21 World-Renowned Cinematographers Share the Shots that Heavily Influenced Their Work

John TollAll 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.

First up, we've got Roger Deakins, a man who needs no introduction in these parts. His selection for this list is a shot from Tarkovsky's early film, Ivan's Childhood.

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).

Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=X-cOMy9k-6s&feature=youtu.be

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:

Darius Khondji

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 LineToll is also largely responsible for creating the visual style of Breaking Badas 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.

John Toll

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!

Link: Top Cinematographers Reveal Their Favourite Movie Moments -- Empire

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Your Comment


I didn't know John Toll shot the pilot to Breaking Bad! Now I have to go back and watch it!

March 18, 2014 at 7:37PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM

Steven Huber

All excellent films, great to have a link to the full version of Ivan's Childhood, it is my favourite Tarkovsky film.I saw it for the first time roughly a decade ago and was blown away by it. Night of the Hunter as well, the visuals are so rich and graphic, the underwater shots are so beautiful - reminds me of Lynne Ramsay's "Swimmer" http://vimeo.com/48899794
Also there is a great article on artofthetitle.com about the opening sequence from "A Touch of Evil" very stylish and well excecuted.

March 18, 2014 at 7:53PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Honestly, not very impressed with Tarkovsky's boat scene (and that's besides the fact that jumping into the water during the late Russian fall was asking for instant hypothermia and, if you were in the Red Army during WWII, a quick visit by the SmerSH/NKVD inquisitors). Mikhail Kalatozov (and his cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky) won the Grand Prize at Cannes 1958 with the "Cranes are Flying" (literal translation ...probably ought to have been "Cranes in the Air").
Here's the trailer [ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QGsXmwPj0TA ]
and here's a famous farewell scene [ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qXCS9LlBAV0 ]
and a famous death scene [ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GQb0rTpi8a8 ]

March 18, 2014 at 10:04PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Thanks for sharing! That death scene was incredible!

March 19, 2014 at 12:55PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


>and that’s besides the fact that jumping into the water during the late Russian fall was asking for instant hypothermia and, if you were in the Red Army during WWII, a quick visit by the SmerSH/NKVD inquisitors

Are you on drugs? Members of soviet army were swimming all the time. You'd get in trouble with Military Police if attempted to surrender or cross the enemy line. It was a goddamn war, you stoned hippie.

March 19, 2014 at 4:11PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


They'd jump if they are told to jump but the language you'd hear from the participants is not something you'd read in a paper. WWII/Eastern Front is one of my major interests and just the war veteran stories that I have been told personally - my uncle's father-in-law was a SMERSH major in Stalingrad, 1942/43 - can be blood curdling.
As to "Come and See", I hated it. It had some great visuals but overall was horribly disjointed. However, Klimov's late wife Larisa Shepit'ko made a far superior film on a similar topic - Soviet guerrilla fighters in the occupied Belarus, 1942-1944 - "Ascent"(1977). Black and white photography, amazing acting - featuring, by the way, Tarkovsky's favorite actor Anatoly Solonytzin in a supporting role - great music score by Alfred Schnittke, etc. Following the edit, the film was about to be banned in the USSR but Klimov arranged a personal preview with then First Secretary of Belarus Petr Masherov, who was himself a guerrilla fighter during the war. Masherov was stunned and the film was allowed a short run. Sadly, this was last film for Shepit'ko, as she was killed in an automobile accident in 1979 at age 41. The film was issued with English subtitles on "Criterion".
And, since we're on the topic of WWII, this is arguably the best action scene of the typical Eastern Front fighting from the 1992 German film "Stalingrad". People refer to the opening action scene of "Saving Private Ryan" as the best but, to me, this is far more gritty and realistic.
[https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OVvoo1qFPDo ]

March 19, 2014 at 11:36PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Since we're on the Russian's right now, visually I can't fault "Come And See" by Klimov. As stunning as anything you'll see.

March 19, 2014 at 7:29PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Or, if you like action scenes - [ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TZMHZBAUbqM ]
The mix of shaky, moving, hand-held and stationary/stable shots is just superb. Josef Vilsmaier's best work, IMO.

March 19, 2014 at 11:52PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


I remember the scene from Howard Hawks sci-fi classic The Thing from Another World when the survivors await the creature's approach in a darkened room. The door flies open and the alien is briefly silhouetted before charging into the dark room. One of the humans throws a can of gasoline on the creature and the rest of that scene is seemingly lit only by that burning fuel. If I recall correctly it's a single shot, no cuts.

Of course, given the technology of the time there had to be additional lighting but it was subtle and didn't mar the effect.

March 21, 2014 at 10:09AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Robby Müller has done some great work with Jim Jarmusch and Wim Wenders. One of my favorite shots of his is the scene in Down By Law where Tom Waits' character is sorting through all the stuff his girlfriend threw out the window on the street.

June 12, 2014 at 1:02AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Thank for your sharing!

June 16, 2015 at 7:57AM

Thanh Le

The opening to Touch of Evil is phenomenal especially when you consider the technical limitations of the time. I'm thinking in my head now about how I could do something similar in what I am working on. I have a typical English pub scene with several characters and conversations going on. I also have a street scene starting with a gang trying to get a stolen car to start, a young couple walking in the high street and an older group on the other side of the street. The car is started, gets around the corner, strikes the girl and speeds away. The group on the other side come to her aid. If it were possible to carry that off...
Seems to me that decent sound quality becomes an issue, although I don't actually need any dialogue at all.

June 18, 2015 at 9:30AM

Julian Richards
Film Warlord