The Art of Cinematography

What does a cinematographer do? He tries to translate ideas into images. He figures how to express a particular story in the given space. He is like a visual psychiatrist, making the audience think what he wants them to think.

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When you are making a movie, you have control over every single thing that audience sees or hears for the next 2-3 hours. So what do you do with that kind of freedom and most importantly what do you not do?

Everything a cinematographer does with the camera translates into some kind of understanding in the viewers mind. For instance, every time you go for a close up, the audience knows subconsciously that you have made an editorial decision, you are saying look at this, this is important. The audience knows you are going in for a reason, it is an underlining of sorts.

Hence a cinematographer has to do three key things to make a shot work.

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Lighting

It is one of the most crucial steps in the filmmaking process for without light we cannot have an image. Hence there are certain basic things to consider before lighting a set, like the quality of light being used, the objects/elements in the set you want to expose, underexpose, and overexpose and most importantly the source/sources of light. All these things should be selected and aligned in accordance to the look the scene demands. And like all other aspects of the scene, lighting also needs to follow the rule of continuity in terms of quality and quantity.

Composition

There are two very simple things that you need to look out for when composing a shot. First is the background, the environment by itself tells a part of your story and where you set your scene is an important choice in the process. The location tells a lot about the character and it adds credibility to the messenger and the message.

Second is the person you are filming. Where the camera is placed in relation to the subject greatly affects the way your viewer perceives the subject. For example, an extreme wide shot is generally used for setting a scene. A wide shot shows the entire person you are establishing, it is intended to place them in relation to the surrounding. A medium shot balances the subject and the environment. The closer you place the subject, the less importance you place on the environment. There is also a psychology to camera height and it gives specific cues to the audience. For example, a low angle shot makes the subject look powerful and shooting down on a subject not so much.

Movement

Though the way in which camera will move in the scene depends on the director, the cinematographer is his collaborator in this process. He helps him answer questions like whether camera movement should be motivated by the action of the scene or the subtext, should it be restricted to tilting and panning or should it be hosted on a dolly and so on.

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What a cinematographer does with the camera movements is kind of a dance between the actors and the camera, the dance is what engages people and how well the dance goes is what camera movement is all about.

Role of the Director of Photography in Film Making

The Director of Photography, also known as the Cinematographer, is a vital creative force in the Film making process. He or she is that one person who is responsible for translating the Director’s cinematic vision onto the screen. Not only does a Cinematographer need to be adept at creating engaging visual moods, but must also be able to both envision them and execute them.

And it is here that the role of a good Director of Photography becomes most challenging. Because in order to envision a visual scenario, he or she needs to be extremely creative, which is a right-brain function. But because that envisioned mood will be realized using mechanical tools, such as light and camera, he must also possess a scientific bent of mind in order to achieve the right mood. This then makes it a left-brain function.

The two combined make it a very complex job that can only be effectively executed with deep knowledge and creativity. Because in the role of a Director of Photography, the individual is both an artist and a technician, and must be the best of both these divergent worlds. So how does one prepare for this highly complex role? How does one develop the required skills needed to be a compelling Cinematographer? There are creative and technical worlds to conquer and master, and the required preparation is immense.

At the time of shoot, or even in pre-production visualization stages, a Director may lack visual thinking. It is the Director of Photography who translates the Director’s literal thoughts to screen. The whole Cinematography team gets engaged in that job, under the guiding force of their Captain – the Director of Photography. The question is how to train oneself to that profile?

Digital Academy – The Film School is the answer. The DA Cinematography program will give you the most comprehensive and in depth grounding, by using world-class equipment and instructions from the most sought after artists & technicians in the business. While you will learn the theory of Cinema, you will also physically handle and shoot on a wide array of cameras & lenses. While you participate in workshops by leading Cinematographers from Bollywood, you will also build contacts and create your network to eventually work in the industry.

Armed with the training from DA, you will truly broaden your horizons as an individual artist and as a young DoP hungry to work in the Film industry!

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.

Careers in Cinematography

Television, video, and motion picture camera operators produce images that tell a story, inform, entertain an audience, or record an event. Making of commercial quality movies and video programs requires technical expertise and creativity. Producing successful images requires choosing and presenting interesting material, selecting appropriate equipment and applying a good eye and a steady hand to assure smooth natural movement of the camera. Technical expertise, a “good eye”, imagination and creativity are essential.

Cinematographers need good eyesight, artistic ability, and hand-eye coordination. They should be patient, accurate, and detail-oriented. They also should have good communication skills, and, if needed, the ability to hold a camera by hand for extended periods.

Employment of Cinematographers is expected to grow faster than the average for all occupations in the near future. Rapid expansion of the entertainment market, especially motion picture production and distribution, will spur growth for camera operators. In addition, computer and internet services provide new outlets for interactive productions. Cinematographers will be needed to film made-for-the internet broadcasts such as music videos, digital movies, sports, and general information or entertainment programming.

Mostly starting as apprentices to well-established cameramen, the rise to the top need not necessarily be slow and steady for aspiring Cinematographers. All it takes is one independent job to be noticed and the sky is then the limit. Remunerations are modest for apprentices but leap in quantum measures as one’s artistry and uniqueness is recognized. Cameramen are highest paid technicians in any film unit. A career in Cinematography is a career of adventure, excitement, good remuneration and extreme job satisfaction.

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