Out of everything I’ve learned when it comes to photography, what strengthened my work the most was watching movies. Much of how I shoot my pictures today came from observing and comparing different directors and cinematographers. It’s why I started writing about film at all here in the first place – We’re not No Film School, but it’s still never a bad thing to learn from a good looking movie. Most of us are familiar with the concepts covering film direction and cinematography in general – but considering this is at heart a “DIY” blog, I thought it’d be cool to give a visual presentation on just how much both factor into the end result of a film. So let’s compare two relatively recent films that adapt the same source material: Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Last year, actor Ken Watanbe starred in the Japanese remake of a film called Unforgiven. Though it may have had a limited release, its reception wasn’t diminished in the slightest. Acclaimed by critics worldwide, Yurusarezaru mono continued the cinematic relationship between samurai epics and spaghetti westerns at full ignition; the tradition’s beginnings are rooted in Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, which was a scene-by-scene remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo.
Out of everything the film achieved, Yurusarezaru mono reminded us that Unforgiven still remains an ageless masterpiece. After its release, the film became known as a eulogy to classic spaghetti western cinema; in other words, it signified the end of a generation. If that statement holds any truth to it all, then it’s fitting that Unforgiven was helmed by Clint Eastwood, who starred in the Sergio Leone trilogy that pioneered the genre in the first place.
The reason I bring up the fact that it eulogized a generation for this post is because of the fact that Unforgiven was entirely rooted in it; every element that made it what it was borrowed from the old classics, and that included direction, music, writing, and cinematography.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is one of those films that I have a bi-polar appreciation for. Because of the decisions made by the studio to build momentum up to the last two films of the franchise, the sixth installment ended abruptly and anticlimactically. Along with that is a number of other criticisms I have with it, almost all of them relating to differences between it and its book counterpart, and I’m pretty sure they make the Half-Blood Prince my least favorite film in the Harry Potter series. But where this film polarizes me is in its cinematography, which is arguably the best ever done by the series altogether.
Out of all the films in the series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is the only one that was nominated for an Oscar for Best Cinematography; that fact isn’t a surprise at all, either. The cinematographer behind this film was Bruno Delbonnel, who’s also known for his work on Amelie, as well as the recent Coen Brothers’ film Inside Llewyn Davis. He may arguably be the most well-recognized cinematographer the Harry Potter series ever had.
Last year, House of Cards received an Emmy Award in recognition for its cinematography, beating out Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and Mad Men.
Making its first appearance in 2013, House of Cards is the show that proved what Netflix is truly capable of, and its production was as different from everything else out there as Netflix was to other studios itself. I started watching this show a bit late, but right from the first scene of the pilot episode, I could point out how much David Fincher this show was running on; to my surprise, the director’s name greeted me twice in the opening credits.
So at the time of at release, this was almost downright unusual. Who could have guessed that a guy like David Fincher would be working as a producer and director for a show by a streaming service? Not only did this project have fincher on board, but it reunited him and Kevin Spacey, who served as a producer for the show as well as the leading role.
Whatever grabbed both of their attention was no big surprise. House of Cards has a story that’s right up Fincher and Spacey’s alley, and it’s exactly the kind of show that fans of Fincher’s past work could get into. Going into the cinematography of the show, I mention David Fincher for a reason: although he was mainly an executive producer, directing only the first two episodes, the tone that he set with them basically became the precedent for how the rest of the series would end up being filmed. The first person hired as the show’s cinematographer was Eigil Bryld, who filmed eleven episodes from the show’s first season.
“I think people just see cinematography as being about photography and innovative shots and beautiful lighting. We all want our movies to look great visually, to be beguiling and enticing, but I think that what really defines a great cinematographer is one who loves story.” – Seamus McGarvey, IFTN
Seamus McGarvey was contacted by an executive producer he had recently worked with on The Avengers; she told him about a project she had been involved with, being directed by a guy named Gareth Edwards. Seamus took the time to watch the only other film Gareth had done at that point: an small-budget indie film called Monsters. He was not just impressed by how well the director executed the making of the film while also being in charge of the visual effects and cinematography; he was impressed by the storytelling of the film, as well. For Seamus, it was refreshing to see a monster movie that approached monsters in such a suspenseful manner, like the classics it was so heavily inspired by. The cinematographer signed up and got on board to work with Gareth Edwards on his second project: Godzilla.
In 2010, Christopher Nolan released a film he’d been working on for over half a decade, and the premise of it was something not too long ago thought un-filmable. Titled Inception, the story was held off as a complete secret, and when teaser trailers did release, nobody really understood what they just saw. Wally Pfister, the cinematographer behind the movie, arranged an immediate meeting with Chris after reading the script he was sent, to try and figure out “what the f*ck was going on.”
Wally Pfister has been a collaborator with Christopher Nolan for a long time now, working as a cinematographer for every film of his since 2000′s Memento. Both him and Chris share two significant things in common: their love for naturalism, and their love for shooting in film. And if there’s anyone keeping the medium of film alive in the digitally dominated industry of Hollywood today, it’s these two guys. Their last venture together with The Dark Knight Rises grossed over $1 Billion, and that was accomplished without the film ever being released in 3D; when I say they love naturalism, I mean they love naturalism.
By now, most of us are familiar with the film; it became one of the biggest original stories to top box offices worldwide within the past few years, and it was something new. And with how practical both Chris and Wally are with the way they want things shot, Inception was cinematography at its finest.
A reader brought up an interesting question last Saturday on my weekly cinematography post, this one over Eduardo Serra and his work in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows; he asked how much credit a cinematographer can really claim for a shot done in CGI. Another reader answered him correctly in saying that the shots done in CGI are still directed in planning by the cinematographer himself. Basically, the work the animators do depends on the input of the director of photography.
That exchange made me want to write this post today; I’ve been obsessed with science-fiction and fantasy films since I was a kid, and CGI is something that’s impacted the films I grew up with as much as it has for many of us since twenty years ago. But there’s the films that do it well, and then there’s the films that we look back at and cringe in retrospect; remember those atrocious-looking monkeys in Jumanji?
So what sets apart the good CGI from the bad? How do they get it done right? If you’re going to make something look like it could have been right in front of the camera during filming, like it was real, then it would have to follow the same basic rules of photography that everything else in real life would. And what’s possibly the most important part of good photography in the first place? Good lighting.
It’s not easy to tell a story spanning seven years of adolescence, and a trial like that was almost unprecedented until these films came into fruition. One of the things that made the Harry Potter films so successful both commercially and critically is how different each film really was from one another; every entry in the series had its own distinct look and feel. The fact that each movie had a different pairing of director and cinematographer makes it easy to see why that is.
Eduardo Serra was the cinematographer behind the last two movies: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Parts 1 & 2.
When AMC called filmmaker Michael Slovis offering him a job as a cinematographer for a show being filmed in New Mexico, he was quick to dismiss it. He’d been traveling too much, and there was no way New Mexico was going to be his first option for leaving town. Then his wife told him to call them back, and he listened. A writer named Vince Gilligan sent Mr. Slovis the pilot episode of a new project he started called Breaking Bad. It didn’t even take until the end of the first scene for Michael to forget about any complaints he had over traveling.
He said to his wife, “Oh my god, this is filmmaking.”
“He was a complete rule-breaker. He’d light anything to make a scene work, never paid attention to conventional wisdom and did not know from self-doubt.” – Scott Rudin, New York Times
“He liked the blacks to be not fully black, to have a milky, filmy quality, and he liked the light part of an image not to be fully blown out, not just gone complete white, so if someone was wearing a white dress in a window, there would still be details in the dress. He would say the word ‘creamy.’ He liked a creamy image. Otherwise there was no way to tell whether it was Harris.” – Van Sant, New York Times
Harris Savides was only 55 years old when he passed away from brain cancer. Above are a few quotes from the people he’s worked with over the years. Along with the tragedy of leaving at such a young age, he time sadly came when he was at arguably the highest point of his career.
I’ve kept a habit of starting off every one of these posts stating that you might not know this cinematographer, but that you know the films they made. But Harris Savides was someone who never even got nominated for an Academy Award. Admittedly, the Oscars aren’t something that determines the quality of a film (…Crash.), but the resume Harris had on him will make make you wonder why not either way.