What is Cinematography?
The pursuit of visual storytelling is at the heart of film-making. It is this art of storytelling, combined with photography and working with a camera in a motion picture that is termed cinematography.
Cinematography, as a term, is not only used in the field of entertainment; it can be used in science, business, and mass media as well. According to the definition given by the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC), the cinematography is not only the documentation of what is happening; it is also creating an original art by an illuminating and creative process.
Telling your own unique story, by devising a visual language requires innate natural talent and knowledge of professional photography skills. Besides photography, a cinematographer uses other mediums like image manipulation, organization, management, etc. to achieve the desired result. If a film has to be shown on the big screen, film-makers typically spend most of their budget on high-quality cinematography.
What does a cinematographer do?
Also known as the Director of Photography (DP), cinematographers are the ones who capture the story in visuals using a camera. Cinematographers have to manage all the visual elements of the film, such as lighting, composition, color tones, camera movements, and such. So, whether a scene needs to be shot at wide-angle or close, high or low, sharp or blur; it is all decided by the cinematographer.
Cinematographers lead all the crew that works on the camera and lights of a film. Their role is to work along with the director to ensure that the director's vision is being fulfilled. They have to work in a team involving complex decision-making.
Usually, a director gives a brief on how a scene should look visually, and the cinematographer has the responsibility to achieve that. In most cases, the cinematographer would have plenty of creative freedom. However, the director can also provide precise instructions on the exact result she wants.
The American Society of Cinematographers awards the best cinematographers in the industry. They allow them to use "ASC" before their names on the credits of the film.
Here are some responsibilities of a cinematographer in detail:
Camera Setup and Placement
The cinematographer has to decide where to place the camera in a particular shot. If the cinematographer chooses to put distance between the subject and the camera, then it would convey a different meaning than when the camera is at a close range. They have to decide which camera and lenses to use to portray a particular style and meaning. Some important factors in the camera are the resolution, color sampling, and shutter, which helps cinematographers to express the best with light and position. The importance is not only the quality but how the visuals are telling the story.
Camera movement also plays a vital role in determining how the film would turn out to be. Usually, in an action film, cinematographers follow the action through the camera to convey the fast movement while they may keep the camera still to show the intensity of the moment.
The composition is what decides how a scene would look. Cinematographers have to determine where to place each element of a particular scene. They can decide whether to show or hide certain elements of the frame. Tightly framing a subject may bring out emotions or create mystery about what is happening around the subject. A scene can also be portrayed in a way that the subject in the film may not realize what's happening around while the audience does. Such methods of compositions may determine how the audience will interpret the story.
Cinematographers have to coordinate with other members of the crew, like a location manager to research on the locations and figure out the camera vantage points. They can provide their feedback on the locations to the director and improve the visuals.
Have you ever noticed that usually, a thriller film is quite dark lit while a comedy is bright? Lighting is something people don't notice naturally. But it does change the mood of the film. High-key lighting is often used to show fun, happy emotions, and low-key lighting is often used to show mystery and moody emotions. Therefore cinematographers have to be experts at it and have to learn both artificial and natural light. And they have to know how to bring the proper contrast, depth, and shapes in a scene. Cinematographers design the lighting system for the whole film, and the Lead Lighting Technician is the person who would execute the design.
Cameras and Lenses for Cinematographers
It is the responsibility of the cinematographer to select the camera used in making a film. The cinematographer will have to decide whether to use a film camera or a digital one, which types of lenses will be used, what camera setting would be needed, and what other equipments would be required.
If the film has a big budget, it would not mean that it can be used to get an expensive camera. There a lot of other factors to be taken into account, like how many lenses are required, how much it would cost for the lighting setup, and such. The main deciding factor for selecting equipment should be its ability to tell the story. Even films which have millions of dollars in budget use cheaper options if it serves the story better.
A film camera can be used to show grains and texture. The digital camera, on the other hand, gives a clean image. Digital cameras also give the capability to use a wider shutter than film cameras. You can also shoot in different file formats, which helps in giving more flexibility in post-production.
Prime lenses are more used in making a film. The prime lenses have fixed focal length, and they give much higher quality results than a zoom lens. Cinematographers use the 21mm, 28 lenses to get a wide shot, 50mm for medium shots, and 85mm to 105 mm for portrait shots. One of the most common mounts for lenses in the independent productions is the Canon EF-mount. While in big production houses, the ARRI PL-mount is used. The lenses can be interchanged by using speed booster or adapters.
What are some common Cinematography techniques?
Find a Creative Solution
Finding different and unique ways to shoot can lead to a cinematography technique that will help in achieving the visual goal of the director. This can also require making a detailed strategy on how to go about getting the shots. When Stanley Kubrik was shotting the film, Barry Lyndon, the cinematographer John Alcott wanted to shoot the entire film in natural light. They even wanted to push the limits by shooting with candlelight for indoor scenes. For this, they borrowed a special lens from NASA that made it possible. And, the result of all this effort was a masterpiece.
Focus on the story
Creative cinematography style is important but not more than the story. If a story is not good or not appropriately shown, having just good visual effects or techniques will not make the film great.
Concerning this, Roger Deakins, the great cinematographer said: "There's nothing worse than an ostentatious shot or some lighting that draws attention to itself, and you might go, 'Oh, wow, that's spectacular.' Or that spectacular shot, a big crane move, or something. But it's not necessarily right for the film — you jump out, you think about the surface, and you don't stay in there with the characters and the story." The visual look of the film should be based on the factor that makes the film better.
Manage time efficiently
Cinematography is a packed job. You have to interact with various department heads constantly. Time, like money, would never be enough. The first AD will be on your head for finishing the tasks and, ultimately, the movie on time. It is better to plan the coverage, setups, lighting plans thoroughly before starting the shoot. A cinematographer can use various tools to manage their tasks.
Know the script
A cinematographer, although, needs to have the technical know-how, but creativity plays an equally important role. Many times, the cinematographer and the camera crew are not well-versed with the script. The cinematographer, with the in-depth knowledge of the script, can bring up new suggestions, and questions to make the film better.
Use relevant gear
Making a great film doesn't mean having the best camera and lenses. A cinematographer needs to learn which gear can help in achieving the end goals. This can mean not necessarily using the fully-featured Alexa package; even ENG cameras can do the job.
Learn from the best
The great cinematographers also have learned from the greats before them. A cinematographer can gain knowledge and pass it on to the next generation by improving the cinematography techniques. Orson Welles, who made the well-acclaimed film Citizen Kane said that John Ford greatly inspired him. Legendary cinematographer John Ford is known to invent various lighting and camera techniques such as the western and chiaroscuro. Welles learned the techniques from Ford and created his own classics and developed innovatory lighting techniques.
Do camera tests
Doing proper tests before a shoot is critical. Various components can go wrong when the actual shoot takes place. A cinematographer can do the camera test by using chip carts, color charts, and models. Along with testing, handling, and maintaining the equipment are also important.
Find the best location
A good location can elevate the film to a different level. Take note of the lighting and weather conditions at different times of the day and year. A good location would mean that a cinematographer and the crew has to work less. A bad location would take more effort to achieve the desired result.
Don't depend on Post Production
The best way to get good results is to get it right in the camera. Post-production can help, but it won't make a badly shot video good. Working on post-production will take more time and money. A good cinematographer makes use of location, lighting, and other shooting techniques to make the cinematography outstanding.
How do you become a cinematographer?
Making a career in cinematography is not an easy task. And there is no one way to become a cinematographer. Therefore it is beneficial to get educated in analog or digital film-making. The education will give a better picture of the industry, apart from teaching about the subject.
A person can do a certificate course, associate degree, or a bachelor's degree in cinematography. To provide cinematography jobs, employers prefer a candidate with a bachelor's degree.
A certificate course will teach cinematographers the techniques in a fast-paced manner. It involves learning about camera and lighting, and film stocks. The associate degree will include preparing the basics of film and television, along with cinematography, directing, and sound design. The bachelor's degree will provide practical training on shooting and editing, lighting, production, animation, and management skills. It would also require cinematographers to work on a film project towards the end of the course.
After finishing their education, they can look to work as a Production Assistant (PA) on a film set. This way, a person will learn skills that are used by a cinematographer. A person usually doesn't become a cinematographer immediately after education. One has to be a second assistant, first assistant, and finally, the person who operates the camera.
A cinematographer can start working on independent films at the beginning of their career. They can then move up towards the professional world to find cinematography jobs. Working on small theater projects will help them hone their skills and build contacts in the industry. To do networking, cinematographers should attend screenings, red carpet events, seminars, etc. They should read industry relevant magazines to keep updated with the trends and knowledge.
Best Cinematography Schools
University of California in Los Angeles
UCLA's School of Theater, Film, and Television department is one of the top entertainment and performing arts institutions in the world. The school offers graduate and undergraduate programs in acting, directing, writing, cinematography, lighting design, and more
University Of North Carolina School Of The Arts in Winston-Salem
UNCSA has a strong curriculum and takes a practical approach to teach. In the initial two years, the students are asked to shoot various digital projects, along with teaching them in detail the modern film production. The UNCSA has a bachelor's course in Cinematography along with other courses in film-making like directing, animation, producing, screenwriting, etc.
University of Southern California in Los Angeles
The USC is known for a large number of alumni it has produced, including notable ones such as George Lucas. The school provides a broad range of courses in the Cinematic Arts.
AFI Conservatory, Los Angeles
The American Film Institute provides a hands-on approach to film-making. The AFI has well-known alumni such as David Lynch, Rachel Morrison, and Darren Aronofsky. The conservatory program is managed by AFI's Center for Advanced Film and Television Studies, which has courses on directing, producing, writing, and cinematography, among others.
Beijing Film Academy
The BFA is the largest film institution in Asia and is running from 65 years. The film school teaches all the things related to film-making from production, animation, cinematography, and more. The academy is known worldwide for its achievements in film production.
Few Cinematography Terminologies
Shots - Shots are the smallest unit of a film. A single shot is separated from the other by cuts or transitions. There are thousands of shots in a narrative film.
Scenes - The number of shots taken during a particular set of time is called a scene. When the location is changed, there would also be a change in the scene. Scenes, on its own, have a beginning, a middle and an end. And there would be multiple shots in a scene.
Sequences - Many scenes together form a sequence. Sequences also have a beginning, a middle, and an end. A sequence can have multiple locations. There are around 20 sequences in a narrative film.
Extreme Long Shot - These types of wide shots are used when the subjects have to be shown in their environmental context. These types of shots are also used when the cinematographer has to show two different places.
Bird's Eye Shot - The Bird's Eyeshot is also extremely wide, but it is taken from the top angle. In this type of shot, patterns start to emerge from a scene. This is typically seen at the beginning of a film.
Long Shot - In the long shot, people can see what's happening in an area, but it is not close enough to have a personal connection with the subject. The viewer feels like a part of the scene like you are looking at someone from a distance.
Medium Shot - The medium shot is typically used to show people in small groups where there is an exchange of dialogues. This shot is not yet there on the emotional level. The idea is to show what's happening in a small area. The shot is generally framed from a person's waist up. Getting the shot a little bit more light will show the emotions of the actor.
Close-up Shot - In the close-up shot, mostly a person's face is shown so that the impact of the character's emotions are transferred to the viewers.
Extreme Close-up - When you see an extreme close-up of eyes, hand, or any object, think of them as extreme close-up shots. These shots are used to make a scene intensive.
Dutch Angle Shot - Dutch Angle Shot is used when a cinematographer has to show a lack of stability or when the scene requires something more disturbing. This technique is done by tilting the camera towards one side until the bottom is no longer parallel with the horizon.
Over the Shoulder Shot - This shot is typically used when a character is talking to the other person or looking at something. In such shots, the shoulder and head of a character are out of focus. And what the character is looking at is in focus.
Tilt Shot - Tilt Shot is moving the camera typically from up to down or down to up. This shot, when combined with the same movement of the subject, can give great results. Tilt shots can be used at the beginning of the film as an opening shot, or to reveal something at the end of the shot.
Panning Shot - Panning shot is very similar to the tilt shot, but it is done horizontally. This shot is taken to show the horizontal movement of the subject or to show the surroundings.
Zoom Shot - The zoom shot is taken to increase the focus on the subject within a scene. Cinematographers have become better at taking this shot by showing the zoom more naturally.
Dolly Zoom Shot - Dolly zoom shot is moving in towards the subject on the dolly track with the camera, while the camera is smoothly zooming out on the subject.
Crane Shot - In the crane shot, the camera moves towards the subject in a vertical translational way or vice-versa. This type of shot is now taken using drones; it was earlier using expensive cranes.
Tracking Shot -The tracking shot uses a dolly track or a drone to follow the subject. This shot shows more liveliness to the movement, which is not achieved when the camera is stable.
First-Person Shot/ Point-of-View Shot - The point-of-view shot is taken by fitting the camera mount on the subject and showing the film from their perspective. This technique is used to make the film more engaging.
Best Cinematography Movies of All Time
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007): Roger Deakins collaborated with Andrew Dominik in this film. The film is counted among the top western films in which Deakins makes amazing use of lighting. Deakins sometimes used the same lights in the shots itself. He is known to talk with set designers to include the lighting equipment in the sets. Deakins has managed to give this film the look of a faded photograph, which has an old look but is still sharp where there are textures.
The Tree of Life (2011): Director Terence Malick worked with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki on this film, known for its best cinematography. Lubezki elevated the director's vision with his world-class cinematography. He was able to explore the spiritual context of the film in a brilliant way by using light creatively. The film has mostly made use of natural light. Lubezki has shown the life and death struggle in the film beautifully. According to Lubezki, working with Terence on this film was incredibly difficult. It was like the director was trying to create a mistake and accidents, which led to the film looking very natural. They made use of natural elements like wind, rain, and sun in the story, which helped them to capture the moments which beautiful moments which doesn't last long.
In the Mood for Love (2000): One of the best cinematography movies, In the Mood for Love, is a collaboration between three cinematographers: Christopher Doyle, Pung-Leung Kwan, and Ping Bin Lee. The cinematography is done in such a secretive way. The viewers feel like they are prying into the lives of the two characters; who develop a secret relationship in the film. The prying feeling is achieved by well-thought positioning and framing of the camera. Tracking shots showing the backside of the characters also adds to the mystery.
The Immigrant (2013): Known for his best cinematography, Darius Khondji, shows this movie like a hard to remember classic. Khondji has worked on some great films like Evita, Seven, Midnight in Paris, etc. He has successfully been able to show the 1920's New York scene in this film, along with making the American Dream more appealing.
Far from Heaven (2002): Ed Lachman, the cinematographer on the film, has collaborated with director Todd Haynes on many projects, but "Far from Heaven" is shot on a whole new level. Lachman's challenge was to create the look of an overhead grid light, with the color tones to be saturated. He had to work with 2002 film stock in this film, and yet he managed to show the emotions of the characters with mesmerizing color palettes.
As an aspiring cinematographer, you need to have a well-structured website that showcases your portfolio in a clean, minimalist way. Your website will represent your style of work and attract more clients and inquiries. Opportunities abound, but you have to make sure that viewers understand the idea and concept behind your work, whether it is the cinematography, video production, or direction.