In Celebration of Cinematographers

(Ethan Gates)– Every year I run an Oscar pool. The week before the ceremony, I hand out ballots to those interested and challenge them to correctly predict the most winners. Even the least film-savvy people can usually make choices easily in the top categories: Best Picture, Best Actor/Actress, even Best Adapted/Original Screenplay, etc. They know those names, and they understand what is being rewarded. More nebulous are those “below-the-line” craft categories: Best Art Direction, Sound Mixing, Costume Design, and so on.

Considering what a collaborative effort every film is, and the crucial role that many of these craft specialists play in making your favorite movies, I’ve always thought it a shame that more people aren’t familiar with names like Roger Deakins, Sandy Powell or Douglas Trumbull. So I’m going to start a little feature where I look at these various craft contributors, explain a little about what they do, and introduce you to some people that you love, you just never realized it. First up: cinematographers.

Robert McKee once described film as an art that is 80% visual and 20% auditory. I think that’s a pretty fair statement (unless we’re talking about silent films, in which case the balance is more like 90%/10% – Ludovic Bource’s score for “The Artist” was fantastic, but that movie just wouldn’t work at all without great images). I’m taking a course on screenwriting this semester, and the greatest challenge by far is figuring out how to translate the pictures in your head into clear, focused, Hemingway-esque writing.

Going into this class, I figured that would be difficult, but after a couple of weeks, I already think I’ve figured out the secret: you DON’T put the images in your head into writing. Screenwriters don’t really “write a movie;” that’s impossible, because film is not a literary medium. Words and images are just fundamentally different ways of expressing ideas. You can have particularly vivid, pictorial prose, sure, but the words themselves are not the picture. Someone’s imagination creates the picture.

Usually we credit the director for coming up with a film’s visual style, and there’s certainly legitimacy to that: the director makes the ultimate decisions about how a film should look. But the one who actually creates that look, as in choosing how actors and objects should be positioned in the frame, figuring out the proper lighting conditions, meddling with different camera lenses and filters and so forth – that’s your cinematographer. You don’t have a film without images, and for images you need a camera, and if you’re going to have a camera, you need a cinematographer to run it. They’re like photographers, only they often have to take the length and movement of the shot into account as well.

That famous tracking shot of Ray Liotta walking into the Copacabana in “Goodfellas?” Sure, Martin Scorsese was there, but it was Michael Ballhaus actually behind the camera. Those soaring shots of Batman framed against the Gotham skyline? Christopher Nolan set those up, but it was Wally Pfister zipping around in a helicopter. Ed Norton and Helena Bonham Carter framed in the window as a city collapses around them at the end of “Fight Club?” Move over, David Fincher – Jeff Cronenweth found that perfect angle.

I’ve peppered this post with a few of my favorite shots of 2011: still shots unfortunately don’t do full justice to cinematic shots, but even so you can surely sense the photographic prowess on display. I’ll close out this post, as I will all of these updates, with some prominent cinematographers and their work. Hopefully just the movie titles alone will help you remember the stunning visuals that surely made an impression on you.

Five to Think About: Cinematographers You Probably Already Love

  1. Roger Deakins – every Coen Bros. movie ever (“The Big Lebowski,” “Fargo,” “No Country for Old Men”), “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” “WALL-E” (visual consultant), “The Shawshank Redemption,” “The Village,” “A Beautiful Mind,” “Revolutionary Road,” “Sid and Nancy”
  2. Conrad Hall – “Cool Hand Luke,” “In Cold Blood,” “Road to Perdition,” “American Beauty,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”
  3. Janusz Kaminski– “Saving Private Ryan,” “Schindler’s List,” “Catch Me If You Can,” “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” “War Horse,” “Jerry Maguire,” “War of the Worlds”
  4. Emmanuel Lubezki- “The Tree of Life,” “Children of Men,” “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” “Ali,” “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” “The Birdcage,” “The New World,” “A Little Princess”
  5. Gordon Willis- all three parts of “The Godfather,” “All the President’s Men,” “Manhattan”