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Who takes the pictures in a movie? Who is responsible for making a movie look good, or creating meaning with light and shadow, or make an action scene clear and thrilling? A lot of the time, that's the job of the cinematographer. In this episode of Crash Course Film Production, Lily Gladstone talks to us about the role of the Cinematographer, their tools, and what they do on set.


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  Intro (0:00)

Movies are made up of a series of images. Some are beautiful, some are harsh, and some stick in our minds forever. Like the gently rolling spaceships in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Or Peter O'Toole riding out of the desert in Lawrence of Arabia. Or Darth Vader emerging from the smoke in Star Wars

But who actually takes these pictures? If the director is the one who sets the vision for the film, whose job is it to bring that vision to life? That's the person who puts the pictures in motion pictures. The cinematographer. 

[Opening music]

 What is a Cinematographer? (0:42)

Cinematographers must be artists, engineers, photographers, and storytellers, all at once. Sometimes you'll hear the cinematographer referred to as the director of photography or "DP." But don't be confused, it's the same job. In some parts of the world, they prefer one title to the other, but generally speaking, the two titles are interchangeable. 

And no matter what they call themselves, their basic job is to translate the director's vision into things like framing, lighting, and camera movement, so that the film's story, emotions, and themes are conveyed visually. A cinematographer must not only possess great technical skills, but also understand the fundamental narrative beats of the film, the arc of the characters, and how the shots might cut together in the editing room. 

And the job begins long before the cameras start to roll. During pre-production, the cinematographer assemble the camera department, plans shots with the directors, and determines any special equipment that might be necessary for the shoot - from cranes and dollies to Steadicams and special lenses. They also help the director decide what kind of film stock or digital cameras to use and what the overall look of the film will be. 

During production itself, the cinematographer oversees the lighting and shooting of the film, shot by shot. This includes supervising the camera department and working very closely with the lighting department - the head of which, you'll recall - is the gaffer. since pictures are technically just a record of light bouncing off objects, the gaffer is fundamental to achieving the images that make up the film. 

  Lighting (1:55)

And when it comes to the lights themselves, the cinematographer has a lot to choose from. For example, there are Fresnel lights, which use special lenses called Fresnel lenses to produce a wide, hard light that softens around the edges. Commonly used for stage lighting, these lights can get very hot, very quickly. 

Fluorescent lights are much cooler and softer, but they're quite fragile, which matters on a film set when the lights are being moved around so frequently. LED lights create very little heat and are favored by a lot of independent and DIY cinematographers because they're cheap and use less power. However, the colors and shadows they cast can be unreliable and difficult to match, bulb to bulb.

Incandescent lights, meanwhile, generate a lot of heat, but they generally give a warm, yellow light that can be very appealing. And then we have HMIs, or...this. These are massive lights that give off an enormous amount of heat. They're so bright that they're often used to simulate daylight. As in, the sun. 

So, that's the hardware, but in addition to choosing which of these lights should be used, the cinematographer also has a say in how they're arranged. The most basic style of lighting, used in everything from formal interviews to fiction films, is 3-point lighting.

You start with a key light, which is the brightest light, often positioned so that it shines most directly on the subject of the shot. Then you add some fill light, which is a dimmer and more diffuse light used to fill in the shadows created by the key light. Finally, back light, which is usually brighter than the fill light, shines from behind the subject of the shot. This creates a "halo" or "edge" of light that outlines the subject and separates it from the background.

One of the questions cinematographers grapple with is figuring out where the light is coming from in the world of the film. This will determine the direction, color, intensity, and quality of light that illuminates the shot. Sometimes cinematographers will use practical lights, which are light sources you can actually see in the shot, like desk lamps or windows. Other times, they'll deliberately use artificial lights, or even turn to a more radical strategy to light their films.

Cinematographers Néstor Almendros and Haskell Wexler famously shot Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven using natural sunlight, mostly that brief period of the day immediately before sunset, called magic hour. While working in Catch-22, David Watkin said, "I'm going to do something rather daring. I'm going to light the actors with only explosions." And he did!

Ellen J=Kuras relied on a unique combination of practical and artificial lights to create the unusual transitions and effects of Jim Carrey's memory loss in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Malik Hasson Sayeed is a master of style, shooting everything from Spike Lee's He Got Game to Beyonce's Lemonade

When Gordon Willis decided to light The Godfather in such a way that Marlon Brando's eyes would often be in shadow, it was seen as a risky and daring strategy. Cinematographers were supposed to light a character's eyes. That's just how it was done! Instead, Willis chose to use this lighting "mistake" to illustrate the dark and unknowable soul of Don Corleone. 

 Tricks and Techniques (4:39)

Now, the cinematographer also works closely with the production designer, who's the head of the art department. The production designer is in charge of carrying out the whole look of the film, particularly the physical elements like sets, costumes, props, hair and makeup, but also non-physical elements like computer-generated images and how they interact with the physical objects on camera.

The cinematographer and the production designer work closely on everything from the color scheme of a set to how reflective its walls should be. And for sure, in addition to the lighting, cinematographers have to consider all kinds of factors when setting up their shots. Not only do the shots need to be cut together to tell the story, but they're often constructed to have a beginning, middle, and end all their own. 

The director and cinematographer must decide how much of the frame should be in focus, using lens choice, film stock, and aperture. Related to that, the cinematographer has to think about what's featured in the foreground, middle ground, and background of the shot. The arrangement of these features within the frame can have a profound impact on the audience. 

Color and contrast also fall within the cinematographer's aesthetic toolkit. Color can be used to draw our eye to or away from one part of the frame, make narrative or thematic likes, or - as in The Wizard of Oz - transport us to an entirely new place. Contrast, which refers to the ratio of the darkest parts of the image to the lightest parts, can perform many of the same functions. 

Before there was color in film, contrast was a particularly powerful tool for cinematographers. Nor classics like Carol Reed's The Third Man use deep, dark shadows cut by bright shafts of light to convey a sense of mystery or menace. 

Cinematographers might also decide to move the camera to evoke a particular feeling or psychological effect. This movement might be as simple as a pan or a tilt to follow the action, or as involved as Citizen Kane's dramatic crane shot in through the top of a nightclub.

Moving the camera in toward a character can convey a variety of emotions, from fear closing in on them to some kind of internal revelation. There are some pretty entertaining supercuts of push-in shots on YouTube. It makes you realize this technique is used everywhere. 

 Post-Production (6:33)

Now, what happens after the film is in the can? The job's over, right? Of course not.

The cinematographer can be heavily involved in a film's post-production, too, because the editing process offers lots of opportunities to manipulate the images that have been captured. If a movie's been shot on film, there are all kinds of options to change color or exposure by altering chemicals and timing, as the exposed negative is developed and processed. 

But whether the film was shot using traditional film stock or a digital process, most feature films are digitized at some point, to make the editing easier. And once the images have been converted into digital information, even more options open up for manipulating the footage. Filters on photo apps like Instagram give you some idea of how drastically you can change a digital image after it's been shot. 

In order to maintain the look of the film, the cinematographer is almost always deeply engaged in this process, working hand in hand with the director, the editor, the post-production supervisor who's overseeing this phase of the process, and the special effects department. So, yeah, it's kind of a big job! 

There's a fantastic documentary called Visions of Light that traces the history and art of cinematography. It's out of print, but if you can find a copy of it, you can hear some of the original masters of the medium share their stories and see examples of their work.

As with much of film production, there are guidelines and customs when it comes to cinematography, but no actual rules. The "right style" of lighting or camera movement for one film will be completely wrong for another. It's up to the cinematographer to work with the director to realize their vision for the film, and then to translate it into images that will cut together to tell the story.

  Review and Credits (7:59)

Today, we leaved about the multi-faceted job of the cinematographer. We covered the various roles of the camera and lighting departments and how they work together to realize a director's vision. And we considered some of the tools and strategies available to the cinematographer. Next time, we'll look at the fascinating on-set work of set designers, costume designers, and special effects makeup! 

Crash Course Film Production is produced in association with PBS Digital Studios. You can head over to their channel, check out a playlist of their amazing shows, like It's Okay to Be Smart, Physics Girl, and The Art Assignment. This episode of Crash Course was filmed in the Dr. Cheryl C. Kinney Crash Course Studio with the help of all these nice people. And our amazing graphics team is Thought Cafe.

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