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Tripping The Light Fantastic

December 29, 2013

Standing side by side with the director, the director of photography. D. W. Griffith, who basically created the visual language of modern filmmaking said something to the effect that “we are the one’s that make light play.” Working alongside his cameraman, Billy Blitzer, they early on set the standard for visual storytelling while chasing the light. (Sergei Eisenstein paid homage to the father of modern cinema in his brilliant, insightful essay Dickens, Griffith, And The Film Today.)

The craft of the director of photography or cinematographer, in the beginning known as the cameraman, is a tricky one. These days there are a number of fine directors of photography plying their trade. But there’s a quality of workmanship impossible to measure when you’re watching the work of certain select masters—the ones with the gift. They are modern alchemists seeing and conjuring light in astonishing ways. You’ll know the gift when you see it. They make the act of seeing with one’s eyes transformative.

Their craft extends beyond just photography. There’s a dividing line between movies that are merely pictorial, others that are competently shot, and movies that are cinematic. Movie movies sneak up on you, assert themselves in all their movie/ness. You’ll know it when you see it. It’s not only about the light. It’s about the shadows too and the framing and the movement as well as the stillness of the camera. Sitting in the dark you feel its power, visible yet invisible. You sense its magic.

*  *  *

Directors of Photography play many roles on a production. Some help directors reach for a special vision in telling their story. DPs lead by example, deepening the work; experienced master storytellers.

Here then some of the masters I admire: Greg Toland (Citizen Kane); James Wong Howe (Sweet Smell Of Success); Sven Nykvist (Fanny and Alexander); Raoul Coutard (Weekend); Henry Alekan (Wings Of Desire); Gordon Willis (The Godfather); Vittorio Storaro (The Conformist); Fred Elmes (Blue Velvet)…

And here a few of the moderns whose work I look for: Chris Doyle, Anthony Dod Mantle, Emmanuel Lubezski, Rodrigo Prieto, Guillermo del Toro, Roger Deakins…

And we’ve not even addressed the digital revolution currently redefining how we record and look at images. Read a description of what a DP does accompanied by interview material. It’s on Wikipedia. Then watch the documentary Visions Of Light, a discussion of the art and craft of cinematography and of the “DP” (the director of photography).


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  1. jreesnc permalink

    Reblogged this on John Rees.


  2. barbara permalink

    Thanks for reminding me about Visions Of Light. I can’t wait to watch it again.


    • It’s a vision thing. Vist-A-vision, Panavision, Smell-O-Rama, Cinerama, Lack-of-vision, It’s definitely a vision thing. Thanks B…


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