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Alan Kovarik

Is cinematograpfy these days too perfect?

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Everyone lighting bonfires in the streets is a screenwriting decision and not a cinematographic decision. Cinematographic decision would be how to photograph bonfires, whether to use an additional lighting etc., and those decisions would be stylistic and technical.

 

If you decided to augment the fire with purple light you would be affecting the story. That's not something that would go unnoticed because the performances were good.

 

We're talking about movies here, not plays or books or radio programs. You can make a movie without a script or without actors (might not be a good movie, but...) You can't, however, make a movie without a camera, so cinematography tells the story in movies by design.

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If you decided to augment the fire with purple light you would be affecting the story. That's not something that would go unnoticed because the performances were good.

If we want the audience to notice the purple light, we can have two intentions:

1.) the audience would notice the effect, but wouldn't think it has any narrative relevance - it would be seen simply as a stylistic visual choice. It can indeed be a cinematographer's job to suggest such interesting stylistic choices and to execute them if the director agrees.

2.) the audience would notice the effect and would think it has narrative relevance - they could for example wonder why the flame is purple and would wait for the movie to answer that question or they could attribute the color to something that has previously happened (eg. Aliens landing, somebody performing magic, etc.). In that case screenwriter/director intended for the flame to be purple, because it has specific narrative meaning. In that case it's the same as before - this is a screenwriting decision, not a cinematographic decision. The cinematographer's decision would be how to photograph and create the purple flame and not to decide whether the flame would be purple or not. The only original things he could suggest would be stylistic and technical in nature. Creating the narrative is not the cinematographer's job.

 

 

We're talking about movies here, not plays or books or radio programs. You can make a movie without a script or without actors (might not be a good movie, but...) You can't, however, make a movie without a camera, so cinematography tells the story in movies by design.

 

Wow, that's a very weird conclusion and argument, I don't even know how to break it down, sorry. Anyway, I strongly disagree that cinematography "tells the story".

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Wow, that's a very weird conclusion and argument, I don't even know how to break it down, sorry. Anyway, I strongly disagree that cinematography "tells the story".

 

 

Then I think you might be a little confused about the nature of the visual medium we work in Peter. As Justin said, by its very nature, every single element of the writing, performances and direction of film are filtered through the lens of a camera.

 

If you can't see how the images are therefore 'telling these stories', then I'm rather perplexed by how exactly you're watching/consuming your content.

 

Now I completely agree with you that writing and performance are far more important to the end result. But as I'm yet to work on a film where the visual structure of the film, and the blocking and construction of each scene haven't been the direct result of a close collaboration between the director and myself. I can only strongly disagree with you that the images don't tell the story.

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Of course visual elements help tell a story and make the viewing experience more engaging. Composition for example is one of the most obvious elements in visual storytelling.

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Then I think you might be a little confused about the nature of the visual medium we work in Peter. As Justin said, by its very nature, every single element of the writing, performances and direction of film are filtered through the lens of a camera.

 

If you can't see how the images are therefore 'telling these stories', then I'm rather perplexed by how exactly you're watching/consuming your content.

 

Now I completely agree with you that writing and performance are far more important to the end result. But as I'm yet to work on a film where the visual structure of the film, and the blocking and construction of each scene haven't been the direct result of a close collaboration between the director and myself. I can only strongly disagree with you that the images don't tell the story.

 

I don't know how you "tell a story" by virtue of pointing a camera at the scene or by lighting it.

 

The resulting movie (which, of course is visual) contains a story, but the act of recording or lighting is not story-telling.

 

Let's take an extreme example, to see if we understand each other: there is a movie set with great actors, great director, great scenography, great sound engineers etc. Screenplay is also very good. Even if you just watch the rehearsal on the set you can see it's great stuff. Now the director gives his 10-year old son a film camera and tells him approximatelly where to point it. There is no lighting, just what's there naturally. After the scene is shot, it is edited by a great editor and professional sound mix is made. The finished scene is extremely good, better than 99% of the movies out there.

 

Now, as you said, "by it's very nature, every single element of the writing, performances and direction were filtered through the lens of the camera" and as Justin has said: "You can't make a movie without camera". Those statements are supposed to support the conlusion that "cinematography tells the story by design". I don't know how that follows from those statements, but OK.

 

So: was this 10-year old story-teller? Was his act of pointing the camera at the scene act of telling the story?

 

If you think it wasn't, then the argument needs to be corrected. If you think it was, then I am even more convinced that the argument is absurd.

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Of course visual elements help tell a story and make the viewing experience more engaging. Composition for example is one of the most obvious elements in visual storytelling.

Visual elements that are of any narrative importance are specified by the screenwriter or worked out by a director and set designer. Lighting, lens choice and even specific compositions (as long as you don't point the camera to the ground) have practically zero effect on the story.

 

That doesn't mean that I don't value cinematography - quite contrary - it's just that I think it doesn't have a narrative function.

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No filmmaker worth much in the history of cinema has been indifferent to using visual elements to tell a story.

Also, of course you realize that I am not talking about visual elements in general? (unless by those you mean just what is cinematographer's job).

 

And I am sure there have been great filmmakers in the history of cinema who didn't view lighting, color grading, etc. as something that influence narrative in any meaningful way.

Edited by Peter Bitic

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But nowadays this obsession with "story" and "story-telling" in our language (everything seems to be story-telling) could mean that we simply mean different things by it.

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You seem to be reducing the definition of "story" to the simplest notions of plot.

 

Anyway, what's the point of showing up on a cinematography forum to tell everyone that what they are doing is unimportant?

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I'm not sure that anyone has realized this yet, but there is the potential for someone to have their feelings hurt. Not that there is anything wrong with that, however I believe that we might have strayed away from the original question.

 

We can go on about who or what is the most important part of filmmaking, but at the end of the day we have to ask ourselves who is going to watch our film?

 

Recently I was fired from my position as a cinematographer on a project that was and still is very dear to my heart. I could go into a lot of detail as to how this happened, but all you need to know is that I will be doing all I can to support this project. Mind you that I wasn't fired because of my lack of expertise or ignorance in the field of cinematography. I was fired because I didn't understand who was in charge. I was there only to shoot the film, not to direct it.

 

In this instance the writers had control over what occurred with this project, not me. With that said I have seen many student films that have delivered beautiful cinematography and sound to the big screen, however despite the advanced technical abilities of these individuals I have many a times stopped watching these films not because of bad sound, or lighting, or cinematography, but story. A $40,000 ALEXA is worthless if there is no story to be told.

 

Another reason why I was fired was due to my OCD kicking in during very simple tasks. Over obsessing over miniscule details that neither benefited the project, nor took away from it, but rather created a very stressful working atmosphere. All of these details were technical, neither creative or story driven, and it cost me.

 

But as I said in the beginning of this post that it is all for naught if nobody will watch the film. There has to be some element that keeps the audience involved in what is occurring other than a nice visual. Films like Transformers or Fast And Furious use visual beauty to keep the audience. Beautiful cars, beautiful women, beautiful destruction and visual effects are the only things these movies have going for them.

 

Now despite the various reasons why people get involved in this line of work, everyone wants their work to be appreciated. We all want to make our Mona Lisa that will be talked about for generations to come. That's one of the reasons why I'm on this forum; to learn how to make my films better.

 

 

Here is the facebook page at facebook.com/theoffenderfilm

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You seem to be reducing the definition of "story" to the simplest notions of plot.

 

Anyway, what's the point of showing up on a cinematography forum to tell everyone that what they are doing is unimportant?

 

Yeah, I definitely don't define "story" in this overarching sense where "story" has basically became a synonym for the whole movie ("everything needs to support the story").

 

I don't remember telling anyone that what they are doing is unimportant. I don't think elements that don't contribute to the narrative are unimportant.

 

Majority of my posts here are obsessing about cinematographic and visual elements that even many of you don't recognize as really important (film vs digital, movie titles, etc.). And that is just a small subset of the field.

 

Maybe you think that I don't value cinematography because I said that the movie from my hypothetical was a success despite 10-year-old serving as a DP. Well, in that sense the cinematography really isn't very important. If all other elements are great, bad cinematography won't ruin the movie (and vice-versa - no DP can save otherwise bad movie).

 

So how is cinematography important? It's important because it is one of the devices through which the director achieve his artistic vision of the movie. There could be thousand of legitimate cinematographic styles for every movie, each of them offering distinct visual experience, but the one we see is the expression of the people who worked on that movie.

 

There is no single "appropriate style" for any genre or theme. Every group of persons, as long as they don't mechanically follow cliches, will come with something different, with some specific rationalization. That doesn't mean that this was the "look that was right for the story" meaning that all other "looks" would be worse. It was just one of the possible creative expressions that worked, and since individual creative expression is very important, cinematography is also very important.

Edited by Peter Bitic

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The entire point of filmmaking as an art is to convey a story VISUALLY. If people are only concerned about the raw of a story, they'll read a book. Different mediums have different requirements for quality.

 

Some people here aren't understanding that the concept of the motion picture took off because of a visual flare around a story of substance, that flare was refined about half a decade later (titles like Citizen Kane) since the inception and became it's own category of substance.

 

A basic film course could explain how shots X and Y enhance the storytelling ability of visual mediums. All of these notions and parameters are in place to help a good writer transition to be a good filmmaker.

Edited by Macks Fiiod
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When making a movie, every creative department head has a million questions to answer, a million of choices they can make, from the color of a dress or wall, to whether a room should have ten windows or one window, which practical lamps are turned on or left off, how fast to push into a close-up on a dolly, whether the camera should be higher or lower, the lens wider-angle or longer, the list goes on and on from Day One of pre-production to the last moments of post-production.

 

One of the primary filters that allow someone to cut down their choices to a manageable level is the script and the story being told. The story affects who you cast in the movie and how they perform their scenes, how they are dressed, and yes, how they are lit. Everyone can make different choices because they have different interpretations, but that's not the same thing as saying that every choice is as valid as another, or that you don't have to make any choices.

 

Most creative choices don't happen in a vacuum -- a strong colored key light might be distracting and unmotivated in one moment and incredibly meaningful the next. It's all about context, which is wrapped up in story.

 

Look at "Vertigo" for example, and the fact that Scotty sees "dead Madelaine" when he looks at Judy because Hitchcock, working with Robert Burks, repeats the use of a profile close-up and the color green as a symbol.

 

365_vertigo2.jpg

 

Clearly this is an example of lighting as a story device, whether or not that lighting choice was made by the screenwriter originally, or worked into the script during pre-production and the color symbolism was picked by Hitchcock, or between him and the production designer, or by him and the cinematographer -- or by some off-handed comment by a van driver on a location scout. It varies movie to movie -- key visual elements get developed in prep, in shooting, and in post.

 

Directors get very involved in color-correction, as many of us can attest when shooting digitally and getting tied up in a discussion as to how much magenta or green is creeping into the skin tones when viewing the monitor. Sometimes a cinematographer even has to remind a director about decisions they made in pre-production, as when the director asks why this scene looks so warm and you remind the director that this is to contrast with a very cold scene that has yet to be shot. And as to why those scenes might be warm or cold, and why they are being juxtaposed against each other, again, it's based on an interpretation of the script, it's not just some random idea usually.

 

Now it's not that every element in a movie is making a story point -- a set has to be populated with details after all, not each and every bag of potato chips on a shelf in a convenience store scene is making a story point, other than reinforcing that this is a convenience store (and a store with empty shelves would be telling a different story than one that is full). Sometimes the lighting is not doing much more than reinforcing the fact that the scene takes place in a working supermarket during business hours, sort of an obvious choice to make - but one could imagine picking a lighting approach that was probably wrong for the needs of the story, like everyone shopping in a dark, moonlit grocery store. But lighting for a movie goes beyond making obvious choices, like having daylight in a day scene -- we can make much more subtle choices, like playing things in silhouette against the light, making someone look more dead and lifeless under a harsh greenish fluorescent light, and generally those decisions are inspired by the script or judged by their appropriateness.

 

And again, everyone can have different interpretations of the same material, that's what makes filmmaking an art. I remember doing a scene where a woman is scared and nervous about something so I designed a dolly move that heightened her fear, but then the director nixed it because he said that the scene had to be comedic even though she is scared and nervous -- my shot was playing the emotions of the character but the director's interpretation was that the audience had to laugh at her fears because they were ridiculous. So of course we shot it his way (because he was the director) and looking back, I think his interpretation was correct -- the story wasn't about her being afraid, but that she was being afraid of nothing. So we had to take a more objective angle on the scene rather than a subjective angle in order to get the humor of the moment rather than the emotion of the moment. But this is just to show that cinematographers work with the director to tell the story, and plenty of times I've had a director ask me how I would tell that story at that moment, wanting my feedback.

 

Just recently I got phone call from two different directors in the middle of color-correcting a project where their original DP's were not available to talk to, wanting my opinion about coloring scenes, and my opinions were based on what I think the story needed, what it was trying to say about the situation, the characters, etc.

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The entire point of filmmaking as an art is to convey a story VISUALLY. If people are only concerned about the raw of a story, they'll read a book. Different mediums have different requirements for quality.

 

Some people here aren't understanding that the concept of the motion picture took off because of a visual flare around a story of substance, that flare was refined about half a decade later (titles like Citizen Kane) since the inception and became it's own category of substance.

 

A basic film course could explain how shots X and Y enhance the storytelling ability of visual mediums. All of these notions and parameters are in place to help a good writer transition to be a good filmmaker.

 

I know that in filmmaking stories are conveyed visually. That doesn't mean that what the cinematographer is doing is telling the stories, though.

Edited by Peter Bitic

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It's a collective effort of everyone with a slice of creative control. Like when you slap a wide angle lens behind an intimidating character for an over-shoulder shot; that asserts the dominance of said intimidating character. If dominance is something the writer REALLY needs to convey, only the cinematographer can drive that home to the audience. Spoken word only runs you so far.

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The entire point of filmmaking as an art is to convey a story VISUALLY. If people are only concerned about the raw of a story, they'll read a book. Different mediums have different requirements for quality.

 

Well, a book is just as valid a form for storytelling as any other medium -- it might be better said that if the visual aspects didn't matter, one could just read the script and then think they've "seen" the movie.

 

Take a look at "Hamlet", which was an old story that Shakespeare retold in his play -- clearly his particularly telling of that tale matters more than the basic revenge plot, and if all that then mattered was Shakespeare's play of "Hamlet" then we could just see one version of it -- but the various performances of the role, and the various interpretations of the play on stage and in the movies show just how much the bare elements of the story can be taken further through creative interpretation.

 

If Peter is just trying to say that what the oft-told notion that we do as filmmakers is based on the story is a vague-enough cliche as to be near useless, I can almost agree with him. The creative act is more complex than simple intellectual exercises of story analysis, especially when talking about non-verbal arts. The music score for "Psycho", for example, is integral to the movie and yet the movie was not shot with the music in mind - the score elevates the movie, it suggests depths that might have not even existed in the original script, or one could say, it takes the story more seriously than even the original author might have thought, it's hard to know. Bernard Herrmann made his creative choices based on the story, but clearly his feelings about the story, his reactions to it, were personal to him on every project, just as with any other artist, so you can't really just reduce creative choices to "x" means "y" story point.

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I know that in filmmaking stories are conveyed visually. That doesn't mean that what the cinematographer is doing is telling the stories, though.

 

Repeating that hasn't made it any truer. If a cinematographer isn't involving in telling a story, then what are they doing? As a cinematographer, I feel like I'm telling you that every day on a set I'm involved in telling the story... and you are flat-out calling me a liar.

 

If I pick a camera angle or lighting cue to emphasize a moment in the script, emotionally or plot-wise, you are arbitrarily deciding that that doesn't count as an act of storytelling! It's like you've made up your own unique definition of storytelling and then are telling everyone here that your unique definition is correct and everyone else's definition is wrong.

 

From the moment I begin prep on a project, I'm dealing with the story needs of the script. Any working director understands that... I mean, what do you think happens during the job interview? You discuss the story!

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Well, I guess I really shouldn't force my definition of the story, given that so much of the film-making community shares their view of what the story and story-telling is and they seemingly agree with each other on that. I don't exactly know what that definition means, despite seeing it used constantly, that is why I resort to my understanding of the word.

But yeah, fair point.

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As a concession, I will agree that commonly accepted definitions can be annoyingly vague and imprecise.

 

It's always the challenge with language and terminology -- if you are too precise, you don't cover enough situations to be practical, and if you are too vague and general, the term has little value anymore.

 

As much as I'll defend the notion of cinematographer as visual storyteller (the word cinematographer itself means something like "writer of motion" or "writer of moving images"), I don't throw around the notion that everything I do is story-based as freely as some other cinematographers, because the art of making images is more complex than that.

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I know that in filmmaking stories are conveyed visually. That doesn't mean that what the cinematographer is doing is telling the stories, though.

 

While I am not a cinematographer I did take some cinematography classes while was studying for the field I went into.

 

One assigment of ours was a 2 part one where we had to choose a location that we would shoot by ourselves. The goal was to tell as story purely visually with no actors just the location. After complete we went out again to the same location to shoot it agian but this telling a different story.

 

If what you are saying is true this task would have been impossible, I can tell you it wasn't.

Edited by David Hessel

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The Office UK is the most funny thing in the history of TV and it doesn't rely on any lightning and coloring technique that is deemed "appropriate for the comedy". And there are not just funny moments, but also sad, dramatic, romantic etc. (all done extremelly well), and they all function equally good without needing to change lightning or coloring.

 

Sorry but The Office UK is a mockumentary. It is purposefully shot in a "documentary style" in the old school sense of the word. So in that manner of speaking, I'm sure a great deal of thought went into making it look the way it does. The atmosphere you're getting from the "lack of stylised lighting" is also very much a cinematographic and directorial decision.

 

I'm slightly newer to this field than a lot of people on the forum but I have never once worked with a director, even in film school, who hasn't been concerned with perfecting the visual elements of the story.

I'm yet to find someone who says they don't really care how the visuals turn out as long as the story is good.

 

And for me personally, sometimes even if I absolutely love a story but don't like the cinematography, I do think to myself that I wish that it had had better visuals.

Recently, I was at a preview screening of a film where the camera work was just really, really bad. After a point, I stopped paying attention to the story and cringing at the visuals.

 

This could just be because I'm personally passionate about camera work, but I've also heard of curators at film festivals walking out of film screenings because of sloppy camerawork.

 

Either way, I am also not of the opinion that cinematography alone can make or break a film. But if you're going to break it down to individual departments, I feel like you'd find that no one department can carry on a film solely without support from the others. That's what makes a great film, in my opinion. When everyone is on the same page.

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For me story, when it comes to movies, means general description of what happens.

 

This general description includes what the character do, what they say (not literally, just a description), what they think, where they are, how they look and key things that they hear.

 

It does not include the camera with which the movie was shot, creative lighting style (I am not talking about basic lighting that is required by the script, eg. "character has a torchlight in hand", "it's dark outside"), coloring, composition, camera movement, description of every little detail in the scene, description of every word the actor say, detailed description of how they say everything, their movement, complete soundtrack, background music (unless, for example, it comes from the radio and has narrative meaning), ... you get the idea hopefully.

 

***

 

Sraiyanti, sure, the look of The Office is probably the result of the rationale that you mention, but my point is that this style would function even if there was no mockumentary rationale. Imagine The Office without fake interviews, looking at camera, etc., and the style would work just as good. So would the more polished comedy lighting, so would being shot in B&W, etc. In all of these cases we would think what a great show this is and we would obviously associate this specific look with that greatness. My point is that these rationales "brightly lit is for comedy", "realistic is for mockumentary", "b&w is suitable for film about holocaust", "desaturated is for horror" are not true, because for every genre you can find many great examples of very different looks. Those styles might or might not have a specific rationale, but IMO most of the time these rationales have just a minor intellectual symbolic meaning, and are not actually "right for this movie" in the sense that they wouldn't work elsewhere or that some other competent style would be distinctly worse.

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