My Love Affair with Cinematography

Prompted by: re-watching LotR

I am such a sucker for cinematography.

Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos have, in my opinion, the best video series out there on film and cinematography: Every Frame a Painting. Their series has come to an end, but if you haven’t already watched some of their work, you’re truly missing out. Their very handle perfectly sums up the magic of cinematography– it is truly art.

So what exactly is cinematography? Essentially it’s what the viewer sees in any given frame. It’s composition and angles and light and shadows.

“The cinematographer—also known as the Director of Photography, or “DP”— is responsible for all the visual elements of a film… He or she makes every creative choice related to composition, lighting, and camera motion—anything that audiences can see in a given shot.”

Abigail Schoenberg, Contributing Writer, Harvard Crimson

While a DP is responsible for those visual elements, they are chosen through very specific conversation with the director. The DP is the one who brings the director’s vision to life, so it is of utmost importance that the two are allies and agree on creative choices. As a director, having a DP that you can rely on and trust in is an absolute game changer. The two individuals inform and support each other throughout the creative process, from day one all the way to color correction in post-production. We can see how a close relationship between the director and the DP magnifies stylistic choices through the work of director Wes Anderson and his most frequent director of photography, Robert Yeoman. Yeoman has worked with Anderson for over 20 years on no less than 8 films, working alongside him on films from Bottle Rocket to The Grand Budapest Hotel. There’s no question that Yeoman has been an instrumental part of bringing Anderson’s visions of symmetry and color schemes to life through his own choices of lenses, lighting, framing, and positioning.

Cinematography connects with different people in different ways. Some viewers like wide angles, some like symmetry. Some like orbital shots, some like overhead shots. Some people may not even realize that what they like so much about a film is the cinematography. Regardless of their level of awareness though, from super hero movies to romances to arthouse films, a good DP makes all the difference.

like crazy
Like Crazy (2011) || John Guleserian (DP)
furiosa
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) || John Seale (DP)

I still remember the first time I saw a frame that made me audibly gasp out loud in the theater. It was 2012 and I was watching Django Unchained, which was only the second time I had seen a Tarantino film. Growing up in a very conservative household, my media intake was strictly limited, and Tarantino was definitely not approved viewing. There’s a scene that takes place in a cotton field where Jamie Foxx’s character points his gun and takes precise aim at a man fleeing on horseback. He pulls the trigger and the camera angle changes to a cropped shot of the cotton. We hear the hoof beats of the running horse in slow motion, and then…

replacement
Django Unchained (2012) || Robert Richardson (DP)

A fine spray of bright red spatters the pristine white cotton. I watched Django Unchained three more times that year, and every single time there was something about the cropped frame took my breath away. And so began my documented love affair with cinematography.

But then, when I was re-watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy this summer, I realized that my delight with well-framed shots had actually started much much earlier.

Balrog Fall
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) || Andrew Lesnie (DP)

In fact, it had even started earlier than that. The Prince of Egypt was the first movie I ever saw in theaters, and even at the ripe old age of four, certain shots stood out to me.

prince of egypt
The Prince of Egypt (1998) || Brenda Chapman (Director)

I still gasp out loud when I’m watching movies and a particularly moving frame appears. I “mmm’ed” out loud at the end of Fight Club. My toes curled with bliss at the opening of Evolution.

fight club
Fight Club (1999) || Jeff Cronenweth (DP)
evolution
Evolution (2015) || Manuel Dacosse (DP)

Cinematography will be a frequent topic on this blog. Whether a monthly collection of favorite frames or a closer look at the work of a particular DP, it is something that I find to be an endless source of joy and fascination. So join in on the fun and leave a comment! What are some of your favorite frames?

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