10 Lessons You Can Learn From Hollywood's Best Cinematographers
We compiled a list of advice from some of the best cinematographers of all time. Check out what we gleaned from the fields of knowledge!
I don't know about you, but when I need advice on how to shoot or even how to describe what I want to shoot, I turn to the experts: the best cinematographers of all time. I've been working on a few independent projects and Googling a lot of what these artists have to say about cinematography, shooting their masterworks, and general camera stuff.
So, I spent today compiling a list of 10 lessons from some of the best cinematographers of all time. This is not a ranking of the people or the quotes, just a list of some of the best whom I respect and gathered a lot of useful advice to share.
So let's dig deep into this list and see what we can learn!
10 Lessons from Some of the Best Cinematographers of All Time
1. Conrad Hall
"There is a kind of beauty in imperfection."
When you're prepping to shoot a movie, you want everything to go smoothly. You want every shot to go off without a hitch and every light and reflection and move to be perfect. But what if those imperfections can lead to the best shots? Problems on the set, time constraints, they can all lead to major headaches.
But the best cinematographers know these are all just opportunities to make things pop. Whether its lens flares, snap zooms, or other accents that used to feel like imperfections but now exude style, don't stress about being perfect on set.
Stress about giving yourself the opportunity to capitalize on your imperfections.
2. Emmanuel Lubezki
"Instead of trying to modify what nature brought us, we embraced it."
If you've seen Tree of Life you know Chivo has no fear of nature. So much of our time is spent figuring out how to block the sun, imitate it, cancel shadows, and figure day for night. But what if we just found ways to make our equipment commune with nature?
I might sound like a hippie, but so much of shooting now is done indoors and on green screen that it feels like the only way to literally get back out there is to find ways to work with the world. You may not have the budget Lubezki had on The Revenant when he traveled all over the globe in search of snow, but you can know your environment.
And shoot that environment using natural assets.
3. Gordon Willis
"A cinematographer is a visual psychiatrist, moving an audience...making them think the way you want them to think, painting pictures in the dark."
Remember that beautiful photographs can tell a story but they can also take you out of them. Cinematographers need to tap into the emotions within the screenplay to amp up what hits the screen. This interpretation comes with close collaboration with the director and even chats with the writer.
Everything has to hit the screen and build the story. Each scene you shoot has to take into account the scene prior. Bridge the audience's self-defense mechanisms. Break them down and settle them into the emotions you control. Then hit it again and again until the story ends.
4. Janusz Kaminski
"The cinematographer needs to understand the script and translate words into images. Regrettably, many of us often fail to resist the desire to produce beautiful shots. It's a mistake. The cinema is like life. It's not always beautiful. That's why you need to have real world images under your eyelids to re-create reality in the studio."
Every movie, even the most beautiful movies, shoot establishing shots, coverage, and OTS shots. Don't forget the fundamentals. The best part of shooting is the gems you just kinda find, but you can make these average shots feel real by making sure they blend into the reality of your world.
Your work needs to build out the visual world. It's okay to build that world slowly and subtlety you add more fancy shots.
5. Hoyte van Hoytema
“We started talking about references, looking at photo books, and it’s kind of a hybrid between being a little bit conceptual and being very theoretical...But at least half of it is being sort of intuitive and going with your own taste.”
Trust your gut.
Do the work.
But trust your gut.
Planning is integral when you're meeting on projects. You want to have a distinct visual language that shows the director you're on board with the look and feel of the film or TV show. You also want to have a plan when you enter each scene. That might mean storyboards, shot lists, or just planning on set, but you want to be ready for any and all environments.
And then follow your gut no matter what anyone says!
6. Haskell Wexler
"As a cameraman, I am interested in images and truth. Today, people are conditioned to accept lies if they are commercial lies. What we don't see anymore is ethics."
What do your images have to say? What story can they tell and how does that affect the audience?
Truth and ethics are not something that comes up that much in a DP's job description. But at the center of their work is finding the truth in the story at hand. The truth that virtually sets this version of the story apart from all others within the genre.
So what message will your images transmit? What part of humanity can they tap into?
7. Bradford Young
"Every film is a certain level of reprogramming and deconstructing my own colonized mentality around what filmmaking is."
In our interview with Bradford Young, he explained how he approached science fiction:
"I think every film is a certain level of reprogramming and deconstructing my own colonized mentality around what filmmaking is. Since I'm already constantly in that process, it was just a matter of turning off the echo chamber. Appreciating and respecting all the contributions that have been made before, especially when you think about a master like Stanley Kubrick or Ridley Scott, but also not being arrested by what they brought to the table."
We're working from a place where people have been before. You can study the ones that were there prior, but a lot of it is coming back to what makes it unique in your eyes. Try to divorce yourself from the preconceived notions you have and expand on reality instead.
What do you want it to look like?
What do you think will best propel the story forward?
Then go do it.
8. Rachel Morrison
"I don't love cinematography that's very flashy because I find that it keeps the audience from becoming a part of the film; it becomes sort of self-reflective."
Images create a story and they can also ruin one. You want your shots to feel like they are seamlessly telling the audience what to think and feel without anyone knowing they're there. That means you assess the tone of the movie and have your images match that.
So when Morrison flips the camera upside down in Black Panther, that fits the insanity that has become Wakanda. And when they have the long oner in Creed, it speaks to the prep and work ethic the movie enforces.
What does your prep have to say?
9. Roger Deakins
"The biggest challenge of any cinematographer is making the imagery fit together of a piece: that the whole film has a unity to it, and actually, that a shot doesn’t stand out."
Think big picture. Don't think one minute at a time. Think about how those minutes come together.
What does it look like as a whole?
Okay, now that you have that, let's break it down by scenes, then shots.
Shooting a movie is making a puzzle in reverse. You have to take it apart so the editor can put it back together. You want it to fit, but you also want it to look great when you're through.
10. Wally Pfister
"What’s really important is storytelling. None of it matters if it doesn’t support the story."
Even the DPs with unlimited budgets know that no one is going to remember their names if they deliver something pretty but terrible for the story. At the end of the day, the one lesson all these DPs talk about is making things that build up what we need the story to be.
If you support the story, you can find your signature within the pages. You can make anything shine.
DPs have so much control. Mood, tone, lighting, emotion, and still they need to be like the Wizard of Oz, behind the curtain supporting someone else's journey.
But shooting the shit out of it at the same time.
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