Cinematography is the technique of photographing motion pictures. The art of cinematography involves working with three distinct sets of tools: the camera, the film, and the lighting. We can make useful distinctions among cinematography, mise en scène, and editing. Whereas mise en scène involves the arrangement of details in front of the camera, cinematography involves the act of capturing this arrangement on film. The result of this process is a set of shots that can be cut together in the process of editing. Although these distinctions are not always clear-cut, cinematography is one of the major components of a film’s visual style, playing a powerful role in shaping the spectator’s experience of cinematic time and space.
The Basic Tools Of Cinematography
In the area of camerawork, the cinematographer can shape the appearance of an image in several ways. For instance, a lens with a short focal length captures a wide angle of view, while a lens with a long focal length (also known as a telephoto lens) captures a narrower angle of view. The resulting images have distinctive characteristics. It is often said that a telephoto lens “flattens” the image, while a wide-angle lens will produce more apparent depth. In Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964), cinematographer Carlo Di Palma alternates between wide-angle and telephoto lenses to produce a disorienting sense of space, shifting back and forth between flatness and depth.
Each lens is also equipped with an iris, or aperture. By opening the aperture, a cinematographer can allow more light to hit the film. The size of the aperture is one of the most important factors in manipulating depth of field, the range of distance in which objects are in acceptable focus. Opening the aperture decreases depth of field; closing the aperture increases it. In Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941), cinematographer Gregg Toland uses an array of techniques, including a narrow aperture, to produce deep-focus images, allowing the spectator to see both the foreground and the background in sharp focus.
Cinematographic composition is often dynamic, incorporating both figure movement and camera movement. The camera movement options include pans, tilts, dollies, and cranes. A zoom looks similar to a dolly, but it is actually a manipulation of the lens, moving from wide-angle to telephoto, or vice versa. While many films use editing to direct the spectator’s attention, some filmmakers rely more heavily on camerawork, using dollies and zooms to move from long shot to close-up and back again. The Hungarian filmmaker Miklós Jancsó is a master of this approach (see Bordwell 1985).
In composing the image, the camera crew must consider the aspect ratio of the film. This ratio measures the width to height of the image. During the silent period, the most common ratio was 1.33 to 1; in other words, the image had 1.33 times more width than height. During the 1950s, several new widescreen ratios were introduced, such as CinemaScope, with a typical ratio of about 2.35 to 1.
Since the introduction of sound, the film normally runs through the camera at 24 frames per second, but a filmmaker can produce special effects by altering the camera speed. A fast-running camera produces a slow-motion image, and a slow-running camera produces a fast-motion image. In Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929), cinematographer Mikhail Kaufman uses fast motion to convey the pace of the modern city.
The choice of film stock can produce variations in contrast, color, and grain. In Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991), cinematographer Robert Richardson creates a collage of visual styles by mixing several different types of film stock. The cinematographer can also work with the laboratory to manipulate the image in developing and printing. The lab can correct routine cinematographic errors, such as underexposure, but it can also refine the film’s visuals, by adjusting details like color and contrast. Recently, digital post-production tools have increased the filmmaker’s ability to manipulate the image.
Although lighting is an aspect of mise en scène, it is usually considered a part of cinematography as well, because the cinematographer plays a leading role in coordinating a film’s lighting schemes. This is particularly true in Hollywood, though some industries divide the cinematographer’s chores between a camera operator and a lighting cameraperson. Lighting has several variables, including direction, intensity, and contrast ratio. The most common arrangement in Hollywood is three-point lighting. In this system, a key light provides the primary illumination on the subject, a fill light brightens up the shadows created by the key, and a back light separates the subject from the background. With subtle variations, this arrangement can produce the glamorous images of the romantic drama, or the somber tonalities of the film noir (Place and Peterson 1976).
The Bazinian Aesthetic
Perhaps the most celebrated analysis of cinematographic style is to be found in the work of André Bazin (1967), the French critic of the 1940s and 1950s. Building his analysis on his theory of the photographic image, Bazin argues that photography is distinctly valuable because of its ability to capture reality in all its ambiguity. The important point is not simply that the photograph looks like reality; it is that the photograph, with its causal connection to the object in front of the camera, preserves reality. Bazin is well aware that intentions play a role in the production of most photographs; still, even the most heavily designed photographic image preserves something of the original reality in front of the camera. When it comes to enhancing the cinema’s capacity to capture the real world, Bazin argues that certain strategies are better than others. He criticizes editing-based styles because they fragment space and time in the interest of imposing a certain meaning on the spectator. By contrast, deep-focus photography encourages spectators to scan the frame for meaning; the result is closer to the relationship that the spectator has with the real world, where meanings are inherently ambiguous, never in packaged form. Relying on shots of long duration enhances this effect of realism by preserving the integrity of time. Similarly, relying on camera movements rather than editing can preserve the integrity of space. In short, the Bazinian aesthetic, favoring deep-focus compositions, long takes, and camera moves, emphasizes the cinema’s capacity to capture the real world.
In the 1960s and 1970s, film theorists drew on various methodologies, such as semiotics and psychoanalysis, to launch a sharp critique of the realist style. One of Bazin’s successors at the journal Cahiers du cinéma, Jean-Louis Comolli (1990) directs his critique at the level of film technology. According to Comolli, a deep-focus film is likely to sustain the dominant bourgeois ideology by reproducing the techniques of Renaissance perspective, thereby relying on dubious assumptions about a universally valid individual observer. The argument is designed to apply to almost any deep-focus film, regardless of story.
More recently, Fabrice Revault d’Allonnes (1991) has produced a surprising mixture of semiotics and Bazinian realism. D’Allonnes distinguishes between classic and modern lighting. In classic lighting, all the devices work together to produce a single meaning, as when sunlight expresses the mood of a happy scene, or when shadows set the tone for a crime scene. However, d’Allonnes insists that the light of the world does not have any meaning: the sun may shine even when we feel somber. Modern lighting, as in the films of Jean-Luc Godard, respects the meaninglessness of light. Like Comolli, d’Allonnes studies the ways that images produce meaning. Like Bazin, he admires films that honor the ambiguity of reality.
Questions Of Methodology In The Study Of Cinematography
Some scholars build their arguments on the statistical analysis of a large group of films; others prefer the close analysis of individual cases. Barry Salt (1992) is the most prominent champion of the statistical approach. Examining thousands of films, Salt looks for patterns in variables of cinematography, such as shot scale, as well as in variables of editing, such as cutting rates. One of Salt’s achievements is the tracking of changes in shot scale over a century of cinematic style. This statistical method provides a background for more evaluative claims about the achievements of individual filmmakers. Salt evaluates filmmakers according to various criteria, including originality and influence. These criteria make sense only against a background of norms. Techniques are original when they depart from prevailing norms; they are influential when they cause a change in norms. Because the statistical method is the best way to track stylistic norms, Salt suggests that it is an essential tool of evaluation.
Some scholars have criticized Salt’s approach, on the grounds that he pays too little attention to questions of ideology. In his study of Hollywood cinematography in the 1930s, Mike Cormack (1994) argues that changes in the Hollywood style cannot be explained sufficiently by pointing to the intentions of individual filmmakers; nor can they be explained by developments in technology. Instead, they were most likely caused by changes in American ideology as the United States weathered the Depression. In brief, Cormack proposes that an unpredictable, somber style expressed the sense of crisis in the early 1930s; later, a restrained, high-key style appeared, expressing the reassertion of American ideals that took place after the trauma of the early years. Such an argument combines statistical analysis with interpretation, pointing out systematic correlations of style and theme.
Taking another approach, Richard Dyer (1997) argues that Hollywood’s three-point lighting system produced a particular standard of beauty – a standard that cannot be understood without considering the ideologically charged concept of “whiteness.” This is particularly true for female stars, who often appear to be aglow with soft, bright keys and powerful backlights. Because cinematography shapes meaning, Dyer relies on interpretation more than statistics. In other words, he builds his argument on the analysis of several individual examples, such as the lighting of Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford, or the writings of major cinematographers.
Cinematography In The Digital Age
As digital tools become more and more important to filmmaking, the techniques of cinematography continue to change. The changes are obvious for cameras and film stock, but digital technology has even changed the way filmmakers approach lighting. It is now relatively easy to modify the lighting in post-production, adding shadows and highlights that previously would have been created on set. Some filmmakers lament the changes; others hope to use the new tools to reproduce the established styles more efficiently; still others predict that the new tools will produce distinctive new cinematographic styles. In any case, cinematography will continue to play a powerful role in shaping the spectator’s experience of time and space, even if the borders between cinematography and mise en scène continue to blur.
- Bazin, A. (1967). What is cinema?, vol. I (trans. H. Gray). Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Bordwell, D. (1985). Narration in the fiction film. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
- Comolli, J.-L. (1990). Technique and ideology: Camera, perspective, depth of field (trans. D. Matias). In N. Browne (ed.), Cahiers du cinéma, 1969 –1972: The politics of representation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, pp. 213 –247.
- Cormack, M. (1994). Ideology and cinematography in Hollywood, 1930 –39. New York: St. Martin’s.
- Dyer, R. (1997). White. New York: Routledge.
- Malkiewicz, K. (1989). Cinematography, 2nd edn. New York: Fireside.
- Place, J. A., & Peterson, J. L. (1976). Some visual motifs of film noir. In B. Nichols (ed.), Movies and methods, vol. I. Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 325 –338.
- Revault d’Allonnes, F. (1991). La lumière au cinéma [Light in the cinema]. Paris: Cahiers du cinéma.
- Salt, B. (1992). Film style and technology: History and analysis, 2nd edn. London: Starword.