Five Cinematographers Who Shaped Me

16 09 2011

It’s getting later on a Thursday night and for some reason I’m feeling kind of sentimental, so I’ve decided to write a fairly personal post for you guys.  For of those you who don’t know, my passion and calling in the world of film production is cinematography.  I have lensed a variety of commercials, award-winning shorts, promotional videos, weddings (video and 8mm film, believe it or not), industrial films and live music acts.  In short, you name it, I’ve probably shot it at some point.  In the commercial world, there are times of true creative ingenuity, but for the most part, you are limited by what the client or employer desires.  For that reason, this post definitely relates more to my shaping as a cinematographer narratively.  Who are the five most influential cinematographers to me personally?  It’s going to be hard to narrow it down and I won’t be so daring as to try to put them in any order, but here are five true artists who helped change the way I looked at motion pictures.

1. Gianni di Venanzo (1920 – 1966)

Di Venanzo with camera; Francesco Rosi in foreground

Many cinematographers will tell you that one of the primary goals in perfecting the look of an image is finding the perfect balance between light and dark.  Perhaps no other cinematographer achieved this more exquisitely than di Venanzo.  The man who shot Antonionni’s La Notte and Fellini’s 8 1/2 had amazing control over the contrast of black and white negative.  The darkness of the blacks and blazing white highlights, coupled with his distinctive mood influenced lighting style, give all of his films a certified dream-like quality.  In looking through the nearly two dozen features he shot over the last 20 years of his life, you can see his personal stamp as an artist and technician indelibly printed.  Though the bulk of his work was with black and white negative, di Venanzo proved himself equally as awe-inspiring and versatile in his color work on Fellini’s epic Juliet of the Spirits.  Di Venanzo’s work has had such a hold on me that, when filming my directorial debut last fall (which was filmed black and white), his notable style was the only cinematographer’s body of work that I mentioned to our DP in helping define the mood and style of the film.  Di Venanzon died in a car accident in Rome while shooting a picture in 1966; it’s a wonder what other wonderful images he could have provided us with had his life not been cut so short.

2. Robert Surtees (1906 – 1985)

Robert L. Surtees

Whereas di Venanzo’s work brightly illuminated his personal flourish, Surtees was that of a chameleon.  Whether black and white, color, a bright musical or dark drama, Surtees could handle it all.  Many say that the best shot movies are the ones where the images don’t stand out; meaning, the visual beauty is not so much that it distracts from the story.  If this could be said of any cinematographer, I think Surtees is a fine example.  He was versatile and talented, giving each one of his narratives their own distinct feel.  A three-time Oscar winner and fourteen time nominee, Surtees’ work spanned over four decades and included Ben-Hur, The Last Pictures Show, Oklahoma!, King Soloman’s Mines, The Bad and the Beautiful, The Sting and The Graduate.  As testament to his versatility in an ever changing industry, when he shot The Graduate in 1967, critics and fans alike heralded it as new, innovative and cutting edge in its look and lighting design; Surtees was 60 years old when he shot this film.  A brilliant, brilliant cameraman, I will go out on a limb and say that if I could aspire to any style of another artist, I would like to be as good and versatile as Surtees behind the camera.

3. Jack Cardiff (1914 – 2009)

Jack Cardiff

Another artisan whose work stands out with his personal touch stamped on each and every frame.  I have elaborated fondly on the work of Cardiff on this blog in two other posts: Directors who Started as Cinematographers and in my review of the film Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff.  To save those loyal readers the pain of my continued adoration of this wonderful cinematographer, I will keep his segment brief.  Working his way up from clapper boy in the 1920s, Cardiff became one of the most skilled, if not the most skilled, Technicolor lighting cameraman in the business.  His work with the Archers demonstrates some of the most brilliantly colorful palettes of filmmaking in existence.  When I think of the correalation between a great painter like Vermeer or Caravaggio in the film business, I think of Cardiff.

4. Gordon Willis (1931 –   )  

Willis behind the camera

People call Willis the “Prince of Darkness” due to his insatiable desire to push the bottom end latitude to the hilt in exposing his image.  His repertoire during the 1970s is almost unmatched with films like both Godfather movies, All the President’s Men, Annie Hall, Klute, The Paper Chase and Manhattan.  His style is evident in each and every one, a gritty, dark and moody negative that puts the viewer directly in the story, but still holding a visually stunning image.  His style remains very unobtrusive, yet retains a certain classic beauty that leaves viewers pondering the visual panache of the film long after viewing it.  Though you may not recognize him by name, his images have all been a strong part of our cinematic histories.

5. Sven Nykvist (1922 – 2006)  

Sven Nykvist

The second and longest collaborating Director of Photography with famed Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, Nykvist is best known for his muted colors and soft lighting approach.  His work with Bergman alone is enough to solidify him in the annals of the best cinematographers of all-time with films like Persona, Cries and Whispers, Fanny and Alexander and Scenes From a Marriage.  But then, he came to work for American and English directors and provided us with further visual gems in films like Chaplin, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Sacrifice and Celebrity.  The muted, autumn-esque color palette and diffused, yet controlled lighting style that Nykvist incorporated create some of the richest and satisfying, yet subtle images ever put to screen.  His work is not necessarily flashy and he was a large proponent of natural lighting, but this minimalist nature, under his control, produced images that are in my opinion works of art.

Of course, there are many more DPs that I love and admire including, but not limited to, Roger Deakins, Robert Richardson, Freddie Francis, Guiseppe Rotunno, Nestor Almendros, Charles Lang, Vittoro Storaro, Gregg Toland, Lazlo Kovacs, John Alonzo and on and on.  However, if I have to narrow my influences due to personal taste and whose work most comes to mind when I think of shaping my own images, then these are the gentleman that come first.





5 Silent Films You Must See

3 04 2011

I love silent films, I really do.  Honestly, I feel like we lost an artform in and of itself when sound came in and totally redirected the entire process of filmmaking.  Unfortunately, many didn’t realize that silent filmmaking and sound filmmaking, though both forms of cinema, were very different in their execution and style.  It’s a shame that both couldn’t co-exist; but as with anything, when something new comes along, the predecessor usually disappears over time.

Many of my friends and colleagues hate silent films (which amazes me how we are still friends/colleagues).  They can’t stand the black and white or the fact you have to read title cards or the jerky motion (which is not due to the films themselves but the haphazard projection and transfer rates we have shown them at in recent years), melodramatics of some of the dramas or slapstick silliness of some of the comedies.

Yet, there are many, many wonderful silent films.  Films that many people won’t even give a chance because of some strange discrimination against them.  So, I’m here to give a starter kit, so to speak; films I can see as being fairly available and enjoyable to the mass audience.  If you watch these five recommendations and still can’t stand silent films, then I can at least give you the “e” for effort.  I still might not understand it, but it will appease my unrest.  Anyway, gear up your netflix queue or drop by the local video store and start here:

5.  Battleship Potemkin dir. Sergei Eisenstein (1925) – If you have ever read a book on film or taken a film class in college, then I’m sure the name Eisenstein is somewhat familiar to you regarding his landmark theories on movie montage.  Eisenstein, outside of his work as a theorist, was even more so a renowned Russian filmmaker.  Wait, what?  You are not only recommending silent films, but foreign ones at that!  Yes, but remember, we are in the silent realm, so the foreign part doesn’t really matter much.

So, what’s this film about?  Well, it’s a propaganda film that dramatizes the mutiny that took place aboard the battleship Potemkin in 1905, during the Russian revolution.  Sounds a little heavy handed from the description, I know.  However, if you can give this film a chance, I don’t think you would regret it.  The style, form and use of his much theorized montage theory creates an exciting and entrancing film.  It will shock you that this film is nearly 90 years old because it will be completed and satisfying before you even realize you just watched a silent film.  Furthermore, once you watch this film, let me know all the movies you can think of who have directly ripped off the Odessa Steps sequence.

4. The General dir. Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton (1926) – I’m sure most of you have heard of Charlie Chaplin, he’s been pretty ingrained in pop culture even to this day.  Well, Chaplin was one of three comedians who dominated silent comedies.  The other two were Harold Lloyd (none of his films on this list, but try Speedy or Safety Last for a good taste of his style) and our star of this film, Buster Keaton.  Keaton was referred to as “Old Stone Face,” and if you give this film a chance, you will see why.

This film is set during the American Civil War and has a fairly simple premise.  Keaton, who plays railroad engineer Johnny Gray, has two loves in life – one is his train, The General (title cue), and the other is Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack).  When the Civil War breaks out, he goes to sign up for the Confederate Army, but is rejected because of his critical role in working for the railroad.  Annabelle and her father are let down immensely and feel he is a coward, not understanding the true reason he was rejected.  A year into the war, Annabelle’s father is wounded.  On a trip to see him aboard the General, Union spies sabotage the passengers and steal the General and take Annabelle Lee hostage.  The rest of the film is Gray proving himself as an unsuspecting hero, a feat that no one does as expertly as Keaton.

The acrobatics and physical comedy that Keaton performs in this film are absolutely breathtaking.  The entire film is a joy to watch and has as much action, intrigue and suspense as anything created today (much of the time, more so).  The only difference is that all those stunts are actually Keaton himself doing them, not a stuntman or CGI handy work.  This is real filmmaking, real locations, real stunts, and all that, makes one hell of a great film.

3. Intolerance dir. D. W. Griffith (1916) – I’m sure the name David Wark Griffith probably rings a few bells.  Most of you probably know him for creating what is by-and-large considered the first full-length, modern feature (it wasn’t, but hey, the guy did a lot of amazing things for filmmaking, so I don’t mind credit here) with his controversial film The Birth of a Nation.

Well, after The Birth of a Nation received so much negative feedback, D.W. decided to make a film in retaliation that would even outdo himself.  The result was this film, Intolerance. If you adjust inflation into the mix, it is the most expensive and grandest motion picture ever made.  Yes, that’s right, the most extravagant motion picture ever made is a film that was produced just 20 years into cinema’s existence.

The film deals with varying degrees of intolerance by analyzing four main stories in four different eras: The Babylonian Period and the fall of Babel, the events surrounding the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, The French Renaissance and the failure of the Edict of Toleration and a modern day (1914) story concerning workers rights and the oppression of the everyday American.  A common motif, the “Eternal Mother” (Lilian Gish), artistically serves as a seque between the four different stories.  To go much further into the synopsis of this film would get pretty convoluted and probably just be confusing to you.  In other words, watch the film!

When I saw this film for the first time, it shocked and awed me more than any present day movie I’ve ever seen.  The masterful precision that Griffith used to make this film in scope of story, cinematography, direction, set design and editing between the four time periods is mind blowing.  There are few films like this from any era.  Make sure you have a long afternoon for this one though, as it’s the longest of the five recommendations at 197 minutes for the full version.

2. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans dir. F. W. Murnau (1927) – Murnau, a native of Germany, was already extremely well-regarded in his homeland before coming to the United States.  He came to Fox Studios in 1926 to make his first American picture, and this was the film he made.

The film follows the story of a man (George O’Brien) and his wife (Janet Gaynor), whom have a young child.  The man (yes, there are no actual names), is having an affair with a Woman of the City.  One night, while frolicking near the river, the Woman of the City insists the man should murder his wife and make it look like an accident, so that they can live together.  The man is reluctant, but ultimately agrees.  The next day, he and his wife prepare for an outing to the city.  He attempts the murder, but can’t actually pull it off.  He and his wife then continue on to the city and renew the pervious glory of their relationship.  On the way home, however, a strong storm hits and fate seems to bring their worlds into disarray on its own terms.

Sunrise is as human as a motion picture can get.  The lead characters have no names other than “the man” and “his wife.”  Yet, the story itself is so deep, moving and real that you really don’t need a specific identity for these characters.  In regards to direction and cinematography, this film was way ahead of its time.  Murnau took liberties in not only shot selection, but even in title transitions, that were experimental and progressive.  Charles Rusher and Karl Struss co-shot the film, ultimately winning the first Academy Award for Best Cinematography for their combined efforts.   The in camera tricks, lighting and complexities of shots still don’t fail to amaze the eye.  Sunrise is, quite simply, a brilliant, moving film that I feel anyone can enjoy on the most basic level.  Every part of this film just works, and for the joint efforts of cast and crew, it was awarded an Oscar for “Unique and Artistic Production” as a special category.

1. City Lights dir. Charles Chaplin (1931) – With the advent of sound in 1928 with The Jazz Singer, silent films started to dwindle.  By the time this film was released in 1931, silent films were generally a thing of the past.  However, Chaplin, one of the greatest stars of the silent era, insisted on keeping this film silent, because he didn’t feel that the world was ready to hear his eternal waif, the Little Tramp, speak.

A master at blended comedy and drama, Chaplin produced a film that continues to bring a world of emotions some 80 years after its release.  The story revolves around Chaplin’s character of the Little Tramp, who falls in love with a poor, blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill).  Through a hap circumstance, she believes that he is a millionaire and can help her and her mother in their desperate time of need.  Determined to help, he befriends a raucous, party-driven millionaire and does everything he can to help the flower girl and her mother.  In the end, he helps them and she is able to get an eye operation that restores her sight.  But, will she be able to accept the Tramp for his true self?

City Lights is, in my opinion, the best Chaplin film.  It combines all the elements that made him so legendary in perfect array, and being someone who has seen all of his features and most of his shorts, I feel like I have a pretty good judgement in Chaplin’s filmography.  This is a beautiful, moving film that I couldn’t see anyone watching and not thoroughly enjoying.  If there is one silent film that you are willing to give even the slightest chance, then this is the film that I think you should see.  It’s comedy, it’s drama, it’s Chaplin.








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