use of available light! The cinematographer certainly has the ability to control exposure. How is that for controlling available light?
As far as I know, you can't make live action, narrative movies without light. How you make use of it should be well thought out and can certainly be "controlled" in my opinion. This is what cinematography is all about and it is quite readily apparent that the cinematographers that made these movies knew what they were doing.
An excellent argument could be made for the opinion that Italian Neorealism, French New Wave, and Dogme 95 methodology are extremes and not always the best ways of telling every story. Didn't I already say that different viewers have different tastes? The Dogme 95 guys broke their own rules anyway.
it wil be interesting to see how the next generation of independent filmmakers (maybe the kids who are in first grade right now) turn out. How mainstream motion pictures are made isnt going to really change anytime soon. Its also harder to sell a 'breaking the waves' - experimental approach to shooting a film that is being backed by multiple finaciers who want to see a return on their investment. I am willing to bet those young members of your audience have been influenced by very conventional hollywood films that have used all of those techniques. Experimenting in features with big budgets isnt new and it happens all the time. Its done at a very high level, and its seamless to the general audience, as it should be, but its there. I mean Cinematographers like Janusz Kaminski have done a lot of the things that are not conventional and there's an endless amount of testing for the looks achieved in good and bad major budget productions such as War of the Worlds. Awful film -but some interesting things were done to achieve the look.
The other reality is that very few of these filmmakers that want to be less conventional, will make it. That is the reality. Maybe as hobbyists but not as a way to put food on the table.
There's technical Cinematography and Cinematography as an art form, not to sound too cliche - but even good looking pictures fail to accomplish the latter and it is certainly more rare to achieve cinematography that can be considered masterful or 'important'.
Would it really matter WHO shot any of the films presented at the screening? - is their any visual authorship?
Routine blocking-lighting-scene coverage-artsy fartsy shots for no reason, can be called a kind of Cinematography, but
its not the kind of Cinematography that leads a viewer anywhere. Obviously you can argue this til you are blue in the face- from both sides, but Cinematography like any other of the related disciplines does communicate at a higher level, even if the general audience doesnt consciously pick up on it.
With the advent of DSLRs and better sensors for cheaper, theres a lot more bunk out there and things shot by people like Philip Bloom being called Cinematography...farthest thing from what should be called Cinematography.
Im not against making things more accessible to everyone, but its the sort of thing where just because you can do it, doesnt mean you should be doing, or are good at doing it - thats the big mistake and why egos get hurt when you tell them that their work is bad or ineffective.
people who have been doing this for a long time have a certain amount of wisdom/understanding of this craft and
the reality is, cinematography at a high level (and all the related crafts) are elitist. there's no escaping it. You can exist in a nice little indie bubble all your life, but there's a reason so many of these productions are only seen by a handful of people. The percentage of indies that make it is so small. It's sort of like basketball- lots of people play, lots of people are good, but the only ones you will ever really hear about are in the NBA, though there are local legends at the playground. I dont think Production is all that different.
There is no viewing experience like seeing a movie projected on a big screen. mobile devices / internet / internet tv are nice conveniences but I believe they are in a separate market. it will be sad if the viewer becomes even more lazy than they already are and no longer wish to have a movie experience, but i doubt that will happen because it's just that , an experience.
That's why T.V.s are getting bigger and bigger-people do want an "experience"...Cinema has been trying to lure people in with gimicks again lately -like 3D...which was already tried in the 1950's. Sens-a-round...Panavision, technicolor etc... have all been used to increase attendance.
Since the film(s) I'm working on right now would undoubtably have been "Drive In Movie" Fare in the 50's through 70's, and those venues are almost all torn down now, the "B Movie" has taken up residence on video and DVD. Maybe once in a while a low budget film will get a break on the Sci-Fi network.
Anymore (unless we're talking festivals) movies with less than a few million dollar budget will rarely if ever see a large screen-not that they'd look that good up their anyway...Someone wanna throw me a 35mm motion picture camera, a lighting set-up that's worth more than my house, etc..etc...? I said "movies" on purpose above because really that's what they are...Not Films in the true sense. But I'd hate to have found out that Leonardo DaVinci became a plumber because the Catholic church pulled all of his funding. As artist's we must use the tools within our reach and budget.
Learn all we can from "True" Cinematographers, editors, art directors,FX animators, lighting technicians etc.
but keep on making your art-even if it's just a flip book animation. Telling stories is what it's all about.
Study and just try to do it well. Maybe the innovations will come from people who work with handi-cams.
Robert Rodriguez has some good philosophy on this I think.
The short answer is that Cinematography is very, very important in essentially a photographic medium.
Whether you are shooting digital video (TV production) or real film, the camera work and lighting can
make you or break you. By break you I mean that your project can look amateurish, un-polished, run and
gun, non-commercial, perhaps not salable, etc, there are lots of expressions for poor quality work).
With respect to controlled lighting: Good cinematography controls light. Artificial or available light can be
controlled without elaborate or expensive instruments. What about light reflectors; there is nothing cheaper than a window and a shadow-filling reflector! The old Hollywood glamour style used a lot of
three point, multi-point, lighting that worked well for basically sound stage shoots. But there is nothing
wrong with naturalistic cinematography/videography, nor documentary style. Cinema verite is fine for
its style and subject matter, but it doesn't excuse sloppy camera work. Too many young camera people
wave their digital video cameras around and think it's professional cinematography; its not. I've seen
even prime time drama shot with hand-held cameras and only a very experienced cameraman can
get away with it and not make it look shaky. Shaky camera work takes the viewer out of the dramatic
moment and distracts from an otherwise good performance by actors. A really good example of this so-
called modern style is seen in George Clooney's "Good Night And Good Luck" The camera work actually
distracts from a fine dramatic film! Do you want to watch your performers move and act or do you want
to be constantly conscious of the camera constantly moving around? (hopefully not actually shaking!).
That's my take on the importance of good camera work and well thought-out lighting.
Yeah, I hate "The Office" it makes me nautious and claustrophobic. Can't believe anyone likes it.
I went to see The Bourne Iidentity" or Ultimatum" (whatever) and hated that too. It looked like a home video to me; almost as bad as Blair Witch Project! They billed it as cutting edge camera work that "puts you right in the action"-sorry, think I'm gonna be sick-see ya!