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What is Realistic Cinematography?


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#1 Walter Graff

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Posted 28 February 2008 - 05:15 PM

Very nice article you wrote in this months Student Filmmakers David. My favorite line:

"I often wonder whether we have hit a certain aesthetic wall in regards to realism because it has become easy to do from a mechanical standpoint... but many filmmakers don't have the artistic maturity to use it as an effective storytelling device, nor are the stories themselves imbued with any real insights into human existence - and thus the hyper-realistic cinematography being used comes off as a shallow stylistic trick."

I don't look at this line as a putdown, but as a reaction to a disturbing trend where style trumps substance. Where it;s never enough just to be, but has to be more, bigger, and more like 'the big guys do it'. Problem is the big guys proably do it better with less. In my seminars I often drop mouths when I light something trying to maintain a realistic look and the group looks at a monitor and says, 'wow it looks great', then says, 'that's it... Aren't you going to do more'? And to that I say 'what do you want, it's a bathroom'. 'Should we put one of those unrealistic spinning screen lens adapters on it so it looks like some sort of modified glowing swing and tilt lens'. Will that make it look more realistic to you?"

In April I am giving seminars every weekend on green screen in NY. And I know what many in the group will say after I complete a set-up; 'that's it?' And I will say, 'yea that's it, no big secret, and wait till I show you all the myths about green screen in post'.

This is definitely the generation of style over substance, technical specs over artistry, flair over simplicity, and hyper reality over authenticity.
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#2 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 28 February 2008 - 05:24 PM

I was sort of responding to a trend I see lately of movies trying to capture some of the honesty and grit of 1970's movies, yet have little of their artistic or intellectual weight, so it becomes all about merely copying the surface of things, as if style alone would imbue something with importance.

I think some filmmakers think that a realistic visual style will be enough to give their movie some sort of integrity. It's sort of a shortcut for them.

I don't know what I was really trying to say with that piece other than I think realism alone is not enough, especially now that it has become so easy to accomplish technically. There has to be a deeper understanding of what the movie is trying to say, so that the style (maybe realism) can be chosen that enhances those ideas. But maybe what's really lacking are ideas in the first place.

People often confuse truth with realism. Advertisers, of course, rely on that form of confusion...
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#3 Walter Graff

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Posted 28 February 2008 - 05:55 PM

I think realism alone is not enough, especially now that it has become so easy to accomplish technically. There has to be a deeper understanding of what the movie is trying to say, so that the style (maybe realism) can be chosen that enhances those ideas. But maybe what's really lacking are ideas in the first place.


I couldn't agree more. I find so many folks so concerned with a look but when you ask them the context of the story, they ask how that matters. They need it to look real. In my earlier example of that seminar and lighting the bathroom, after it's done, I have to remind the attendees that without it being in context of a story, it could look amazing but it matters little. It's simply part of a bigger picture.

What also comes to mind is when am I doing a reshoot or pick up shot of something later on, after the fact. I have to work even harder to get my head back into the frame of mind I was in when I did it. It can be hard to match the feeling. It's easy to match the look, but hard to get the feeling.
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#4 David Sweetman

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Posted 28 February 2008 - 06:40 PM

Is the article available online? I definitely agree with what's written here, I think the problem is expressed very well by Tarkovsky in this video:

Tarkovsky's Advice
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#5 Alex Hall

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Posted 28 February 2008 - 06:54 PM

So the ultimate goal is to enhance the written word through your lighting and camera work. Whether it be realism or a more stylistic approach. Correct?
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#6 David Sweetman

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Posted 28 February 2008 - 07:39 PM

So the ultimate goal is to enhance the written word through your lighting and camera work. Whether it be realism or a more stylistic approach. Correct?

I know I'm not the guy you want to answer this question, but the way I see it, there is no "enhancing of the written word" that goes on at all - to the contrary, the entire act of filmmaking abolishes the written word of the screenplay. The written word is rendered superfluous, it is no longer what is "real" in regard to the story. It's like casting a sculpture in a mold: the screenwriter sculpts the structure inwardly, then casts an imprint of his vision in the screenplay. Filmmaking is then poured into the mold, and when it is hardened, the mold is removed and broken.

In my opinion it's not an enhancing, but a translation. If there is truth in the screenplay, this truth must be translated into the scene. This is why it is necessary for a filmmaker to be genuine; without being genuine, there cannot be truth, and without truth, there cannot be art. This translation is where the stylistic approach comes into play, and this is why disingenuous realism fails.

Perhaps this is semantics but in my opinion it's an important distinction.
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#7 Scott Bryant

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Posted 28 February 2008 - 09:18 PM

Examples of so much realism these days?

Is this something coming out of film schools or just in general because i haven't really noticed a ton of realism in released features. At least not more than in the past. But then again I'm from Oklahoma and not in the forefront of novel cinema. I am however particularly interested in realism as far as shot length as it points to absolutes and truth. I realize people like Christian Metz et al. would heartily disagree but i really like what Bazin had to say about it and think there is something to it.
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#8 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 28 February 2008 - 09:36 PM

Examples of so much realism these days?


I was talking about realism in cinematography, which there is a lot of these days, just that it is sometimes a sort of a fake documentary type of realism, mimicking the technical mistakes, or exaggerating them, that come from shooting uncontrollable situations.
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#9 Adrian Sierkowski

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Posted 29 February 2008 - 12:01 AM

E.g. Battlestar Glactaga the new one which is primarily hand-held would be the "realistic" look. Personally, i like it for that show; but I think it well exemplifies what 'realism in cinema' is.
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#10 David Sweetman

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Posted 29 February 2008 - 12:14 AM

Sounds like we're separating realism from what might be called naturalism, where realism could be a set of characteristics generally present in "real," "documentary," or "newsgathering" settings, while naturalism would be striving to reproduce an image exactly as seen by the human eye. This is apparently what Soderbergh is striving for, considering his quote, "RED sees the way I see."
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#11 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 29 February 2008 - 12:21 AM

Yet even the phrase "the way I see things" suggests a subjective reality that is not necessarily universal.

"Naturalism" does seem to be a better word to describe less-stylized cinematography but what seems natural is also often debatable.
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#12 David Sweetman

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Posted 29 February 2008 - 12:40 AM

Yet even the phrase "the way I see things" suggests a subjective reality that is not necessarily universal.

"Naturalism" does seem to be a better word to describe less-stylized cinematography but what seems natural is also often debatable.

Good point...as long as we are sitting in a theater viewing a frame maybe naturalism in this sense is unattainable. Though I've always been fond of this idea I have, where you would build this dolly rig which would automatically bob up and down to simulate head movement while walking. Or a dual-camera rig to simulate how our two eyes duplicate close objects. Seems like these aspects of naturalism have been completely neglected.
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#13 Brian Dzyak

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Posted 29 February 2008 - 02:13 AM

Reading this, I was reminded of a financial seminar I was at (shooting it, actually). The keynote speaker brought up an issue to the audience of brokers about the concept of doing something just to do it. Specifically, there are many brokerage houses that will take your investments and move them around for no other reason than to justify their fees even if the stock you hold is doing well.

I see the same sort of thing from time to time in many aspects of filmmaking and production. Sometimes, "tweaking" until the last second is necessary as that last final "touch" is what turns a blase lighting setup into something truly great. But sometimes I see Cameramen who "put on a show" by complicating a setup that could easily be accomplished with less. Now, there's something to be said for trying to impress the client or Producer... justifying the day rate with lots of lights and general activity. But sometimes, when three lights will do but seven get turned on, that effort to impress can negatively affect the very thing that is supposed to be important, that being the image serving the best interests of the story.

I'm also reminded of a Steven Wright joke where he says, "Isn't every temperature room temperature?" It depends on what room you're in.

So what is "realistic" anyway? One person's "over the top" could just as easily be another's "well, that's how our house was lit up." Isn't it all relative?


I'm not arguing... those are just some random thoughts that crossed my mind for no particular reason. :)
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#14 Tom Lowe

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Posted 29 February 2008 - 12:13 PM

One only needs to tune into the IFC or Sundance channels to see hundreds of examples of this - tons of handheld shots of people brooding in apartments with absolutely nothing to say. Stylistically, they are going for the handheld, "realistic" approach, but the movies themselves totally suck. Having a natural light, handheld shot does not make up for a dumb movie.

I'd rather see a five-minute locked off shot like In the Company of Men, than a thousand handheld shot with no purpose.
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#15 Michael Lehnert

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Posted 29 February 2008 - 12:22 PM

I think a major contributory problem is that terminology such as 'realism' and 'naturalism' which still had specific art-historical meaning in the 1970s (to take up on the decade David mentioned) are largely meaningless today because filmmakers or filmworkers are no longer seeing themselves as artists on a par like theatre-makers or music composers. This is also no longer conveyed either in apprenticeships as well as (although to a lesser extend) at film schools (even at places like FEMIS in Paris!). And when people use self-referentially the term "artist" for themselves today, to be quite blunt, I think that this shows more a tendency for pomposity rather than substance. Not even Picasso proclaimed that he was a great artist, and Dalí only one few occasions when he was drunk and naked.

As a consequence, these terms are fair game and are attributed to whatever the film wants to be perceived like - and not what it actually is. "New Battlestar Galactica" is anything but cinematographic realism, and certainly not naturalistic. It is soo minutely stylistic and over-rhethorical in its cinematography, those DoP'ing it should actually get an award for their work rather than many who won an Academy Award or BAFTA this year (yeah, bold statement, I know). It is truly artistic, though personally, I dislike the narrative premise, the political notion and thus the aesthetical result of this piece, and despise the usage of the franchise name. And of course, the film-artistic terms applied to it are fake as well.

I am unable to access your article, but from what I gather from quotes, it touches a crucial point from an excellent angle, David, but it seems you operate your text without attempting to define the terms you are operating with. You said so in this thread about the (in)conclusive point of your argumentation in the article as you attempt to find a worthy definition of these terms to propose a valid critique of recent developments in cinematography that are contrary to what they seem to be: fake rather than realistic, phony rather than naturalistic. In fact, I think you explicidly used the term 'realism' in its popular usage of today rather than the meaning it holds art-historically and thus originally in cinema as well. This is well-adviced when writing for a young student audience, but I think that harcking back to their original meaning is important in educational texts to show how terms and practices develop by become devoid of meaning and then deployed for various purposes as they got shallow. And the latter is exactly the problem films over the past years, even acclaimed pieces, have.

Funnily enough, I think that the problem with that is not to such an extend as generally believed relating to commercialism and "the suits" red-flagging not easily marketable (note how I avoid to say "not easily sellable") film ware. I think the problem is more that those actually working cinematographically and cinematically no longer see themselves as part of society that is privileged to criticise certain conditions they see in and/or through their work (which is a difference). I am always shocked by the amount of people who say that art has/should have nothing to do with/say about politics (and I use that term in its core definition, not re. gov-admin work it usually means today).
If that would have been the case over the past centuries, then the world would look very different indeed.

Many films in the late-1960s/early-1970s, let's take easy-digestable examples such as "Bullitt" or "Dirty Harry", even De Laurentiis' "King Kong", to go really mainstream, were rooted in social trends and were actively participating in them in and through the film. The main plots are mere MacGuffin's to showcase the politicised social issues that occur to the characters on the sidelines and fringes of the narration. Based on such substantive and (for the viewing audience) substantiated plots and screenplays, the cinematography naturally chose to remain simple and informal as to not obstuct or impair the viewer from receiving these pretty much in-the-face messages. Realism was hence used as a term to denote that the subject was depicted with a mis-en-scène & mis-en-place as they would appear in everyday life, without overburdening embellishment or interpretation, but going hand in hand with the understanding of classical realism that valued beauty and artistic skill and was hence a high form of art.

Even when watching 1950s MGM grand set-pieces - often cited as something those 1960s/70s filmmakers wanted to "rebel" against despite the fact that many filmworkers actually worked in both of these supposed opposite categories and did not see any mutual exclusion at the time ? (the change in filmmaking had more to do with the economies the studios were unable to maintain that eventually let to the atomisation of the workforce we continue to see today), one can realise how politicised and societally-snappy and contemporary these films are quite by intent from the great writers who had a very different background than many have today (most of them were trained and worked in the theatre as most 1930s films are based upon - when was the last movie released today that was actually based on a theatre play?). Just take two usually referred to as "corny" examples: "White Christmas" and "The Robe"... B)

Today, it is exactly the opposite: we have filmwork that is very blatant in showcasing the conspiratory or paranoid nature of the plot at hand in "Bourne" or "NCFOM" (a film that only lives because of the landscaped cinematography once common-place even in B-movie films like "The Eiger Sanction" or the opening scenes in "First Blood", let alone earlier Peckinpah or Ford movies (how deprived of the grand still image have we all become that we revell at such an ordinary achievement?) but just caters to unsubstantiated notions in the audience or even still largely unconscious traumas such as that "Cloverfield" piece of poop and 9/11 (and J. J. Abrams already has a reputation of being a "writer director" - *sigh*). Yet they are devoid of any social commentary of any kind! There is no room to play around with subtle one-line side scenes, let alone with nuanced acting or perfidious camerawork that counters cinematographically what for example the characters in the scene act out. No wonder one can only compensate for this absent layers with overburdened rollercoaster camerawork (and editing) or moody imagery and shockingly sophisticated lighting and physical depictions of the leads that would all be well placed in a Leni Riefenstahl film (and I think that to be negative; I do not share the admiration many have for her, exactly because many believe and post often here that she invented the film rhetorics currently (!) found in cinema; the irony, in light of her being a tremendously clever political filmmaker despite her later public statements to the contrary).

If cinematography is reduced to a compensatory excercise playing with notions of imagery that people believe to be "realistic" and "naturalistic" and hence "truthful" because it is called "real" and "natural" (what has 'truth' to do with cinema anyhow, and while we are truthfulness: I have actually never seen a shakeycam in a CNN newsreport of Iraq in the 90s or now, and Direct Cinema and Cinéma Vérité rarely employs shakeycam ? unlike, incidentally, Nouvelle Vague, the feature version of CV and thus a "set-up" piece of film... the irony, again), then of course one cannot develop phantasy and creativity for the camera, which is what the DoP and director do together (at least last time I looked).

Film is a collaboratve artform, and hence looking at the contexts of cinematographic development is crucial. But as long as filmic content isn't there, the camera will have no matrix to be released on, but will remain confined to just a film-rhethorically indiscriminate and yet attactively pushing-up corset that guides it. The current agony that is showcased (un)voluntarily in camerawork is shouting this out. I am looking forward to see how things will develop in the future.
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#16 Jonathan Bowerbank

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Posted 29 February 2008 - 01:42 PM

I don't know what I was really trying to say with that piece...


It was a great article that posed some very important questions that made me think to myself about personal style and taste in "realistic cinematography". Although I must admit, I thought the article ended a little abrubtly. When I finished I turned the page thinking there was more...ahhhp, oh, that's it.

This thread is a good continuation and discussion of that thought.
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#17 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 29 February 2008 - 05:32 PM

Well, that was the point I guess, to get people thinking, but I admit it wasn't something I spent weeks writing and re-writing, it was more like an editorial you'd read in a blog, my thoughts. I'm a cinematographer, not an art historian or a PhD candidate, but sometimes I like to step back a little and try and see trends in current attitudes about cinematography, partly based on things I get from working with directors.
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#18 Michael Lehnert

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Posted 29 February 2008 - 05:40 PM

Well, that was the point I guess, to get people thinking, but I admit it wasn't something I spent weeks writing and re-writing, it was more like an editorial you'd read in a blog, my thoughts. I'm a cinematographer, not an art historian or a PhD candidate, but sometimes I like to step back a little and try and see trends in current attitudes about cinematography, partly based on things I get from working with directors.


Sometimes, I think you really are way too humble, David! That is not fitting! :)

Is there any way to access your article online, either with or without payment?
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#19 Sam Wells

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Posted 29 February 2008 - 06:08 PM

What also comes to mind is when am I doing a reshoot or pick up shot of something later on, after the fact. I have to work even harder to get my head back into the frame of mind I was in when I did it. It can be hard to match the feeling. It's easy to match the look, but hard to get the feeling.


Wow is that ever true in the terms you put it in. If I were honest I'd say I can't reshoot anything. I can only do something better --
or worse !

-Sam
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#20 Walter Graff

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Posted 29 February 2008 - 08:49 PM

I always like to look ahead and try to see what we are doing now and how that will develop into something. Handheld has become such a standard for shooting these days in both features and television.

I remember when people like me were shooting MTV stuff in the eighties. Very bored with the content and presentation we started to move around a bit, adding some 'feeling' to the shot. There was no reason for it other than just fooling around. And sometimes it was because we were really watching something else out of camera range that was more interesting, and simply holding the camera on our shoulder hoping we kept the frame. Suddenly folks were saying to us, move around a bit like you did last time. And years later that became the MTV look that a thousand people all wanted.

And then that slippery camera technique moved into shows like Homicide and later Law and Order. Not saying me or anyone else is responsible, just that it's funny how trends make crossover into other genres. They do crossover, even if you don't realize it. Remember when swing and tilt was all over the place? God it was sickening. I think it all started in music videos and next thing you know every commercial was swing and tilt. I think films that used hand held in a day when it simply was a no no such as Dog Day Afternoon became better films because of that style. It was so different and so new that it didn't catch on. It became part of the films that occasionally used it, and used it well. But today it's all we do so it's not style anymore in my opinion, just tries to make cinematography into some form of content. But it's not content. I remember when NYPD started that absolutely annoying jerk of the head every few second a while back. It was so distracting as to make the show unwatchable. And today no one uses a tripod it seems.

And yet I found myself guilty the other day. I shoot a lot of low budget single person local spots for a auto group in three states. We do a lot of testimonial spots. I concentrate on content and simply vary the backgrounds for the most part and try a few different things in post to make it all be about what they say more than anything else.
I thought I'd do something different the other day and instead of locking the camera down as I normally do, I did various random pushes and moves during my interview, having the talent look at my PA who took my chair while she talked. In the end it worked for me. My client never said anything other than it was a great testimonial. But my partner said "I just wanted to tell you that you are shaky on one of the shots". Made me feel guilty for doing what I forgot I hate so much. He looked at it as a mistake. If it was me watching someone else's work, I'd probably hate it too. I guess we are all guilty every now and then and are blinded by a need to try things, forgetting what we said in the past.

http://www.film-and-...undai-final.mov
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