Good Cinematography

While an intrinsic part of the viewer's evaluation of a film is often an assessment of the cinematography—"Good cinematography!''—it is actually very difficult to tell when a cinematographer has made an astounding accomplishment in his or her work. This is so largely because cinematographic results generally look wonderful to the untrained eye. In most situations, the professional cine-matographer and gaffers, using a full range of lighting equipment, dollies and cranes, and camera mounts, can make a beautiful image with ease. In short, a pretty shot is not necessarily "good cinematography'' in and of itself. Furthermore, film actors are trained to model nicely before a lens—and with precise repetition—and the wide range of available stunt persons, dancers, and movement specialists of all kinds makes it possible with relative ease to execute a fluid, focused, well-composed, harmonious, and professionally efficient picture that shows off exciting, dramatically engaging subject matter.

A full appreciation of cinematography requires some knowledge of the circumstances in which a difficult shot is made. One of many celebrated sequences in the history of film practice—all of them certainly handsome on the screen but also remarkable for their very existence—is the redwood forest visit in Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958). Here, shooting on location in the Muir Woods National Monument in Marin County and Big Basin Redwood State Park near Santa Cruz, California, a second unit team including William N. Williams, Wallace Kelley, and Irmin Roberts was faced with the stunning problem of redwood trees so old, and therefore so tall, that their massed upper branches literally blocked the sky. Available light was therefore out of the question. A large generator unit had to be brought in, and the blue-colored carbon arc lighting that would simulate daylight had to come from this portable power source, with the lights being hidden behind some of the trees. However, in order to realize the modulated greens and browns, as well as the subtle penetrating shadows of the sequence, immense quantities of light were needed. Also produced by arc light were the long diagonal shafts of "sunlight," shining down through the trees. In order to protect the trees, the lights could not be turned on for exceedingly long periods of time.

Sometimes a shot is an achievement because of the extraordinary concentration of material or ingenuity required to make it. For the lengthy highway chase sequences of Terminator 2: Judgment Day (James Cameron, 1991) and Crash (David Cronenberg, 1996), entire stretches of closed-off highway had to be illuminated with hidden arc lamps. Suspicion (Hitchcock, 1941) required a glowing glass of milk, which had to be lit from within with a battery-operated mini-lamp. For scenes near the Seine in An American in Paris, John Alton put lights inside a water tank to create the ''reflections from other lights suspended above.'' For the exceptionally difficult Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), John A. Alonzo (1934-2001) had to shoot ''real''-scene cinematography that could perfectly match the special effects material, so that a unified visual field could contain a fluid story involving material unrealizable under everyday circumstances. For an example of extremely obtrusive matching, where footage from one location fails to blend believably with footage from another in a shot/countershot edit, see the ''wild animal'' inserts in W. S. Van Dyke's (1889-1943) Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), where blurry and relatively old wild animal footage is matched against crisply focused shots of Tarzan, apparently watching those animals, taken in the studio.

Cinematographic problems are virtually always idiosyncratic to a particular film and director's intent. Sometimes what is required in cinematography is a harsh sense of realism, a lack of poise and control, and even an occasional out-of-focus moment. For Body and Soul (1947) cinematographer James Wong Howe (18991976) donned a pair of roller skates and took a handheld camera into a boxing ring, his grip grasping him by the waist from behind and guiding him around while he swerved into and out of the boxing action. Michael Chapman's (b. 1935) photography for Raging Bull (Scorsese, 1980) makes reference to this, as does Salvatore Totino's (b. 1964) for Cinderella Man (Ron Howard, 2005). For Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992) William A. Fraker (b. 1923) had to photograph empty space with supple, eerie light, so that viewers would believe they were staring at an invisible Chevy Chase. In The Day of the Locust (1975), Conrad Hall (19262003) used diffusion filtering to give a hazy, unreal effect to the sound stages and locations in Los Angeles where the film's unreal Hollywood is set. In Fahrenheit 451 (1966) by Francois Truffaut's (1932-1984), Nicholas Roeg used harsh lighting to bleach the environment and intensify the coloration of the firemen sequences, then contrasting diffused light and grainier stock in the concluding utopian sequence with the book people in the forest while the first snows of winter fall. Laszlo Kovacs (b. 1933) shot numerous films in the 1970s (including Five Easy Pieces [1970] and New York, New York [1977]), the later with its trademark jazzy, large-grain, poetic, softly lit style.

Similarly accomplished yet insufficiently heralded is the work of, among many others, John Alcott in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and A Clockwork Orange (1971), Lucien Ballard (1908-1988) in Prince Valiant (1954) and The Wild Bunch (1969), Michael Ballhaus (b. 1935) in GoodFellas (1990) and What About Bob? (1991), Andrzej Bartkowiak (b. 1950) in Prince of the City (1981) with its super-macro-close-up of Carmine Caridi committing suicide and Q & A (1990), Stanley Cortez (1908-1997) in The Night of the Hunter (1955), and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Gabriel Figueroa (1907-1997) in Los Olvidados (The Young and the Damned, 1950), and The Night of the Iguana, Lee Garmes (1898-1978) in Shanghai Express (1932), Haskell Wexler (b. 1926) in The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), and Gordon Willis (b. 1931) in The Godfather (1972) and Zelig (1983). Similarly great figures of European and Asian cinema include such masters as Henri Alekan (b. 1909) in L'Atalante (1934), Yuharu Atsuta (1905-1993) in Tokyo monogatari (Tokyo Story, 1953), Coutard in Le Mépris (Contempt, 1963), Decaë in The Strange Ones (Les Enfants terribles, 1950]), Pasqualino De Santis (19271996) in Lancelot du Lac (Lancelot of the Lake, 1974), Freddie Francis (b. 1917) in Room at the Top (1959) and Cape Fear (1991), Karl Freund (1890-1969) in Metropolis (1927), Robert Krasker (1913-1981) in The Third Man (1949), Asaichi Nakai (1901-1988) in Shichinin no samurai (The Seven Samurai, 1954), Nykvist in Le Locataire (The Tenant, 1976), Carlo Di Palma (1925-2004) in Blowup, 1966), Gianni Di Venanzo (1920-1966) in 8V2 (1963), and Fritz Arno Wagner (1891-1958) in Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, 1933).

Of notable importance in cinematographic history are Ray Rennahan (1896-1980), who shot the first simultaneously exposed three-strip Technicolor production, Becky Sharp (1935); Leon Shamroy (1901-1974) for The Robe (1953), the first film shot in CinemaScope; Loyal Griggs (1906-1978) for White Christmas (1954), the first film shot in VistaVision; Harry Squire for the celebrated This Is Cinerama (1952); Tony Palmer for Frank Zappa's 200 Motels (1971), an early experiment with video transfer blown up to 16mm for theatrical projection; and Garrett Brown, for the Steadicam system first used on Rocky (1976).

Photographing the classic Hollywood musicals of the 1940s and 1950s was a particularly demanding task, since big production numbers were the most complicated stagings ever filmed by a camera in Hollywood. Demanding extravagant investments of energy from the singers and dancers, these shots could not be repeated over and over if they did not work. Almost always, the big dance number required considerable rehearsal,

James Wong Howe's handheld camera work in Body and Soul (Robert Rossen, 1947). everett collection. reproduced by permission.

James Wong Howe's handheld camera work in Body and Soul (Robert Rossen, 1947). everett collection. reproduced by permission.

complicated camera moves, brilliant lighting, and very high fidelity color reproduction (therefore, stable relations between aperture, film stock, and lighting). The cameraman had to frame interesting shots while adhering to the stipulation of stars' contracts: Fred Astaire (1899— 1987), for example, required that his entire body be visible throughout any dance routine: that body was always in motion and had to be perfectly lit as well. In the ''Dancing in the Dark'' routine from The Band

Wagon (1953), Harry Jackson (1896-1953) manages a lighting design that lifts Astaire and Cyd Charisse (b. 1921) out of the everyday, while the never obtrusive camera dances with them, and at the same time the scene, a nook in Central Park, lingers in a perfectly balanced ambiguous, real-yet-not-real state. The color timing of a musical, affected in the printing stage, could easily ruin a very expensive sequence, if the color values fell off; and the light could very easily prove to be insufficient when a number of dancers were moving quickly before the lens, or obtrusive if not perfectly placed to catch all of the moves. In On the Town (1949) Harold Rosson (18951988) had to achieve color balance and sufficient lighting in location shots made where both lighting and shooting were challenged by tight space, for example, at the top of the Empire State Building.

The camera itself, and therefore the cinematogra-pher's pivotal position on the movie set, has radically changed since the invention of sound in 1927. At that time, to minimize camera noise, the camera and the cameraman were enclosed in a soundproof booth on the sound stage (the "bungalow"), and later the camera was "blimped" using an envelope of sound-absorbing material. After 1939, with the full development of the three-strip Technicolor process, the camera was enormous and cumbersome, carrying three large film packs and shooting a trio of black-and-white "records" simultaneously through a single lens (under tiring and exhausting high illumination). With the French New Wave, inroads were made not only into higher speed film, but also toward the handheld 16mm cameras, which could make possible an exodus from the studio. By the late 1970s, the Steadicam system was in place. This camera was strapped to a complex, gyroscopically equipped harness worn by an athletic cameraman who could race through a scene, obtaining images of great stability and focus from, as it were, inside the action. A magnificent example of Steadicam usage is Pierre-William Glenn's (b. 1943) work in the market chase sequence of La Mort en direct (Death Watch, Bertrand Tavernier, 1980). Similarly, Panavision's competing system, the Panaglide, was used to great effect by Almendros in Days of Heaven (1978).

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