The art of cinematography is more than using the camera, lights and other tools to their best abilities, the art also includes knowing how to tell that story well.
During a casual philosophical discussion, someone once asked of me, "What are the things you need in order to make you feel like you're week was complete?" I thought about it for a minute, and then listed a few things that came to mind. You know, the usual things you'd envision most people would say. At the end, though, I found myself suddenly saying, "...and to hear, see or read something new that makes me think, and imagine, and feel. I need a good, entertaining story." I was in film school at the time, so my answer was probably influenced by the teachings therein, but I was actually quite shocked that I had said it. To this day, I firmly believe that a quality story or new take on an old one is a very important... nay, essential part of my life. I need a new tale often or I feel like I've missed something. Luckily for me, there are a lot of people with stories to tell.
Telling the Story
Everyone has at least one good story, and most at some point get the itching to share it in one way or another. That's great if, like me, you love stories. The problem is that by default, most people aren't very good at telling them. This is why for centuries, generations, occupations and cultures have been devoted to furthering the craft. If you learned to tell your tale through song, you were a bard or musician. If you talked through books, you were a scribe, or writer. In making a film or video of your tale... well we call that a cinematographer.
So just what is cinematography? Wikipedia defines cinematography as "the making of lighting and camera choices when recording photographic images for cinema." (Cinema being a theater where the motion pictures are shown). Encyclopedia Britannica expands on that: "...the art and technology of motion-picture photography. It involves such techniques as the general composition of a scene; the lighting of the set or location; the choice of cameras, lenses, filters, and film stock; the camera angle and movements; and the integration of any special effects."
It's a very encompassing definition to say the least, and yet it barely scratches the surface of what is truly involved in making a moving picture. While it might define the meaning, as would a dictionary, it does not portray the scope, as would an encyclopedia. On our all too brief journey, today, we will explore some of the basics and concepts of making a video. Specifically, we'll be talking about cinematography theory and practice; the techniques used for that which is shown to people for the purpose of entertainment. For it is only in examining the fine details of what is involved in creating an entertainment-based moving picture that we can even begin to come close to a true cinematography definition. Let's talk about what it would take for you to be a cinematographer.
Putting it all in Perspective
Ready for a shock? We're going to tell you everything you need to know about cinematography in this one paragraph... so pay attention: The process of recording your vision will take place strictly within the frame, or field of view. The frame is determined by the settings on the camera and its lens. Later, you present your piece back to the audience within the frame of the screen.
It sounds pathetically basic, but this is the most important rule a cinematographer needs to understand. You can be subtle or cryptic till your heart's content, but if it didn't take place (in one way or another) within that frame, then as far as the viewer is concerned, it never happened. Now of course there's more to being a cinematographer than that, but everything else deals with how to optimize the frame and its contents. So, how can one do this, thus presenting their story in the best manner possible?
Your frame can change. You can move the camera, swap lenses, change the field of vision, alter the focal length and crop your picture. These things should not be done arbitrarily however; they should be done with purpose. Always think about information, and how to deliver it optimally. This information can be detailed, or emotional in nature. Constantly contemplate how you can best make your audience empathize and sympathize with your characters as they move through the plot. Think about how you can reveal the plot as it unravels around your characters and draws your audience along with them. Consider how pushing the information on the screen can induce states of mind when broadcast. The instant you can no longer optimally provide all the information necessary in your current frame, that's when the switch to the next shot should take place.
Visualization Through the Visionary
The Director of Photography (DP) is a term often used synonymously with a cinematographer, but in practicality it is a specialized form. Think of them as the person responsible for the look of your film. They work closely with the director to envision the movie. It is their job to not only know how the camera and equipment works, but why things work the way they do. Using this information, they then take the creative details from the director and decide how to best convey the feel of the film.
Composition is their method. They use the frame to develop style. A DP knows how to use different types of camera shots to move about the scene. They might use a low angle to make someone larger than life, or a high angle to make them appear small and menial. They plan the best way for a character to enter the frame or leave it so that action is either flowing and continuous, or jarring and unsettling. They know that if a car exits the frame from the right, it flows better if in the next shot it enters from the left. Likewise, if the camera is moving to the right, they can cause an abrupt feeling if the next shot is moving to the left. The best DPs, like directors, can think like an editor as they shoot, and prepare their compositions and blocking (movement within the frame) with editing in mind. They are always thinking about what the editor will need and how the story fits together. Together with the director, the DP is the cinematic lynch pin for the entire production process.
The Right Brain and the Left
Another issue the cinematographer must deal with is the limitations of the technology. Even today's advanced cameras can't see and record an image the way our eyes can. The frame does not truly represent or accurately reflect our field of vision, and compensation must be made for this inconsistency. One of the most frequent consequences, for example is that we have to make adjustments to the camera every time we change the overall color and consistency of our lighting. This way the scenes will appear as desired, and match from angle to angle, location to location. The camera/screen combination will make differences in the lighting quite obvious, and emphasizes the base "color temperature". If you shoot a scene indoors and look through the window, the light outside will look incredibly blue. Though our brains have learned to look past this through our eyes, they are easily perceived on an object we are looking at (e.g. the screen). To fix this, colored gels are used over the lights and/or windows, and one can adjust the electronics and/or optics in the camera so that color differences are evened out, and light appears as desired. A worthy cinematographer will understand issues like these and not only overcome them, but be able to use them to their advantage.
Contemplation before Execution
While experienced cinematographers can think spontaneously and plan as they go, they also know that the best method is to be properly prepared long before recording. Every step of the production process should be planned ahead of time whenever possible.
There are three primary tools that will aid the cinematographer to get organized and stay on track. The script tells everyone the important details of the story, while a storyboard helps plan the framing of every moment in the script. Finally, a shot list is made to optimize shooting order and ensure the right props and actors are on hand for each scene. Let's take a quick look at each.
The script contains the dialog, the character names, locations and essential action for the piece. More of a tool for the director and actors, a good script will also successfully convey the mood of the work without spelling it out. It is the inspiration for the look and the guideline for progression.
Once completed, the script is broken down and each scene (or at least the complex scenes) are often laid out on a storyboard. The storyboard provides a representation of the final product before anything is even shot. At a minimum, storyboard camera angles have shapes representing the actors, how they are framed, and where they will be in relation to each other. More complex boards will use arrows to show movement into and out of the scene, camera changes that take place during recording, and position of characters at the location. They might also include essential special effects and even sounds if they are necessary for timing. Think of them as a comic book with instructions on how to make the paper articulate, should the page be made into a pop-up book.
When the storyboard is completed, it and the script are used to make a shot list. Identical angles are combined and/or placed next to each other, then next to other shots in the same location. Careful consideration is made for continuity, makeup, availability of actors and properties, locations, travel times, equipment and more. In the end you have a checklist of every frame in the production, what's required in the shot, and when, where and with what it will be done.
Though new ideas often spring up during production and modifications made, these documents serve as the foundation for capturing the story in its entirety, ensuring quality and consistency is maintained, and nothing is left out or forgotten. This, along with the cinematography techniques described above ensure that the visionary can effectively bring the tale they want to tell to the cinema, in an efficient and organized manner using the style they see fit. This in turn, is what will ultimately bring a sense of captivation and wonder to the audience.
Cinematographers know their trade well, and understand both the technical and artistic processes involved. They can manage the truly collaborative task that movie making is, but are not afraid to go it alone when no one else understands. They can foresee the final product in their mind and know the equipment they will need to achieve the look they want.
All this information barely scratches the surface of the cinematography process. It's a beginning; an introduction. Take it and run with it. Seek further advice. There are tons of resources to help you on your journey. Videomaker provides articles, training videos, special events and a vast community of peers to help you at every step along the road to success. College courses and cinematography schools are available for a more formal teaching of the trade. The Internet holds a vast wealth of cinematography tutorials, blogs and essays. Libraries, bookstores, and other trade publications await. Watch movies and television not just for entertainment but also for methods used in their creation. Learn not only the how, but the why of the craft, and making your dream come alive will be as much fun to tell as we all will have watching it. So what are you waiting for? Tell us your tale. Entertain us. After all, we love to hear a good story.
Sidebar: Packing for a Shoot
A large part being prepared for a shoot is organizing your equipment in a manner everyone understands. Grouping not only makes it easy to find everything, but keeps different departments from getting in each other's way. A typical package build might be as follows:
Camera Bag - Holds the primary equipment for your production: Camera (with mic), primary lenses, batteries, charger, tripod mounting plate (sometimes left attached to the camera), tapes/hard drives, canned air, lens wipes, rain cover. White paper tape, markers/pens.
Secondary Camera Bag - Alternate lenses, matte box, filters, camera light, field monitor, adapters, video cables, backup hard drive.
Audio Kit - self sufficient kit for recording all things sound: XLR cables, RCA cables, Microphone(s), shock mount, every adapter under the sun (x2), recorder (if not going to cameras), mixer, batteries, headphones, pens, logs, wireless transmitters/receivers, audio bag. Mic clips and dressing supplies.
AC Kit - No matter how much you have, it will never be enough: Excessive extension cords, dimmers, splitters, and adapters.
Light Kit - Will vary, but the prime kit will hold everything needed for a basic shoot Key (650), fill (300), back-light (150-300). Power cords (3x), 25 - 50 foot extension cords (3x), barn doors (3x), spare bulbs, black wrap, color gels and diffusion, Reflector(s), 3-2 prong adapters (3x), AC splitter, gobos (pattern makers).
Grip Kit- for mounting lights, flags, practicals, wires, etc: Matthews clamps, spring clamps, C-clamps, short arms, safety cables, knuckles, Gaffer's tape.
Misc - everything else, some of which is too large to put with anything else: Tripod, flags, sandbags, boom pole, C-Stands (with arms), high hat, hand truck or cart for gear.
Other packages might include: makeup, backdrops and generic practicals/props, maintenance and repair tools.
Peter Zunitch is a post-production manager and editor working on every system from 16mm film to Avid Symphony, utilizing many of today's advanced manipulation and compositing tools.