More Unsubstantiated Claims About Cinematography: Questions at the Lens

In this new video essay I look at the role of lightness and darkness in cinematography. It also covers some basics of the camera itself, a tool which I argue essentially shapes the quality of lightness and darkness preserved on film.

I'd rather not get too bogged down discussing the essay. It's pretty film theoretical. It's dense. It's an essay format which is flexible because there's not a lot of analysis to back up. It's basically an informed, speculative video essay which assumes a pretty high degree of film literacy.

But there's one claim I make here that isn't exactly explored to any sort of extent that I'd like. At some point I make the claim that "[the lens is] where some of the most important decisions to make arise," and this is something that I'd like to talk a little more about.

Essentially some work that I really wanted to expand into here is that the lens, the piece of glass in front of the aperture of the lens--the cornea of our eye--is kind of a gatekeeper for the director and apt cinematographer where the decision of what light the film can be exposed to is made. So there's some subtle examples of this going on in the essay, like Saving Private Ryan (1998), Schwechater (1958), and not shown Barry Lyndon (1975) which are pretty dramatic in this respect. These are instances where directors literally opted to change the physical properties of the lens they were using itself to achieve a type of image. The nature and quality of these decisions, their look on film, is something that's really interesting and open to a lot of debate.

That's just not a discussion that falls within the purview of what I was talking about here, but it seemed really important to flag that discussion somewhere. So this is my attempt to draw more attention to it. The point is that this thrown away comment is a real rabbit hole in my thinking about cinematography. But it's a topic in cinematography, as I'll explain later, that's not what I'm doing here.

Following that assertion, the only thing there's a need to backup more strongly has to do with what I call the "collisions of lightness and darkness captured" which almost requires a textual citation. This assertion has to do with a well documented point of departure for Peter Kubelka from the work of say Sergei Eisenstein or even Luis Buñuel. Even so, this was an essay and this is a topic which, debatably, has much more to do with editing and narrative than it does with cinematography. So I passed it by.

Below is the script I wrote. Some editing occurred during and after recording:

This is Arnulph Rainer by Peter Kubelka. It along with other films at the avant garde reminds us of what is at the heart of images in cinema—the quality of lightness and darkness as preserved on film. This is essentially what is done with the camera and it’s parts, shape the qualities of lightness and darkness let onto the film.

There are a number of ways to do this. The first is with the aperture, that is the opening through which all the light comes into the camera. Aperture is important because it has an effect on all the other qualities of the image. Brightness and as a consequence grain; depth of field and therefore focus. Aperture is also, in a sense, primitive; it’s the necessary part of every eye in nature.

Another effective influence on the quality of light is the length of the lens—aspect. It’s demonstrated in the varied lightness and darknesses of Serine Velocity. Here we can expand the shot into varied panoramas, or condense it all into a plain at the tip of our nose. And this is one of the uniquely technical pieces of photography, something we have no control over in our biology.

Finally, there is the lens where so much of the image creation happens. The lens is the surface whereby we augment the aperture. It’s the point at which we decide what we want to let in and what we want to keep out of the image. As a filmmaker it’s where some of the most important decisions to make arise because the lens and it’s particulars beg the question “why?”

Of every image we can interrogate as to why the image is the way it is. Why the light spills in here? Why is part of the image so sharp and the rest so blurred? Why does the filmmaker keep us in the dark? Why does the filmmaker expose us to this? Then, what do we make of these collisions between the lightness and darkness captured? These questions are decided at the lens.

Even when, like Peter Kubelka, the goal is destruction of the collisions of narrative filmmaking in favor of the collisions of light and dark frames, or light and dark shapes, there’s a constraint as to what forms and images the audience sees which form a concerto of lightness and darkness for us. In itself that’s a fundamental element of cinema, going to the dark place and bringing us back to the light.

Finally, this is the second piece of a general introduction I've decided to put together about cinematography. I have a few more relevant video essays planned. They'll be rather different depending on the topic and will come out in the following months.