It is 20 minutes past sunrise, but the entire crew of ‘Days of Heaven’ has already started rolling the camera! This periodic romantic drama of 1978 directed by Terrence Malick & skilfully captured by Néstor Almendros & Haskell Wexler is one of the most aesthetically shot movies of that era. The artistic success of the film has been attributed to the camera work of these celebrated Directors of Photography (DP).
Movies, as we know, are a director’s medium, but to visually achieve the director’s vision – be it through lighting, use of the right lens, framing & selection of shots, and many other technical elements, a cinematographer is consequential.
There are times when there is more than what meets the eye. The cameraman, sometimes, moves the camera in an unexpected & unexplained way, where he is neither showing you a character nor is he focusing on any object; it is as if the most important thing is the camera movement itself. The camera during these times, stands alone, away from the characters & the script, and speaks for itself. Speaks loud enough for us to hear what the camera is trying to say! We have attempted to collate ten such phenomenal cinematographers who impacted the world of cinema with their unique works & techniques.
Note: This is not an exhaustive list (but a little long though), we have only tried to pick the most popular ones.
Legend has it that Billy Bitzer has 1500 credits as a cinematographer, but nothing has been official! He is known to have developed many techniques including the close-ups, fade out, iris shot, soft focus, diffusion, use of reflectors, artificial only light, backlight & many other aesthetic elements. His approach being not just functional but very expressive, he is considered the ‘First True Cinematographer’. His works include ‘Birth of a Nation’, ‘Intolerance’, ‘The Adventures of Dollie’ etc.
An Italian DP whose collaboration with directors Francis Ford Coppola & Bernard Bertolucci, Woody Allen, Warren Beatty etc., have created some masterpieces like ‘Apocalypse Now’, ‘The Last Emperor’, ‘Conformist’, ‘The Last Tango in Paris’ etc. A legendary cinematographer who played with colours to influence the perception of the audience. Early in his career, he was well known for the usage of smoky beams of light, a single light source for toning the shape of an entire scene, to mention a few.
He has been regarded as the most versatile cinematographer, because of his ability to adapt to any director’s needs. He made the perfect transition to colour through his collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock including, ‘Strangers on a Train’, ‘Vertigo’, ‘The Birds’, ‘Rear Window’ etc. He won his academy award in 1955 for ‘To Catch a Thief’.
An Academy Award-winning DP for his exemplary works in ‘Schindler’s List’ & ‘Saving Private Ryan’, collaborated with Steven Spielberg on several other projects. A case in point of his mastery - In ‘The Diving Bell & the Butterfly’, Jean-Do (real-life character turned into a movie) suffers a stroke & can communicate only by blinking his left eye. The camera here becomes the blinking eye & gives the audience an insight into the life & state of a paralysed man.
Another genius DP of movies like ‘Blade Runner 2049’, ‘Skyfall’, ‘A Beautiful Mind’, ‘Shawshank Redemption’, ‘The Assassination of Jessy James’ etc. He says “When you move the camera or do a crane shot with the characters standing on the edge of the roof, then it has to mean something. The cameraman should know why he is doing it; it has to have a reason within the story & to further the story.” To him, no shot can be placed in the entire movie, which doesn’t make sense or contribute to the film in a way small or significant. He has been widely appreciated for his simple & realistic painting of the frames.
Gregg Toland has been applauded for his eye for detailing and creativity. His famous works include ‘Withering Heights’, ‘Les Misérables’, ‘Grapes of Wrath’, ‘Citizen Kane’, ‘The Long Voyage Home’ and many more. Toland has been widely credited for his idea of filling soft lights in favour of deep dark shadows, creating complex frames & dramatic tableaus, deep focus techniques, lighting schemes and suchlike. His work on ‘Citizen Kane’ was initially rejected for its complexity, but within a decade it became the new normal!
A Swedish cinematographer, he is known for creating simple & natural framing on screen. He has described ‘light’ as an element that can be gentle, dangerous, dreamlike, bare, living, dead, misty, clear, hot, dark, violent, springlike, falling, straight, sensual, limited, poisonous, calm or soft! His Academy Award-winning pieces include ‘Cries & Whispers’, and ‘Fanny & Alexander’; and other works include ‘The Sacrifice’, ‘The Ox’, ‘Another Woman’, ‘The Last Run’ and so on.
Freddie Young is one such cinematographer who is known to have created the most incredible images in all his movies. He collaborated with director David Lean for ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, ‘Doctor Zhivago’, ‘Ryan’s daughter’ and won Academy Awards for all the three movies! David Lean’s idea was to give an aesthetic approach to ‘Doctor Zhivago’ by making the war scenes sunny & beautiful, and romantic scenes grey & grim. These were met on the button by his most trusted cinematographer.
Yet another DP whose techniques & innovation created a benchmark in the film industry. The actresses of the 70s loved Howe for the way he flattered their features with light alone! He was a master of dramatic lighting, forging high contrast, deep shadowed images which expressed the noir lighting approach. His famous works include ‘The Rose Tattoo’, ‘Hud’, ‘Drums of Fate’, ‘Body & Soul’ to name a few.
A French - only female cinematographer on the list! Best known for shooting feature & documentaries, this DP picks documentaries over other genres as she finds it adventurous! When she was hired to shoot the movie ‘The Wrestler’, she has said she had to attend several wrestling matches to give the situations a natural, realistic feel. She even handheld the camera for various action scenes to give it the natural movement.
A cinematographer is thus as important as the film itself. Let’s wrap the blog with a lovely quote by Francis Ford Coppola, Filmmaker. “I think cinema, movies, and magic have always been closely associated. The earliest people who made films were magicians.”