Camera unconscious

December 11, 1998

There have been few books on cinema successfully bridging the gap that separates technical talk of cameras and lenses, lighting, production design, special effects, tape recorders, editing machines and mixing suites (not to speak of the somewhat more accessible arts of screen-writing, direction of actors and composition of film music), from the language of film appreciation. By and large, film-makers and film critics inhabit different worlds. This is a pity, because film criticism, like any other branch of criticism, benefits greatly from knowledge and experience of "the other side". One has only to read the penetrating film criticism written by directors such as Sergei Eisenstein, Satyajit Ray, Francois Truffaut, Lindsay Anderson and Martin Scorsese, to understand one of the main reasons why most film criticism is shallow and unsatisfying: critics are simply under-informed about how each element in the making of a film contributes (or fails to contribute) to the whole.

A new series of nine books entitled Screencraft, of which Cinematography is the first to be published, aims to fill this gap. "Screencraft is not intended to be a series of 'how to' manuals," writes Peter Ettedgui, the editor of Cinematography (who is himself a screen-writer). "Although the contributors who appear in the following pages may indeed reveal tricks of the trade and discuss technical issues, their contributions are more concerned with transmitting their individual, personal perspective on the language of film." And this is precisely what does emerge from the editor's interviews with 17 leading cinematographers, each of which is helpfully presented as continuous text rather than in question-and-answer form, skilfully, copiously and attractively illustrated in a large format with film stills, production shots, screenplay extracts, story boards and sketches and memos by the director and cinematographer. This genuinely original concept manages to be both fascinating and instructive for the film critic and scholar and, I would judge, invaluable to any aspiring film-maker. If the rest of the series is as good as Cinematography, Screencraft will surely become prescribed reading in film schools all over the world - not that film students will require any encouraging to get hold of this book.

Most of the brightest living names in cinematography are here: Jack Cardiff (The Red Shoes), Douglas Slocombe (Kind Hearts and Coronets), Sven Nykvist (Ingmar Bergman's cinematographer), Subrata Mitra (Satyajit Ray's first cinematographer), Raoul Coutard (Jean-Luc Godard's cinematographer), Haskell Wexler (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), Gordon Willis (The God-father, and Woody Allen's cinematographer), Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver), Janusz Kaminski (Schindler's List), and Darius Khondji (Delicatessen) - to name ten of the 17. There are however no cinematographers from Italy, Japan or Russia, a serious omission given the unique importance of these three countries in the history of cinema.

Certain themes crop up again and again. The older cinematographers inevitably learnt their craft on the job, while the younger ones generally went to film school. Which is the best way to start? There is no agreement. Chapman asserts: "I'd ban film schools ... and make all aspiring film-makers go to university and study history, literature, the classics ... In film school, you get taught to think that whatever you do is art. And that's nonsense." Kaminski believes the opposite: "I think going to film school is essential - you learn about technique and theory, the history of cinema. You're surrounded by film-makers of the future and, as you shoot more and more, you start to think of yourself as a cameraman." Khondji advises: "Don't spend too much time in film school. Travel. I Take photographs. And watch movies. Watch a lot of movies."

Is it necessary to have all the high-tech equipment now available to the cinematographer? The consensus appears to be that a big budget may lead to a lack of creativity. Coutard emphasises that Godard, Truffaut and the nouvelle vague film-makers of 40 years ago were "forced to take to the streets" for lack of money to shoot in the studio; this, and the unheard-of decision by Godard to use only a hand-held camera (also an economy) led directly to the rough-edged style of his celebrated first feature film, A Bout de Souffle (Breathless). But even Nykvist and Willis, who can command whatever facilities they desire, agree with the need for simplicity. "I prefer to work with as little equipment as possible," says Nykvist. Fanny and Alexander - Bergman's last cinema film, an elaborate three-hour period piece that garnered four Oscars, including one for cinematography - Nykvist shot with only one zoom lens "except for a handful of shots where we didn't have enough light". When Willis is offered the latest "super-duper lens/filter/camera/gizmo", his response is usually: thanks, but where's the need for it?

All the contributors agree, with varying degrees of conviction, that cinematographers are there to serve the screenplay - and not to look for beautiful or eye-catching shots; and that they must always play second fiddle to the director. Many of them even admit frankly, if a little ruefully, that their role has been most effective when the audience takes no conscious notice of the photography of a successful film. As Ray once put it (in a well-known article about camerawork regrettably not cited in the section about his cameraman Mitra): "There is no such thing as good photography per se. It is either right for a certain kind of film, and therefore good, or wrong - however lush, well-composed, meticulous - and therefore bad."

Thus Roger Deakins (The Big Lebowski), a British cinematographer who was one of the earliest graduates of the National Film and Television School, remarks: "The best photography, I'm afraid, is the photography that doesn't get any mention." Deakins appears to believe this is true of Kundun, his 1998 film about the Dalai Lama directed by Scorsese. But in my view Kundun illustrates the converse point: its photography is so lush, painterly and intrusive that it overwhelms the Tibetan characters, who become little more than cyphers.

Kundun is a fine example of the difficulty of tackling an off-beat subject in a personal way in an industry that treats movies as a product to be consumed by a mass audience. Scorsese had to exert all his considerable prestige to persuade an American producer to back the film. No doubt its opulent look was partly the result of needing to show all those dollars on the screen.

The familiar clash in movies between integrity and commerce is another underlying theme of this book. One cannot avoid noticing that the older cinematographers are generally more forthright, articulate and perceptive in their comments than the younger ones, because they are speaking about films of the 1940s to 1970s that are, generally speaking, of greater imagination and value than the films of the 1980s and 1990s. "For the most part, this is a sad time for film-making," says Wexler. "There are few directors in America who have enough power to make films with integrity. Shooting a bar scene recently, I noticed a huge Coca-Cola sign in the background. 'Get it out,' I said, 'it doesn't belong in the shot.' The producer came up to me, saying, 'That sign has contributed $200,000 to our budget.' ... As a cinematographer, you're only considered to be good if your last picture made money. Nevertheless, I'd still say to anyone trying to break into the business: don't just be interested in movies. Be interested in life. Be a person. Be in touch. Want to do something with your art besides getting a job."

Wexler characterises the film business as having a "dog-eat-dog mentality", but adds that between cinematographers there exists a remarkable camaraderie; most are generally happy to share new techniques with each other; many regularly teach in film schools. Cinematography is rich in concrete examples of this attitude, which also reveal the collaborative nature of film-making as no mere film theorist can hope to do.

Take "bounce" lighting. Until the 1950s, the vast majority of films were lit with studio lights - often glaringly bright for the actors - pointed directly at the scene being shot. The result was usually theatrical and artificial, because the lighting was intense and focused and seldom matched the supposed source of light "on the screen", be it a window or a table lamp, and in addition created swarms of inappropriate shadows when the actors moved.

"Bounce" lighting, which used indirect light reflected on to the scene from materials such as white cloth or aluminium foil, looked natural because it was diffuse and comparatively shadowless. It was invented in 1956, as Mitra recalls, for Ray's film Aparajito, when Ray was forced by the art director's fear of monsoon rain to shoot an open Benares courtyard scene inside a studio rather than outdoors as planned. Instead of being able to depend on the sky above, Mitra had to devise a new approach. He stretched a framed, painted white cloth over the set and bounced his lighting off it. The natural conviction of the result on screen helped Aparajito to win the 1957 Golden Lion at the Venice film festival. Within a few years, Nykvist working with Bergman in Sweden and Coutard working with Godard in France were using similar techniques. By the 1960s, bounce lighting had become the norm. (A pity, though, that while Ettedgui acknowledges Mitra's priority, neither Nykvist nor Coutard does: cinematographers are not invariably generous to each other.) Cinematography is a book that deserves the highest praise for its contribution to the wider understanding of film-making. If it has a major fault (apart from a meagre and defective index), it is in the design and illustrations.

Though the production standard is high, the choice of images generally excellent, and the layout elegant and enticing, the text typeface is unfortunately too small for comfortable reading, and many of the photos - especially the black-and-white production shots - and some of the drawings and extracts are considerably too small to be appreciated as the text and captions demand. Furthermore, certain captions are difficult, even impossible, to relate to the illustrations; they should have been keyed in with numbers or letters. Let us hope that the forthcoming volumes in this otherwise admirable series - on production design and art direction, film music, screenwriting, costume design, directing, editing and post-production, special effects and acting - will avoid these problems.

Andrew Robinson is literary editor, The THES, and author of Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye. A season of films by the cinematographers featured in Cinematography runs at the National Film Theatre until 28 December.


Author - Peter Ettedgui
ISBN - 2 88046 356 4
Publisher - RotoVision
Price - £.50
Pages - 208

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