Tips from Renowned Cinematographers for Your Next Film
Interested in becoming a noteworthy director of photography? The best place to begin is by studying the great cinematography masters.
I’ll start by saying that the best way to master any part of filmmaking is to just go out and do it. Do it and fail and try again until you do it right. However, while that might be the practical approach, there’s definitely a more philosophical approach: study the art of filmmaking and learn from those who’ve mastered it over the years.
When looking into cinematography specifically, we have a vast and rich history of legendary directors of photography to look back on. They’ve helped to develop the craft, as well as shaped new styles and techniques. They are also the driving force behind the innovations that move the art form forward with every project.
Having had the opportunity to review over a dozen of the greatest cinematographers of all time, here are my takeaways. I’ve learned a lot about how they’ve found and developed their style, how they so expertly work with the contrasts between darkness and light, and how they’re still continuing to push the art of cinematography forward, even today.
Find Your Passion
One of the most fascinating parts of researching all these noteworthy cinematographers has been simply exploring what makes them all tick. It should go without saying that the life of a director of photography is never easy. It requires extreme passion and dedication. You have to fully immerse yourself in the craft and work on projects 24/7 to bring your vision to life.
However, when you hear a renowned cinematographer like Robert Yeoman speak in the video above about finding his creative spark, it starts to make a little bit more sense. And, when you dive into how Yeoman shapes his style and vision while nurturing a fellow introvert-creative like Wes Anderson, you get a clear picture of how deep his passion runs.
Develop Your Cinematic Language
Similarly, if you look at the career of another notable modern cinematographer like Rachel Morrison, you can see just how connected these artists are with their craft. Like many DPs, Morrison talks about how she grew up with a camera in her hand. To truly excel in cinematography, you must be passionate about the medium and constantly driven to improve your work.
A cinematographer’s journey is also shaped in how they’re able to develop their own language as a means to their cinematic storytelling. In the video essay above on Morrison, you can see how she’s been able to subtly craft a unique style and look to many of her films by employing several of the same shooting techniques and color palettes.
Explore Different Angles
It’s also interesting to explore the different angles and lenses cinematographers use to bring their worlds to life. Some like to shoot very flat and macro, exploring the subtle nuances of faces and emotions. Meanwhile others like to work in the wide-angle to capture larger-than-life sets and give more context to space and action.
Looking into the wide-angle world of legendary DPs like Wally Pfister, the video above is a perfect example of how he’ll lens his films. In his multiple collaborations with Christopher Nolan, as well as in his other projects, Pfister uses his wide-angle approach to capture the grandeur of his subjects and help bring the scope of the action to life.
Become a Character in the Scene
Another fun piece of advice I find to be truly fascinating comes from the up-and-coming DP-turned-director Reed Morano, who’s been able to capture her characters with remarkable sincerity and detail. This is in large part due to her approach (which she outlines above), to “become a character in the scene” with her camera.
A good DP shouldn’t just be a fly-on-the-wall or in the background of the conflict and action. A strong cinematographer like Morano wants to be in the middle of the scene, moving with the characters, engaging with them and their emotions, and giving the audience that POV-perspective as if they were in the room, as well.
Experiment Early and Often
In many ways, those who are just starting off in cinematography are the luckiest. Those early years are when cinematographers have the latitude to really explore and experiment with the fascinating medium of film. If we look at the innovative cinematography and career of Matthew Libatique, who helped to shape many of the more cerebral Darren Aronofsky films he helmed, you start to see just how much experimentation has taken place in the past.
Libatique owes much of his innovative styles and techniques to his earliest days of messing around with cameras and tinkering with different film stocks and speeds. His experiments really honed the skills he’d rely on throughout his career.
Create a Lookbook
Out of all the cinematographers we’ve featured and interviewed over the years, Bradford Young gives perhaps the best advice I’ve ever heard for anyone looking to get into cinematography, or even just filmmaking in general. Create a lookbook! As he states in the video above, it not only helps you develop your own looks and style, it also prepares you to overcome the nerves of starting out in the industry.
A lookbook doesn’t have to be as clear and concise as you see in the example above either, as Young explains. For practical purposes, the practice of lookbooking will actually inform your cinematic mind and eye to recognize looks and styles that you can eventually develop in your own compositions.
Use Cinematography to Create Sound
One of my favorite examples of the power of cinematography comes from The Quiet Place, by DP Charlotte Bruus Christensen. In this film, Christensen does the unthinkable by actually creating sound out of the silent practice of cinematography.
Originally trained in the Dogme 95 style and philosophy of filmmaking, over the years Christensen developed a naturalistic approach to cinematography. Her approach gives the filmmaker the ability to use images to speak to audiences in ways that are much deeper, and louder, than just characters and motion.
Understand the Importance of Contrast
Another major takeaway from looking through the careers of so many esteemed cinematographers is how focused they all are on contrast and the importance of darkness and light. These really are the absolute fundamental building blocks of how images and shots are constructed. So, while a cinematographer might focus on other elements of color and composition, contrasts are always at the forefront of their minds.
There’s perhaps no better example of this than with Steven Spielberg’s longtime cinematographer Janusz Kamiński. Kamiński shot such famous sequences as the opening “candle prayer” scene from Schindler’s List. In the interview above, Kamiński lays out just how important these contrasts between light and darkness inform his cinematography, as well as who he is as an artist.
Use Your Camera as an Extension of Yourself
This quote rings true for any seasoned DP who’s spent a significant amount of time behind a camera. At a certain point, the art of cinematography stops being a task and simply becomes an extension of oneself. The camera basically becomes a limb, or a third eye, for a DP to view and capture the world around them.
Looking at some of the exemplary and mind-bending cinematography of Ellen Kuras (who shot one of my favorite films Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) as an example, you can begin to understand just how true this concept is. Just looking at her most famous project, you truly get the sense that her camera is akin to her vision as we watch some of the spellbinding, yet truly human, moments of the film pass before our eyes.
Be Your Director’s Collaborator
This one should probably go without saying, but if you want to be a successful cinematographer, work with great directors! This is certainly the case with the legendary Robert Richardson, who’s worked with great directors like Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino. However, the trick isn’t just to work with great directors. It’s actually to be a great collaborator yourself.
Richardson has found work time and again with some of the biggest names in the industry because of his ability to be a creative partner. Plus, he is an astute servant to the craft of cinematography while on set. It takes a perfect blend of compatibility and communication to partner with a great director and help bring their vision to life.
Remember to Always Service the Story
Similar to the advice above, another tenet of great cinematography is to always remember that the story comes first. When looking back at the cinematography of the late Michael Chapman, who was one of Martin Scorsese‘s first collaborators on films like Taxi Driver and the black-and-white Raging Bull, we get a strong sense of story in every frame.
In the video above, Chapman credited the success of his work to his constant focus on servicing the story. He shared his focus with Scorsese, and this focus is why they both went on to find such success.
Be a Part of a Cinematography Movement
It’s also interesting to look back through the history of cinematography to recognize different eras and movements. When Caleb Deschanel first started off in film and cinematography in the ’60s and ’70s, classic Hollywood was still very much the norm. However, as he made his way up, he quickly found himself part of a new movement. Alongside contemporaries like Robert Richardson and Roger Deakins, Deschanel brought cinematography into a new and modern Hollywood style.
This doesn’t mean that you should just copy what your colleagues are doing. Instead, it means that much like Deschanel, it’s important to recognize that you don’t have to do things the same way they’ve always been done. Instead, look for new styles and techniques at every turn of the corner.
Push the Art Forward
Finally, one of the biggest hallmarks of what makes a working DP a true cinematography master is their willingness to push the art form forward. There are thousands of super talented DPs working on projects all over the world. But, standing out in a highly competitive industry takes a certain willingness to embrace new technologies and opportunities.
As a true provocateur of innovation, we have to mention Steven Soderbergh’s steadfast willingness to push the industry forward. Soderbergh DPs many of his own projects under the pseudonym Peter Andrews. While many studio execs and directors are making films bigger, flashier, and more expensive, Soderbergh continues to embrace new smartphone video technology as a way to open up filmmaking to a new generation of aspiring cinematographers.
For more cinematography insights and resources, check out these articles below.
Cover image by bepsy.
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