02 Dec 2009

The Straightest Path to Better Cinematography

Or Developing “The Eye” For many “idea driven” indie directors, cinematography is a bit of

02 Dec 2009

Or Developing “The Eye”

"Luke! I am your father!"

"Now I can blackmail Susie!"

For many “idea driven” indie directors, cinematography is a bit of an after thought. Sure, you’ve got that cool shot in mind, but the bricks and mortar shots that make up the rest of the film just “end up” based on decisions made on the day of shooting.

But cinematography can’t be ignored. No film has been called truly great without brilliant cinematography, and it has made many a mediocre film worth watching. This is because cinematography pulls the viewer along (sometimes against their will) and tells a story all on its own. Most importantly, good cinematography can break down the barriers which guard a viewer’s emotional chords. Nothing is more important to the modern filmmaker, as we are dealing with a generation so jaded that they can watch California fall into the ocean and call it a “popcorn flick”.

So how do we achieve better cinematography? By realizing  that it is both an art and a skill.  It has to be learned (as a technique) but also honed (as an instinct).  You probably already know the rule of thirds, but it’s developing your eye for composition that will really take your films to the next level.

So how do we get there?  Here is what I would recommend:

1. Take Pictures on Real Film

Old Reliable

Old Reliable

There is no better way to develop your eye than to bust out your dad’s old 35mm SLR and start snapping.  If you don’t have one (the camera I mean) get one cheap on e-bay.  You’ll start to notice how the placement of objects (and their relationships) tell a story.  You’ll begin to understand how angles and textures can entice the eye and keep it moving.   You’ll learn the hard way about exposure and depth of field.  Most importantly, you’ll learn to rely on your imagination to predict the final image, because there is no LCD screen to shortcut the technique.   Here are three important notes:

NO BLACK&WHITE:  It’s a gimmick.  Trust me.   The same crappy color photograph will look like an act of genius in B&W, regardless of the skill of the photographer.  I’m not saying old B&W isn’t an art in itself, but it allows a beginning photographer to get away with a host of mistakes.  Treat B&W with respect; it’s sacred ground.

NO EXTREME CLOSEUPS:  Another gimmick.    It will impress 100% of your friends but 0% of photographers.  It certainly won’t teach you composition.

NO DIGITAL:  Don’t get me wrong: I love digital.  It’s the future.  Heck, it’s the present.  However, digital is too forgiving.   It lets you endlessly tweak and correct an image until it looks gorgeous.  Not so with the  silver-halide crystals in a roll of film.  They are a direct representation of the light you provided.   Therefore, if the photograph doesn’t look right, it’s up to you to learn how to do better.   A person who learns on 35mm is a composer, a person who learns on digital is a reactor.

2. Storyboard

This is a hard one.   It can feel like a waste of time, especially when time is short.  But, as my Swedish film teacher told me again and again, storyboarding is the art of film.

Here’s why: it is on the storyboard that you decide, free from practical distractions, how best to tell a story with images (which is the essence of film).  You’ll be amazed at the discoveries you will make about the story and its characters.  Seriously: the difference between hobbyists and filmmakers is storyboarding.  You don’t want to remain a hobbyist do you? (wink nudge)

*Not my Swedish film professor

*Not my Swedish film professor

3.  Take light seriously.

On our most recent shoot, we took a 75 pound battery and light kit even though we were shooting outdoors.  It was a pain in the neck (and back), but we were able to use those lights to create the scenes exactly as we envisioned them.  The point:  don’t just react to natural light, used light to create the scene that the story requires.

4.  Learn the ins and outs of framing.

You probably know that a character looking right needs to be on the left-hand side of the frame.  You probably also know that shooting upwards at a subject makes them seem powerful.  But did you know that right-to-left camera motion indicates discord?  That vertical lines in the background of a shot indicate character obstacles?  This is the sort of composition that becomes a storytelling method all in itself.

So that’s all I’ve got for now.  In a later post I’ll talk about light itself, but for now, go out and give your eye as much practice as you can.   Your films will thank you.

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