How do you tell a story through film? Cinema is arguably one of the most complex art forms when it comes to narrative storytelling because it blends so many elements. The filmmaking process is extremely arduous, from its birth in writing all the way to colour-correcting and fine-tuning every frame in post-production. A great film will make the most of every weapon in its arsenal and will be an attack on your eyes and ears.
The actual storytelling, however, should be visual and should reach you on this primal level. Steven Spielberg famously said that, in order to see if a director has done their job, you should be able to watch a film with the sound off. Therefore cinematography is going to be a crucial component in the process, and it’s an art form that has kept on changing and evolving and improving since the invention of cinema itself. Here are a few landmarks.
Unaware that there were rules, a twenty-something kid with a background in theatre and radio rewrote them all. While crafting a story about news magnate Charles Foster Kane, and taking his audience on a quest to piece together the puzzle of the man’s life, Welles used techniques that would forever alter the landscape of filmmaking – techniques we’re still trying to catch up on.
The opening montage exclusively used handheld camera and techniques that would only really emerge with the French New Wave some twenty years later. The use of deep focus by Welles and his cinematographer Gregg Toland became a masterclass in itself.
The Godfather famously had an extremely rocky production. Marlon Brando’s performance was scaring Paramount executives and Francis Ford Coppola thought he was going to get fired every single day. It went on to become one of the landmarks of American cinema for its depiction of morality and corruption in this mafia clan.
One of the key elements that made the film so arresting was the cinematography by Gordon Willis. Called “the prince of darkness” by his peers, his creative use of shadows, colour and motion took the film to higher levels of artistry and made The Godfather one of the landmark films of the 1970’s, in the company of some of his other work such as The Parallax View and Klute, both directed by Alan J. Pakula.
The prince of darkness was known for his work on somber films with moral ambiguity; when Woody Allen first hired him to work on his romantic comedy Annie Hall in 1977, eyebrows were raised. That film became a classic and marked a turning point in Woody Allen’s career not only in terms of subject matter (a break from “the early funny ones”) but also in terms of visual ambitions. It also started a collaboration that went on for almost a decade, and one of its most revered products was Manhattan in 1979.
The stunning depiction of New York City in widescreen black and white seemed counter-intuitive to many back then. Its effect was to make Manhattan not just a setting, but rather the main character in the film, showing the characters for what they really were: pieces in a vivid, romantic mosaic.
A Clockwork Orange
Stanley Kubrick was not a prolific filmmaker, having made 13 films over a career that spanned five decades, yet every one of his films made indelible contributions to the film world. Everything in his filmography is worth watching, re-watching and analysing, which is undoubtedly true for A Clockwork Orange.
In the graphic break-in and attack scene when Alex assaults a woman with a phallic sculpture, Kubrick displays a tremendous amount of freedom with his camera. Strangely, he seems unconstrained: the amazing component of this scene is that nowhere can you see film lights on the set. They’re all in the set design. Not only must this have eased production, but it’s also a fantastic trick to lower your film’s electricity bill.
Another one of Kubrick’s films, another landmark. The horror feature was later rejected by Stephen King, the author of the source novel, but the film itself has since become the object of a cult following among Kubrick fans, horror fans and conspiracy theorists alike.
The film makes groundbreaking use of the then-new steadicam, and manages to convey with eerie perfection the sense of unease that Kubrick wanted. The genius bit is that Kubrick plays with the audience’s knowledge of film grammar. Being accustomed to cuts, the fact that the camera keeps on moving only heightens the tension.
Steven Spielberg’s work defies easy definition. You can find common themes and threads throughout his filmography, yet each one of his films is very distinctive. He has made classics that have been dismissed as entertainment, and it’s easy to do so when the artistry and hard work behind the movies is so well concealed.
Never has Spielberg’s craftsmanship been better displayed, and at the same time better hidden than in Schindler’s List. Along with his collaborator Janusz Kaminsky, they created a timeless narrative. The black-and-white cinematography brings a sense of history while the minimalistic approach (“no toys”, said Spielberg) puts the emotional stakes and the characters front and center.
The Blair Witch Project
This feature defied impossible odds. Made with zero budget by a group of friends, it started a trend of found footage that would give us the Paranormal Activity franchise, and eventually a new horror genre.
Because the style is so deceptively simple, there has to be extreme precision in what the audience sees and hears. This film also was one of the first films to create what has since been called “viral marketing”. The spooky nature of the film helped.
Christopher Nolan’s films defy easy definition, this one in particular. Its storyline is so intricate that it would take a bunch of dry diagrams to explain everything, and even those who have seen the film several times still can’t quite explain it.
Nolan feels primarily like a writer, and it shouldn’t be too surprising as he’s an English Lit graduate (he studied English after his parents didn’t want him to study Film). He’s an extremely efficient and story-focused director. Inception had to manage the tricky feat of taking the viewer by the hand and letting them know where they were, visually, at any given time without being obvious about it- the perfect interaction between story and storytelling, writing and cinematography.
It’s no surprise that such a complex film spent seven years in development hell. Alfonso Cuarón, his producer David Heyman and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki spent a long time developing the visual effects technology to achieve this singular vision. The team continually had to overcome challenges, creating a 20 foot light box to emulate the sun, educating animators from scratch on how fire moves in space and designing new ways of shooting anti-gravity after the need for long shots (and Sandra Bullock’s nerves) clashed with the vomit comet technique.
Gravity displays stellar craftsmanship, using SFX and 3D to quickly join the ranks of the classic space films that made awesome use of cutting-edge technology whilst also ensuring its relevance to the story. The result is that the viewer is effortlessly transported into space. It’s not just “the story of how George Clooney prefers to float away into space and die rather than spend one more minute with a woman his own age”.
Tangerine is the latest film to break the rules and re-write them, but it is perhaps the one that has the least flourishes about it. It’s a very small film made with a very small budget and a great heart. You may have heard of it as “the film that was shot on an iPhone”.
The fact that it was shot on an iPhone is almost irrelevant, except to say that it cleverly blends the misfit aspect of the story with the DIY style of filmmaking. It also decidedly marks a turning point in film, showing that audiences won’t care about digital versus film, or what techniques are used, or what toys the director plays with, as long as the story hooks the audience.
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