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What makes “great cinematography” great?


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#1 peter orland

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Posted 30 December 2005 - 05:02 PM

What makes ?great cinematography? great? Is it something that can be objectively described, or is it a matter of opinion?
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#2 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 30 December 2005 - 05:22 PM

What makes ?great cinematography? great? Is it something that can be objectively described, or is it a matter of opinion?


Well, unless you're a follower of Ayn Rand and believe art can be objectively judged, the response to art is generally subjective, and also subject to fashion. Someone judging modern cinematography from a 1950's perspective might be appalled by what they see, I don't know.

Generally "great" cinematography is considered to be a good merger of form and function -- i.e. it supports the narrative and makes the dramatic intent more clear to the viewer. It also is probably aesthetically "pleasing" to some degree, although that is definitely subjective. We have an emotional response to images, and to some degree, we appreciate "beauty", although that can be a very cliched notion (sunsets) or a complex response (a battle scene, shot in smoke, fire, mud, etc. can become visually lyrical despite the carnage on display.)
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#3 peter orland

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Posted 30 December 2005 - 05:53 PM

it supports the narrative and makes the dramatic intent more clear to the viewer. It also is probably aesthetically "pleasing" to some degree, although that is definitely subjective.


So if whatever tools and techniques that a cinematographer would choose to best support the narrative, are different by different DOP?s, then does that mean that it still becomes a subjective decision?
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#4 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 30 December 2005 - 05:57 PM

So if whatever tools and techniques that a cinematographer would choose to best support the narrative, are different by different DOP?s, then does that mean that it still becomes a subjective decision?


Sure, not every DP has the same aesthetics nor story sense, and some approaches will connect with general viewers more than others. That's why artistic decisions are made by people and not computers.

The other question is whether the cinematography can truly become great if the story is not great (assuming a narrative film and not an experimental non-narrative film.)
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#5 peter orland

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Posted 30 December 2005 - 06:10 PM

The other question is whether the cinematography can truly become great if the story is not great (assuming a narrative film and not an experimental non-narrative film.)


Thanks David.

Interesting question. I would like to think it could. Even though the various components of a movie are collaboratively united, I would like to think that great work, from whatever department, could still shine through the surrounding mediocrity.
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#6 Sam Wells

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Posted 30 December 2005 - 06:10 PM

The other question is whether the cinematography can truly become great if the story is not great (assuming a narrative film and not an experimental non-narrative film.)


Even there (experimental, non-narrative) it still has to support or embody ideas.

-Sam
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#7 Michael Ryan

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Posted 30 December 2005 - 06:22 PM

Hello Peter,

Watch and study any film shot by Robert Richardson...you will then know what great
cinematography is.


Mike
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#8 Filip Plesha

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Posted 30 December 2005 - 07:04 PM

Personally when I say some cinematography is great, I mean two things (even though I'm a sucker for the first one mostly)

First:

Just as some food tastes good, some image may taste good to the eye. Those images that taste good can be watched over and over again with pleasure, while other images feel boring.
It has nothing to do with beauty in the conventional sense. The subject can be anything, from flowers to corpses (not real of course, but "dolls" in horror movies), but it can still taste good to the eyes.
Sometimes sharp smooth and colorful can be pretty, sometimes pale grainy and contrasty can be pretty.
Sometimes soft havenly light can be beautiful, sometimes a flashlight in sewers can be beautiful.

Any subject in any kind of situation can become beautiful in its own way when lit by a good cinematographer.

I think it's all about how much talen a DP has for recognizing how to shape light, textures and colors to make a frame feel "right" and pleasant to the eye regardless of the contents of the image (nature, hospital, sewers, pile of grarbage, space etc. )


Second:

The other one is the part of cinematography that is supose to manipulate people and their emotions.
For example, a good cinematographer can scare people (not scare them in a second, but make them feel scared and unconfortable) just with lighting, colors and atmosphere without anything happening in the shot.
Or perhapse make them feel more connected with a character by providing an intimate feeling to the frame

etc. etc.



Just my two cents
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#9 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 30 December 2005 - 07:10 PM

Yes, but to be truly great, it has to be well-incorporated into the film as a whole and support the narrative. On its own, it may be a great image, but cinematography is more than images -- otherwise, a cinematographer would just be out doing his whole thing, pleasing himself, independent of what the director, actors, and writer needs.

Plenty of commercials have amazing images, but they do not linger in the collective memory as a great film image does because there is no greater narrative context to lend more emotional depth to the image. The face of the Star Child at the end of "2001" is one of the greatest images in cinema history, but if it had just been used for a 1968 sci-fi baby food commercial instead, would we still remember it over thirty years later?
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#10 Filip Plesha

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Posted 30 December 2005 - 07:39 PM

Yes, but to be truly great, it has to be well-incorporated into the film as a whole and support the narrative. On its own, it may be a great image, but cinematography is more than images -- otherwise, a cinematographer would just be out doing his whole thing, pleasing himself, independent of what the director, actors, and writer needs.

Plenty of commercials have amazing images, but they do not linger in the collective memory as a great film image does because there is no greater narrative context to lend more emotional depth to the image. The face of the Star Child at the end of "2001" is one of the greatest images in cinema history, but if it had just been used for a 1968 sci-fi baby food commercial instead, would we still remember it over thirty years later?


I do agree

but I also see that as one of the main challenges in moviemaking. All other artforms, more or less, come from one man. And that is what art is in definition, it is subjective, a vision of one man.
But in moviemaking, there are a lot of people doing one film, and they all have their own visions, but they have to come up with some kind of a compromise. A DP can bring his own visions, but he also has to serve the director, a director can bring his visions, but he can't drift too much from the script etc. etc.
So everyone is restrained in a way, otherwise it wouldn't work.
So all these jobs, while they have their own independent criteria of what is good and what isn't, also have the criteria of how well they serve each other.
And I guess combining all these visions and coordinating them is an art form in itself, which makes moviemaking probably the hardest art to make.
This is specially true today when you can photograph almost anything, any way you like, so with more choices come more ideas, and more conflicts of ideas.
In the old days (40's, 50's) people were lucky if they could get enough light to get any image on film, so I assume there were very little dissagrements over how to light something
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#11 K Borowski

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Posted 30 December 2005 - 08:02 PM

The other question is whether the cinematography can truly become great if the story is not great (assuming a narrative film and not an experimental non-narrative film.)


I don't know if a terrible story can have great cinematography, but since the actual dramatic narrative and the cinematography are a film are inherently separate (albeit they should be closely coordinated with one another) there can be films that have great stories and poor cinematography or the opposite. I am a fan of many of the James Bond films despite their very conventional, sometimes dull cinematography. I also love the film "The Best Years of Our Lives". I think it is one of the best stories ever captured on film. However, I cannot recall a single shot in the film that really wowed me. In my opinion, the film Indecent Proposal had a storyline that I wasn't very impressed with, but the cinematography of that entire film was absolutely stunning. So at least to me, the two elements do not always go hand in hand.

Regards.

Karl Borowski
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#12 Trevor Greenfield

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Posted 30 December 2005 - 09:18 PM

In my subjective opinion, great cinematography needs to compliment the story so well that it does not detract from the story and call attention to itself. When you can put crane/steadicam/static wides etc. shots into a film and it doesnt call attention to itself, it draws you into a scene, that is great cinematography. When I look at Sydney and see the colored neons and stoplights out of focus in the background and want to eat them because it looks like candy, thats great too. When I see a movie comprised of a LOT of handheld like Eternal Sunshine and I dont even realize it was handheld until after the film because it was appropriate, that is great.

The cinematographer is ultimately in jeopardy due to the editing however. The editing could put the intended effect in the wrong context and then it shows poorly or not to the dp's intention. Not much the DP can do about this.

Ultimately the cinematography is just another piece of the film to suck you into the story, it is not the film in itself. And when you find yourself so sucked into the film that afterward you say "wow"... like happens a few times every decade, then all of the pieces worked, and I term that as great all the way around.
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#13 Eric Steelberg ASC

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Posted 30 December 2005 - 09:28 PM

Great cinematography creates an emotional response via composition and lighting seemlessly woven into the final film.
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