Good cinematography in movies is typically noticed by viewers. Great cinematography, on the other hand, is usually so good that most people don’t truly appreciate it. Highly stylized films generally get a lot of attention for their aesthetically appealing visual elements.
In such a movie the set design, costumes, special/visual effects, and cinematography come together to create a beautiful film. Most moviegoers confuse all of this with great cinematography when in reality a good cinematographer is primarily concerned with supplementing the film’s storytelling elements through mise-en-scène, or the arrangement of characters, props, and visual elements within the frame of the shot.
There are specific guidelines and practices in place for the art of cinematography which have been painstakingly developed over the last hundred years or so. These guidelines have become so common place you unconsciously expect to see them and are uncomfortable when they are not present.
What Does Cinematography Mean? Basics 101
Let’s take a simple conversation between two movie characters as an example. The principles of cinematography dictate that you should first shoot a wide shot of both people talking to each other. In this shot, most of each characters’ bodies and much of their surroundings will be visible in the frame. After you get this shot you draw an imaginary line between the two characters which will not be crossed during subsequent shots.
You might next decide to film what’s called a reaction shot of one character speaking from over the shoulder of the other character. Finally, you can get another reaction shot of the opposite character. As long as you never cross the imaginary line the first character will always appear to the left of the frame and the second character will always appear to the right of the frame (or vice versa).
The resulting scene, which will cut between all three of these shots during the conversation, will be accepted by the audience as a normal conversation. If, however, you cross that imaginary line the audience will be uneasy or confused without really understanding why.
Keeping track of the left and right sides of the frame is very important to cinematographers. One rule that often gets overlooked pertains to the placement of oceans within a scene. If your story takes place along the Atlantic Coast of the U.S., for example, any beach shots should be careful to keep the ocean on the right side of the frame.
People are used to the Atlantic Ocean being on the right side of a U.S. map so this rule is self-explanatory. Inversely, the Pacific Ocean should always be on the left. If a plane is flying from New York to London it should move from left to right.
If it’s flying from New York to Los Angeles it should move from right to left. If you watch a lot of movies you will see this rule broken quite often and it is almost always the sign of mediocre cinematography.
Generally, when the script moves into a new location, it is important to get an establishing shot of that location. The audience needs a frame of reference for each new location or they could get lost.
Let’s say, for example, that your actors enter a large office full of cubicles. The script calls for a conversation to take place between employees out of earshot of their boss. An establishing shot of the whole room can let the audience know that the employees and their boss are all together on one side of the room and a large support pillar is visible on the other side of the room.
One of the employees calls his coworker aside and they move behind the support pillar in order to secretly talk about their mutual hatred of their boss. If the audience saw the entire room beforehand, they will know that the conspiring workers are adequately hidden when the pillar comes into the frame. Without the establishing shot, the audience won’t understand that the characters are now safely out of earshot of their boss.
An experienced cinematographer would also place a unique plant, hanging artwork, or some other visual anchor on or near the pillar to further assist a smooth audience transition between shots.
Now that basic has been covered, you can now learn about the various visual methods cinematographers use to arrange characters and props within the frame in such a way as to impart important character information or plot points sans (without) dialog.
The methods for doing this are as infinite as the human imagination but there are some which have been used quite often. Imagine you’re filming a movie in which a main character is visited by two mafia henchmen to whom he owes money. When they first show up on the screen the audience will know nothing about them.
If, however, you shoot the main character from between these two henchmen as he sits in a chair looking up at them, the audience will unconsciously know that he is intimidated by these two men.
It is important that when shooting this scene the right side of one henchman and the left side of the other henchman are visible along the edges of the frame even if they are out of focus (the audience can’t see what you don’t show them). This is called “dirtying the frame.” This technique of dirtying the frame can also be used to show that one character is spying on another.
To illustrate this, if you shoot a scene from behind the branch of a tree the audience will assume that an unseen character is hiding there, peeking through the leaves at someone.
Some of the best cinematographers work hand-in-hand with the film director to storyboard (plan out each shot in detail) each scene ahead of time. The George Clooney/Jennifer Lopez film Out of Sight from 1998 had a difficult, non-linear storyline.
The script called for flashback scenes for two separate periods of imprisonment in two different prison facilities. The story jumped from the present to the distant past to the near past several times throughout the film, and director Steven Soderbergh and cinematographer Elliot Davis knew this would confuse the audience unless they were able to create two visually distinctive themes for both the older and more recent prison scenes.
Now, it’s almost impossible to get confused while watching the finished movie because the inmates during George Clooney’s more recent prison stint wear denim uniforms and the inmates during his first prison stint wear bright yellow uniforms. Steven Soderbergh faced a similar problem with his film Traffic (2000), for which he acted as both director and cinematographer. In this film, the script jumped back and forth between several locations in both the U.S. and Mexico. In order to not confuse the audience, the Washington D.C./East Coast scenes are presented through a blue filter.
The Mexico scenes are tinted orange. And the San Diego/West Coast scenes are seen with no color filter. Because of this ingenious technique, it’s almost impossible to get confused while watching this incredibly complex film.
A clever, imaginative cinematographer can also use mise-en-scène to add depth to character development. Alfred Hitchcock was famous for the way he told a story with carefully and meticulously arranged scenes.
Dialog was often unimportant in his movies as one could watch a Hitchcock movie with no sound and still follow the story. For example, Anthony Perkin’s face was often half hidden in shadow in the thriller Psycho.
We later learn that his character, Norman Bates, is a killer with a split personality and the shadowing of his face plays neatly to this trait. In the Oscar-winning film American Beauty legendary cinematographer Conrad L. Hall would often show Kevin Spacey’s character’s face obscured by visual bars or obstructions. This presented the “feel” of Spacey’s character, Lester Burnham, being imprisoned in his own life, so to speak.
Hall also shot one scene which essentially embodies the film’s “Look Closer” tagline. In the scene, Lester Burnham tosses a rag down onto a kitchen counter next to a brightly-colored bowl of oranges and a black-and-white picture of his family. The composition of the scene is such that the audience sees the rag first because it’s thrown suddenly into the frame. Next, the eye is drawn to the bright bowl of fruit.
It isn’t until the audience “looks closer” that they see the picture of Burnham’s family which is, of course, the only important element in the frame of this famous shot.
This is obviously just a simple introduction to the highly-developed art of cinematography. Most successful cinematographers go to film school for a long time to learn all of the intricate details of their craft. However, thanks to the Internet and extra features on DVDs, Blu-Rays, etc. it’s now possible to learn a lot of valuable information about cinematography without going to film school.
If you are looking for inspiration and an incredible wealth of cinematograhic techniques you should watch as many director and cinematographer movie commentaries as you can find.
Try to focus on the great directors and cinematographers like Conrad L. Hall, Steven Soderbergh, Robert Richardson, Roger Deakins, Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, John Lindley, Wally Phister, and Edward Lachman to name a few. Try to find commentaries that focus on the technical information for each shot in the film instead of those that simply offer funny, on-set anecdotes.
Whether you’re an amateur filmmaker, a wedding videographer, or just a fan of movies you’ll learn to appreciate the art of filmmaking more than you ever did before.