If filmmaking is an art, cinematography could be described as the science of that art. Essentially, cinematography encompasses every camera angle, every piece of equipment, and every technology and technique that affects the visual space within a film.
You may have heard someone describe a movie they’ve seen as ‘good-looking’ in reference to its visual quality. Or maybe you’ve watched one yourself and thought, “this looks amazing!” Since each of the choices that affect the final images in a film are held within the realm of cinematography, it’s important to understand the types of choices directors commonly need to make.
This is such an expansive area that even using the term “color” to talk about it is almost too generic. Production color is affected by your camera and your film stock if you are shooting on film, or by the capabilities of the color processing chip and the tape or other recording medium if you are shooting on video.
Digital devices use one or more CCD chips – which are basically light sensors – to create their images, while film uses a chemical process to create the impressions on each frame. In either case, the quality of both the camera and the final impressed medium is of utmost importance.
The goal of some filmmakers is to achieve accurate color reproduction; that is, a product that is as close as possible to what would appear in the real world. In some situation, however, the image is captured in a fashion that purposely alters it in some way.
For example, an image can be differentiated from the real-world through the use of lens filters to accentuate or cut out certain color frequencies in order to achieve a certain look. See Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (2000) for an excellent example of color filtering; in this case it is used in conjunction with varying film stocks to provide a visual differentiation between the three storylines in the film.
Many indie filmmakers in particular may not realize the importance of light – or downplay its importance due to inexperience. As a general observation, the more control you give yourself over your light sources, the better your level of manipulation can become in terms of your ability to create a unique and stylized look.
The nuances in how each individual camera handles varying levels of light, along with your f-stop and shutter speed settings, are probably the most important aspect of the end product.
Movement and Pacing
Along with the frequency between which you change shots is the physical movement of both the camera and the subjects in the frame. A herd of wild horses running across a field could be filmed from eye/ground level to increase the intensity or imminency of the stampede, or it could be shot from above from a sweeping crane or sky mount to convey the beauty of the horses, for instance.
For two extreme examples of movement in films, see Taken (2008) and Sling Blade (1996). Taken is an action film using lots of camera movement and faster-paced cuts in general, while Sling Blade is actually known for containing several one-camera, one-angle scenes consisting of a single long shot.
The way you present your ideas and display the focal point(s) of a shot are affected by how you frame your subject(s). Both depth of field and the rule of thirds are essential techniques/concepts to understand when it comes to framing along each of the X, Y, and Z axes.
In order to learn how to create a film that effectively shows the information necessary and pertinent not only for your story, but also for your visual style to take precedence, you need to have a firm grasp on framing techniques. You can be as conventional or as experimental as you want, but keep practicing the basic distance shots (wide, medium, close-up) and the variations thereof until you feel comfortable enough to branch out and try your own stuff.
Learn All You Can
Short of having a professional cinematographer working with you on-set, it’s going to be impossible to have every little detail planned in advance. Even if you spend tons time learning an incredible amount of information and planning out every little detail, it still might not turn out the way you expect. Every shoot is a learning experience. Steven Spielberg himself never stops learning, no matter how many films he makes.
Hopefully this article has given you at least an overview of the fundamentals of cinematography, and you’re on your way toward learning what kinds of things go into making a visually appealing film.
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