Cinematography can hardly be summed up in a five paragraph essay, discussed in four minutes, or with just one or two really good examples. Even so that's what this little video essay tries to do. And it's not bad, if I do say so myself. But there's some claims that aren't really unpacked fully.
First, it's a little reductive to say that cinematography is limited to the camera and especially to the lens. That hardly captures the images in film which involve movement and color, or are navigated to through clever editing, and all the manipulation of an image after it leaves the camera. All these are frequently qualities lumped under some broad topic of cinematography and that's all fine. Even so, cinematography is about what can be done with the camera. So what might be reductive shouldn't be controversial.
More controversially is the notion that cinematography wants to be clear or, more pointedly, clarifying. This is a normalizing statement which would seem to evaluate the good images from the bad images through some kind of unsupported naturalist fallacy. And if that's what you're thinking, that's very perceptive and probably not too far off base. Here lies a really important philosophical debate of cinematography, one which is far beyond my purview here. It is a statement, however, which is supported and which I don't think should be as controversial as the images in particularly modern cinema have made it.
Furthermore, the most controversial statements about cinematography here are rolled back by underscoring that cinematography, in the best cases, is also profoundly meaningful. Here we could look at readings of Apocalypse Now (Redux) (1979) or The Fall (2006) or any number of other movies. To do so would, however, transgress from the concern purely with what can be done with the camera which is what I've concerned myself with here.
To draw out the argument a little further here, and hopefully support some of the claims and the bent of the evidence, the idea is that the best cinematography is in service to those other features of narrative art--character, story, and theme.
Below is the text of the video essay narration:
People ask me all the time “what do you look for in a film?” And I don’t really know where to begin. But talking about cinematography seems like a good place to start since cinematography is that art within an art of how a film looks. Not how a film is, not what it looks like, how it looks.
For me that begins with the lens, the aspect, the aperture. That is what we look through. Cinematography is the skill of the camera and these are the fundamental parts which make that device up. And I feel that these are things a cinematographer has to take great care with, because there’s a sort of tectonic power that comes with the lens. Increasing the aperture, creating a softer image, that’s not a quality of image to be handled lightly no matter how easy it becomes to produce.
Remember, additionally, that in cinematography there is a goal, I think, which bends toward the clarity of the image. Since the very first pinhole cameras, cinematography has been the clarifying light that shines on the more muddled compositions of character, story, and theme. So I think it’s really important for cinematography to be as clear as it can be. Cinematography wants to be clear. It is, again, in extremes, I think, that the cinematographer should muddle his image.
And that brings me to the third thing I look for in cinematography, and the highest order to which the cinematographer can aspire to, which is meaning. The first thing that a cinematographer can hope to do is show us the world. To capture it in vivid realism—the unique artistic capacity of film to capture what there is. But to move on from there toward a semiotic image is, I think, where we find beauty. Ineffable to describe or natural in content as the case may be, but nevertheless it is in the meaning of each image on the screen that the aesthetic experience of watching any film lies.
So in how a film looks, what I look for is a reason and articulation at every level here. Control of the camera to the point of restraint. Clarity of vision at all necessary times. Consistent, powerful, and justified meaning in the shot. These are the qualities of cinematography upon which all the other arts and sciences of film must depend.