If Beauty Will Save The World, Will It Save Cinematography?

Article by Yuri Neyman, ASC


All was simple in the last millennium. The cinematographer selected the composition of the frame, exposed the film according to the light-meter, checked printing lights during the dailies, and worked with the colorist on the Hazeltine (an "ancient" film-based color correction machine) in the preparation for the first answer print. Undoubtedly and unquestionably, the Director of Photography was in charge of imagery.

In that millenium, Cinematography and Imagery were synonyms. Rarely, if ever, would anyone dare to usurp the cinematographer's prerogative to be the main contributor to the artistic and technical quality of the images.

Marlene Dietrich in  The Devil Was A Woman

Marlene Dietrich in The Devil Was A Woman

James Cameron on the set of  Avatar

James Cameron on the set of Avatar

One of the most public and daring attempts happened in 1935, at the Venice Film Festival, when the legendary director Joseph von Sternberg received the Best Cinematography Award for The Devil Is A Woman along with DP Lucien Ballard, ASC, whom von Sternberg had attempted to exclude from the nomination.

Times have changed. For cinematography, the "new millennium" started in 1977 when Star Wars created a cultural and technological phenomenon and forever changed the traditional roles and interplay between the Director (George Lucas), DP (Gilbert Taylor) and SFX/VFX Team (ILM).

Star Wars.jpg

Three decades later, in 2009, with Avatar, the industry embraced a non-linear/real-time pipeline for production. The traditional "assembly line" phases have been replaced with the mentality that what happens in any stage of production can directly affect prior or subsequent stages of production.

More complex images are often loaded with multifaceted pictorial and literary connotations produced not only as the result of traditional cinematography but of the whole new, sometime autonomous "subdivision" of cinematography, which we at the Global Cinematography Institute call "Expanded Cinematography." Expanded cinematography is the combination of live and virtual cinematography which has begun to dominate today's image making in motion pictures, TV and Web programming and video games.


What makes today's situation even more confusing is that traditional cinematography exists in parallel with expanded cinematography, and the dividing lines of responsibilities and influence on the final result have become blurred, and often controversial.

The advent of the digital revolution has also complicated the field of cinematography. Now, anyone with a consumer digital camera can claim to be a visual storyteller and the resulting mass of their content has influenced the aesthetics of visuals around us.

The question facing us is whether the average person even needs professional cinematography, and, if so, what will differentiate it from the cinematography of the masses? How do we preserve cinematography as an art in the era of limitless possibilities of CGI and the Internet-based global image exchange between billions of people? Will we be replaced in the not too distant future by computers which can calculate lighting levels, color rendition depth of field, set lights, and choose the visual style and composition much faster than any DP?

At the Global Cinematography Institute, our answer is to teach cinematographers to be Directors of Imagery, that is, to be fluent in Expanded Cinematography's mix of traditional and virtual image making. In this way, professional cinematographers will continue to exercise professional artistic and technological influence on the image-making process. Only the continuous ability to produce visually literate, original and artistically enhanced images will allow the profession to progress and not disappear into the ocean of YouTube-like imagery.

The essential elements of our method is to re-educate and retrain ourselves creatively, to learn how to evaluate what we are doing -- and less from the technical point of view but from a mainly creative one. The industry does a lot to upgrade the technical skill of cinematographers. Isn't it time to give new artistic tools to the cinematographer profession?


While many books have been written about cinematography, very few deal with artistic specifics. Authors have either described cinematography, badly, in the terms of content and plot or, better, in terms borrowed from traditional visual art and painting. The most essential part of cinematography -- the visual communication over time -- has been completely neglected.

Cinematic Composition in Degas,  L'Absinthe , 1876

Cinematic Composition in Degas, L'Absinthe, 1876

Very often we hear that cinematographers are storytellers, but cinematographers are not telling stories. Cinematographers are illustrating stories. They illustrate them the same way that an artist illustrates the novel by applying his specific tools to it -- and the degree of the artistry and originality is the yardstick of cinematographer's (and any other illustrator's) success or failure.

For example, Gustave Doré, one of the world's greatest artists who illustrated The Divine Comedy, Don Quixote, Beauty and the Beast and many other classics, is not telling or creating the story, he is illustrating a plot! See for example the title graphic for this article, Doré's The War Against Gibeon (title image) to illustrate that Biblical story.

And this is exactly what cinematographers do from an aesthetical point of view. They are just using different specific artistic tools including tone, contrast and color values, and intensities, lightness and darkness, space and movement.

At G.C.I., we believe that the originality of these illustrations by each cinematographer's artistic tools -- new and old -- is what will continue to make the profession needed and appreciated.

To begin to re-educate and retrain ourselves creatively, we should start to look at cinematography as a genre of a very specific form of art, but still -- art! Cinematography does not belong to any kind of traditional artistic and aesthetic activities. Neither camera movement, nor lighting, optical prospective, color, contrast, nor any other specific letters of the "cinematography alphabet" which created the language of cinematography, can exist by itself, but only in conjunction with the script.

Yet, from the beginning, cinematographers "adopted" the tools of more established arts, such as classical oil painting and, later, art photography. The graphic arts photomontage and assemblage animation of the 1960s created style in designs of LP covers, which in turn, made it possible in the 1980s for cinematographers of the new genre of music video to "adopt" the proven and successful style appeal for their audience.

It's important to note that the term "adoption" has no pejorative connotations here but rather refers to a system of informative aesthetic activities. In fact, the history of visual elements in cinema is a history of "adoption" of elements from the other arts.

Director Sergei Eisenstein and DP Andrei Moskvin in 1941, shooting  Ivan The Terrible

Director Sergei Eisenstein and DP Andrei Moskvin in 1941, shooting Ivan The Terrible

1920 German Expressionist Classic  The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari , Willy Hameister DP

1920 German Expressionist Classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Willy Hameister DP

If we look at the paintings of masters of Italian Renaissance like Giotto di Bondone, Paolo Uccello and others, and compare them with frames from Georges Méliès and Lumière films, we will see striking similarities. The space has three dimensions, but is limited by the height and width of the frame, and in the depth by the enclosed background. The space is only the background for action and does not have any artistic value. Actors in these films and personages in the paintings stand facing spectators in the same way.

Many scenes from The Birth of a Nation (D. W. Griffith, Director/G.W. Bitzer, Director of Photography,) and Alexander Nevsky (Sergei Eisenstein/Eduard Tisse) were motivated by the great Italian painter Paolo Uccello.

The classical and romantic school of oil painting masters the space; makes it freer, less "theatrical" and more subordinate to rigid rules of perspective. And if we look again from this point of view at the films of the peak of the age of silent films and "Golden Age of Hollywood," we will find a very strong adoption of aesthetics of the classical and romantic painting in the films of 1930-1940.

Especially worth noting is the amazingly cinematic style of lighting in the paintings of the French painter Georges de La Tour, whose work inspired the creation of "the scene with candles" by Stanley Kubrick and John Alcott in Barry Lyndon.


When the Impressionists started to break the classical prospective and the space in their paintings ceased to have shape and depth, unusual perspective and point of view appeared. If we look at the painting of Degas, L'Absinthe, it is hard not to notice cinematic framing and composition. In the paintings of Renoir such as La Place Pigalle, (1880) we can see the deep focus composition that later became signature in the film Citizen Kane, shot by Orson Welles and Gregg Toland.

(Above) Comparing a detail from Paolo Uccello, Mary's Presentation in the Temple circa 1435, to a scene from Citizen Kane in 1941, Gregg Toland DP.

In film history, it is also a period of "freedom" of the camera, with unusual angles and complicated traveling shots, seen in the visual style of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene/Willy Hameister), Metropolis (Fritz Lang/ Karl Freund, Guenther Rittau, and Walter Ruttmann), and The Last Laugh (Der Letzte Mann) (F.W. Murnau / Karl Freund 1924).

With the appearance of Cubists, and later, abstract expressionists, traditional space in painting became two-dimensional. And the use of telephoto lenses -- not as a magnifying glass, but as a tool for condensing a space -- so effectively used in French and Italian films in the 1960s, just confirms again the spiral-like relationship between paintings and film.

But if painting was the only source of adoption until the 1960s, the trends in photography -- and especially in advertising photography -- and computerized animation made themselves adoptable for the next generation of filmmakers.

And in another turn of the spiral, the 1950s films of the "film-noir" style, adopted from the German Expressionists school, became another source of adoption and consequential transfiguration for many directors and cinematographers in the 1980s with the era of the music video's visual bluntness.

We believe it is necessary for cinematographers to start to think about the place of our profession in the past and present cultural and stylistic time-line in order to try to look to tomorrow, and with the feeling of cinematography as a specific kind of art which uses sophisticated technological tools for creating imagery, which helps to tell all kinds of stories artistically.

Hence, if an adoption from other arts is the bloodline for artistic activities in the information age -- including cinematography -- then the question is: what do we adopt today in order to be on par with today's ever-increasing demands for original and complex imagery? We can look to the past to find an answer. This is the first of several columns that will look closely at the history of cinematography for clues about how to continue to develop the art and craft.

It would be wrong to establish a set of rules, especially when cinematography has followed a path of many different technical experiments and aesthetic breakthroughs throughout its history. But we have to keep in mind that the evolution of our profession and its survival will always continue under the influence of three main factors:

Technical: the new developments in optics, computers, electronics, etc., determine the artistic progress.

Social: in the way of public demands or being pressed to provide certain genres and types of imagery.

Aesthetic: This is the necessary factor, which is destined to be under the control of visually literate and highly educated professionals. Because only by keeping alive the surge of invention of new means of visual expression and visual communication, might we prevent being replaced by computers.

And then there will be no more debates about the difference between cinematography and imagery.

We are now in the beginning of the next stage of our professional evolution; let's not miss the chance.

Alex Cook