The look and emotional feel of a film, more than simply a series of unfolding images, is the responsibility of the director of photography. The cinematographer, from choice of camera and lenses, to the crucial task of lighting what’s being shot, is the director’s “right hand,” working to support the helmer’s vision of the story being told.
But of all the crafts, cinematography is one of the tougher categories for non-expert voters to evaluate during awards season. That’s because of the tendency for film viewers to be most impressed by a screen filled with beautiful or striking images. But gorgeous visuals are not what great cinematography is all about.
“At the heart of it, filmmaking is shooting, but cinematography is more than the mere art of photography,” writes Blain Brown in The Introduction to Cinematography: Theory and Practice. “It is the process of taking ideas, actions, emotional subtext, tone and all the other forms of non-verbal communications and rendering them in visual terms.”
Beyond aesthetics, if you ask directors of photography what they look for when they watch a film, it is how the cinematography serves the storytelling.
“Good cinematography is something you don’t recognize straightaway, because it’s not distracting you from following the story,” says director of photography Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC, who lensed A Serious Man, the latest film from Joel and Ethan Coen, for whom he has been the DP of choice. And Deakins has been nominated for the best cinematography Oscar seven times and won two BAFTA awards.
“For me it’s how much the cinematography is supporting the story that’s being told, how much it is in synch with the emotion of the characters, the director’s intention,” he says.
“A lot of work I see I don’t like because it draws too much attention to itself,” he declares.
“The lighting is sometimes too clever. It’s saying, ‘Look at me. I’ve lit this big scene. Doesn’t it look so wonderful?’ But it isn’t necessarily in synch with the story. In fact, it can overpower the story. You’ve got to do something delicate to get that story to come through.”
Many voters think a cameraman is just supposed to catch beautiful images. “I do find movies and cinematography that tend to win awards are often times the prettiest, or have the most impressive vistas or locations, or voters even confuse the costumes or production design for good cinematography,” says Rodrigo Prieto, ASC, who just finished filming Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps for director Oliver Stone and received a best cinematography Oscar nomination for Brokeback Mountain in 2006.
“Cinematographers call it eye candy. But sometimes you look at things that aren’t comfortable, or aren’t pretty to look at, but that is the intention of the scene.”
“I tend to look for something else when I’m enjoying the cinematography in a movie, and it’s more about the character and the emotions,” Prieto declares. “I admire work where the mood is correct, the atmosphere created by the lighting and the camerawork are advancing the story.”
Of course cinematographers are part of an overall ensemble, collaborating with the other members of the team. “It’s hard to separate the cinematography from the movie. Acting, directing and cinematography should all work together,” says director photography Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, who won an Oscar for Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977, and was also nominated for The Deer Hunter, The River and The Black Dahlia. But one part of filming he considers key is the way a film is lit. “The element that differentiates good and bad cinematography is the lighting.”
And Zsigmond himself is known as a master of lighting in film classics like McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Deliverance. Up and coming cinematographer Trent Opaloch, the DP on the critically-acclaimed summer sci-fi hit District 9, also views lighting as a discerning factor in judging a film’s cinematography. “But if you look at many of the films that have won the Oscar for best cinematography in recent years, it’s for natural lighting.”
He notes that today with so many films from every decade available on DVD, “anybody who takes the time can learn a lot about great cinematography.”