Earning Your Cinematography

An area of filmmaking which I think is mishandled in critique sometimes is cinematography. Like editing, cinematography blurs that line between the art and the science of the craft. I feel like I see a lot of the discussion of cinematography itself bogged down in discussions of technical aspects, how-to's and the like.

But of course cinematography is so much more than the techniques used to capture the filmic image. Really I think the focus right now on cinematography techniques has to do with the relative democratization of film equipment. Knowing the correct way to use your new toy drives a little bit the language of film. The right way to use the camera is a far more profound and nuanced subject, one for many many essays to come. In fact I think a second reason why cinematography gets sort of lumped in with the technical components of filmmaking is because that's easier to talk about and has less room for interpretation.

Essentially there are deep and relatively unexplored questions about the very nature of what cinematography is. I like to think of cinematography as what, literally we can do with the camera and the print of the film. So I was upset when Avatar (2009) won Best Cinematography at the Academy Awards. My definition of what constitutes cinematography is very limited. I was upset that year because I don't feel that a movie which is so extensively digital can really be said to use cinematography in what may be the controversial way I define it. But the definition of cinematography is something best left for another time.

Another question I think cinematographers should be asking and sometimes aren't goes something like "what is the point of cinematography?" Why should a cinematographer use any equipment or technique over any other? But the goal of cinematography is something best left for another time.

Of course I think talking about something so liminal as cinematography is also hard. It's much easier to talk about even the vagaries of editing because the collision of shots is something that's pretty obvious when it happens and pretty significant when it doesn't. Rather than talk about cinematography directly, thus often doing it a disservice by speaking in purely technical terms, I think commentators will fall back on talking about the more concrete elements of the frame e.g. mise-en-scène, lighting, and maybe movement. But the meta-discussion of what we should be talking about when we talk about cinematography and how we talk about cinematography is something best left for another time.

There is some degree to which cinematography to me simply is a man with a movie camera. The purist in me wants to say that the most important tools the cinematographer uses are the aperture and the tripod. The romantic in me says this pushes cinematography back at least to Vermeer and the camera obscura. The minimalist in me says that all other considerations must be justified besides that. Which is all very extreme. So movies today have to earn their new technical devices when it comes to cinematography for me.

A movie which did not win an Oscar but which earned it's cinematography last year was Lion (2016). The film is absolutely gorgeous while also really living up to my own guiding key principle of cinematography which is clarity--something, yet again, for another time. Needless to say, I'm pretty cautious about endorsing newfangled or undervalued techniques on the screen. Digital filmmaking is something I am cautious about endorsing in it's aesthetic merits all around if for no other reason than I don't see them as fully understood.

So why was Lion really nominated for this award though other than it's look on the screen? Well I think Lion is one of the rare but developing class of films to actually make good use out of digital techniques that are available to the filmmaker today. Obviously that's coming from a sense that there's more confusion and less sense of purpose in cinematography today than meets the eye.

The opening sequence is defined by really striking drone photography. And there are these areal shots that are returned to or scaled up. Using drones comes back again and again in Lion and that's not normally something I could endorse. But Lion also earns it's use of the technique, in part because it's a modern story. Therein is the real key. Cinematography, like so much else in narrative filmmaking, should fall in service of telling a story and this is a film which couldn't really be made any other way.

Lion earns it's use of this technique, perhaps the first film with this extensive use of drone footage I've seen to really do so. The reasons are three fold, all have to do with the kind of story this is. This is a movie about the world, which sounds simplistic but really it's pretty grand when you think about it. This is a modern movie in the sense that it takes place up to the day it was shot. Finally, this is a movie about digital pictures from space, which is even more important.

Of course in some broadly philosophical respect, every film takes place in the world--the world of the film. Even the world of dreams or of imagination or delusion or a galaxy far, far away really count as worlds. But  Lion is on a grand scale about some far flung places of our world. It behoves this movie to capture something of the scale of the world, which it does in that opening sequence. Films which take place on just a few square blocks don't really need to command the grandeur of the planet the way this movie needs to. Such films really take a fairly different approach. In Lion we have to go all over India, Australia, and back. The stage is massive.

But this is a story which is really made possible by modern technology and our modern view of the world. It jolts you out of the film a little bit I find, but this is a movie where Google Maps is of the utmost importance. In fact the modern world makes this movie possible. Modern amenities, and technology are a strong device here for the completion of the film. And these things are rooted, perhaps ham-fistedly, in the themes of Lion. At it's most elegant the themes of Lion show the pixelated image of a place, still unbelievably rendered on the most detailed possible map and contrasts those images with those taken with a great deal more specificity and clarity from a drone with an 8K sensor in it.

But above all, in creating the drama of how the journey that is being taken here unfolds, it is very important to see the world the way the most modern technology can bring it to our eyes. That is really what Lion goes about doing with it's cinematography. Showing the world as we see it today and as that sight lets the human drama unfold. There would be some labor intensive way to get all the shots that make up Lion 30 years ago. No doubt. But truly, it wouldn't mean the same thing as it does having the techniques so brilliantly deployed in this film.