Cinematographic Learning Part-1

A filmmaker is a storyteller in visuals. Story always forms out of one’s imagination and life’s experience. But, to make it communicable to another person the storyteller needs craft. While imagination is inspired, a craft can be taught. It is to be noted that the tradition of training performers in a proper school was always there in India. So, it is more of a baseless prejudice that film art, unlike music or painting, cannot be taught. Further, people have a wrong idea about teaching. As Jean Renoir once wrote, a teacher’s job is to show relations between things. Through a guided tour, a teacher brings multiplicity of real experiences to his students. That can save a lot of learning time.

However, anyone who wants to be a good cinematographer needs rigorous training in some basic steps. These are the building blocks for cinematic story telling – Composition, Exposure, Optics, Lighting,  Understanding of Color,  Camera Mechanisms, Sensitometry, Pre-production and Post-production processes, , Camera operation and Grip, Set Management and Creative Collaboration on the set.

There are few things besides these that an active cinematographer has to bother about, in his daily work. Finally, everyone learns and becomes sophisticated in the skills through use and practical experience – through problem solving, basically. But, to start, one needs to have good, or at least standard, skill in these ten things. Sometimes, they are called the ten golden steps in cinematography.

Let us examine the steps more closely.

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In reality, we see things happening around us in a continuous mode. In cinema, the reality is framed. Where the frame ends, space is suddenly cut off. Any story-telling, hence, is essentially made through frames, and more importantly, through arrangement of things in the frame. Actors and set properties can be arranged in different geometric formations in relation to one another, and in relation to the background.

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The idea of power, for example, is enhanced by the circular formation in this frame. Even when this is not a wide top shot, it can be seen that the power is projected by the suggestive circle in which people are sitting.  The scene presents a grave mood even when the viewer is not aware that it is the control room for war.

Primary shapes, such as circle, square and triangle, either as physical shapes or actors and props in such formation always catch the eye. Just like the shapes, lines and solid forms – sphere, cube, cone and cylinder – pose creative challenge to the viewer’s dynamic mind. Great filmmakers like Eisenstein always knew this, and took it to a height in films like Ivan the Terrible Part I and Part II.

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Modern filmmakers take recourse to this when they want a strong emotive utterance without using dialogue or too much physical action. Coen Brothers’ Fargo plays a witness to setting up the atmosphere of chill, business and cold murder through use of lines.

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Lines can be vertical like this formation, or diagonal like the car. When the actors and props are in a diagonal arrangement, that gives the frame certain dynamism, and story a certain speed. Changing the shapes and lines in successive shots, produce internal rhythm that helps in engaging the viewer to the story.

When a sense of rest or immobility is to be conveyed, filmmakers use a horizontal line instead. Such a line, parallel to the picture-frame-edges, produces the least internal motion. Viewers tend to connect maximum things to positions of human body in the space. A horizontal line evokes a dead body, or at best a sleeping man, to mind.

Talking of lines, one should remember that lines also psychologically divide a framed space. Film screen space is always rectangular. But the rectangle can be of different widths. This is known as Aspect Ratio, in cinematic terms. Choice of aspect ratio is both functional and aesthetic. Whatever it is, the picture space always retains certain areas of prime importance which the human eye catches fast.

Traditionally, this psychological preference is translated geometrically in the frame. It follows certain visual conventions that in turn depend on visual psychology and viewer-reaction points. In filmmaking, photography and painting, this is known as the rule of the third.

It is interesting to note, when the frame gets wider – a Cinemascope frame, for example – the rule of the fourth follows, quite logically.

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The idea came from painting. Visual artists always knew where the viewer’s attention tends to hover maximally, in a square frame. If the painter wanted some face or object to draw viewer’s attention most, they just had to keep them in those particular areas in the frame. With such a calculated approach, interesting storytelling became easy.

Filmmakers quickly took to the same approach. However, motion picture cannot always show a dynamic, harmonic frame, as people and objects keep moving through time. The idea of Key frame came soon as a solution. When important things are happening, or someone is delivering a dialogue, the actor in prominence or an object which the filmmaker wants to highlight, is halted to rest. When someone is at rest, his face can be at one of the nine interesting points of intersection, making the frame visually dynamic and interesting.

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It is playing with the viewer’s psychology and expectations finally. A normal human mind always looks for something exciting in the space that is not revealed to him, or revealed partially.

This is why for a solo character in the frame he is normally kept in one of the thirds (left or right third)

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Even when it is an Over-the-Shoulder shot, like the frame above, the character who is positioned in preference to the other character, is normally kept in the middle third or one of the side thirds (depending on shot-size and if background is shown properly.)

The idea is inherently embedded in human visual psychology. Man likes mysteries, puzzles. When everything is revealed, the human mind does not have much to work on solving the puzzle. However, when a solo character looks at an off-screen space (space outside the frame), the viewer’s mind wants to know what lies beyond the frame line. Filmmakers like Hitchcock knew this, and played subtly on the basis of normal human expectations.

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In this frame from Rear Window, the photographer Hero, Jeffries (acted by Jimmy Stewart), and looks at something off-screen. He points his camera’s long lens to that unseen object too. Naturally, the curious human mind seeks an answer to ‘What lies beyond the frame?”

The answer can only be obtained in the next moment. This is why film is a serial art form, where one composition follows another to answer some question.

Where the form (ie, the composition) makes the content (ie, the expectation) stronger, the storytelling becomes effective.

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.

Passion To Profession, What Do You Need?

“Passion is energy. Feel the power that comes from focusing on what excites
you” -Oprah Winfrey

Many battles have been fought and won, by sheer passion. Many kingdoms have been
built, on sheer passion. From the Sparta to the present day dynasties, it is passion that
makes the world's greatest societies. It should be no different when it comes to the
careers of individuals. Because it is passion alone, that can bring true realization, and true
happiness.

Today, we live in a world where it is more likely than ever, that we will be able to convert
our passion, into a lucrative, rewarding, and fulfilling career. Gone are the days when one
had to be a doctor, an engineer, or an IAS officer; a limited set of predetermined career
avenues. Today, if you have the burning passion, no matter what it is, you can make it
your career.

There are several examples in the Indian Film industry itself. Stories of rank outsiders
that have come in with no background, academic or social; and made it in Bollywood,
thanks to their stubborn passion, that never ever gives up. The industry's biggest icon
himself, as is well known, struggled through countless Films as a new Actor, before
he became the Big B as Amitabh Bachchan is known today. Even more recently, Saif
Ali Khan is another true example of a passionate Actor quietly pursuing his dreams,
unperturbed by many failures at the beginning of his career.

A passion then, requires two things for it to transform into a profession. One is the
courage of conviction, and the second, the support of a quality education. Having that
burning passion will take you far, no doubt, but at what cost? It may take years. But
supplement that passion with an education at a sought after Film academy – be it in
Writing, Cinematography, Acting or Directing; and you would have given your passion a
quantum leap into a potentially life-long and thriving career.

Today, a great Film education is accessible and available. It is a huge advantage that was
not present until recently. So to all those of you truly passionate & creative, let nothing
stop you from studying hard, and realizing all your dreams!

“The happiness of a man in this life does not consist in the absence but in the
mastery of his passions” -Tennyson
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