Cinematography 101: How your favorite films come to life


Everyone has their favorite films, and reasons for loving them. Maybe they changed your perception of life, or maybe they kept you on the edge of your seat. 

But do you ever wonder who is responsible for making a lot of that magic on screen happen? More often than you might think, the answer is the cinematographers. A cinematographer, also known as the director of photography (DP), has the job of making the director’s vision come to life by managing the camera, lights, equipment, mise-en-scène and all of the artistic and technical elements with the film.

Directors and actors typically receive a majority of the credit for the success of films. Cinematographers, on the other hand, are not quite as well known or praised for all the hard work they do behind the scenes.

There is a great amount of decision making that the DP is tasked with. Should they utilize a close up or a medium shot? Should the camera dolly move side to side or tilt up and down? What should the music be for the scene, if any? Some of the elements that comprise cinematography are framing, angles, camera movement, editing, sound and lighting, to name a few. 

These are not just a long list of terms, these are the techniques that make films so beautiful and meaningful. For example, take the creative choice of the close up shot. This decision can be so powerful because it can express the subtleties of human emotion and experience in a way that words often can’t.

Cinematography has changed a lot over the course of the history of film. Initially, color was not available and camera movements were very simple and static. Cinematography really kicked into gear once people started utilizing different shots and artificial lighting in the early 20th century. Nowadays, camera shots are dynamic, lighting can be perfect and we even have visual effects.

Roger Deakins is probably the most popular figure of modern cinematography. He won cinematography awards such as an Oscar for “Blade Runner 2049” as well as British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) awards for “True Grit” and “No Country for Old Men.” Some popular films he has worked on include, but are not limited to: “The Shawshank Redemption,” “Skyfall” and “The Big Lebowski." 

But these mentions just scratch the surface of his artistic genius.To understand some concrete examples of his work in detail, we'll take a look at some examples of great cinematic moments from “The Shawshank Redemption,” so spoiler alerts ahead. 

This 1994 drama currently sits at the top spot on IMDb’s list of the best movies, and follows the life of Andy Dufresne along with other prisoners and their journey through Shawshank State Penitentiary and the struggles they face. The film is renowned for its themes of freedom, hope, injustice and human connection, among others.

One stunning cinematic example is when we are introduced to the penitentiary. The bird’s-eye view scanning over the prison grounds and prisoners makes them seem so tiny and insignificant, but the massive size of the gray and lifeless buildings are emphasized in contrast. In addition, the violin music is somber. Deakins incorporated these choices to make the audience feel the ominous and dangerous vibes in the environment before we even really started the story.

Another iconic cinematic moment is when Dufresne escapes the penitentiary. The warden pulls back the poster in Dufresne’s cell and examines the hole that he spent so much time and effort digging. Here Deakins chooses to place the camera in the hole at the eye level staring out at the warden and slowly dollies away from him into the tunnel to show the size and depth of it, all while the pace of the music quickens. 

This illustrates the warden’s utter shock and causes the pace of the film to pick up. It creates excitement and anticipation for the viewer, we even feel victorious because the warden we’ve come to dislike is in distress.

A cathartic moment occurs with the overhead shot of Dufresne standing with his arms stretched to the sky while he is in the river celebrating his escape from prison. It’s even during the middle of a thunderstorm too, with a triumphant musical score playing. Deakins's choices here evoke massive amounts of joy and relief.

Of course this is just one film out of the whole world. Next time you hit the theaters or open up Netflix, you’ll have a greater appreciation and understanding for the work and consideration behind the beautiful shots that make films so beautiful and awe-inspiring.


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