Here’s an enjoyable bit of homework for you over the weekend – go and watch some beautiful films.
I’m serious. About this time last year I was talking about the importance of influences, and building a sourcebank of imagery that inspires you, and whilst cutting out pages from magazines, visiting galleries, and perusing websites is all valid, there’s something to be said for watching a really well shot film. Find some way of taking screengrabs, make sure you include a reference to where you found the image (include the title, at least), and do a bit of research via wikipedia and the IMDB into what else the people involved have created. You know, just so you can class it as “work” or “research” rather than loafing on the sofa.
Some directors like to play with cameras, some are obsessed with special effects, some with cliche and tricks, and some with clever word play. As a photographer, the ones I prefer are the ones who use the visuals as an integral part of the story – they don’t just put the camera in the corner of a room and start filming. The colour pallette, the camera moves, the framing, the lighting, the depth of field, and a host of other visual characteristics, will all be employed to help tell the story, and draw the viewer in.
Central to this is the part played by the Director of Photography (or Cinematographer, if you’re in the States). This person’s job on a film set is to get everything in camera. This means they’re in charge of the visual side of things – they won’t have any say in what goes into a script, but anything and everything related to the visuals is their domain. That means framing up the shots, designing the lighting, working out the camera moves and all the rest. If you’re inspired by the look of a film, find out who the Director of Photography was, and check out other work they’ve done.
Here’s a list of beautiful films to get you started. These films are in no particular order whatsoever, and are very much off the top of my head. I suspect that minutes after hitting “post” I’ll think of a dozen more. Many will be familiar, and some are downright predictable, hopefully there are a few that are less well-known, and might come as a pleasant surprise. I expect they can all now be found on Netflix, Youtube, or some other streaming service, and if you’re after any more details about the personnel involved, just head to the IMDB.
No Country for Old Men
Director(s): The Coen Brothers
Director of Photography (DoP): Roger Deakins
I’m including this as my token “Deakins” film – pretty much everything he’s ever shot looks fantastic, so if you haven’t already, nip over to his IMDb page, and start working your way through his back catalogue.
Lawrence of Arabia
Director: David Lean
DoP: Freddie Young
Get a comfy chair, as this one goes on a bit, but it’s well worth it. Famous for some of its wide shots of the desert, and most of all for the entrance of Omar Sharif at the oasis. Freddie Young shot more than 100 films in his career, including several all time classics, so I suggest you do the same as you would with Roger Deakin. I sense a theme developing here…..
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
DoP: Vittorio Storaro
Besides the lush visuals, it’s worth reading up on/watching the documentary on how this was made – Hearts of Darkness – as it gives some idea of the sheer insanity that goes into making films of this scale, as well as the enormous problems that have to be overcome. This may an apocryphal story, but even during the worst moments of shooting in the Philipines, Vittorio was still having fresh pasta flown in from Italy for him and his camera crew. Class.
Dir: Steven Spielberg
DoP: Bill Butler
OK, it’s one of my favourite films (and, rarely, much better than the book!) and pretty much everyone has seen it. What makes it worthy of this list is the fabulous camera work during the last third of the film when they’re out on the Orca. Credit for this really goes to Michael Chapman, the camera operator. Next time you watch these sequences, bear in mind that he wasn’t using a steadycam….
Dir: Richard Shepard
DoP: David Tattersall
I can’t help it, I’m a sucker for Pierce Brosnan when he’s playing a villain (see – The Tailor of Panama, and Fourth Protocol for other examples). This film serves as a good intro to the work of David Tattersall – see advice on Roger Deakins above, and get ready for many long nights on the sofa!
Dir: Ridley Scott
DoP: Jordan Cronenweth
You have seen Blade Runner haven’t you? Right, off you go then, put this one to the top of the list, if nothing else it will give you an idea of what Los Angeles will look like in 3 years time. Or something like that.
All the President’s Men
Dir: Alan J Pakula
DoP: Gordon Willis
Gordon Willis also shot, amongst other things, the Godfather, which I nearly included on this list. If ever there was a film where the cinematography suited the pace, tone, and mood of the film, this is it. The clandestine meetings, the faceless bureaucratic offices of Washington, all the visuals contribute hugely to the story and texture of the piece.
Dir: Michael Mann
DoP: Dante Spinotti
I get a bit carried away when I talk about the visuals on this film. I think it’s a cross between Stephen Shore and Robert Frank, hence I reckon it looks pretty impressive. The night scenes are particularly memorable, something which Michael Mann seems to specialise in.
The Thin Red Line
Dir: Terrence Malick
DoP: John Toll
Renowned for the fact that the camera lingers over natural details as much as it lingers over the faces of the soldiers and the action of the battle sequences. Lengthy, and the pace drops in places, but well worth watching.
Dir: Martin McDonagh
DoP: Ben Davis
I grabbed SO many stills from this film. Darkly comic (I mean, really dark) but absolutely gorgeous to look at – almost every frame makes an outstanding image in its own right.
Dir: Jean-François Richet
DoP: Robert Gantz
Lengthy Biopic in two parts or France’s most famous criminal. The night/interior scenes have more visual impact for me, but it all looks pretty good.
Dir: Paul Verhoeven
DoP: Karl Walter Lindenlaub
Not to be confused with Black Books, this tragic story of WWII Dutch resistance is so superbly shot many frames feel like classic Dutch paintings.
Other directors worth looking up, who tend towards very beautiful imagery are Jane Campion, David Fincher, Wong Kar Wai, Wes Anderson, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and of course, Stanley Kubrick. I could compile another list just from these guys, but I’ve got to stop at some point! Directors of Photography who are worth looking into are: Christopher Doyle, Dean Cundey, Doug Slocombe, Darius Khondji, and Vilmos Zsigmond. There will be a bit of crossover between some of the directors, but that only reinforces the point that talent tends to be in demand!
That’s your weekend sorted. And the next half-dozen for that matter.