Cameras and Cinematography

Films – Visions of light / Directed by Arnold Glassman, Todd McCarthy and Stuart Samuels.

Visions of light is a documentary about the art of cinematography and the role of the DP (director of photography). It is a discussion of the cameras role in storytelling and the importance of knowing how to use light.
We learn that the DP’s role often plays an equally important role as that of the director in capturing the look, feel and emotion of the film.
The movie opens by talking about early Hollywood and the silent films. As several DPs are interviewed, there is a nostalgia for silent cinema and the truly creative time before sound. There is a feeling that with the introduction of sound to movies, came a tightening of the process due to technical reasons and hence a loss of pure creative freedom. Part of the reason for this is that the new cameras where so heavy and cumbersome that the camera became static. There is a humorous look back at some of the first actors in the post-silent era and how they would visibly lean in toward a microphone that was hidden inside props to speak their dialogue. The idea is put forward that if silent films had continued for another 10 years, then the craft of film making would have advanced immeasurably.

We then move on to a discussion of black and white films, again there is a reverence for the time before colour and a feeling that the introduction of colour was the end of ‘true film-making’. Some classic examples are shown to explain how simple light and shadow are used to make the viewer feel something.
Some other genres are discussed, such as the golden age of the big studios like MGM and the way lighting was used to make their stars look glamorous.
Most interesting for me, was the section about film noir and it’s roots back to the German expressionist films. The style was used from the late forties through the fifties and was used mostly in gritty crime dramas. The lighting style is very simple low-key black and white but is very effective for creating long dramatic shadows. Coupled with the use of extreme camera angles, the comic book style would add to the suspense and make the viewer question what might be lurking around every corner.

I found the film less interesting when it moved into the eighties and nineties with films such as Do the right thing however I think it was a very worthwhile experience for anyone interested in films. We learn that choices like how to frame the shot- anything from extreme close-up to wide angle, can determine how the audience feels and that the position of the camera can tell us how we are supposed to feel.
So many of us have used the expression ‘great cinematography’ to describe a film, without truly understanding what it means. I think this documentary explains the process, what a cinematographer does and why it is so important.
It was hard not to be inspired by the passion of these people for the craft. Watching this film had made me more interested in seeing films and that is a pretty great outcome!

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