I was reading a book by Blain Brown a cinematographer in Hollywood film industry, the name of the book is “Cinematography: Theory and Practice: Image Making for Cinematographers and Directors.” I want to talk about a topic he explained in his book The Conceptual Tools Of Cinematography in this article. Believe me it is very helpful.
(Above mentioned book link at the end of this article)
First things comes in mind when we talk about tools for filmmaking or cinematography is camera, dolly, camera mounts, the lights or overall production set or studio.
The above mentioned tools are important but here in this article, we will talk about the conceptual tools of cinematography. So, what are they? What are the conceptual tools of visual storytelling that we employ in all forms of visual storytelling?
There are many conceptual tools of the trade but we can roughly classify them into some general categories, they are as follows:
- The Frame
- Light and Color
- The Lens
- Point-of-View (POV)
A perfect framing of a scene will make sense of it to the audience, to understand what is happening and where to look.
Choosing the frame is a matter of conveying the story, but also a question of composition, rhythm and perspective.
Take this interrogation scene from The Dark Knight. It gives us a great deal of information on the situation and the characters. By looking at this framing, instantly we know that Batman (Christian Bale) and Joker (Heath Ledger) both are isolated in a room where the Batman is interrogating the Joker. In this framing of the scene, we can see that the key light is on the Joker’s and Batman’s front side which makes the audience understand where to look? and what to look for?
We can understand by looking, that the scene is very intense and without a word we know a lot about the both characters and what is going to happen in this particular scene which is an interrogation.
Here’s another example, in this Jason Statham scene from The Fate of The Furious (Fast & Furious 8) . We can see that in this frame the focus is on the face of the character, which makes audience understand where to look? In this frame we can understand by just looking that there is going to be action in this scene as he hold a gun in his hand because of the perfect lighting we know the mood of the scene in this case angry. So again without saying a word we know what to look for? In this scene and we know that some action is going to happen.
So, the bottom line is that if your framing is perfect, the audience will know what to look? Where to look? And what to expect? Making sure your framing is perfect will help you achieve great results.
Light and Color
If you are a filmmaker or a cinematographer you know how important it is to have a perfect lighting and color for your scene. Light and color are some of the most powerful tools in the cinematographer’s/director of photography’s arsenal. It takes a lot of time for a director of photography to decide the lighting and control of the color while preparing the set for shooting a scene for good reasons. Light and color help determine the mood and environment of your scene for the audience.
Take this for example. This is the iconic scene from the movie Titanic, in this scene we can see that the sun is setting and they have used the natural lighting of the sunset (or motivated lighting) which is red and by just looking at it we know the mood of this scene which is romantic. As they have used the perfect lighting, the audience know that it is a romantic scene where Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) is holding Rose (Kate Winslet) from behind and are happily enjoying the sunset at the edge of the Titanic ship. By just looking at this scene we know that the characters are having a romantic moment with each other.
Here is another example, in the movie “The Last Emperor”, the emperor takes the throne as a young child and if you have scene this movie you know that the red color was used in that scene but as he grows and learns more about the world and his impact on it the color of the scenes shifts from red to orange and then yellow and when the Emperor becomes adult and starts making his own decisions on his realm the color of the scenes shifts to green. The colors are consecutive on the color wheel, and that shows the balance and growth of the character.
Here’s what Cinematographer Seamus McGreevy on color in his interview with CookeOpticsTV.
Examples of the color palette of emotions look like this:
- RED: Love, Desire, Violence, Aggression, Power.
- ORANGE: Warmth, Enthusiasm, Friendliness, Happiness, Vibrance.
- YELLOW: Madness, Illness, Insecurity, Obsessive, Wisdom, Betrayal.
- GREEN: Environment, Immaturity, Corruption, Ominous, Darkness, Envy,
- BLUE: Cold, Depression, Loyalty, Peace, Passivity, Calm,
- PURPLE: Fantasy, Ethereal, Erotic, Royalty, Mystical, Power
- PINK: Innocence, Sweetness, Femininity, Charming, Delicate, Beauty
We are not talking about the physical lens, what cocerns us here is how various lense render images in different ways. This is a powerful tool of visual storytelling.
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 distort space.
Take this for example, in this scene from the movie “Transformers: Age of Extinction” the director of photography chose the wide angle lens and the audience can clearly see everyone in the frame. While looking at this scene the audience can tell that the characters are having a conversation with each other. If this scene would have been shot on a long focal length lens we would have been only able to see the centre part of this particular frame and it would not have made sense to the audience of what is going on in the scene.
Here is an another example, in this movie “The Revenant” the oscar winner cinematographer for this movie Emmanuel Lubezki chose a long focal length lens for this scene. We can see that the character (Leonardo DiCaprio) in a close up shot and it makes sense for the audience where to look? In this scene. Without a word the audience knew what to look for. If this scene would have been shot on a wide angle lens which has short focal length the audience would have been lost in the background figuring out what is happening and they would have missed the actual sense of what the scene is about.
About texture Blain Brown in his book has to say that – 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, commercial 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 an object. 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 and the list goes on.
Some of these image manipulation is done with camera, some of these are done with lighting and some in post-production.
I am going to explain the same example Blain Brown explained. In this move scene, 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 theatres 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.
The bottom line is texture in cinematography is like effects for example, stutter frames, slow motion, sometimes purposely make it look like bad video, etc.
Movement is a powerful tool of filmmaking, in fact, movies are one of the few art forms that employ motion and time, dance obviously being another one.
This opening sequence from working girl is an excellent example of exciting, dynamic motion that serves an important storytelling purpose. It’s a kinetic, whirling helicopter shot that begins by circling the head of the Statue of Liberty, the. Picks up Staten Island ferry, and then ultimately goes inside (in a dissolve that stimulates continuing the single moving shot) to find the main character, played by Melanie Griffith.
This is far more than just a powerfully dynamic motion, it is also a clear visual metaphor: the story is about the main characters transition from a working girl secretary trapped in a dreary existence where every day starts with a ride on the ferry; on this day her birthday is celebrated with a single candle in a cupcake. By the end of the film she is transformed into a strong, independent woman with a good haircut who stands proud and tall, not unlike the Statue of Liberty, the image that opens the film.
Establishing is the ability of the camera to reveal or conceal information; think of it as a visual equivalent of exposition, which in verbal storytelling means conveying important information or background to the audience. It is really at the heart of telling a story visually, letting the camera reveal information is usually a more cinematic way of getting information across to the audience than is dialog or a voice-over narrator.
In this frame from Angel Heart, a close-up of Mickey Rourke’s wallet as he leafs through it conveys vital story information without words: clearly he carries fake IDs to assist him in his slightly sleazy work as a cut-rate private detective.
Establishing is accomplished primarily by a choice of the frame and the lens, but it can also be done with lighting that conceals or reveals certain details of the scene.
Point-of-view (POV) is a key tool of visual storytelling. We use the term in many different ways on a film set, but the most often used meaning is to have the camera see something in much the same way as one of the characters would see it: to view the scene from that character’s point-of-view.
This is fundamental to cinema: the camera is the “eye” of the audi- ence; how the camera takes in the scene is how the audience will per- ceive it. To a great extent, cinematography consists of showing the audience what we want them to know about the story; POV shots tend to make the audience more involved in the story for the simple reason that what they see and what the character sees are momentarily the same thing — in a sense, the audience inhabits the character’s brain and experi- ences the world as that character is experiencing it.
There are many ways POV is used in filmmaking but these frames from Chinatown show a basic use of the method, we see over-the-shoulder as Jake Gittes follows someone he has been hired to investigate. Park- ing facing away from the subject to remain unseen, he glances into his rear-view mirror. The scene cuts to what he sees in the mirror, his subjective POV.
Chinatown employs another layer of POV as well called detective POV. A narrative device that is used in novels and stories as well, it simply means that the audience does not know something until the detective know it, we only discover clues when he discovers them. This means that the viewer is even more involved in how the main character is experiencing the events of the story. Polanksi is a master of taking this story technique and he makes it truly visual. For example a very large number of shots in the film are over-the- shoulders of Jake Gittes, the detective played by Jack Nicholson.
Putting It All Together
Filmmaking is a strange and mysterious enterprise, it involves mixing and coordinating many different elements, some of them artistic, some of them technical and businesslike. In particular, the cinematographer must be able to bridge that gap, to understand the practical side of dealing with the camera, lenses, digital aspects, file types, workflow, and so on, but also have their minds firmly planted in the artistic side of creating a visual world, visual metaphor, and storytelling. There is a third aspect as well: being an ama- teur psychologist. On a film set, there is no more fundamental collaboration than that of the cinematographer and director.
Many directors are adept at conveying their vision of the project either verbally or with drawings, metaphors, or photographic references. Some directors are not good at this they have a visual concept, but they are not able to communicate it well to their collaborators. In other cases, the director does not have a strong vision and needs help in developing one. In these instances, it is really up to the cinematographer to reach into the director’s head and try to understand what it is he or she is trying to accomplish; if there are missing pieces in the visual puzzle that is a film project, then it is up to the DP to fill in those blank spots with artistic inspiration, collaboration, and leadership. Sometimes this bring into play another role the cinematographer must play: diplomat, which may call for a great deal of delicacy and being very careful about how one phrases a suggestion.
In any case, it is up to the cinematographer to make the director’s vision come alive. We in the camera department are in the business of making things happen, taking artistic ideas and implementing them in the real world of the film set. Our job is to make dreams come alive, and it is a challenging and satisfying undertaking.
Here’s the link to book I referred as promissed:
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