Cinematography is the art of photographing motion pictures. All photographing of motion pictures is, in its broadest sense, cinematography, but it is the special combination of aesthetics and technology that distinguishes the term. It is the art of the cinematographer that makes cinema compelling, the skillful blending of photography, lighting, composition, and the capture of motion that creates the essence of what is memorable in cinema. The cinematographer, also known as the director of photography (DP or DoP) or sometimes lighting cameraman, makes real a director’s creative vision, establishing a sense of place, character, emotion, and drama, through the essential visualizing of the moment.
The Early Days Of Film Until The Advent Of Television
Stephen Herbert says of the original efforts to produce motion pictures on film, “To succeed, cinematography required the availability of a sufficiently sensitive photographic emulsion to enable at least sixteen pictures to be taken in one second; a suitable medium on which to fix the photographic emulsion; and the development of suitable camera and projection mechanisms” (Herbert & McKernan 1996, 3). The history of photographing motion pictures precedes the history of their exhibition. The first motion picture as we would now recognize it was a fleeting scene of people walking across Leeds Bridge, filmed in October 1888 by the French-born Louis Augustin Aimé Le Prince, using sensitized paper rather than celluloid. Le Prince achieved a sufficient frequency of images (12 frames per second) to achieve the illusion of movement, but was unable to solve the problems of projection. The French scientist Etienne-Jules Marey, keen to use sequence photography for the analysis of motion, began to use transparent celluloid film in 1890 as a more suitable medium for the taking of motion pictures, and others soon followed, notably William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson, an engineer working for Thomas Edison who was charged with developing devices for the taking and exhibiting of motion pictures.
Dickson had developed a camera using 35-mm-wide celluloid film strips with a double row of perforations by October 1892, thereby establishing the format on which cinema continues to be based to this day. In 1894 he produced a device for the exhibiting of motion pictures, the peepshow Kinetoscope. Various teams now worked on the practicalities of projecting motion pictures onto a screen, a race won by the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière, whose Cinématographe was first demonstrated in March 1895, and famously first shown to a paying public at the Grand Café, Paris, on December 28, 1895. The machine gave its name to the cinema and to the art of motion pictures.
The Art Of Cinematography In The Silent Days
There was distinctive art to the Lumières’ actualities, and the term “animated photography,” which was commonly used to describe the new phenomenon, emphasized the studied quality of the first films, with their careful compositions and capturing of essential motion and form. The dramatic film gradually emerged as films started to get longer, and with its growing popularity with audiences came the distinctive art of the cinematographer. Billy Bitzer, cameraman with the American director D. W. Griffith, is generally considered to be the first such camera artist. Bitzer began working with Griffith in 1908, finding technical expression for the director’s creative impulses by developing such features as the close-up, the iris in, fade-outs, and backlighting. None of these effects were unique to Bitzer and Griffith, rather it was the combined effectiveness and consistency of their execution that proved so influential. Bitzer continued with Griffith, photographing such classics as The Birth of a Nation (1914), Intolerance (1916), and Broken Blossoms (1919) and establishing a lexicon of cinematographic techniques. Generally, as cinema moved out of its initial phase, film stock became more light-sensitive (faster), artificial lighting was employed, lenses improved (wide angle, telephoto), and special effects techniques grew in sophistication. Technology marched forward hand in hand with the screen’s hold upon the audience’s imagination.
Billy Bitzer was followed by many other great cinematographers who worked in the US in the silent era: Charles Rosher (particularly associated with the films of Mary Pickford), Rollie Totheroh (Charlie Chaplin’s cinematographer), James Wong Howe (Peter Pan), Hal Rosson (Manhandled), Arthur Miller (The Volga Boatman), John Seitz (The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse), William Daniels (The Kiss), and Lee Garmes (A Social Celebrity). Several of these would enjoy long careers well into the sound era (Howe won an Academy Award for Hud in 1963). The artistry and technical mastery demonstrated by the finest Hollywood cameramen of the 1920s was driven by technical innovations in camera design, box office demand, and the rise of the star system, whereby the cinematographer became essential in the creation and sustaining of the illusion of dream-like glamour. European cinema of the 1920s also saw the emergence of several great cinematographers, German expressionist cinema producing such masters of light and shadow as Karl Freund (Metropolis, The Last Laugh) and Gunter Krampf (The Student of Prague, Pandora’s Box). German and American talents combined to produce perhaps the pinnacle of not only silent film but the art of cinematography itself, F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), made for Fox Studios and photographed by Karl Struss and Charles Rosher, who jointly won the first Academy Award for cinematography.
Arrival Of Sound
The arrival of sound was initially an impediment to the cinematographer’s art, as camera movement was restricted to accommodate cumbersome audio technology, and the purely visual means of expression brought to such aesthetic heights by the masters of silent cinema was replaced by a leaden subservience to the spoken word. Sound also saw the running speed of films move from the variable 16 to 22 frames per second of the silent era to a standardized 24 frames per second. Gradually the camera was freed once more, though the dictates of the Hollywood studio system produced a glamorous but formulaic style of cinematography. Gregg Toland’s deep-focus photography (where both foreground and background would be in sharp focus) for Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) reinvigorated the art of cinematography, providing depth as well as sheen. Stanley Cortez in Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and Desmond Dickinson for Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet (1948) further demonstrated the striking effects of deep focus. The technique could not be used too frequently, gaining as it did from its strong dramatic qualities and a certain element of surprise, but its execution brought camerawork to the fore once more, and in its wake came the expressionist photography of postwar film noir, with such skillful engineers of suspense and somber mood as Rudolph Maté (Gilda), Nicholas Musuraca (Out of the Past), and John Alton (T-Men), whose book Painting with light (1950) is an eloquent manual of the cinematographer’s art.
The Challenge Of Television
Screen Size And Aspect Ratio
The commercial threat caused by rise of television in the postwar era saw the cinema respond in two particular ways. The first was the size of the screen. A key consideration for the cinematographer is aspect ratio: the shape of the film frame within which the image is composed. This was effectively established by W. K.-L. Dickson’s decision to produce 35-mm-wide film strips for his Edison experiments, with the rough proportions of four by three (horizontal and vertical), or more precisely 1.33 : 1. The addition of a soundtrack meant that a small portion of the picture area was lost, but this essential size remained the standard, and pre-determined the shape of television screens and subsequent monitor designs. Other formats have nevertheless proliferated, for both professional and amateur use: 35 mm and larger formats became the preserve of the cinema and the professional cinematographer; narrow gauge formats such as 17.5 mm (introduced 1899), 22 mm (1912), 28 mm (1912), and 16 mm (1923) were designed for the nontheatrical business; 9.5 mm (1922), 8 mm (1932) and Super 8 (1965) catered to the amateur market; and 16 mm and later Super 16 mm became prevalent in television, alongside new video technologies.
In the 1950s, television’s increasing appeal for audiences, and the success of Cinerama (three synchronous films photographed and then projected in parallel) as a special attraction in select theaters, led the cinema to experiment with a variety of different aspect ratios, each giving a wider image than that which television could offer. Some systems achieved this by squeezing the image through an anamorphic lens and then unsqueezing it for projection. First and best known of these “scope” systems was Fox’s Cinemascope, with a 2.55 : 1 ratio (subsequently 2.35 : 1), originally employed in The Robe (1953, cinematographer Leon Shamroy). Paramount’s VistaVision process (first used in 1953 for White Christmas, cinematographer Loyal Griggs) used 35 mm film run horizontally through the camera, leading to a negative double the standard size, with reduction prints that could be run on standard projectors. Todd-AO employed a 65 mm negative, a special wide-angle lens, a running speed of 30 frames per second, and printing onto 70 mm film to incorporate six magnetic soundtracks. The result was then projected onto a curved screen, first demonstrated in 1954 with Oklahoma! (cinematographer Robert Surtees). Widescreen formats were exasperating for many directors and cinematographers (“It is a formula for a funeral, or for snakes, but not for human beings,” said the director Fritz Lang), and in their way they were as restrictive of cinematic techniques as had been the case with the conversion to sound. Eventually 70 mm films were produced for particular film spectaculars (although the Biograph company had innovated with this approximate frame width in 1896), and then IMAX. This uses 65 mm film run horizontally in the camera and requires not only special theaters for its exhibition (with a curved screen rising above the audience to achieve its immersive effect) but special films designed for a format that is strong on natural spectacle but alarming when it comes to viewing faces in close-up. Different aspect ratios continue to be employed to this day, but the industry standard for cinema exhibition has become 1.85 : 1.
The other strategy to counter television was color. Films were originally monochrome, but the search for color began as soon as cinema was “invented.” In the earliest years, color effects were achieved by hand-painting, then in semi-mechanized form by the application of artificial color through stencils. The first successful natural color system was Kinemacolor (first exhibited 1908), which used red and green filters to achieve an approximation of a full color effect. Similar color systems in the silent era likewise employed two primary colors, including early Technicolor, used for example in The Black Pirate (1926, cinematographer Henry Sharp), while the majority of silents were richly colored through the tinting and toning of prints in colors that matched particular settings or moods. Three-strip Technicolor (red–green–blue) was introduced in the 1930s. Initially garish in its effects, Technicolor came to be used with expressive skill in Britain, in particular in the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, such as Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948) (both photographed by Jack Cardiff ), and in Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1944) (cinematographers Jack Hildyard and Robert Krasker), with its bright look inspired by the medieval Book of Hours. The arrival of cheaper Eastman Color in 1950, with improved color rendering, made color cinematography progressively the norm. It was soon followed by similar systems such as Warnercolor, Metrocolor, and Pathecolor. However, color’s prevalence in the cinema was soon followed by ubiquitous color television.
Such has been the move toward progressively naturalistic color that the emphatic or emblematic use of color seems to have, until recently, become a lost art. Directors such as Martin Scorsese, who were notable for their color sense, often looked back to the Technicolor era (Scorsese is a great admirer of Michael Powell, while his 2004 film The Aviator, photographed by Robert Richardson, showed the passage of time through the imitation of historical color cinematography techniques). The emergence of digital cinematography and sophisticated post-production manipulation, however, has led to some startlingly creative use of color, such Christopher Doyle’s visually ravishing work for Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002). Color coding, and the heightening of color for particular effects, is now far more common.
Nouvelle Vague And Later Revolutions
For all of the creative skill so often displayed through to the 1950s, cinematography had always been slave to the studio, employed to conjure up a hermetic illusion. The French new wave of the late 1950s/1960s encouraged a revolution in cinematographic techniques. A wish to capture life on the wing led to the use of light, hand-held cameras and faster film stocks more responsive to natural light. Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut (both working in particular with cinematographer Raoul Coutard) and Eric Rohmer (teamed for many years with Nestor Almendros) spearheaded a cinema freed from the shackles of the studio, emblematic of a freer notion of society. Such films made the process of filmmaking more apparent, increasing audiences’ awareness of the camera, of the choices to be made in visualizing a scene.
The new wave was immensely influential, but its innovations pointed up cinema’s contradictory needs to portray the realistic and the fantastic. These twin needs have helped determine the trajectory of modern cinema. On the one hand cinema offers a vision of the grittily real, aided by plain or rawly authentic camerawork, for example, Kes (1969, cinematographer Chris Menges), Five Easy Pieces (1970, Laszlo Kovacs), and Taxi Driver (1976, Michael Chapman). On the other, there has been a great impulse toward fantasy, driven by ever more sophisticated special effects, so that cinematography shifts ever more from making the ordinary seem impossibly glamorous to making the impossible seem thrillingly plausible, as in Star Wars (1977, cinematographer Gilbert Taylor), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977, Vilmos Zsigmond), and Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991, Adam Greenberg).
Other great cinematographers not yet mentioned include Guy Green (Great Expectations), Winton Hoch (The Searchers), Oswald Morris (Moulin Rouge), Sacha Vierny (Last Year in Marienbad), Freddie Young (Lawrence of Arabia), Haskell Wexler (The Thomas Crown Affair), Geoffrey Unsworth (Cabaret), Conrad L. Hall (The Road to Perdition) Gu Changwei (Farewell My Concubine), and Dick Pope (The Illusionist). There have been some notable director and cinematographer teams, demonstrating how close the creative partnership between the two roles can be, including Woody Allen and cinematographer Gordon Willis (Annie Hall, Manhattan), Ingmar Bergman and Sven Nykvist (Persona, Fanny and Alexander), Akira Kurosawa and Asakazu Nakai (Seven Samurai, Ran), Wim Wenders and Robby Müller (Alice in the Cities, Paris Texas), Stanley Kubrick and John Alcott (2001: A Space Odyssey, Barry Lyndon), the Coen brothers and Roger Deakins (Barton Fink, O Brother Where Art Thou?), and Bernardo Bertolucci and Vittorio Storaro (The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris). It is rare, however, for a cinematographer to succeed as a director. Among the handful of notable exceptions are Freddie Francis, Jack Cardiff, and Nicholas Roeg. Organizations representing the art and craft of cinematography include the American Society of Cinematographers (founded 1919), the British Society of Cinematographers (1949), and the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (1916).
Cinematography is constantly being reinvented, both by advances in technology and by shifting cultural tastes. The emergence of high-definition digital cinematography is changing what appears on our screens and its mode of delivery. Introduced in the late 1990s – the first high-profile Hollywood feature shot with a 24-frame High-Definition Progressive Scan camera was Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002, cinematographer David Tattersall) – digital cinematography means that the motion picture is captured electronically as a series of digital images composed of pixels. The image resolution needs to be extremely high to emulate the quality of film (a precise correlative between digital and photo-chemical image is hard to determine, since ultimately they achieve their effects in different ways), but the advantages in the manipulation, transfer, and ultimately projection of the images mean that the film industry will be moving increasingly away from film. Film is still the predominant medium for production and distribution, but the proliferation of broadcast outputs beyond the traditional cinema screen is making the digital image the norm. The cinema screen is but one stage in the complex life of a modern film production, which will be sold and resold through multiple platforms in ever-changing sizes – DVD, terrestrial television, cable, satellite, on computers, and now hand-held devices. Digital technologies have considerable implications for the art of cinematography and the relationship of image to audience. They have made the fantastical in cinema easier to achieve, but they have also encouraged the cheaply produced, rawly realistic production, as demonstrated by The Blair Witch Project (1999, cinematographer Neal Fredericks). With a mini DV camera and FinalCut Pro software, anyone can become a filmmaker. The technology is blurring the distinctions between cinema and monitor, between professional and amateur. The meaning of cinematography seems to be undergoing change even while its status as an art is still valued.
These contradictory impulses can be seen in the move toward high definition and a hyper-naturalistic image, and at the same time the low resolution of videos using Flash software available through YouTube and other social networking sites. Audiences both demand higher image quality, yet are paradoxically comfortable viewing the degraded or indistinct image. Just as audiences were made more aware of the filmmaking process through the free style of the new wave of the 1960s, so the rise of the digital image and multiple viewing platforms has made modern audiences aware of the manipulability and subjectivity of the image. The future of cinematography would appear to lie not with the artist, but with the consumer.
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