All of us who are aspiring filmmakers have a list of films that inspire us. Maybe we've even got one film, or one specific shot, that singularly piqued our interest in the medium and inspired us to work within it. In a recent feature over on the Empire website, 21 of the world's most respected cinematographers, everyone from Roger Deakins to John Toll, shared the films and shots that inspired them. Here are a few of my favorites from this fantastic list.
I don't know how to pick just one shot - I guess it depends on what mood you're in that day - but there's a shot in Ivan's Childhood where the boy is crossing between the German and Russian lines that I absolutely love. It's this incredible black and white landscape, illuminated by flares like a kind of ghostly hinterland, with this downed fighter plane jutting out of the earth. I don't know what camera Vadim Yusov shot with in the water, but I'm sure it was a lot heavier than the ones we use now. He also shot Solaris for Tarkovsky, which is also a remarkable-looking film. Yusov died recently - I was sad not to have been able to meet him.
Unfortunately, I can't find a clip of that scene, but here's Ivan's Childhood in its entirety. I'm not sure if Mosfilm will allow the film to be embedded here, but if you click on the video and jump to the 1 hour 18 minutes mark, you can catch the shot that Deakins is talking about in the quote. Or you could watch the whole thing and be blown away by Tarkovsky's stunning first feature (and the incredibly beautiful cinematography from Vadim Yusov).
Next up, we've got Darius Khondji, a world-renowned cinematographer who we just talked about. Khondji has shot numerous films for a handful of legendary directors, including Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Woody Allen, and David Fincher. His choice for most inspiring shot is one that most of us have seen, the opening shot from Orson Welles' Touch of Evil:
I remember being incredibly excited by the opening shot of this movie. Even as a young film buff, a film student, and later on as a young cameraman, I always thought this shot was remarkable: very atmospheric, very bold and very free. It starts with a very tight close-up of a bomb, the tick-tack of the clock on an old-fashioned bomb. Then it's placed in a car, and you pull up from the vehicle and start to crane up over the city with the cars and the traffic jams on the Mexican border. [Orson Welles] was rendering the evilness in the atmosphere at the time.
What's incredible is how they achieved such a shot in 1958. Only Orson Welles could have gone for such a shot, pushing his cinematographer to go and light a city without any lighting -- it was just amazing. Now in digital you can achieve a shot like this, or even more complicated shots, but you don't have to light, you can use film practicals to generate the light. But at the time everything had to be lit, the ASA was very low and you needed lights everywhere. And he managed to achieve a very eerie look, realistic but at the same time very stylized -- very low-key and contrasty. But at the same time it was a night shoot in Mexico, it looked like. It's just very, very remarkable, I was really mesmerised by the fluidity -- well, not fluid, more aggressive. It kind of drags you, pulling you out, suspending you in the air and then bringing you suddenly back into the car – and then wide again to oversee the explosion.
Lastly, we've got John Toll, a living legend in the cinematography community. Toll has shot numerous major Hollywood films, including my favorite war-flick, Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line. Toll is also largely responsible for creating the visual style of Breaking Bad, as he shot the pilot for the show back in 2008. His choice for inspirational film/shot is Charles Laughton's 1955 classic, The Night of the Hunter.
Stanley Cortez's The Night Of The Hunter is unique. It's a mystery-thriller that mixes European influences with traditional Hollywood filmmaking in a way that's film noirish but very Hollywood-looking. You can see how influenced it is by German Expressionism, with these very graphic, stark, contrasty scenes. Within it, there's some unbelievably terrific images that have a way of staying with you. There are several sequences that just stand out as being unique. There's the shot of the car in the lake and Robert Mitchum's character on a horse silhouetted against the horizon. There's also a shot of Lillian Gish, who plays the old lady who adopts the kids, sitting in a chair on the porch and Mitchum is visible through the screen, semi-silhouetted outside, and another woman walks in with a lamp. The lamp illuminates the screen and he disappears, and when the lamp goes out he's not there anymore. It's Hollywood trickery done in a way that you really appreciate.
Here's one of the most notable cinematic sequences from The Night of the Hunter:
Ultimately, it's important for young and aspiring filmmakers to hear these types of comments from respected cinematographers. Not only do these choices provide pivotal insight into the storied careers of these legendary image creators, but they also provide an incredible sense of context for the images that came from these men. Through understanding how these shots, sequences, or films influenced the cinematography that followed, you can better understand the lineage of the myriad cinematic techniques that now make up the entirety of the film language.
Make sure you head on over to the Empire feature to read 18 more choices from the best cinematographers that the world has to offer, including a few personal favorites like Sean Bobbitt and Bruno Delbonnel.
What do you guys think of the shots that inspired and influenced the work of some of the world's greatest cinematographers? What are some of the shots or sequences that inspire you? Let us know down in the comments!