Cinematographer’s Journey

Cinematographer’s Journey
     – The Idea of Seeing the World through a Frame

We see the world through our eyes. Gradually the objects blur as they go outside our area of vision. If one moves his hand slowly around the face and keeps looking straight ahead, after a point, the hand just vanishes. It goes beyond the field of vision.

The camera sees the world through a frame. The frame does not necessarily get blurred at the edges. Unlike our field of vision, camera frames suddenly cut the reality off. The departure from the screen to the real is sudden.

The frame is rectangular. It could have been circular or triangular instead. In fact, it could have been of any regular or irregular shape. Paintings and early still photographs had such varied frames. But it follows a certain convention so that the projectionist in the dark theater can reproduce the same standard frame with the standard apparatus. However, the cinematographer experiments with the frame in drastic ways and the frame changes it’s shape and size time and again.

But that is just the physical screen space where the cinematographer plays with shapes, forms, colours, lines, patterns, textures, light and shadows. It is like a playing field, which determines the play in a very big way. But the game itself can have innumerable rules.

One such rule is the choice of point of view. In literature, the writer is faced with the choice of perspective. Many novels, like Dickens’ David Copperfield, start with a narration in the third person. As the chapters progress, alteration between first and third persons appear. In autobiographical modes, it is always I, the first person perspective. Sometimes, like in a training manual or a management book, the reader is directly addressed. The narration rotates around You and builds a non-snapping bridge between the reader and the author.

A movie can address it’s audience in similar ways. And throughout the movie the narrator can change, putting the spectator face to face with multiple points of view throughout a visual story.

It is the choice of the Cinematographer to find out the most suitable camera angle vis-à-vis the characters to tell the story. For that, the Cinematographer has to think in terms of images.

Talking of images, it always puts the Cinematographer in an emotional crisis. He has to make decisions, like which character or object in the frame is most important for a shot? Does the importance shift from one character to another in the same shot? Where should the shot end and how?

It also carries the cinematographer to the realm of colours, tones, lines, shapes, patterns and shadows. If there is no difference of tone in the frame, the frame looks like a white, black or gray surface. If there are varieties of colour, the frame looks more dynamic, but flat, in some ways.

A painter creates reality through a play of light and shadows – light and dark tones across the frame. If the play follows nature in some way, the painting looks more realistic. A cinematographer starts with real objects. Somewhere down the road, his objective becomes to tune the external view of the lit up objects and shadows of the internal. He tries to create psychological spaces by creating external moods, and vice versa.

A Cinematographer plays with shadows and their movement. It is movement, more than anything else, that attracts eyes on a big screen. Those shadows start living, and the lifeless stones start talking about the past, as in K K Mahajan’s Khandhar (Directed by Mrinal Sen, 1984.) We get a massive feel of the ruins. We become enchanted. We want to pull back from the powerful oblivion before we lose ourselves. But it is always too late. Without talking much about the relationship, just by taking us to the external space and it’s lonely feel the cinematographer creates a fearful emotion of nostalgia and longing in our minds.

Vittorio Storaro (the Italian master of Cinematography who shot The Conformist (1970) and Reds (1981)) did the same in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). Such movies change life and make us question, “Who am I?”

In that way, a cinematographer is extremely powerful. All films talk about our lives; it’s aspirations, failures and fears. In a way they are quite akin to dreams. However, unlike the fragmented mindscapes which dreams manifest, movies are well-knit. They tell a story till the end.

Cinema is an art which comes out like a sculpture, but it takes time. The Cinematographer shapes it, cutting unnecessary spaces and movements. Cinematic movements are not the same as natural ones. Here reality is perceived through a frame. And frame does not show everything. It tends to show too much or too less.

(Image Courtesy: http://bit.ly/uK41L4)

A Cinematographer’s journey involves a walk through the frame. A Cinematographer is not one who designs the space by lighting or by using proper colour and shape in correct geometric arrangements. A Cinematographer is not one who meticulously anatomizes the screenplay to see how the frame changes with characters passing to and from one layer to another, and how the camera moves in synchronization with them.

A Cinematographer is all of these and much more. Such things are the building blocks of his repertoire. He can imagine the story visually by connecting each moment of emotion and how one emotion can lead to another, way before the film is shot. A Cinematographer is a voice to the collectivity of the film crew in that regard.

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