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Have You Seen…? Episode 14

Visions of Light documentary movie poster
Wikimedia Commons
Visions of Light documentary movie poster

On this episode of Have You Seen…? David Hast talks with WGVU’s Scott Vander Werf about cinematography, the art of motion picture photography…how the masters of the form collaborate with directors to realize their vision, and how essential it is to our movie going experience, both in theaters and at home. The conversation begins with a clip from the documentary Visions of Light, featuring cinematographer Ernest Dickerson.

Clip from Visions of Light: One night I was watching the 1947 version of Oliver Twist. David Lean's Oliver Twist, photographed by Guy Green. Watching the movie, watching the opening scenes of the film of Oliver’s mother in labor walking across this dark war. And my uncle just happened to say, “…this photography is gorgeous.” And I said, “photography?” That's when I learned what a director of photography was. I found out that I was unconsciously….that I was really responding to light.

David Hast: Scott, have you seen any movies that were shot by Robert Berks?

Scott Vander Werf: I'm not sure. Who was he?

DH: Robert Berks. It's a sort of a trick question, when we did our episodes of Alfred Hitchcock, you remember we talked a lot about movie’s he made in the 50's and 60's because those are some of his most impressive and greatest movies; Vertigo, Rear Window, North by Northwest, The Birds. And it turns out that from 1950 to 1964, he shot 13 movies, Hitchcock, and in 12 of those 13 he had the same cinematographer, same director of photography, Robert Berks. Psycho was the only one that list that that was shot by somebody else.

SVW: Which is really almost a low budget film for Hitchcock. And those other films have such a uniform style almost, that there's a definite look to those movies.

DH: Right. And certainly Hitchcock has very definite things associated with his style, but so do individual photographers, cinematographers, and so at least some of what's going on in those movies, can be attributable to that cinematographer. And obviously there was a reason why Hitchcock kept using that cinematographer over and over again. This is something that's very common, actually more common than we might realize and movies, because in general, the public thinks about the stars, sometimes they think about the director of the composer but directors of photography, the cinematographers aren’t usually on people's radar. I'll give you another example: Steven Spielberg, in the last 30 years, starting with Schindler's List and all the way up to his latest, The Fablemans, that's 20 straight movies, all the same director of photography, the Polish cinematographer Janice Kaminsky.

SVW: And, you know, even for myself as somebody who feels like I'm into movies, I’m into direction, I'm into Steven Spielberg, I didn't realize this. I have not heard this gentleman's name before.

DH: Right, and he's a great cinematographer. He’s won a couple of Oscars for best cinematography probably with Spielberg. I think Saving Private Ryan was one of those and maybe one or two others. It's interesting because it brings up that whole issue of, you know, who is the author of the movie and this sort of artier theory, the theory that the real author of the movie and is the director, that's been the dominant theory for a long time. But in the last decade or two people have started to go in a different direction. Going back again to the idea that film is a collaboration between so many people. And historically the most important collaborator in many, many movies has been the cinematographer or the editor.

SVW: As a student of film going back decades, the one cinematographer's name that always comes to mind is Gregg Toland who worked with Orson Welles on Citizen Kane. But he also worked with so many other different directors. That’s the one name that sticks in my mind.

DH: Yeah. And Gregg Toland, there was a poll done of a bunch of contemporary cinematographers and they were asked who are the greatest cinematographers of all time. And they all listed lots of different ones, but the only name was on every single one’s list was Gregg Toland. We should talk about him in a second, but let's first make sure we’re clear on what cinematography is, right? When you go back to the beginnings of movies, when movies were first made, in the very beginning it was just the inventor of the camera running it, it was one person. But then once they started making, you know, little movies and employing actors and things like that, then you had someone that directed the actors, basically, told the story, maybe thought of certain shots. And then you had a second person, a two person crew, basically, at the beginning. And that second person was the photographer, the person that did the motion picture photography. And so the collaboration between cinematographer and directors has always been critical in. It's everything that you see, you know, photographers are primarily responsible for what the camera does, the composition of the shot, the lens that use the movement of the camera, but also the lighting. The great cinematographer John Alton wrote a book called Painting With Light. He said that's what we do, we paint with Light. So without cinematography the screen is black and many films you can look at and go, this movie is the work of cinematography first.

SVW: Well, and then you talk about going back to the beginning. Of course, cameras weren't moving. So the first thing would be just the movement of it rather than just having it stationary.

DH: That's true. There are some exceptions. But for the most part of the early days of film, the camera didn't move much. One of the first great…if you want to think about a director who started to move the camera lot, you think back to probably the most famous early director that really, sort of, launched Hollywood is an industry; DW Griffith. Griffith had a partnership with one cinematographer, Billy Bitzer, who was largely responsible for all his great early work with him. You asked about Greg Toland. Toland was responsible for changes that happen in movies that are still extremely important today. You know, for the most part, up until the late 30's or early 40's studios demanded a sort of high key brightly lit look to everything. They wanted, glamorous photography of the stars and Toland was a leader in a movement that eventually developed into things like film noir in the 40's 50's that said we're not afraid of the dark anymore. We can show things in a shadowy way. And they had more powerful tools, better lenses, better film. And they started to do things that for Toland that culminated in the film Citizen Kane, where it had a look that no one had ever seen before. And it really changed filmmaking.

SVW: And then going back to Robert Berks in the 1950's with Hitchcock. Then you've got color, wide screen, and then even more special effects as well.

DH: Yeah, so skipping through, you know, the 40's and this sort of revolution that changed the sort of look of black and white film, yes, then Technicolor started in the late 30's, but it didn't start to be widely used until the 50's and to deal with the challenge of television that was keeping people away from theaters, a sort of smaller version of what's going on now, which is big time. People are staying at home. But, they said, what can we do to make movies better? Well, one thing was really good color because in the 50's TV was still black and white and then they experiment with, they started to shoot for the first time in wide screen. They experimented with things like 3D. So then you get this really impressive use of Technicolor in the 50's.

SVW: And there's a trend for things to try to be epic, you know, and be big which following in the 60's, that's when a cinematographers and directors started breaking the rules.

DH: Yeah, as you get into the 60's and 70's, now all of a sudden you get cinematographer saying we're not going to do these perfectly, these big, wide screen epic, perfectly clear technicolor things. Let's make it look a little more realistic. A little more documentary style which now is completely a dominant style in movies. You know, the idea of handheld shaking cameras, a camera that points into the light, you get lens flares, all that. That really started in the late 60's with the sort of anti-Hollywood movement and still persists today.

SVW: Although that was also influenced by the European films of the 50's as well.

DH: That's true. I mean, the European influence was a big part of what brought about the French new wave and things like that or what brought about this… Besides the fact that Hollywood was getting kind of stodgy in and the studio system was collapsing. So all of a sudden there was more value in these independent filmmakers. And that's where a lot of the famous dames we still think of today came out of. Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola; sort of film school generation rose out of this sort of gritty, realistic, make a movie almost documentary style on location, get away from studios. And that took very skilled cinematographers.

SVW: And then you get into the 80's the 90's, which things are changing as well. But this is like the, its digital before its pre-digital. would you think of it in that way?

DH: I guess. In the 80's and 90's, almost all films were still being shot on film. Today as we speak, almost all films are shot digitally. A few directors are still shooting on 35 millimeter film, but even theirs’ immediately goes into a digital format and that's how it ends up being shown, you know, in the theater. But in the 80's 90's you could shoot digitally but it was very low quality. So it really isn’t until this century that movies start to get shot digitally and its digital all the way through.

SVW: And we've had conversations in the past about the digital so-called revolution, in that, if the cinematographer is as important now is as the cinematographer has been in the past.

DH: Yeah, it’s a good question because now everything, you know, in some ways everything can be done in post-production. It's almost like it doesn't matter what you get. You know, the old days if they were shooting gathering location sound and they knew they were going to re-dub the sound in the studio anyway they didn't care that much if the sound was poor quality. Well, obviously you don't want poor quality, they want the best thing they can get in the camera, but if it isn't quite right, no matter what, it's going to go through all these different people, digital color, us compositers, visual effects supervisor and visual effects teams and they're going to change it. So, that could devalue cinematographers unless they have the clout to say I'm going to be involved in whatever you do in post-production, too.

SVW: Well, that's another issue, too. So what does that mean when you say cinematographer's have clout?

DH: Well, I was talking about Kaminsky who shot every Steven Spielberg film, I don't know this, but I think would be a reasonable guess that his contract allows him…they're not going to mess with what he shot. They’re not going to change the color balance or the kinds of things they can do in post-production without his eye on it.

SVW: So now, where do you think we're going now in terms of with cinema and with cinematography?

DH: I don't know, it's interesting. I mean, in some ways it doesn't matter, right? Sometimes we see a shot and we don't know if that shot was done on some location done with a moving camera on a crane or a dolly or was made entirely on a computer. It essentially like video animation but we don't even know it. You could say, well, maybe doesn't matter. It's the effect on the viewer. If it draws us in…the viewer is not too concerned with how it got there. So there is a lot of that, there are movies made where it's just actors in a big studio in front of a green screen, you know, think about the Star Wars movies and all the Marvel stuff going on. At the same time, there are so many things being made. I just saw a movie that was, you know, more traditionally shot small, independent film that was the most beautiful cinematography. It's a movie that just came out called The Quiet Girl, a 2022 Irish film. And if you see this movie, it's a very moving story with very moving performances about this 10-year-old girl in Ireland in the 1980's. What makes this movie? It's visual and it's the work of the cinematographer, traditional photography. The way the shots are composed, the way the color light looks…so good photography is certainly not dead. You can't do it all in post-production.

SVW: All right. Well, thank you for the stimulating topic.

DH: Thank you, Scott.

David Hast is a retired high school English teacher. He has an MFA in Radio/TV/Film from Northwestern University and worked 15 years in the film and video industry. Some years ago he taught video production part-time at GVSU, and as a high school teacher he regularly taught a course in Film and Media Analysis.
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