Free Film School #132: The Quality of the Light

Welcome, dear students, back to CraveOnline‘s Free Film School. Our motto: “The place where you done get some learnin’.” Today we’re going to be gathering a few previous lessons under one umbrella: that broad scope of artistic science known as cinematography.

A film’s cinematographer is, in short, the person who deals with the camera. But they are no mere cameraman. The cinematographer is actually the person who makes a lot of major aesthetic decisions when it comes to a film’s look. They work with the director, ensure what kind of look they both want or are capable of, and then the cinematographer goes about constructing that look. What do I mean by “look?” It has to do with a variety of factors. Lighting, films stock, aspect ratio, frame rate, framing. All of these things are attuned to the cinematographer’s eye. They are also, incidentally, all things I have lectured on before.

In the early, early days of cinema, a film’s cinematographer would also typically be the film’s director, and it would be the director who would handle the camera. As film technology rapidly evolved, and equipment and film stocks became more adept at capturing more and more subtle levels of light, cameras soon required experts to handle the lighting and framing decisions. Ever since then, skilled photographers have, just like editors, become one of the indispensable parts of a film’s construction.

If you have a keen enough eye, you have probably noticed that all films look ever so slightly different. The overriding color scheme, or ineffable “glowy” tint might be more noticeable on certain movies. That “glow” was constructed by the cinematographer. They are the ones who selected the right angle, the right lighting, or perhaps even the right time of day to film, all to get that very particular look.

You may have heard about “the magic hour” or “the golden hour” in your film or photography studies. The magic hour is a time of day – usually right before dusk, or right after dawn – when sunlight is more or less perfect for photography. The shadows are gone, and light evenly diffuses. Everything is gorgeous at this time. Ask any amateur photographer about the magic hour, and they’ll rant about how great it is, and bemoan that it only lasts an hour.

I, sadly, haven’t handled too many cameras in my day (although I’ve had my moments), so I cannot delve into the specific technical requirements that the many, many different film cameras require. I can, however, give a general overview as to what decisions can be made to achieve certain aesthetic looks.

For one, a camera has to be selected. Films are now largely being shot on digital cameras these days, so the notion of selecting a particular film stock for your camera is moot (except in the case of someone like Christopher Nolan, who prefers celluloid film over digital film), but the camera you select, and the kind of image sensor you use can determine the quality of the light.

Secondly, lighting has to be determined in a scene. Where one places a light, how much light can be had or how little, can determine a feature film’s mood almost better than anything. If a director wants light on a certain object, the cinematographer has to figure out how to do that. Ever wonder why streets in movies are always wet at night? Even in Los Angeles where it never rains? It’s a lighting thing. If you make the streets reflective with water, then you can light and film larger areas.

Thirdly, there’s deep focus, or depth of field, which I have lecture about before. It’s rare that everything in a movie frame is perfectly in focus; a camera lens operates very much the way a human eye does, refocusing on objects that are nearer or further away. Layering in various light levels throughout the frame, keeping the distant things lit a certain way in direct contrast or harmony with the things in the foreground is a subtle dance for the cinematographer. They choose the cameras that are capable of doing these things, and select lighting that will work in said situations.

Fourthly, there are lenses a cinematographer can add on to their camera. The variety of lenses is even more varied than the variety of cameras, and cinematographers can choose wide-angle lenses to shoot larger physical spaces, regular lenses for conversations, or even choose special lenses for extreme close-ups. I encourage you to look up details on borescopic lenses, ’cause those things are neat. Certain lenses also let in light differently, or even “shape” the image on the screen. Certain lenses are better for tacking shots and moving cameras, while other are better for static shots and still images. Are you seeing now why cameras require experts?

Fifthly, in addition to cameras and lenses, a cinematographer also has to select light filters. Filters are just what they sound like, specialized glass apertures that fit over a lens. In crude layman’s terms, a using filter is like putting colored sunglasses on your camera. You can achieve a subtle color effect with a filter (ever seen Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic?). You can darken a scene ever so slightly, effecting the mood of the film considerably. One of the best cinematographers currently working is Christopher Doyle, and he is well-known for his clever use of filters to make some of the most gorgeous films of all time. I recommend In the Mood for Love.

What does ASC mean? You may have noticed those letters following the name of a cinematographer in a film’s credits. ASC in not a degree, but stands for “American Society of Cinematographers,” which is, in effect, official validation from the cinematographer community at large. It’s sort of like a union, but also a prestigious honor. The ASC was founded in 1911. Only cinematographers and editors have such organizations that they can tout in their own credits.

What is the difference between a “cinematographer” and a “director of photography?” A director of photography, or DP, is essentially the chief cinematographer on a film. The leader. Under the DP is the Camera Operator. As their name implies, they run the camera. Under the Camera Operator is the Focus Puller. As their name implies, they keep images in focus. Under the Focus Puller is the Clapper Loader. The Clapper Loader loads film into the camera, and then handles the “clapper” or “slate” at the beginning of every take. The slate is the little black-and-white clipboard with the striped slapstick along the edge. The Clapper Loader also ensures actors are in the right place at the beginning of a shot.

Another phrase you may have stumbled upon in your film studies is “persistence of vision.” This rather poetic phrase is, in short, the guiding principle separates motion picture photography from still photography. A motion picture photographer has to ensure that there is a subtle visual continuity throughout the scenes they are filming. A still photographer only has to set up a shot once. A cinematographer has to match an extended scene with other extended scenes, requiring a certain, well, persistence.

So understand how much work and thought goes into every single frame of the next movie you see. Pay attention to the lighting, the framing, the subtle colors. Why does something like The Smurfs 2 look different than something like Inside Llewyn Davis? As critics, we often refer to a film’s “aesthetic.” That aesthetic is largely determined by the photographer.

Homework for the Week:

Who shot your favorite movie? Look up their name. What else did they do? Is there something all their films have in common? If you had access to the best cameras, lenses, and filters, what kind of film would you shoot, and how would it look? If you know any camerapeople, talk to them about the magic hour. Ask about how a camera works. Keep their answers in mind the next time you watch anything. Be sure to watch the 1992 documentary film Visions of Light. That one traces the history and subtleties of cinematography.

Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. You can read his weekly articles Trolling, Free Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.