The camera is the bridge between a movie and its audience. If you try and think of the most monotonous movie you’ve ever seen, chances are the camera never moves. Cinematrography has to be organic — take a look at the oil fire scene from There Will Be Blood. The shot of the men running towards the derrick is one of the best tracking shots in movie history.
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You feel like you are part of the action — you can practically taste the anxiety. A great director of cinematography could be line between making a fantastic movie, or making a merely average one.
The Close-Up Movement
Close-up is one of the main shots used in film. Its purpose is to show fear, threat, or intrigue. If the camera is closing in on, or moving away from a face, then relationships are established within the shot without the audience consciously realising it.
The openings of the films The Godfather and Miller’s Crossing are closely related content wise; both have a character asking a favour of a crime boss. In both scenes, the camera is a long close up of a face, removed from the external reality of the image outside the frame.We gain a sense of space and time in The Godfather and lose it in Miller’s Crossing.
In The Godfather, the camera is zooming away from the undertaker, exposing the desk of Vito Corleone. Vito is kept in silhouette throughout the single take and our attention is on him. He is an enigmatic figure who clearly is dependable and has a lot of trust put in him, but is also very dangerous and fearful. We get this from the facial structure of the undertaker before Vito even enters the shot.
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In the opening scene of Miller’s Crossing, the camera is zooming in from the boss’s desk towards the other man, Johnny Casper. Rather than surmise who he is talking to, our attention is always on Casper. He is less respectful and more belligerent than the undertaker at the outset, so we understand immediately that he is antagonistic going to make trouble for the boss. The affection image can have completely different meanings – we focus on or respond to the close up.
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Most period movies try to capture the time era through cinematography. This can be achieved by either using a low-grade camera, or by altering the visual layout in editing software.
For example, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford uses an excellent, sepia colour palette and gives the film a very dreamlike, almost surreal quality.
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However, the quality of modern cinematic techniques can be a detriment to period movies.
A recent example would be Gangster Squad which is set in 1940s Los Angeles. However, the director has chosen style over substance in its visuals. The cinematography is too “perfect”. It uses modern film stock and is too clean and crisp for the time. The film loses the grit necessary for a period crime drama.
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This is the most hated development of modern filmmaking: the seizure camera. The main purpose of it is to create a sense a sense of grit and realism in a stressful situation.
It worked for Saving Private Ryan because it captured the chaos and brutality of landing on an unfamiliar beach being shot at by an opposing army. All the men are terrified for their lives … they would be shaky and very nervous. The camera represents the fears as another soldier caught in a hail of gunfire.
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United 93 also captures a terrifying real life scenario: a plane hijacked by terorists that is about to. There is an animalistic sense of survival with the passengers: they all just get up and attack with the primal urge to save themselves from death. The director, Paul Greengrass, captures this incredibly harrowing true life moment that lingers in your memory, because of the effective shaky-cam.
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But then you have movies that uses shaky-cam for action scenes, without any visceral purpose. Many are poorly edited this way to hide bad choreography or amateur stunt work. This kind of shaky-cam is cinematic torture … avoid at all costs if you don’t want a splitting headache.
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Many visionary European directors take a different approach to the camera. There is much more of a self-awareness with the camera. Many do not try to hide the fact that they are shooting a film, rather than pretending a real effect happened to film itself.
The perception image is very closely linked with Jean Luc Godard’s work.
In Passion, we get many POV shots that don’t show us the character talking, as we would expect. It is a purely subjective movement. Therefore, the camera is called to attention more so than traditional films, and does not attempt to disguise the filming process.
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A cough means illness and inevitable death in Hollywood; with Godard, it is just temporal. It is a really radical change in the perception image and challenges the way we look at films by making us more conscious and attentive about the nature of the camera and what it showing us.
In the 1961 Italian film, La Notte, the cinematography really stands out and creates many powerful images.
The best is in the emotional scenes, such as the close up of the right side of Lidia’s face when she’s reading the letter, the low angle shots from the outside of the apartment and the depth of field perspective whenever Giovanni and Valentina are in the same frame together.
There’s very little appealing about these morally questionable characters, other than how they are shot, which creates an excellent disparity.
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In Conclusion …
Cinema is an expansive, ever changing form of art. The only thing that is consistent is that it is shot on a camera. There are many different ways of shooting a particular scene, and of how to utilise the camera as a character. Make the camera your own, and the cinematography will flourish.
Are there any memorable shot in a particular impression that has left a lasting impression on you? Let us know in the comments below.
Also, be sure to check out the other articles in our five part series on filmmaking:
Part 1 — Cinematic History: How Silent Film Changed Hollywood
Part 2 — Storytelling: Twisting the Plot
Part 3 — The Voice: The Voice and Narration
Part 4 — The Music: Using Licenced or Orchestrated Music