The shaking cup of water in Jurassic Park. Deckard hanging on for dear life in Blade Runner. The shower scene of Psycho. All iconic movie moments, but why so? More often than not, we pay little attention to all bar the characters on screen, intensely focusing on the protagonists’ interactions, our eyes trained by Hollywood to look only at what is at literal face value. So how is it then, when the snowglobe falls in Citizen Kane, we’re so entranced by what we see?
The answer lies in cinematography, film’s most underappreciated micro-feature. Though you’ll rarely notice it, how a shot is laid out is an essential aspect of filmmaking; after all, what’s a film without footage? Cinematographers are masters of subconsciously conveying themes and key information to the audience, manipulating the film’s diegesis into a place extending beyond our reality. Framing, lighting, and camera movement are all intrinsic to the creation of a cohesive motion picture.
Roger Deakins is a master of these techniques. With 75 films under his name, Deakins’ filmography is legendary – The Shawshank Redepmtion, No Country For Old Men, The Big Lebowski. You name it, he probably filmed it. Heck, his shots are often the best parts (M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village would fade into obscurity without Deakin’s depiction of the titular ghost town). Yet somehow, after twelve nominations, he is yet to win an Academy Award – though this will hopefully change thanks to this year’s Sicario, giving us haunting aerial views of an impoverished Mexico.
"Though you’ll rarely notice it, how a shot is laid out is an essential aspect of filmmaking; after all, what’s a film without footage?"
Another notable name is Robert Richardson, a frequent collaborator of Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino. Hugo remains his most beautiful film to date, capturing the scale of Parisian streets and the steampunk set in glorious detail, though his less family-friendly works remain a force to be reckoned with; from blood splattering on cotton plants in Django Unchained, to uncomfortably intimate interrogations in JFK.
Still not sure how to spot good cinematography? Famous directors are the way to go. Robert Burks became known for his collaborations with Hitchcock, such as North By Northwest and Vertigo, but his most prolific work can be found in Rear Window. The audience becomes one with the camera, as point-of-view shots let us spy on the hero’s neighbours. We pan across their yards, peer into their lives, becoming voyeurs both in reality and in the fictional world. Burks thus uses this cinematography to question the ethics of spectatorship altogether. John Alcott similarly associated closely with Stanley Kubrick – how can we forget Alex’s unnerving smile in A Clockwork Orange, or Jack Nicholson’s close up (“Here’s Johnny!”) in The Shining?
If you’re looking for more recent cinematic spectacles, look no further than Emmanuel Lubezki. The Tree Of Life transformed the Texan landscape into a dream-like realm, our everyday surroundings captured in beautifully intricate detail, whilst Gravity was ironically grounded by his work, making the CGI backdrop feel far more real than your typical green screen through his nauseating use of tracking shots. It’s Birdman though that really accentuates Lubenski’s skills; meticulously pieced together to create the illusion of it being only one shot, brilliantly capturing the film’s themes of paranoia and depicting the streets of Broadway as a theatre in itself.
The camera lens is thus a powerful piece of equipment. You may not understand what ‘long shots’ or ‘canted angles’ are, but in expert hands, these techniques can completely alter the mise-en-scène, and hence your interpretation altogether. Next time you browse through Netflix then, look deeper at the films themselves – you’d be surprised at what you see.