The word cinematography originates from the Greek ‘kinema’ which means movement, and ‘graph’ which means writing. Today we look at what is a cinematographer and seek an overview of this magnificent profession.
Looking at cinematography from a raw, practical point of view, it’s the science of motion-picture photography by way of recording light with a sensor.
That doesn’t sound very interesting, though, and cinematography is, of course, very interesting in its essence. As we’ll come to find out.
What is a Cinematographer?
A poetic way of looking at the job description of a cinematographer is to say he or she is a painter and the actors, props and scenes are his ‘brush’, while the screen is his or her canvas. A story is told with a mixture of different influences.
A cinematographer has what is considered by many as one of the most complex and challenging jobs of all the crew members that work on a film project. It’s up to the cinematographer, also called the director of photography (or DOP), to make the film director’s vision appear on screen.
Everything from camera angles to lighting and the film’s mood all depend on the cinematographer and his ability to successfully bring ideas to life.
The importance of lighting should not be underestimated and a good cinematographer knows this. Even just from a basic perspective, for every light that is turned on, there will be a shadow that can potentially change the mood of the shot.
The film director and cinematographer must have a great relationship and understanding to create the best possible film.
It must almost appear that the two can somehow read each other’s minds. If there is miscommunication or a lack of understanding between them, it can lead to a great project going poorly or even failing.
Yes, it’s true: behind every amazing or jaw-dropping shot that sets a movie apart from others is a tired but satisfied cinematographer.
With creative skills and the right technical know-how, every shot can become a piece of film art in a passionate cinematographer’s hands.
Even the most (seemingly) basic decisions like the camera placement, the colours used in the film, or choosing between shooting the project in film or digital are all part of the tasks that a cinematographer must attend to.
It’s easily one of the most important jobs on a film set and the cinematographer has to constantly communicate with the director and production designer to make sure they are all on the same page and that the film is going according to plan.
Cinematographers Evoke Emotions
A good cinematographer can evoke intense emotions from the audience watching his film simply by using a few tricks. Fear, sorrow, joy, and happiness are all ‘toys’ with which a cinematographer masterfully plays to create the kind of film the director wants.
Good cinematographers have very creative minds and have the ability to use their environment to enhance the shot they are working on.
Something as modest as a boulder, a well-timed wind or mountain in the distance can become a useful ‘prop’ that could supplement a fantastic shot.
Another part of the cinematographer’s job is to communicate a character’s hope, dreams and emotions without the need for words. This can be done by studying the script thoroughly and knowing the character inside out and applying the knowledge of cinematography honed from years of experience.
Not many people realise this, but a lot of energy and hard work goes into planning and pulling off the various shots that make up a film.
The cinematographer is in control of this and needs to make sure every shot captivates the audience and perfectly delivers the message that was intended by the director.
Cinematography: Important Choices
Framing, lens choice and angles are all important in getting the right ‘feeling’ for a film and this is traditionally one of the biggest tasks of the cinematographer.
Some cinematographers will become very fussy and picky about even the smallest things if their budget and schedule allows them to.
Moving lights or cameras even just a few inches won’t be considered ‘too much’ by a cinematographer if they feel it will make a notable and positive difference to a shot.
While many people may see this as dramatic and perhaps even overkill, it is the small things that eventually make the difference between a good film and an exceptional film.
A Variety of Roles
Of course, it’s not only films that have a need for cinematographers. Television shows, music videos and even television commercials all need a bright and talented cinematographer to create the perfect shots, and eventually, the perfect episode, video or commercial.
Because they have such a big task and involvement in the filming of a project, cinematographers do not work alone and often have a huge crew that works with them. This is known as the camera department.
They must bring in the grips, gaffers, camera operators and other technical production specialists together to work in unison.
Naturally, the size of such a crew depends on the project’s budget.
Cinematographers do not have normal working hours like your standard office worker does. They can work very irregular and long hours, sometimes spending entire days working long, grinding hours. It’s certainly not a stroll in the park.
Because filming can be done any time of the day or night, depending on the requirements of the scene, there are no real strict schedules for a cinematographer. Whenever a good shot needs to be filmed, the cinematographer will be there to do it.
This applies to situations where a crew is waiting for perfect weather conditions, the right ‘magic hour‘ or for the perfect crowd situation in an urban area.
What is a Cinematographer – The Job in a Nutshell
One of the perks of working on a film is the fact that it is often shot in different locations and not just in a studio or an elaborately created set. Travelling can become tiresome if many locations are visited, though.
While the project’s filming is underway, cinematographers basically ‘run the show’ next to the director. They will direct the technical production crew as well as make sure that the right equipment is being put to use.
It might happen that a cinematographer will even handle the camera equipment him-or-herself, but that usually only happens on sets where the crew is small because of a low budget. In most cases, a ‘camera operator‘ will be used.
Once the filming is all said and done, the cinematographer will work with the project’s editor(s) to make sure elements such as the colour grading is perfect.
Becoming a skilled and appreciated cinematographer doesn’t happen overnight and those who rose to fame have been in the business for years.
A lot of cinematographers start off by going to film school, though it’s not always a requirement.
Knowledge of cinematography and film production is obviously necessary to do a good job, but formal education won’t always be expected.
Most likely, an aspiring cinematographer will start off as a camera assistant, or other member of the camera department, and work their way up from there, gaining valuable skills.
What is a Cinematographer – In Conclusion
Filmmakers who are serious about making a great film or video will make sure to hire an outstanding cinematographer because they know the value of their skills.
Even the best script and most creative director supported by the most talented actors won’t be enough if the cinematographer isn’t passionate and good at what he or she does.
By combining the best possible crew with today’s tools and technologies, films that are considered masterpieces are becoming more common.
Just think about the last movie you watched that made you say ‘Wow!’. A brilliant team was behind that film, and at its core was the cinematographer.
We hope you found this article about what is a cinematographer helpful. Do you have an interesting story about how you became a cinematographer? Let us know in the comments below.