Fearful Symmetries

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15 April, 2007

WI Film Fest - Cinematographer Style

Film geeks and curious onlookers filled room 4070 of Vilas Hall yesterday for the showing of Cinematographer Style, a film which looks at, as the name implies, cinematographers and their craft. If you've read this blog before, then you know that I fall into the former camp. I get all excited thinking about the legend that Gregg Toland carried a strip of film in his pocket demonstrating a shot with a depth of field from one inch in front of the camera to infinity. And so I was really looking forward to this film. The Dulcinea accompanied me and, although she had taken an intro to film class at MATC last year, I think she was tagging along more to be with her geeky boyfriend than for any interest in film.

When a movie begins with a shot of long-time Bernardo Bertolucci collaborator Vittorio Storaro holding a light bulb, I know I'm going to like it. And I did. Interviews with one hundred and ten cinematographers were utilized to give viewers a sense of how they do their job which, as one of them noted, was both a craft and an art. Veterans such as Storaro and Haskell Wexler were along side of newcomers like Matthew Libatique, best-known to me through his work with Darren Aaronofsky.

The film begins with the directors of photography introducing themselves and one of them was from Eau Claire. There were funny anecdotes about how they got into the business and lots of nebulous takes on how these people create their own unique visual styles. Storaro chimed in with his customary metaphysics of light & energy while others remained a bit more pragmatic by describing how they read scripts repeatedly and looked to artists such as Monet for inspiration.

Intended for a wide audience, Cinematographer Style largely avoided technical terms but there was a nice sequence with Roger Deakins who extolled the virtues of wide angle lenses and their more "natural" perspectives. Part of the scene was shot with a very long (telephoto) lens while the other was done with a shorter (wide angle) lens and the audience could see the difference for themselves. Along similar lines, there was Storaro and his light bulb. He showed how mood was created depending on where the bulb was placed around his head. And his metaphysics of color was demonstrated onscreen as the shot had a blue tint when he spoke about his use of the color in The Conformist. Another highlight was hearing one of the interviewees give a brief encomium for focus pullers.

Perhaps the most important thing a non-film geek can get from the film is that cinematographers have a huge role in making what audiences see on the screens at their local mulitplex. The relationship between the director and cinematographer is described as a marriage by one person. DPs don't just point and click, they craft scenes very precisely. Not only do they do so on a technical level so that the film is exposed correctly, but they also create elements of scenes that help tell the story in ways that the dialogue cannot. For example, the angle at which a person is shot and the interplay of light & shadow all direct the viewer's feelings towards the characters. That filmmaking is a collaborative process was also illustrated by comments from a few of the DPs about how they get together with the production designer to make sure the sets and costumes are just right.

If I had any complaints it was that I would have liked to have seen more of the demonstrations that I mentioned above. Film is a visual medium so show us, don't just tell us. A decision had been made not to show any excerpts from the films these folks had shot so illustrating the comments as I described is helpful to a lay audience. I know that The Dulcinea appreciated them.

There was a Q&A session after the showing with a gent whose name I cannot recall (sorry!) and someone asked about the paucity of women who were interviewed. The answer was that this is an accurate representation of the membership of the American Society of Cinematographers. One woman's work that I am going to keep an eye out for is Amy Vincent. Knowing that she worked on Natural Born Killers and Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events piques my interest. Her latest is Black Snake Moan.

Walking out of the theatre, The Dulcinea remarked that she enjoyed Cinematographer Style much more than she thought she would and that she learned quite a bit. And so the film accomplished what it set out to do on at least one person.
|| Palmer, 8:07 AM

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