Directors and actors are often given credit for a film’s success, while writers, composers and cinematographers often go unnoticed as background contributors.
Without a screenwriter, a movie would just be movement, and without a cinematographer, a movie would not would not jump off the screen and trigger your imagination and appreciation for art.
I often think about the lesser-known movie makers — the screenwriters, musical composers, and everyone behind the camera and in post-production that come together to make a movie whole.
Making a good, let alone a great, movie is hard to do because there are so many hands in the process.
It’s like an assembly line, starting with script being written and purchased by a studio or production company. Then studio executives seek a director, actors and actresses they envision in the lead roles.
It’s a process in which everyone working on it has to be on the same page.
When I think of the process, I often look at various aspects of the movie, from how the cast acts, to the music swelling in the background, but at the end of the day, I always come back to the look of the movie, sometimes in awe of the picturesque landscapes, vivid colors and perfect framing with deeper meaning.
Those images can do many things, most of all evoke emotion.
That is what a cinematographer does for me, and in my case, just like actors, actresses and directors, I have my share of favorites.
When you watch enough movies, you get a sense of cinematographer’s visual style. Some like to shoot big sweeping scenes with a crane and wide lens, while others like to shoot with hand-held cameras and give people a gritty sense of texture to the film.
Each of Lubezki’s movies seems completely different, one a space thriller, another a grounded-in-reality drama about a washed-up actor hoping to break the stigma of a superhero, to “The Revenant,” where Lubezki is tasked with re-creating a 19th century landscape of the American frontier.
The Mexican cinematographer excels in each film, creating a cinematic beauty of singular shots, simple but elegant tilts and pans of the frontier, and elegant tracking shots that were stitched together in “Birdman” to give the appearance of being a single camera shot throughout the movie.
Lubezki also provided his unique style in “The Tree of Life,” one of the best films of the last 25 years, and it is mostly because of the movie’s beautiful photography.
The images Lubezki captures on the screen that bring a world to life.
In total, Lubezki has been nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning three times.
I like cinematographers who challenge themselves, not just in techniques but in using images in the frame to create symbolism and deeper meanings about life, and how we interpret what we see on screen.
Other cinematographers bring their own unique vision to their movies, and in many cases you can see why directors often pair themselves with cinematographers on numerous projects.
Steven Spielberg is considered one of the greatest directors of the past 50 years, and he is often tied to the hip of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski on his films.
Kaminski is another great artist behind the camera, creating haunting images and scenes for Spielberg in movies such as “Saving Private Ryan,” “Schindler’s List” and “Minority Report.”
One shot that stands out for me from Kaminski is his work on “Minority Report,” and one scene in particular towards the end of the film.
Working with the cinematographer, Spielberg and Kaminski frame a shot with Tom Cruise’s character John Anderton and Samantha Morton, who plays a “pre-cog” named Agatha, a psychic able to predict murders before they happen.
In the scene, Anderton is working with the pre-cog to determine why his name came up as a prediction to commit murder. The two are hugging — as Agatha is generally in a pool of nutrient water and needs Anderton’s help to balance — and facing in opposite directions as Anderton assures Agatha he is not going to murder someone he’s never met before.
To view Kaminski’s shot, click this link.
As the two converse, they stare off into the distance in their respective direction, and the shot is confusing, beautiful, haunting, seamlessly lit and yet powerful enough to sum up the confusion Anderton is feeling as he runs from the law he once upheld that will stop at nothing to arrest him before he kills a man he has never met.
The movie, released in 2002, was the perfect summer entertainment, and with gorgeous shots from Kaminski it remains a favorite of mine from the past 20 years.
While good film editing is about not noticing the cuts or the transition, good cinematography is the exact opposite. You want to see the images, the beauty of the landscape, and ultimately, you want that cinematographer to manipulate the images in the frame to enhance or further tell the story on screen.
A few other of my favorite cinematographers and some of their movies:
- Roger Deakins: “The Shawshank Redemption,” “Skyfall,” “No Country for Old Men” and “Fargo.”
- Robert Richardson: Both “Kill Bill” movies, “Hugo,” “The Aviator” and “Django Unchained.” Often works with Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino.
- Wally Pfister: “Moneyball,” “The Dark Knight,” “Inception,” “The Prestige” and “Memento.” Has worked a lot with Christopher Nolan, but has moved on to directing.
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