It wouldn’t be an overstatement if we were to say that the most important element of a movie is its cinematography. While we all know about the word, how many of us actually comprehend the process that goes behind it!
Let us first understand as to what the meaning of the word is. While the Oxford Dictionary defines it as “the art of photography and camerawork in filmmaking”, the Cambridge Dictionary simply calls it “the art and methods of using cameras in making a movie”. Well, make no mistakes! The process is not as simple as it sounds from the given definitions.
Dr. D.A. Spencer in his seminal book ‘The Focal Dictionary of Photographic Technologies’ defined the process thus “Cinematography is the science or art of motion-picture photography by recording light or other electromagnetic radiation, either electronically by means of an image sensor, or chemically by means of a light-sensitive material such as film stock.” In very simple words, cinematography is the process through which a movie or a film gets recorded.
While cinema has a multitude of elemental things, cinematography is something that is primordial to the making of a cinema and conveyance of a specific message. If the cinematography is not up to the standards, a movie dies a premature death. Consequently, it is important that one understands at least a bit about cinematography before moving ahead with critical discourses on cinema. The camera work records the Mise-en-scene between edits. Each shot represents many choices made by the filmmakers. Why have they made these choices? What do these choices represent? The answers to these questions are important to understand the process of cinematography.
Did the cinematographer use bright and sharp colors? Did the cinematographer use grainy and black and white footages? Are the footages hazy? Why has the cinematographer used black and white when colour was available? These are the choices that are made to convey a certain meaning. We can take the example of Steven Spielberg’s ‘Schindler’s List’ (1993). While the entire movie was shot in black and white, there was one scene where a child is shown in red. This was done to show a transition, probably a transition in the mindset of the protagonist Oscar Schindler. This couldn’t have been done had a colour monotone been used throughout the movie.
Does the film showcase slow or fast motion? Has the film speed been reversed? Again, these are questions that are left to the discretion of the director. These are decisions that are taken to convey unambiguous meanings. In order to understand this aspect, examples could be taken of the films made by Guy Ritchie. Most of his movies are characterized by extremely fast motions. Again, this is done to create a sense of immediacy and speed.
Camera angle is the angle at which the camera is pointed at the subject. When it is shot from below, it is called a low angle shot. When it is shot from above, the resultant shot is called a high angle shot. If the shot is taken from the height of the subject, it is called an eye-level shot. If we look at Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’ (1980), we can easily see how unique camera angles were used to create an all-encompassing sense of claustrophobia and melancholia.
Tracking, Panning and Tilt
For the sake of shooting, a camera is moved on multiple parameters. The movement of the camera sideways or in and out is called tracking. The movement of the camera horizontally is called panning. Tilting the camera translates to swinging the camera vertically. We do see in multiple movies that the camera follows the characters thereby establishing a rapport. In other words, we follow the story with the characters.
Angle of View
The angle of view is the angle of the shot, which is created by the lens. This also significantly alters the meaning of a movie. Ingmar Bergman used this concept extensively in many movies.
Focus means the sharpness with which a certain subject is hot. Shallow focus uses sharp focus on the characters or things in one area of the shot and blurred focus on the rest. Deep focus brings out the essential details in all the areas of the shot. These are specific directions that are used to communicate certain meanings. This tool is primarily used to filter out information that the director doesn’t want to divulge at a given point in the movie.
Shot distance is the distance of the subject from the camera. Again, this is a creative decision that the director takes based on the requirements of the movie. A movie will have a combination of various shot distances. At times, the ambience is given more importance than the characters on the screen and on other occasions, the character is given more importance than the ambience.
Frame constitutes the border that contains the image. The frame can be open where the characters move in and out. The frame can be moving where there are multiple camera movements including using focus, tracking and panning. The frame can also be canted that features odd angles and unbalanced shot compositions. Framing is probably the most important creative decision that a director takes. The meaning of a movie comes out of its frames.
Shot composition is the relation of the elements of Mise-en-scene to the frame. Small frames with close-up shots can create a sense of claustrophobia, which is again enhanced by the set and lighting. The set can also be used to frame the shot in other ways. The same thing can be done with the characters as well. These shots are often unbalanced. For further understanding of the subject, a person should also look for shots that are perfectly symmetrical in nature. Most of the movies shot by Stanley Kubrick have unbalanced compositions and asymmetrical characters.
Importance of Education in Becoming a Cinematographer
Cinematography, albeit being an inspirational art form, needs a lot of training to master. Some of the subtle intricacies of cinematography can be learnt only at a film or a media school. In addition, it requires years of practice to be an effective and skillful cinematographer.
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