T.Stops Blog

Cinematography as Art and the Complexity of Less

Welcome back to Tstops!

As many of you may or may not know, I used to be a fine artist.  A sculptor to be exact.  Before I started in the field of the moving image, I made sculptures and drawings, then sold them in galleries.   I was in love with making the work.  Every material I came across, man made or natural was a language in form, shape, color, composition and space.  This all started pretty early, around age 13, I picked up a pen, and just started creating images.  I always saw pictures, I think visually, almost to a fault.  If I can’t see something, I will imagine it until it makes sense to me.   This has always been the case, in elementary school, getting failing grades in math, only to receive perfect scores in geometry sections.  I can see the geometry, and its components and mechanisms make sense to me as clear as day.  I couldn’t understand why other students had trouble in geometry, while they excelled at arithmetic.   I had to adapt, I imagined the numbers in my head as shapes and units, and did my division and multiplication there.  What I didn’t realise, is that I had been conditioning my self, since early childhood to see things in a different way.   I thought I was odd, my teachers felt I had trouble focusing or that I was day dreaming.  No.  I was converting the world to pictures so I could understand it in terms that made sense to me.  My history classes were detailed movies in my head, with the actions and dialogue playing out in realtime.   My science classes (which I loved and excelled at) consisted of visualising cells, organ functions, chemistry reacting and physics playing out in my head space.   I had been secretly training to be an artist, cinematographer my whole life without knowing it.   Looking at the world differently, and seeing not what is there, but what could be there.  What’s funny is, while I was picturing these things, I automatically made them as beautiful as I could.  This just happened by default.

This in essence is what cinematography is.  You read a script and make an image come to life.  However, unlike a director, who makes the action happen, the DP gets the fun job of creating the feeling and mood around the actions.  This is a very intangible and difficult terrain to negotiate.  This is the return of the concept of “what could be there”.   There is no right or wrong way of achieving an image, but art is all about intention and invention.  When I attended NYU, for Studio Art ( I did not go to film school), the one thing that was drilled into us was that everything matters.  Every color, every line, every shape and every brush stroke. (Big thank you to my teacher Jesse Bransford! for kicking my butt about this)  The reason being, you know, as the creator, that the tiny imperfection is meaningless to the core idea of the piece.  In a weird way, after staring at a canvas or sculpture long enough you actually become blind to those things.  Your eyes adjust and write off the tiny imperfections.  The viewer will not.  With contemporary art, every square millimeter counts.   This is how I try my hardest to approach cinematography.   With the unforgiving eye of a viewer.   This makes the job a lot harder.  You have to balance speed, coverage, and quality against your own standards.  I feel this is the only path to take.  “Measure twice, cut once” as my father used to say.  This forces you to make decisions.   Decisions are important.   Decision, on set, is another word for some kind of limitation.   Limits are where great art is created.  It breeds creativity and wit.   I wondered, why some super famous directors work seemed to suffer over the years.  Their first 10 films being amazing, with their last 5 being mediocre.   I think the problem is that having the great success and the budgets and resources that go along with it, they no longer have any limits as compared to their beginnings.  They can create exactly what they (think they) want; even force it to happen digitally with VFX.  This lack of pause, and re-examination of the scene is detrimental.   This applies to any art.  More often than not, cutting the complex shot short, leads to a more elegant solution.  This forces you to examine what’s really happening with the story.  Think about it.  If you told a story to a friend, and described everything in detail, the story would come across as flat or unfunny.   Its the WAY you tell the story, the parts you leave out, the parts you embellish, that add the humor and engaging qualities.   Its the decisions you make on the fly and the punchlines you build that get the point across in an entertaining way.

This is why I like limits when making decisions.  I was never a fan of the post heavy cinematography that has fallen into vogue as of late.  Not because there is anything wrong with post color, stabilization, or reframing, but because it removes the human element from the story.   Its like going back half way through a joke and retelling a part because you didn’t tell it right the first time.  Subconsciously it comes across as forced.  Shooting for the look you want means crafting an image from scratch and trusting in your images.  Take a moment, get the joke right and don’t be afraid to be funny the first time!

In cinema, telling a story with a camera is a balancing act of beauty, utility and thrift.   The beauty is obvious.  Utility means actually getting functioning parts to tell the story… but then there is “thrift”.  This is the part that comes from you.  How do you accomplish a shot? How can you maximise what’s happening on the precious real estate of the screen to give the audience the maximum amount of information without being obvious.  Cinema is not a stage play.  You have the luxury of guiding the audiences focus to elements that have the most impact.  Yet, as an artist, you can also create elements that emphasize what the scene is about.  The amazing Roger Deakins is the master of this. This one scene from No Country for Old Men, in my opinion the finest cinematography of the last decade, illustrates the balance between, setting mood, creating elements and creating metaphor.  Please watch this clip.

What deakins did here is the script calls for the antagonist, Anton Chigur, to be hiding in the hotel room.  However when he enters, like a ghost the room is empty.  Chigur WAS in the room…  after all, they both stare at the empty deadbolt slot in the door, and they both saw each others reflections…   How did deakins create the feeling that Chigur is like a ghost, without being obvious.  His elegant solution is that when the door finally opens, Tommy Lee Jones’ character casts two distinct shadows on the wall.  There ARE two men in the room… its just that one of them is a shadow.  This kind of layered meaning, is what I mean by thrift.  There is so much information conveyed by this sequence of shots, thats not only gorgeous, but cuts like butter and without dialogue, but still tells the story.  That is the mark of an artist.

Less is more. This is specifically what I mean by intention, limits, and decision making.  The scene could have gone many different ways…  There could have been shots showing Chigur, actually hiding in a different room searching for the drug money and escaping with Tommy lee Jones’ character in the background.  That would have served the story as well… But it would have been obvious, and reduced the mystery of who Chigur is.   The decision to light and shoot the scene in this way is pure genius.  It develops character and moves the story along without the need to be cluttered or complex.  I cannot think of how it could have been done better.

In conclusion, I strive to make the shot speak as much as the actors.  Its not easy, but the artist in me won’t let it be any other way.

Thank you for reading.


Follow me on Twitter: @timurcivan





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10 years ago

Fantastic article, very insightful. Thank you for sharing!

10 years ago

Thanks Timur –
You’re not only good with pictures, you’ve got a way with words.

9 years ago

Great article. Really sheds some light on the process of cinematography (pun intended).