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Cinematography~Interpretation or Presentation?


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#1 Lavern Templeton

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Posted 13 April 2008 - 05:44 PM

I had a discussion with a fellow student recently and her opinion is that cinematography at it's best when it is a 'presentation' of the story, or in other words the the camera is used to deliver the information and the other elements (acting and music in particular) are held responsible for interpretation. I had to disagree, pointing out that what we see dictates our understanding of a film as much as hear from dialogue, music, etc, thus the camera must interpret the story and not simply present it. Any thoughts?

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#2 Walter Graff

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Posted 13 April 2008 - 05:52 PM

For me it's like Razzles, both a candy and a gum. Great cinematography can't make a move that sucks great. But great cinematography that makes a great film look great, is key. But it's just part of the picture and from my perspective not the first second or third most important part. BUt When the other three are great then it becomes more a synergistic improvment when the cinematography is great.
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#3 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 13 April 2008 - 09:04 PM

There is both simple presentation and interpretation in all the arts that go into making a movie, from acting to editing -- there is always some subtext to deal with, and there are always multiple story elements that you have to make clear, plus decide what to emphasize and what not to.

For example, a simple establishing shot of a building where the main character walks in from the street. Sure, you could just shoot that in a wide shot and call that "presentation" -- afterall, the gross story point is being made: a man walks into a building.

But right from the beginning of prep on a movie, you (as in everyone from the production designer, DP, director, etc.) have to start interpreting the script and its dramatic needs, from the "simple" decision as to what building to pick (maybe one choice is red brick and the other is steel, maybe one is isolated on a hilltop and the other surrounded by taller buildings, maybe one looks newer and more expensive than the other, maybe one says "old money" and the other says "new money", etc.), what time of day to shoot it at (maybe the script is vague on this), how to cover the action (maybe the story is about a man afraid to go into the building, so one way of shooting it would be to intercut a moving close-up as the man walks into the building, with his point of view of the building looming over him.) And you have to decide how the man will be dressed. Even a choice as to what color necktie he is wearing can involve dramatic interpretation.

And what if this were a night shot of a man entering the building? You could light it with warm tungsten practicals and sodium fixtures, you could bathe it in blue-green metal halide lamps or blue moonlight, you could have it be nearly black and/or silhouette, it could be ablaze with light, etc. And which approach you choose will require more than simply capturing the reality of the building (especially if the building is naturally unlit) -- you will have to decide what the emotional tone will be.

And even if you move the camera with the actor, whether it is a handheld move or a smooth dolly move is an artistic choice.

So there is rarely a moment of simple "presentation" -- it only looks simple to the audience, they just see a shot of a man entering a building. But regardless, you've created the right mood for the scene and hit the correct dramatic beats by how you set-up and shot this scene.

Almost every scene in a movie has to be interpreted by the filmmakers in order to make dramatically correct choices. You have to understand whose scene this is, why the scene is in the movie, where the dramatic turns of the scene lie and who in the scene has the greatest emotional turn, and you have to think about what the audience will see versus what the character can or cannot see.

This discussion reminds me of the ending of the last movie I shot "Assassination of a High School President". The script simply said that the main character, Bobby, walks into the school at night during a basketball game and give his final report on the mystery to the school newspaper editor and then walks out, to confront the villains of the piece upstairs while the game is going on.

We decided to start with a wide shot of the big building at night as this lone figure crosses up the steps into the building and enters the lit doorway. We don't see his face. Then we cut to his feet climbing the small steps leading to the bleachers of the gym, at 48 fps. Then we track parallel with him, in a low angle, at 48 fps as he crosses in front of hundreds of students (who had ridiculed him earlier) who stare at him while they are watching the game as well.

Then he sits down into a close-up (normal frame rate) and gives the paper to his editor and then walks out. We are left with a close-up of her as she reads the paper. During all of this walking to the game and thru it, there is a narration playing. The point of the visualizations was to make him seem like the lone herioic figure confronting the school, confident because he had all the pieces of the puzzle now to the story. So some simple screen action descriptions in a script always require a lot of dramatic interpretation as you try to visually plan the movie out as a whole so that the individual pieces effectively move the story along.

Story matters, but if that was the only thing that mattered, then a five year old could direct "Hamlet" and it would be as good as anyone else's version as long as the story was clear.
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#4 David Sweetman

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Posted 14 April 2008 - 01:51 AM

seems like a bit of a disconnect to me...the cinematography IS the film. That is to say, cinematography in my view wouldn't be likened to the canvas, but to the paint. The canvas' job (or the frame's job, in the Zappa sense) is that of "presentation." A great painter always has a reason why he is applying the paint in a certain way. Why he wants certain colors, why he wants certain texture, certain composition.

Picasso's prostitutes for example; he wasn't just presenting a picture of the women as they appeared, he was applying a modernist meta-narrative, a study of their inwardness, the unseen depths of human nature. In my opinion cinematography should be used in the same way, even if it isn't quite so explicit. but there are so many choices that are made regarding the image during a film, it seems foolish to make decisions on things "just because."

How this works out for me, for example in the film I made last summer, hand-held and pale green represented depravity; backlight and kick represented fear. The overall graininess of the image, in its mesmerizing kind of way, is existential anxiety, as in "what the heck are we all doing here?", it's that self-consciousness, or cogito, that's easy to forget, to not notice, out of familiarity. Yet the title of the film is Sleep Easy, an almost unreconciled contradiction...reconciled only in the bruised heel...

anyway that's my take on it...
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