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Cinematography

Today, too often in film criticism and education, and even among many practicing professionals, the cult surrounding the director means that the other arts and crafts, which combine to produce a film, are rarely sufficiently cherished or even acknowledged. 

In today's Hollywood the production of a major motion picture is not the work of one "auteur" director. Nor is it the result of the latest whim of a box-office superstar who helps draw the audience to the theater. These perceptions are quite popular in the press and in certain film schools. The truth is that by the time the script appears on the screen, it is a product of the collaborative effort of writers, producers, directors, actors, cinematographers, editors, composers, and others who have labored for years to bring it to life.

The overall control of film lighting and cinematography, or the creative use of a movie camera, is usually given to one individual, the director of photography (or DP). A DP supervises the camera crew; the camera operators, assistant cameramen, grips (who handle the dolly or crane), the electrical crew (also known as engineers and gaffers and actually control the lighting setup). 

The DP works very closely with the director to create the proper lighting mood and camera coverage for each shot. "They are one of the main reasons we fork over our hard-earned money to be entertained. Because, if not for the cinematographers' talent and knowledge, there would be no way to make a writer's words into pictures for everyone to see," quotes Cinematographer Michael Benson.

The DP is considered an artist who paints with light. He or she is intimately familiar with composition and all technical aspects of camera control and is frequently called on to solve many technical problems that arise during film recording. The DP rarely, if ever, actually operates the camera. Cinematographer Michael Chapman comments "in the 19th century, opera was the amalgamation of all the arts of the time, movies have taken on that mantle today." What makes a cinematographer put the camera here rather than over there? Janusz Kaminski states, "all one's experience of life subconsciously informs every creative decision one makes. That's what makes each individual cinematographer different."

The DP is considered an artist who paints with light... The overall control of film lighting and cinematography, or the creative use of a movie camera, is usually given to one individual, the director of photography (or DP)
Cinematographer Neil Roach believes the cinematographer is one of the key set dressers on a picture. "The most important things are the script, the performance of that script, and the director's vision," he says. "I see it as my role to create a certain kind of reality that supports the director's vision of that script. Hopefully, the cast seizes the reality in the lighting, which adds to their comfort and security and, just like good props and set dressing, may present them with opportunities to interact with the environment that I have helped create." 

Neil says, "I see it as a part of my responsibility to work with production design and set dressing to help create a stage on which the cast and director are free and comfortable to satisfy the dramatic needs of the script. My best efforts as a cameraman are not going to save a bad script. My job is to try to get inside the head of the director, to figure out what he wants and help the performance where I can. I must also stay out of the way while I figure out how to satisfy my own creative needs as a cameraman."

Many people think the directors tell the actors what to do and the DP takes the picture. This is true, however there is much more to the process than that. The transformation from the initial script onto the big screen happens through the funnel of the DP. Filmmaking is gathering together what's out there and filtering it through one device- the camera. Until that first frame is shot it's only contracts, ideas, concepts, scripts and hopes.

Cinematography is not just looking through a camera and shooting a picture. It requires a keen eye and a creative imagination. It requires knowledge of chemistry and physics, precise sensory perception and a strict focus on detail. Most of all it requires the ability to lead as well as listen, to be a part of a creative team and process, to be willing to take suggestions along with constructive criticism. Cinematographers put in long hours on the job and in return provide viewers, for a short period of time, the opportunity to enter a whole new world.

Working with the Director
The primary responsibility of the DP is to create the mood and feel of the picture with their lighting. Depending on the style of the director you may be left to decide the look of the film for yourself, or, after meetings with the director and, usually, art department you may then be left to light the set as you see fit. Alternatively the director may have very firm ideas as to how the film should look and it will be the DP's task to fulfill these wishes. All these different ways of working are just as enjoyable-little guidance on the set is very fulfilling but working to a directors wishes and giving what is wanted and hopefully more brings much praise and loyalty from the director.

The director and cinematographer should constantly be discussing camera angles, color, lighting, blocking and movement of the camera. The director knows what he wants. How it gets done is usually up to the cinematographer. A cinematographer has to offer ideas and accept rejection. The director is the captain f the ship. How much or how little he wants collaboration is his decision. 

As cinematographer Darius Khondji says "I see my job as helping the director to visualize his film. This can be a very intense process, so many relationships with the directors I work with are never just professional; very often we become close friends during the course of our collaboration."

"As production manager, I learned a lot about how to manage people. I learned how to plan and how important a team is. I learned to handle locations, work as an AD, drive mobile home, and for a portion of the show, even served as key grip. All positions were invaluable lessons," explains Neil Roach.

One of the most important lessons Neil Roach has learned during his career was that making movies is all about collaboration. "When you are working with the right director, you can turn out some beautiful work," he says. "But, no matter what director, you have to do the best-crafted work you can. Because of the nature of a cameraman's job, you are always being told 'no'. No, you want to many lights. Or, 'no' you can't do this or that. In self-defense, I was always figuring out a way to satisfy myself, and get what I wanted out of the job at the same time, giving my employers everything they needed. The lesson." 

He says, "is plan, execute the plan, and being ready for targets of opportunity when they come along. Breaking a job into its component pieces reduces a big job to a manageable task. This is the key to success when you are faced with large photographic challenges." 

Roach believes working with one director several times allows a cinematographer the ability to better problem solve. In the case of his long association with Peter Werner, he maintains that they have always approached each film in the same basic way. "After a few careful readings of the script, we will try to visit each location with the production designer," he says. "These visits will define the limitations. Later, in pre-production, we will spend many hours going through the script scene by scene. What we hope to accomplish is to come up with a shooting plan that works for every scene and a plan that also unifies the look of the picture." Today, everyone wants to get to the top- fast. Not everyone is willing to spend the time to master the craft. 

A cinematographer must stand with the director. There are too many cinematographers who forget that it is the director who hires him- not production. That is the team to work with.

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