Cinematography is the act of capturing photographic images in space through the use of a number of controllable elements. These include the quality of the film stock, the manipulation of the camera lens, framing, scale and movement. Some theoreticians and film historians (Bordwell, Thompson) would also include duration, or the length of the shot, but we discuss the long take in our editing page. Cinematography is a function of the relationship between the camera lens and a light source, the focal length of the lens, the camera’s position and its capacity for motion.
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Depth of field is the measure that can be applied to the area in focus within the frame. Deep focus, which requires a small aperture and lots of light, means that the foreground, middleground and background of the frame remain in focus. In the image below, from Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941), the extended depth of field gives the frame a 3-dimensional quality, showing multiple planes of action at once. It also allows the filmmaker to demonstrate the largesse of Kane’s dinner party and his personality. The ability to achieve deep focus was the result of a technological development in the lens in the late 193os and its adoption as a discursive mode is largely attributed to Welles.
Shallow focus is a function of a narrow depth of field and it implies that only one plane of the frame will remain sharp and clear (usually the foreground). In contemporary cinema, shallow focus is often combined with deep space for artistic purposes or to demonstrate subjectivity. It is typically a feature of the close-up. The following images, from Rossellini’s Rome Open City (1945) and Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006), respectively, are demonstrative of shallow focus. Each signals to a pivotal moment in the character’s life – Don Pietro awaits his execution and Marie Antoinette approaches the alter at her wedding.
Filmmakers can change the focus of the lens to a subject in the background from the foreground or vice vera. This can be used to shift the audience’s attention or to point out a significant relationship between the two subjects. In this sequence from Wes Anderson’s Rushmore (1998), racking focus is used to show the miserable relationship between Herman Blume and his wife.
The zoom shot occurs when a filmmaker changes the focal length of the lens in the middle of a shot. We appear to get closer or further away from the subject when this technique is used. In this sequence from Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me (1986), the zoom is used on the writer to emphasize his newfound inspiration for a story.
The standard rate for a film is 24 frames per second. If more frames are added to this second the film will seem to slow down. The film will speed up if there are less than 24 frames per second. Doug Liman shoots this sequence from Swingers (1996) as a reference to Reservoir Dogs. By shooting it in 12 frames per second and then speeding it up to 24, he gives the group of guys a unique look as they leave their poker game to start their night out.
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Orson Welles includes strange people and objects in the frame to reinforce the unsettling quality of his narrative. The blind woman has no role in the story but her presence in the foreground as Vargas telephones his wife is vaguely disturbing. Perhaps she serves as a subconscious link or an uncanny suggestion (for Mike and the spectator) that Susan is unsafe.
Image B: Likewise, the inclusion of this sign and its message serve to increase suspense by heightening the viewer’s awareness of the possibility of evil lurking nearby.
Angle of FramingWhen filming from below or above the subject of the frame, it is known as a low or high angle. Filming from different angles is a way to show the relationship between the camera’s point of view and the subject of the frame. In this sequence from Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides (1999), Lux wakes up the morning after homecoming lying in the middle of a football field. The high angle highlights the desolate field and her feeling of abandonment by Trip Fontaine.
Level of Framing
This refers to the height at which the camera is positioned in a given shot. Different camera heights are often used to display or exaggerate differences in points of view. In this scene from No Country for Old Men, as Anton Chigurh approaches his victim, the low level position of the camera creates suspense by suggesting the perspective of an unsuspecting character on the ground.
Canted framing is where the camera is not level but tilted. It is used in action films and other films with lots of movement. It may suggest danger or disorder. In The Borne Identity, canted framing is used just for this purpose; as the official moves toward Borne, the titled frame signifies the start of an action sequence.
A following shot is a shot that follows a character with pans, tilts, and tracking. It is unobtrusive and focuses all of the viewer’s attention on the character. In The Godfather, the camera follows Fredo as he breaks up a party. As the camera follows him, we see his growing frustration with his brother and the slow-moving partygoers.
Point of View Shot
A point of view shot places the camera where the viewer would imagine a characters gaze to be. This is a technique of continuity editing, because it allows us to see what the character sees without being obtrusive. In No Country for Old Men, we see a trail of blood from what seems like Anton Chigurh’s perspective. This gives the audience information about how Anton determines the whereabouts of his enemy.
Wide-angle lenses distort the edges of a frame to emphasize the amount of space in a shot. They are used in enclosed areas where space is limited. In Signs, a wide-angle lens is used for the extreme close-up of Graham Hess before a flashback of his wife’s death.
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Extreme Long Shot
An extreme long shot is when the scale of what is being seen is tiny. In this sequence from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), the extreme long shot is being used as an establishing shot as Gandalf (Ian McKellen) enters the Shire. It was most likely shot from a crane or a helicopter, and it shows the viewer much of the fantasy world that is Middle Earth.
A long shot is when the scale of what is being seen is small. In this sequence from Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2008), Sergeant Thompson (Guy Pearce) takes up most of the screen when upright, and then less when he is knocked down due to the explosion. The entire background is dust and debris from the bomb that detonated, and the scale of the long shot gives the viewer the image that Thompson was very close to the point of detonation. This is important to see because the explosion ends up killing him.
Medium Long Shot
A medium long shot is when what is being viewed takes up almost the entire height of the screen. In this sequence from Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1967), Blondie (Clint Eastwood) is seen staring down Tuco (Eli Wallach), and Sentenza (Lee Van Cleef) right before they duel. Blondie’s gun is visible which is important for the viewers to see for a duel sequence. This is why the medium long shot was used for most westerns.
A medium close-up is when what is being viewed is large and takes up most of the screen. In this sequence from Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Red (Morgan Freeman) is seen from the chest up sitting in front of the parole board. He is fed up with the process of parole and is making a long speech about the penal system while he is just about the only object in view on the screen.
A close-up is when what is being viewed is quite large and takes up the entire screen, such as a person’s head. In this sequence from Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1972), the face of Alex (Malcolm McDowell) is practically all that can be seen on the screen. He has an evil smirk on his face as he sits in the milk bar while the eery music of the opening credits still plays. The close-up is the perfect way to introduce Alex because by simply looking into his face, the viewer can see just how terrible he is.
An extreme close-up is when what is being viewed is very large, usually this is a part of someone’s face. In this sequence from Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002), the camera shoots an extreme close-up of Bill the Butcher’s (Daniel Day-Lewis) left eye. It is made of glass and the pupil is in the shape of an eagle. Bill has this eye because he considers himself a patriot and a native to America, unlike the Irish immigrants who he is about to fight in the battle of the Five Points.
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A crane shot is achieved by mounting a camera on some type of crane device. The weight of the camera is countered by free weights at one end where the camera-man (or sometimes a remote control) can control the movement of the shot. Crane shots are often of practical use to the the filmmaker when a scene demands a shot that a normal camera person cannot take, as seen in the photo below.
The crane enables the filmmaker to move the camera through the air in virtually any direction. Crane shots are often long takes with anywhere from medium to extreme long framing. In the selected clip below, the use of a crane shot with medium framing in David Dobkin’s Wedding Crashers (2005) allows the audience to feel as if they are floating above Jeremy Grey (Vince Vaughn) and Gloria Cleary (Isla Fisher) descend down the steps in the Cleary family foyer. Towards the end of the shot, the filmmaker is able to incorporate a third character, Christopher Walken that previously existed in offscreen space.
Steadicam shots are used by filmmakers, commonly, for motion tracking shots. A steadicam device is essentially a harness that uses the camera person’s body as the support device for the camera. Steadicam was a novel way to shot a scene as it isolates the movement of the camera person from the camera. Stabilizing mechanisms counter the movements of the camera person to eliminate the inevitable imperfections present in handheld shooting (i.e. shaking).
A pan shot is a camera movement which follows the action, or reveals previously unframed space, as it moves horizontally. Pans occur in varying speeds for dramatic purposes. Although the most basic concept of a panning shot adheres to the movement below, a pan can also incorporate zooms, tracking of action shots and/or movement of the camera base itself.
In the following climactic clip from Miles Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), a tracking pan follows the action of Chief (Will Sampson) as he breaks free from the mental institution that imprisons him. As the camera moves from right to left the frame changes from showing the dark mental institution to facing out a window where the sunlight (resembling a new day of freedom) is just breaking on the horizon.
A tilt shot is essentially a vertical pan, where the camera moves up and down rather than from one side to another. Tilt shots often heighten an audience’s level of suspense as they are unaware what the shot will uncover. Tilt shots, like pans, serve to reveal some previously unseen space to the viewer. These shots may include zooms, tracking of action shots and/or movement of the camera base itself.
In the following clip from David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999), a tilt shot is used to reveal Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) to the audience. Simultaneously, the tilting shot connotes that Durden is in control of the situation (literally above Marla Singer, as depicted by Helena Bonham Carter). If Durden does not keep Singer awake, she will succumb to the drugs she may have overdosed.
A tracking shot follows action through space in a variety of directions. As the action, or character, moves along the screen the tracking shot enables the audience to feel as if they are moving with the action through space. This sensation is achieved by mounting the camera on a track, dolly, or moving vehicle to smoothly follow the action along a choreographed course. Recently, steadicam shots (see above) have made it possible for filmmakers to track more spontaneous action. Tracking shots were originally called Cabiria shots after they were first used by Giovanni Pastrone in Cabiria (1914).
In the following clip from Old School (2003), directed by Todd Phillips, a tracking shot is achieved by placing the camera in the passenger seat of a moving vehicle. This particular tracking shot follows an inebriated and nude Frank Ricard (Will Ferrell) as he goes streaking.
A whip pan follows all the same rules as a normal pan. However, a whip pan involves a quicker movement that may momentarily blur the images onscreen. Whip pans are often abrupt and imply a rapid unfolding events (i.e. action movies).
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The following whip pan from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) doubles as a point of view shot. In this clip, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) quickly adjusts the focus of his attention from a roadside distraction back to the street ahead of him.