Back when the film industry was first created, there used to be one position on set. It wasn’t the director, producer, or a gaffer — it was the “cameraman.” The cameraman acted as the head creative, the producer, the director. A lot of time they designed and built their own motion picture film systems. This was way before there were mainstream manufacturers like we have today. So no Arri, no RED, no Mitchell… nothing but proprietary systems provided per person. Their job was to set up these massive pieces of machinery, make sure they ran properly, and captured the subjects or landscapes before them. It was an extremely labor intensive task and had to be done with exacting precision.
La sortie de l’usine Lumière à Lyon (1895) – Frères Lumière
While it took a lot of work, this was the start of filmmakers learning to express with the visual medium. It was the cameraman’s job to create the composition for audiences and to help convey that story. It took decades for the craft to evolve, new crew members to emerge, and technological advancements to really develop a language in cinema.
The post war era — the 1950s through the 1970s — is when we really saw experimental and expressionist filmmaking taking the medium to new heights. Countries from all around the world like France, Russia, Italy, and Germany were pushing the craft to the edge of the Earth, providing a new meaning to cinema. This is where the “New Wave” of cinema took the bull by the horns and said that not every movie had to feel perfectly assembled and elegantly lit like a Hollywood motion picture. Filmmakers like François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Andrei Tarkovsky, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, and Akira Kurosawa wanted to show people that you can tell stories in different ways.
These filmmakers began to take creative risks with their storytelling. At this point in history, the industry was rapidly growing and cameras were becoming more portable than ever. They had the opportunity to move the cameras in ways that were never before seen on the silver screen. They were bringing cameras to parts of the world which have never been seen by mainstream audiences. Werner Herzog, for example, had a string of feature length projects that dove deep into the heart of the South American Rainforests. He transported audiences to a place no one in the westernized world had really seen. We started to get these rough around the edges, very cinema verite, looks. Thank Jean Rouch for introducing this to the film industry.
So what does all of this history in the film industry really mean? Well, it provides one thing for sure… that as visual artists, properly crafting the cinematography of a movie is a crucial part of the filmmaking process. What the camera captures is supposed to be the soul and emotion of the piece. Without a proper understanding of lens language and film language… the film can feel misguided and ultimately seem like a missed opportunity.
Let’s talk about a few different styles of, quote-unquote, film language:
Let’s start with “underdeveloped.” A camera emotion for that would be a camera that never feels settled. That is always slightly moving from left to right or up, down, that you’re never really happy with the frame. The frame is just always moving just ever so slightly and I’m talking subtle.
Clip from “Fathers and Daughters”
I’m not talking “Okay, you’re panning right to left, up, down.” It’s just this drift and this energy that you’re creating that’s like, “Whoa, what’s going on here?” Why is that?”
Now, let’s breakdown a camera emotion of a leader. Let’s say a lens choice would be a slightly wider lens, like a 35mm. I would take the camera and lower it under his eye line, and I would put him/her in the center of the frame.
This is the leader. I would have that style go throughout the whole film. If your character goes from leading to following to failing to whatever, you can then alter that style but low angle, center frame, wider lenses pushed in, that’s going to give the person power and leadership.
Let’s move on to compassion. I would say, let’s look at a key-to-fill lighting ratio on that. I would say that a compassionate person would be a little flatter in lighting.
If your key-to-fill ratio on a whole for the film is three to one, so three stops down on the fill, make the compassion-character two to one, or one and a half to one. Just something that really lightens the mood and the tone. Think about colors when lighting and placing your “compassionate” character. Different colors like orange and purples can play off nicely when introducing and/or establishing their attributes in the narrative.
Now let’s talk about “selfless.” Maybe depth of field could play. You want to play with shallow depth of field as well. Not only would the camera be panning around and not ever be completely happy with the frame, but you could play with shallow depth of field there. I think selfless could be portrayed by maybe a little more head room, having more depth of field, creating the feeling that this person is selfless. Depth of Field can be a huge tool when showing that your character is selfless. It creates a focus on him and no one else in the frame. He/shein their head and their head only.
Endurance: I think a lower angle would work for that, a camera that’s always booming up and booming down, maybe, to show that he’s keeping up, that he or she just keeps on going, keeps on driving. The camera always has those subtle up and down moves. Your key-to-fill ratio is going to be wonderful in compassion and selfless.
These are the kind of things that I attach to every scene. What is this person going through? How can I do it? Through all the things that we’ve talked about: the camera motion – is there movement or no movement, what should it feel like, the lens choice, should it be a longer lens or should it be a wider lens, pushed in, lower angle, maybe higher angle? There are so many options to choose from when crafting a scene, but it comes down to picking the right ones.
Over time, you will garner enough experience to make these judgement calls while reading the script. Even on set, you will have a better understanding of what will work best in the moment. It takes time, but try things out and craft your own voice. There is no right or wrong in any situation… just make sure you have an understanding of what the world has done before you. That’s a great way of being able to build upon what already exists.
-Shane Hurlbut, ASC