What Makes the Best Cinematographers So Good?

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What Makes the Best Cinematographers So Good?

Oscar season fast approaches and you may have already heard the scuttlebutt about Best Picture nominees, Best Actors and Actresses, and Best Supporting roles.  But if you’re a true film buff, one category you’ll be looking for is that crucial element of visual storytelling, Best Cinematography.

This year’s potential nominees include a slate of never before nominated Directors of Photography, such as:

Sean Bobbitt-Cinematogreapher

Sean Bobbitt’s recreation of 1960s Chicago in Judas and the Black Messiah:

Moment of Truth: Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield stun in Judas and the Black Messiah

When it comes to emotional scene work, LaKeith Stanfield’s method is to retreat into silence. Something about it sends his mind racing to call up every dark moment, difficult loss, and deep-seated sadness. But on Dec. 4, 2019, things got a little too quiet for the Atlanta star on the Cleveland set of Judas and the Black Messiah, the bravura first studio film from director Shaka King that rehashes the state-sanctioned killing of 21-year-old Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton. On the docket was a scene that called for Stanfield, who plays a college-age FBI informant named William O’Neal, to betray an unwitting Hampton during a Last Supper-type party at the chairman’s home, hours before Chicago police would storm in (on O’Neal’s intel) and pockmark the place — and Hampton — in a hail of bullets. The hush that came over the set that day was palpable. >> Source EW


Erik-MesserschmidtErik Messerschmidt’s “exquisitely retro deep-focus black-and-white cinematography” in Mank:

‘Mank’ Review: In David Fincher’s Immersive Hollywood Drama, Gary Oldman Is Delectably Droll as the Screenwriter of ‘Citizen Kane’

When you watch a biographical movie about an artist, the drama of creativity — the writing of “In Cold Blood,” the invention of funk — tends to be front and center. But in “Mank,” David Fincher’s raptly intricate and enticing movie about Herman J. Mankiewicz, the fabled screenwriter of ’30s and ’40s Hollywood, and how he wrote the script for “Citizen Kane,” the act of creation is just one of many things that flow by. That’s part of what gives the movie its uniquely atmospheric, at times tumultuous tone of you-are-there authenticity. “Mank” is a tale of Old Hollywood that’s more steeped in Old Hollywood — its glamour and sleaze, its layer-cake hierarchies, its corruption and glory — than just about any movie you’ve seen, and the effect is to lend it a dizzying time-machine splendor. >> Source Variety


Dariusz WolskiDariusz Wolski’s sweeping scapes of Texas in News of the World:

Paul Greengrass and Tom Hanks team up again for a Western that is already taking its place among the classics.

The new Western from director Paul Greengrass skillfully recreates life in the frontier towns and untamed prairie of post-Civil War Texas while avoiding the more obvious tropes of the genre.

“No-one may notice but there are two staples of the western we don’t use,” says cinematographer Dariusz Wolski ASC. “I don’t use any crane shots and Paul decided to film without a single bar scene.

“We were scouting various towns in New Mexico for the movie and, of course, they all had a bar,” he continues. “We found one which had been used in a Coen Brothers’ movie, which was perfect, but Paul was adamant. He wouldn’t include any saloons. So, myself and the production designer redesigned the whole space and then shot the scene. It’s in the movie but you can’t tell it’s a bar.”  >> Source IBC


Cinematic artists like these make breathtaking camera moments seem effortless, but to be the best takes years of working with cameras, lighting, and in study of the medium.  Whether they’re working tight-in on an actor or working an overhead shot high above on a scaffold, great cinematographers practice instilled traits that  turn the ordinary into the extraordinary.


Seasoned veterans recognize new directors of photography (DPs) because of their need to focus and light every shot as if it were a work of art.  But that’s not what makes great cinematography. Life is sometimes ugly and so film should feel equally true to that element of existence. Janusz Kaminski, who DPed Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, notes a cinematographer’s job is to translate a script into images, not create visual art. As he puts it, “Regrettably, many of us often fail to resist the desire to produce beautiful shots. It’s a mistake. The cinema is like life. It’s not always beautiful.”


Rachel-Morrison-MudboundThat doesn’t mean there isn’t art to cinematography.  Rachel Morrison, the DP of Mudbound the powerful examination of post World War II racial tension in Mississippi, grew up with a camera in her hand and sees DPs as “portraitists of emotion.” She feels that cinematographers must develop a visual language of storytelling by exploring the nuances of lenses and angles of filming and by understanding their impact on the faces and emotions of the actors they shoot.


Robert Yeoman, who worked with The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Life Aquatic, emphasizes reading photo books, spending time in art galleries, and noting visions that speak to his aesthetic.  He feels it is important to “be in the space” of the locations they’re filming and to spend time talking with their director about the space. Clearly then there is an art to cinematography, as DPs choose everything from lighting and composition to camera movement and depth of field. But as Michael Chapman, DP of Taxi Driver, emphasized, the art should always be in service to the story.


Reed-Morano-CinematographerTo be in service of the story, award-winning cinematographers offer some of their practices as advice. Reed Morano (The Handmaid’s Tale) says she likes to think of the camera as a character in the scene.  She adds, “You’re just acting along with the actors as well. You’re reacting off of them. Getting up in it and being part of it is so much fun.”  Conrad Hall, DP of the dark and sinister Seven, suggests that cinematographers not sweat the potential for mistakes.  He says, “there is a kind of beauty in imperfections,” and encourages young artists to embrace ways of making mistakes work.


Finally, there are habits cinematographers need to develop beyond their craft. Great DPs collaborate on the set as Dan Mindel did for The Force Awakens when he embedded a camera assistant with the design team who could then tell him decisions about palette and texture that might shape the way he filmed. As part of this collaboration, it is also important to communicate between departments. The best filming only exists when costumes, sets, and staging are at their best as well.  Communication creates alignments that make for great composition. One last habit of the greats is that they join their arts movement, becoming students of its trends so that they too can push the art forward. By doing so they build a landscape where their work might speak to future generations of cinematographers.

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