Sunday, May 8, 2011

Pictures Worth a Thousand Words: part one

The Judas Kiss

Cinematography -noun :the art or science of motion picture photography. Aka: that thing that thrills my heart when done right.

The rise of digital technology has brought about some debate in the Mills household as to what constitutes cinematography. The way most folk think of it is as ‘the way a movie looks.’ Fair. Fifteen years ago I would have said the same, but then something happened. I’m not sure whether to solely credit Lucas for spurring it on (though I should in part. In 2002 I sat in on a panel discussion with Star Wars producer, Rick McCallum, where he extolled the benefits of the digital future and how they would purposely run the non digital theatres out of business) or if it was Gladiator’s jaw-dropping resurrection of Oliver Reed to finish his role as Proximo that came two years earlier, but digital technology gives a studio a literal finger of God to paint people and pallets that otherwise involve photographic geniuses to execute. A tremendous gift in some hands, a garish exercise of excess in others.

Which brings me to my point. How much (if any) tangible reality need be present in camera to qualify as cinematography? Does an image that’s completely falsified qualify as cinematography? There is, after all, no photography involved. Or is the problem in the definition itself? Is the new definition of cinematography ‘the art of storytelling through moving images’, thereby removing the necessity of the photographical aspect?

In some cases I want to argue on behalf of the digitally achieved. It is a vision in someone’s mind after all, and as a cinematic writer I appreciate that immensely. Some of my favorite cinematic moments, ones that have shaped my own creative work, have been achieved by means of digital altering. As have some of the worst moments imaginable. But either way, a photographer has a whole different skill set than someone who’s figured out how to utilize color correction software. Should they be grouped together? After all, Avatar won best cinematography at this year's Academy Awards, yet the aspects and images that caused it to win were entirely digitally created. Is that fair to the artist working in what is essentially a completely different medium? Should they invent a new category for ‘best digital painting’?

More on all of this in weeks to come, but for now I’d love to hear your opinions on the matter, especially from the viewpoint of a photographer. Right now I leave you, and for the rest of this week, with a list of my favorite moments of cinematography in film. The ones that took my breath away.

#5  Godfather II- the Judas Kiss

If you just crawled out from under that same rock as the Geico dude (shame on you if that’s the case), you need to know that despite appearances, this is not a picture of two men locking lips. Far from it. This is a kiss of death. The kiss of death second only behind that of Judas himself. I realize this moment from The Godfather II doesn’t strictly qualify as cinematography (hence its falling in at the number five spot instead of the number two it deserves as a purely cinematic moment). The actors contribute the largest part to the power of this moment, but there has always been something about the crowd, the jubilation of the New Year celebration going on in the background. The confetti flying. Two emotions running in such stark contrast to each other, yet, to the passerby on the ballroom floor, the meaning of the kiss would be lost, presumed revelry. For me, that genius, that moment of perfection on the screen was alive. Passionate. And Unforgettable.

Next up: #4 and #3… no hints!


  1. Cinematography in an age where cameras, gels, and their compatriots do less and less of the heavy lifting…it’s hard to say who should get credit for what, you’re right. Technology has taken “getting the perfect shot” and metamorphosed that into planning the perfect construction of character plus environment plus mood. Whether that happens when the director and cinematographers are “on site,” whether natural or constructed, or when they are planning the digital environment in pre-production so they get the right shot to composite, it is still something that needs to be conceived by an artistic eye. (Or team of them.) And of course, whatever they create in either of those scenarios can undergo further tweaking in post production.
    How the character interfaces with his environment is a nuance that technology will help some achieve at greater heights, to the level of absolute genius. In the hands of the less skilled, however, the abundance of complicated tools tempt the creation of a slushy, muddy quagmire that in the end, exhausts the viewer and leaves him feeling as though he’s just been fed two hours of visual soup that contains every ingredient in the pantry.

  2. Thanks so much for commenting Becky! You are right, of course, about both scenarios taking an artists eye (or many) to pull off. 300 gets picked on a lot for its overly stylized and bordering-on-soup effects, but I loved it. Completely. It contains one of my favorite examples of cinematography (a real person filmed underwater to achieve the movements... though ramping was also involved) adn one of my favorite cinematic moments. And I don't believe this makes me somehow shallow in my perceptions. I was blown away by several instances of the vision. I guess my question is (and i need to research this) is who has the visioin? the director? a cinematographer? Or in the case of 300 is it all Alan Moore? Who do you acknowledge? Anyway, I'm rambling about somethign that I should probably save of my next blog post :)