Cinematography: The Unsung Hero of Filmmaking

Most domains of film-making ask you to sit up and notice: the music swims in your ears, the art and costumes imprint themselves in your mind’s eye, and so on. On the other hand, cinematography exerts its influence far more subtly.

Take, for example, the Joker from the Batman universe. He is arguably one of the most fascinating, magnetic villains to ever grace the comic book, immortalized in several film adaptations. Jack Nicholson played him in Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989, and Heath Ledger played him in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight in 2008.

Both Jokers are fundamentally the same: they are equally malevolent, wear the same purple suit, and hate Batman. However, their portrayals couldn’t be more different.

Nicholson’s Joker is your regular comic book villain: flamboyant, chaotic, and over the top. But Ledger’s sneering Joker is darker, anarchic, and skin-crawling sinister.

Burton’s Joker is theatrical, and so the vibrant sets reflect this creative approach. The camera work is often steady, still, deliberate, zoomed out and static, emphasizing the grandiosity of the frames and settings and Nicholson’s Joker’s megalomaniacal, expansive energy.

In contrast, Nolan aims to create an atmosphere of tension and unease, unsettling the viewer by bringing out the Joker’s unpredictability, ominous presence, and chaotic intensity. He chooses his camera work to be Steadicam-like and dynamic, with claustrophobic close-ups. The camera shudders frantically in climactic, high-stakes scenes, reflecting the escalating conflict and chaos.

Swap the camera work between the two films, and both characters fall flat. Nolan’s immersive close-ups could never do justice to Nicholson’s outlandish Joker, and the zoomed-out frames in Batman would not be able to create the raw terror that Ledger’s Joker instigates.

That’s the power of cinematography.

What is Cinematography?

Cinematography, from the Greek words “kínēma” (movement) and “gráphein” (to write, draw, paint), refers to the art of “writing with movement” or using specific techniques to capture moving images to tell a story. A cinematographer makes different choices while doing his work. These choices affect the mood and tone of a scene, add to the visual meaning, and establish a particular atmosphere.

Some elements of cinematography are:

  • Camera movement and angles: How the camera moves (panning, tilting, tracking, zooming) and the angle from which it captures the action.  How still is the camera? Is it stable, does it move smoothly, or does it have a handheld and bouncy quality (like in the HBO series, Succession?) This affects the visual and emotional expression of the shot.
  • Framing and composition: Cinematographers use foreground and background elements and manipulate their focus to direct audience attention to particular actors, objects, or scene details. 
  • Lighting design: How a scene is lit. For example, will the makers use natural or artificial light? From what angles and what color tones? Whether strong or soft, direct or shadowy, the control and contouring of light, or even the absence of it creates deliberate emotional impact.
  • Lens choices: Different lenses (wide-angle, telephoto, etc) affect the perspective, depth of field, and can either expand or compress the frame.

The Role of the Cinematographer

The cinematographer, also known as the Director of Photography (DP) , is a film’s visual architect. They manage the technical aspects mentioned above and collaborate closely with the director from pre-production through post-production to ensure that every shot contributes to the film’s overall aesthetic and narrative.

4 Types of Cinematography 

There are four main types of cinematography encountered in different contexts:

  • Narrative cinematography: The use of visual elements to create a sense of place, build tension, express subtler character traits, and guide the audience’s emotional journey. You’ll find narrative cinematography in most entertainment films!

    We use narrative cinematography for many of our training videos. For example, here’s one we made on human trafficking prevention for the Department of Homeland Security. These videos highlighted common red flags in airports, hotels, and construction sites.
DHS Blue – Human Trafficking Awareness – Regional Airport
  • Documentary cinematography: The capturing of real-life subjects and events as they unfold, prioritizing authenticity and observation. This form of cinematography is especially suitable to some of our clients like National Geographic and the Environmental Protection Agency. Here’s a piece from a series we recently produced on supply chain disruptions following the Covid-19 pandemic.
EPA – Supply Chain Resiliency – Des Moines Water Works
  • Experimental cinematography: The use of unconventional techniques to explore new visual forms and challenge audience expectations. For example, “Mothlight” (1963) was created without a camera by pressing moth wings, leaves, and other organic materials between two 16mm splicing tape strips. 
Mothlight
  • Commercial cinematography: Unlike narrative filmmaking, which artfully uses visual techniques to tell a story, commercial cinematography focuses on selling. The cinematographic choices emphasize the products and services much more than the stories and characters. 

    As part of one of our videos for the Virginia Infection Prevention Training Center (VIPTC), we created a “commercial” selling hand hygiene using similar techniques.
VIPTC – Germ Center

Videography vs Cinematography: What’s The Difference?

Videography and cinematography are easy to mix up, but they are both different in techniques and sensibilities. Coming down to the definitions, cinematography captures moving images on film while videography does so on video. 

Videography focuses on capturing events, moments, and subjects as they unfold naturally, while cinematography makes deliberate artistic choices in lighting, framing, and camera movement to create a visual narrative. Therefore, the equipment and post-production techniques used in cinematography are a lot more sophisticated and high-end.

Videography is more suitable for events, corporate/marketing videos, documentaries, and news reports. At the same time, cinematography is primarily used for narrative films, TV shows, commercials, and other projects with a strong storytelling focus.

At Rock Creek Productions, we blur the boundaries between the two: We shoot on video but apply cinematographic sensibilities. We are deliberate about our creative choices, but light and frame for every shot. Sometimes, depending on the project, a videographer’s sensibility is more appropriate: we point our cameras at the action to gather whatever we see.  

A Brief History of Cinematography

From the time a simple pan (a horizontal camera movement on a fixed axis) thrilled the audience watching a chase in The Great Train Robbery (1903) to the famous Bullet Time scene in The Matrix in 1999, cinematography has leaped several leagues in the 20th century alone.

As the technology for capturing moving images developed further and further, so did cinematographic styles and techniques. Here are some landmarks in the development of cinematography:

1940s – Deep Focus

After years of blurry shots, all scene elements, from foreground to background, could finally be in sharp focus for the first time.

Citizen Kane (1941)

1950s – Widescreen Formats (Cinemascope, VistaVision)

Cinematographers could increase the aspect ratio of their films to create a wider image. This was often used for epics and spectacle films, famously, Ben Hur.

Ben-Hur (1959) Source.

1960s – Handheld Camera

The invention of lightweight cameras allowed for more intimate and realistic filmmaking. Cameramen could get up close and personal with their actors’ faces.

The French Connection (1971)  Source.

1958 – Computer Animation

Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo was the first film to use computer animation. The animator John Whitney used a World War II-era mechanical computer called the M5 gun director.

Vertigo (1958). Source

1976 – Steadicam

A Steadicam is a stabilizing mount for cameras that allows for smooth tracking shots and dynamic movement. Fun fact, Steve and Tim have met Garrett Brown, the inventor of the Steadicam!

Although the technology has been superseded by gimble-based technologies, the Steadicam ushered in a style of filming that remains popular to date.

Rocky (1976). Source.

1995 – First Fully CGI Feature Film

Computer graphics had been used to design characters, virtual worlds, and special effects for years, but the first time a feature film was made entirely with CGI was with Toy Story.

Toy Story (1995) Source.

1999 – Bullet Time Effect

Bullet time is a visual effect that slows down time to an extreme degree, allowing the camera to move freely around a frozen moment and capture it from different angles. The Wachowski sisters firmly brought in the era of high-octane action films with The Matrix.

The Matrix (1999)

Let Rock Creek Productions Show You What Cinematography Can Do!

As French director Robert Bresson said, “The most important will be the most hidden.” Great cinematography is invisible, but its effects are dramatic. The greatest cinematographers work on perfecting this subtle art throughout their lives.

Take your video from just another moving box on a social media app to an outstanding, memorable, cinematic piece your audience will want to watch again and again. We’ve done this for giants like National Geographic, Discovery Channel, and even the US Government. Contact Rock Creek Productions today!

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