While one could argue that the Director is the most conspicuous behind the scenes position on a film set, I put forth that it’s actually the Cinematographer, or the Director of Photography, who has the most unmistakable job. I say this because, his or her work is the most easily seen. I mean, it’s the actual picture you’re looking at!
What is Cinematography?
Cinematography is kind of like photography, except that the biggest difference is you’re taking 24 pictures a second! (Unless you’re doing slow motion, in which case you could be taking a whole lot more…) This means that there are some extra considerations to take into account from both a technical perspective as well as a creative one.
The physics of it, is that just like a still camera, you’re exposing a certain amount of light (or information) onto a piece of light-sensitive material (such as film), except you’re doing it in a succession which will capture movement accurately when played back at speed. These days you see less actual film being used, but digital cameras have been designed to function in the exact same way.
The idea of using multiple successive images in a string to tell a story of movement has been around for thousands of years – just like a picture book, ancient cultures from all over the world would draw a character completing an action from beginning to end in a sequence.
But it wasn’t until the mid 1800s that people started realizing that you could actually simulate motion in real time – In the 1860s, French animators experimented with flipbooks. In 1878, Eadweard Muybridge made the first “motion picture” where after over 5 years of experimenting with cameras, he managed to capture a horses gallop in 12 consecutive frames. When the silhouette was played back at 12 frames per second, he was not only able to prove that a horse indeed would go airborne whilst running, but realized that he had found a brand new way to study movement. Animation was born!
Eventually, cameras were innovated upon to not just take one still picture, but multiple pictures in the form of a reel, and the tech just kept getting more automated from there.
The cinematographer is the one in charge of the camera department, and it’s a complex job. He or she has to not only understand the technical nature of photography, cinematography, lights, and cameras, but also how all those technical considerations translate into the story.
They’ll work closely with the director and storyboard artists to pick out cameras and film stocks, lenses, lighting plans, and shots.
I’m simplifying quite a bit for the sake of time, but in cinematography, there are five main camera-related considerations to know before starting a shoot: Film size (or image resolution for digital), film speed (or ISO), lenses, shutter speed, and depth of field. Knowing how these things work together is imperative, because you have to be able to control your image.
There’s nothing worse than a shot with a great performance being unusable because something is overexposed or out of focus. With digital cameras, a lot of the technical margin for error is much less than it was with film, but there are always tradeoffs, and you still have to know what everything is doing in order to have the best looking image possible.
And these days, with technology and cameras advancing so rapidly, the amount of technical information to be aware of and stay updated about can be daunting!
The most complex aspect is actually not the technical, but the creative. All the technical knowledge about cameras, all their functions, lenses, and lights need to work in tandem with the fundamentals of composition, lighting, and color to support the story.
One example of how the technical decisions in shooting can turn into a creative one easily, is that you can frame a shot in one way with two different lenses, and each version will have a completely different feel despite both being framed exactly the same!
*Photo is copyright Dave Black and found on Nikon’s Website*
Another example is lighting – lighting in particular can tell a story in a frame, and set a mood all by itself, regardless of what’s happening in it.
There is a lot to consider, and a good cinematographer is able to plan ahead as well as think on their feet in order to help bring the story to life.