The story comes first. Before planning, pre-visualization, and any design, the story must be understood. With that understanding comes the desired themes and emotions. The moral of the story guides the direction of the movie. It’s essential to raise the question, “What is the audience supposed to feel?”. Only when there is a definite answer can everyone can come together to make the best movie possible. The cinematographers, directors, actors, editors, and crew are all there to tell one story.
I like to view cinematography as the icing on the cake. It brings, what would otherwise be, a good book, to life. It can make the audience weep or laugh given the right nudge. “Such compositions can vividly express a film or scene’s underlying emotional dynamics or themes.” (Prince 47). Art is inspired by other art. Cinematography begins with the references of another artwork in mind. There is no such thing as new art, just new techniques, and reinventions. I apologize on behalf of your eyes, because I didn’t write this using a word count (at least I went in order). Here are my honest notes of the cinematography used in Oblivion, Lawrence of Arabia, Night of the Hunter, Skyfall, Taxi Driver, Life of Pi, Citizen Kane, Apocalypse Now, Inception, and Road to Perdition.
The most praiseworthy quality in Oblivion is by far the use of symmetry. In a future world where everything is planned and calculated, the perfect landscapes, costumes, and equipment define and reflect the order. The feeling I get while watching Oblivion is balance. The spaceship appropriately splits the horizon in the center of the frame, Tom Cruise running in place is balanced with his wife stretching on the other end of the screen, and their home is floating just over the clouds so that the clouds are seen as an extension of the floor. These motifs’ paint this utopian society in a light that shows they’ve been doing this for a long time, so any deviation is radical.
I also noticed the balance in the use of color. Rather than being used in a bombastic way that draws too much attention to itself, it is incorporated to subtly accent the scene. The mood and tone differ through color based on what’s going on in the story. Tom Cruise arriving home after a long day is welcomed with the sunset in the most exquisite orange. It reminds me of when I was a kid and playing basketball outside with my friends. At the end of the day my mom would call me inside and everything would be tinted that same orange. With one color, Claudio Miranda brought me back to my childhood. He keyed into a part of my memory that I wouldn’t have thought of if the color were not so deliberately placed. “He used color to convey emotional tones for the diverse locations,” (Prince 71), which is shown when Cruise adventures to a burnt planet with the same color as the skyline. The difference now is that it’s toned down and masked by the ash and smoke of the fires, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s still there. It emphasizes that in different situations, while we might perceive a change, the same color is present.
Just off the eight clips you sent me, Lawrence of Arabia looks absolutely, positively, without a doubt, epic. The extreme wide shots create powerful compositions. The audience can feel the isolation of a character because their environment is seemingly swallowing them whole. There is remarkable tension in the scenes where the camera is placed so far away. When the characters are inching towards each other, ever so slightly, every passing second feels like an eternity. An eternity worth enduring because the audience knows the payoff is worth it. The shots of the 100+ camelback riders (never said camelback before this very moment) charging down the wasteland are quite grand as well. The audience gets to watch them from atop a camel as well, certifying that they are along for the ride. Placing the main light source behind the man on the buildings and then filming his shadow as well as his silhouette symbolically shows his significance in this world. He is not just important, but he’s so necessary that the sun is choosing him. He is cosmically important. The fact that we don’t really get a good visual as to what he looks like emphasizes this importance. It’s not what he looks like that matters, rather it’s what he stands for.
In Night of the Hunter, Stanley Cortez beautifully conveys emotion through shadows, lighting, and layering, rather than color itself. While it may appear more difficult to show emotion without color, Cortez does a wonderful job using lighting to his advantage. The cowboy’s silhouette on the horizon is an example of phenomenal cinematography because not only is it great use of a frame inside of another frame, but because we relate with the kid, being in his position (looking out a frame to the mystery cowboy). The lighting is not meant to look overtly realistic, instead, it’s meant to be magically perfect, because lighting doesn’t need to be realistic to be exactly what the film calls for. The contrast of soft lighting underwater to create a more nebulous atmosphere and the exterior hard lighting used to dramatize each moment, solidifies the cinematography as brilliant.
I consider Skyfall as cool and elegant rather than beautiful. It is beautiful in its own right, but I think the cinematography isn’t as artistic or inventive as the others. It’s hard to make an action spy thriller look very artistic, so the cinematography functions to support the action. The shots of the motorcycle chase stand out to me as the best use of cinematography. They show how grand of a scale this chase is on. Without the context of the characters surroundings it wouldn’t be nearly as impressive. The use of “natural” light in this movie is actually really intriguing. I was especially amazed with the lighting when James Bond was on the boat traveling through the floating lights of what I’m assuming is China, when he was infiltrating a base and the only lights were coming from the technology that’s around him, and all of the helicopter scenes which had the helicopter functioning as a huge flashlight for the audience. But let’s not forget about the fire serving as an additional source of light, further adding to the cool factor.
Taxi Driver. It’s on my Netflix list but I have yet to see it. Once I finish up Battlestar Galactica (which has superb cinematography), I’ll give it a watch and tell you what I thought. From these clips and what I’ve seen in endless “Top 10 Movie Scenes” on YouTube, I know that with every passing second, I’m missing out on something awesome. The use of color, specifically the red and blue cop lights, tells the audience something about the character. My guess would be that he’s up to no good, that’s why only the red covers him, but I wouldn’t know until later in the movie (so in essence the color is a good use of foreshadowing). It reminds me of the use of the red streetlight in Spiderman Homecoming, because it glares over the villains face the moment the protagonist learns of his secret identity. The camera placements around the taxi makes the audience think about the taxi in ways they normally wouldn’t. Unless they are actually taxi drivers, these angles result in feelings they wouldn’t otherwise be familiar with. They are a great way of establishing a connection between the protagonist and the audience. They set the scene in New York as a view of the world only a taxi driver would know. They show the world through his eyes.
The Life of Pi is gorgeous. It’s a cinematic masterpiece. I’m not the biggest fan of CGI, but when done right it can truly be spectacular. At this point it doesn’t matter if the story is good or not, because it is outright jaw-dropping. Using the water as a canvas, Claudio Miranda shows the audience how beautiful nature can be. From the close-up shots of water rippling, to the unbelievable birds-eye-view shots of the still water seamlessly reflecting the sky, the movie establishes a one of a kind surreal atmosphere. It looks like a dream. Contrasting those serene still shots with the rampant crashing of a storm serves for an incredible movie-going experience. The effortless transitions between the two translate that the ocean is alive. Some scenes are great representations of the calm before the storm. Vittorio Storaro believes that “colors have an inherent symbolism, based in their wavelength, to which viewers respond physiologically,” (Prince 70). Using an elaborate color palette to suggest the spiritual crises and ebbs and flows of a character’s development, can draw an audience member in and eventually make them one with the protagonist.
Citizen Kane incorporates some high-noise soft lighting in many scenes to lessen the tension of what is other a rigorous thought-provoking film (for example the snow globe scene). Scenes which demand more attention use deep blacks and bright whites to draw the viewers eyes to the screen. The expansive use of shadows reflect the emotions and environment. Shadows cover every part of the face but the mouth on some individuals, showing that what is being said matters more than who said it. It also paints them in a darker light, literally and figuratively. Being behind broad shouldered black suit wearing bosses gives the audience the feeling that those characters are in charge. The same way The Godfather directs the audience’s attention with the wave of his hand, our (I’m going to call the audience “us” now because we are the ones watching it, and I’m really tired of saying “the audience”) eyes follow many of these people’s hands as they write or fling about to give their subordinates directions. The framing and character placements give us an idea as to who is in control. They are normally towering over the others and we are looking at the others reactions rather than the person himself. The use of shadows is eerie but welcomed.
Apocalypse Now is fantastic. It’s crazy to me that this was made in the late 70’s. It goes toe to toe with any modern-day war epic. The constant barrage of yellow, red, and orange play nicely with the fact that war is never-ending. These soldiers couldn’t close their eyes for a single moment to rest, so neither will the fire of color.
Inception is magical. Watching the world cave in on itself never gets old. Because of how mind-boggling the story is, the cinematography became the most believable aspect. Regardless of if gravity was rotating, buildings were inverting, or structures were collapsing, it all felt like it was real. Like it was possible to happen today. Think about it this way, if it were possible to happen in this day and age, right outside our doors, that’s exactly how it would look. Most movies want us to relate to someone by watching them do things (Inception is no exception). Some movies go the extra mile by using the camera strictly in first person to add another level in our connection to the protagonist (so far to which we are literally looking through their eyes), but I believe Inception gets us as close as humanly possible to having this movie feel as a reality without actually putting us in the protagonist’s eyes. Every shot seems calculated and necessary in the best way possible. I absolutely adore this movie. From the surreal slow-motion explosions to the phenomenal elevator scene, the cinematography is unforgettable. There are probably 1,000 ways to film Leonardo DiCaprio falling backwards into a tub, but Inception did perfectly. The camera knows what to focus on, whether it be someone’s eyes, hands, or dreidel.
On the other hand, Road to Perdition is what Life of Pi would be if instead of following a boy’s journey stranded in the ocean, we are following suited up bloodthirsty gangsters. I’m not saying it’s easier to conceptualize Life of Pi over Road to Perdition, but I would argue that it’s a tough task to make gangsters look this elegant. This stems from our ability to relate and visualize an ideal scenario of what it would be like if we were gangsters, more than we can picture what it would be like to be stranded in the middle of the ocean with a tiger. We have expectations coming into this movie of what a generic gangster flick should look like, so the bar is already set high. I adore the David Fincher inspired fluid camera moments and tracking. Every shot in the rain is breathtaking. The close-ups allow the actors to really shine. The demise of Paul Newman wouldn’t be nearly as impactful if the camera was further away and stationary. That scene begins by showing us Newman facing away and Tom Hanks arriving behind him. We get to see both of their expressions as they come to grips with what’s about to take place. The focus shifts subtly to Hanks face as Newman turns around. We get a close up of both of them from over the shoulder and then a much closer shot of just Newman in the rain as he delivers a powerful line of acceptance. It’s followed by a reverse shot to Hank as he tears up, and then back to Newman for a moment of silence. The camera shifts to end with Hank as he shares Newman’s last moments with him. Hank then delivers the final blow and gives Newman the respect he deserves by killing him off screen. The camera inching closer as well as staying on Hanks through the end of it was superb. All in all, some great films. I can’t wait to dissect The Avengers next.
Prince, S. (2012). Movies and Meaning: An introduction to film. Harlow, Essex: Pearson.