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What is the most important thing a cinematographer should offer to a film production?


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#1 joshua gallegos

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Posted 17 December 2013 - 05:13 PM

I think one of the common mistakes beginners like myself make, is that too much emphasis is made on making the image look good, when it is really more about figuring out the language of the story through moving images. I watched the first short by Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station), entitled 'Locks', and it's a really stripped down story, there's no pretentiousness involved, it really reminded me of Frank Capra who had this raw vision, and he made great films about people and social injustices. Little bits of information are given little by little in the short, the importance (heritage) of his hair, and what it means to him. It's in essence a silent film, and the visuals are paced perfectly. There's very minimal lighting for interiors, since the short was shot on 16mm film, it would depend on the stock. In any good film you feel the presence, the point of view of the person behind the camera, making the image mean something is the pinnacle to great movie making. Considering Coogler went to USC it makes me wonder what they teach to their students, I felt his sense of structure was terribly precise, every image in this short means something. Not many directors have the mind to construct films so efficiently, it really blew me away how good it was. It brings the question about how cinematography should work, I think many cinematographers have the ability to make everything look good, but very few can make it MEAN something, which is what really matters in narrative films as opposed to a music video or Jeep commercial.

 

I know many stories are told differently, since Coogler is more of a personal story teller as opposed to Francis Coppola who can only make epics. But what do most cinematographers look for in a script? And how much input are they allowed? I read that Robert Richardson once tried to give Scorsese notes on one of his movies and suggestions on what shots to use, and Scorsese threw his notes away and said that he was the only one who could design the shots. 

 

Here's the short by Ryan Coogler  https://vimeo.com/19513968


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#2 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 17 December 2013 - 08:12 PM

There are all kinds of ways to make a movie and no two cinematographers nor directors are alike.

 

The image should look appropriate to the narrative needs, which may or may not mean "good" technically.  But it can get more complex than that; for example, even though a realistic lighting style is appropriately from a narrative standpoint, if it makes the leading actress look less good, it could make some of the audience less invested emotionally in her, or become distracted by some minor facial flaw, so being concerned for how the actors look isn't necessarily a violation of the rule that story drives stylistic choices.

 

And even if "appropriate" to the narrative is your goal, two people may come to radically opposite choices in implementing that.  Hitchcock, for example, liked to stage some murder scenes in a bright sunny field, or the equivalent of that, just as he liked to make his villains as charming as possible, both as a means of avoiding a cliche but also to some extent, because that happens in reality -- murders can happen in nice places in nice weather, and bad people can be charming or have some good attributes.  So are his choices fighting the narrative or supporting it?  People will disagree.  Even Hitchcock himself made "Psycho" using visual cliches like the dark & spooky gothic house on the hill after avoiding such choices all through the 1950's.  Sometimes you end up embracing the cliche because it works, and sometimes you do the opposite to subvert expectations or to make some other narrative point.


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#3 joshua gallegos

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Posted 17 December 2013 - 09:29 PM

I think one of the perfect films ever constructed is Vertigo, it seems film is all about giving the audience sufficient information to construct the film little by little in their own minds, a great film makes you imagine things not so much based on what is said but from what is seen. What's so great about Vertigo is that we experience everything that is going on inside Scottie's head, his nightmares, his affliction and trauma. If there's ever been a perfect marriage of director/cinematographer it would be Hitchcock and Robert Burks. But as a cinematographer what do you hold on to when filming a movie? Do most of them simply hearken to what the director tells them and operate in such a way, even if they are wrong? Gordon Willis said he pretty much disagreed on most of the decisions Francis Coppola was making on the Godfather, how he still had a "film school" mentality and he kept him grounded most of the time. Great filmmaking is still very much a mystery to me, every simple gesture in a film has meaning, I suppose it comes to how much attention is paid to the performances, pacing things perfectly for the editing room, yet other directors construct their films in the editing room by shooting different takes, etc. as in George Stevens, Elia Kazan. As you said, it seems there are infinite possibilities to make a film, but making a great film is something else.


Edited by joshua gallegos, 17 December 2013 - 09:32 PM.

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#4 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 17 December 2013 - 10:31 PM

You learn by doing.  The mystery never quite goes away but things become clearer the more you do them.

 

The director "enables" the cinematographer, editor, actors, etc. to contribute creatively to the degree they want or are comfortable with.  It varies by director and by whom they are collaborating with.


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#5 joshua gallegos

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Posted 19 December 2013 - 01:38 AM

I agree that learning by doing is a good way to learn, but I believe observation and study is a better way to learn. Hitchcock illustrates in this video his theory as to how how film can be manipulated in the cutting room, but this theory was already put into practice by Pudovkin and Eisenstein many years before when they experimented with subjects. I know Hitchcock is merely illustrating how this concept works, and was long aware of it, but I feel learning and understanding how cinema truly works and unleashing its awesome potential can only be understood and not merely learned by doing. A case in point would be someone like Ed Wood who failed to construct a film that was at the very least, coherent,  in his entire career. The same could be said about Roger Corman and many modern day "filmmakers" who have been making movies for many years, yet don't have a great understanding of the craft.That little clip reminded how important it is to form ideas with images and not words https://www.youtube....h?v=ruoPT9JeYHA , I believe film wisdom can only be attained by thinking critically and observing the works of the past, and lastly by doing. Filmmaking is more of a chess game than a playing field, or at least it should be in my mind.


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#6 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 19 December 2013 - 02:36 AM

As someone who learned by reading a lot of books and studying a lot of movies… I say don't underestimate experience.

 

Learning to make movies is a constant repeating process of theory and practice: you have original ideas, you pick up ideas from others, then you implement those ideas and discover whether they work or not, or whether you executed them well or not, through evaluation and reflection, and then you start the whole process all over again.  Even if you are learning chess, at some point, you have to play chess, you can't just read a lot of books on chess and expect to be a grandmaster on your first game.

 

Joshua, for a young person, you seem awfully determined to come to conclusions on how things should work without any reason to.  At this point, you should be more open to all the possibilities of cinema.

 

You said "I agree that learning by doing is a good way to learn, but I believe observation and study is a better way to learn."  By using the word "better" you are implying that one should use one method over the other.  There's no reason to come to that conclusion because it's not an either/or situation.  One is not "better" than the other.  Both are necessary.  If doing was an inferior method of learning, then you could study moviemaking your whole life and then when you are 70 years old, you can go out and make a great movie the first and only time you try.   Which is unlikely.

 

You mention Hitchcock - go to IMDB, he has 67 credits as director. John Ford has 144 credits.  These guys learned a lot by doing.


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#7 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 19 December 2013 - 02:53 AM

You should think of "studying/thinking/doing/reflecting" all as one thing... probably there is a long German word to cover the concept. Chess may not be like an athletic sport, but neither is painting, photography, playing an instrument, or writing... And yet they all require practice in order to become better at doing them.
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#8 joshua gallegos

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Posted 19 December 2013 - 02:59 AM

But how do you explain Orson Welles, he did a short film and the newly discovered 'Too Much Johnson'  before he made Citizen Kane, yet he repeatedly said he learned a lot by watching John Ford movies, in particular 'Stagecoach'.  Granted there has never been a cinematic genius like Orson Welles nor will there ever be one like him, but it makes me believe observation and study is integral before going out to make a picture. See, but that's exactly my point, I've observed that films have a definite tact that usually stems from the writing. For instance, Preston Sturges was in his 40s when he directed his first picture, and he was only a playwright, the same with Joseph L. Mankiewicz who directed Dragonwyck at the age of 40 for 20th Century Fox, he spent time on the set of Ernst Lubitsch movies who was his mentor. It seems the directors of the so called "golden Age' learned by observing the masters, and implemented their own concepts as they grew. I know movies still have to be made but I can't seem to explain how some have managed to make great films the first time they've ever directed a motion picture. 


Edited by joshua gallegos, 19 December 2013 - 03:01 AM.

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#9 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 19 December 2013 - 11:28 AM

You can't plan your professional and artistic development around being the exception to the rule.  Maybe you're a genius and don't need to practice at anything but that's a big assumption to make at the very start of your career.

 

Like I said, it's all of one piece, studying and doing and then evaluating / reflecting on what you've done, then doing it all over again.  And people like Welles had a lot of experience already in the dramatic arts before they made a film.  And they plugged themselves into the Hollywood studio machine and benefitted from all that experience, knowledge, and craftsmanship when they started directing features.

 

What's up with this resistance to the notion of practicing your craft??? 


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#10 joshua gallegos

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Posted 19 December 2013 - 02:06 PM

I just want to get it right before I do something again, it feels like such a waste having the proper tools and time to make something and then mismanaging the opportunity by making stupid mistakes, having shots that can't cut together, poor staging and many more countless mistakes. I forgot that every shot is visual information and it says something about something or someone, it's not just where you put the camera, but the sets, the clothing the actor is wearing, how they walk, talk, there's attention to every little bit of detail. most amateur films look horrible because none of that is considered, and cinema is the expression of ideas through imagery, I just couldn't believe I somehow forgot that. As I look back it felt as if I was just forcing the camera and pressing record, it wasn't very well thought or dramatized for that matter.


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#11 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 19 December 2013 - 08:52 PM

And you came to this realization by shooting something.  You can't skip making mistakes because that's one of the best ways to learn, which is why doing very small, short projects as tests is a good way to keep your mistakes from being too costly... because you have to push through and past the mistakes so to speak, it's very hard to go around them.  Yes, this is a good time to regroup and study some more, and when you think you're ready, you'll make another film... and discover entirely new mistakes to learn from, rather than repeating the old ones.

 

There is a lot of pressure during a shoot, which is why you have to be prepared, but you also have to learn to handle the pressure and keep a clear head and think your way through the obstacles, and you only learn that sort of flexibility through practice and experience.  In my early days, sometimes I took features where I had no time to prepare simply because I wanted the challenge and wanted to learn how to solve problems in the heat of the moment.  I knew I was good at planning and designing, so I need to practice my skills at improvising and problem-solving.


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#12 Justin Hayward

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Posted 19 December 2013 - 10:20 PM

You can't plan your professional and artistic development around being the exception to the rule.

 

Can I fit this on my license plate? 


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#13 Stuart Brereton

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Posted 19 December 2013 - 11:33 PM

The same could be said about Roger Corman [sic] who failed to construct a film that was at the very least, coherent,  in his entire career.

 

I'm sorry, but even if you don't like Corman's films, you cannot accuse him of having no grasp of cinema. He knows exactly what he's doing.


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#14 joshua gallegos

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Posted 20 December 2013 - 12:16 AM

Roger Corman is more of a business man than a filmmaker in my opinion, I don't see anything that is remotely brilliant from the films he directed, and that's as far as it goes for me, it's all about what he has done with a camera, not as a businessman and game-changer. 


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