A History of Cinematography

From the beginning of the moving picture, framing a shot to make it more effective has been at the forefront of every moviemaker’s mind. One of the very first films ever, The Great Train Robbery, was the first to consider the use of cinematography seriously. The movie unfolded conventionally, telling the story of bandits high jacking a train and robbing everyone on it. In the end, however, the filmmaker decided to throw in one last shot, filmed from a different point of view. While during the movie, all of the action had been filmed in a third person point of view, the last shot of the movie was of the bandit himself, staring directly into the camera, aiming his gun at the audience and firing. This direct type of first person shot construction had never before been attempted, and the effect was undeniable. Ladies and children were frightened to tears and grown men shuddered. Thus was born the art of cinematography.

The function of cinematography is to create, or aid in creating, a style and feel for the film. This is a thin line to tread, however, because the style of the cinematography cannot overtake the substance of the film. It must aid in the telling of the story, not distract from it. Many a thin script has been propped up by the bells and whistles of complex cinematography, to no avail. In the end, lack of substance will always show through. The function, therefore, is not to create beautiful moving pictures in and of themselves, but to frame each scene visually in a way that aids the narrative of the story and moves the plot forward.

There are many different tricks of the trade in a cinematographer’s bag, and if you know how to use them, they can be subtle and effective. Consider, for example, that you are shooting a scene where a child is being scolded, and you want the audience to side with the child. If you shot the scene from a third person point of view from afar, the scene would play, but the emotion and mood would be flat. Filming it, instead, from a low angle, from the point of view of the child looking up at the screaming adult, would physically put the audience in the child’s body. They would feel what it feels like to be yelled at by an angry parent, and would empathize better with the child. Creating suspense is also oftentimes in the hands of the cinematographer. A man slowly opening a door and going into a darkened room where there may or may not be a killer is suspenseful, but it is made even more so if the cinematographer starts with an extreme close up of the door knob turning slowly. This concentration of the minute focuses the audience and puts them even further on the edge of their seat, not knowing what is going to happen next.

There are as many types of cinematography as there are genres of movies. While there are no formal names for the different types of cinematography used, it is easy to understand how they differ, and what the different purposes are. For a movie with a light-hearted, fun feel the cinematographer will most likely use a lot of light, saturated color in the sets and most likely a faster moving camera to keep the picture moving. For a more serious and somber piece, the cinematographer may use muted colors, a lower level of light and a camera that frames more static shots as opposed to shots that physically move around. For a suspense picture the cinematographer will use extremes to capture his audience, staying still and tight on a shot in dim light, until a significant action happens in the script that pops to life on the screen with a quick camera move and a jolt of light or color. This will shake the audience visually, adding to the suspense already in the script.

Cinematography is, now, looked at as just as important a part of movie making as directing or producing. Shot composition can, and often does, make or break a movie. It is notable to say, then, that composing shots for your next project should be near the top of the list of things to prepare before a shoot. Many beginners in the film industry assume that shots simply fall into place once you have a script, a cast and a director. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Remember that movies are a visual medium before all else, and that thinking in pictures is the only way that your story will be told in a meaningful way that will last in your audience’s minds.

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