Musings on the Art of Cinematography

Posted by David Worth on

Imagine being able to learn about something as complex as the Art of Cinematography in only half an hour or a weekend. Isn't that what we all want today, in our new millennium, instant gratification world of the Internet, High Def, GoogleEarth and YouTube?

As we look back to the very origins, to the dawn of the Cinema and Cinematography, it's always amazed me, that filmmakers base their entire lives and careers on some thing that is totally intangible, something that is only the projection of the illusion of movement onto a screen.

The very first camera was invented by the Cosmos, by The Earth itself, some might even say, by God. It was simply a small pinhole in the wall of a cave somewhere in some primitive corner of the world that may have already existed for a million years or more. Then one day, one of our ancestors ventured into that particular cave and experienced the very fist projected image. He or she or they sat there in the dark, in the cool damp air, transfixed by the inverted image on the cave's wall, an image of the very same landscape that they had just walked through outside.

Much, much later, that dark cave became a light tight camera body, the pinhole became a lens and the back wall of the cave became first still camera film, then motion picture film. The careers of the Photographer and Cinematographer were born and today we still sit in the dark, in the air-conditioned theater, transfixed by the projected images of something familiar, some aspect of ourselves up on the silver screen.

Obviously Cinematography is an extensive subject, however, when I was approached by the Publishers to do a textbook on the subject, I was hesitant. Why? Because I was asking myself some very important questions:

First: Were today's younger generation, actually interested in learning about Cinematography? Second: With today's technology can't they simply learn it by letting their High Def cameras do most the thinking? Third: Why would young people today want go back to study the ABC's of old fashion 35mm lighting and cameras? Fourth: Was today's generation actually going to respond to yet another textbook on Cinematography? Fifth and finally: Could I some how find a fresh approach, an entirely new way of looking at this vast, ancient, technical subject?

Then I stopped asking questions and started doing research. One of the secrets to any successful book can be found in the research that the author does and today that research can be carried out quite efficiently and successfully by means of the internet. What ever subject that you dream up, or that you might be interested in, or that you may simply happen across and want to find out more about, is right there waiting for you to, "Google" it. How in the name of Bill Gates, did anyone ever do their research before this amazing "information superhighway" came into existence?

How did the great American Filmmakers like D.W. Griffith, Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick ever find out about or research the subjects of their various films way back in the day? That's right, it was done tediously and meticulously by hand in various libraries and it often took many months or even years to do, what we can do today in only a matter of hours.

When I began doing my research, I did it in order to find a way in, an approach, a place to start to do a new book on the subject of Cinematography and it wasn't long before several things became quite clear:

First: The subject of Cinematography itself could be considered to be a very old, tired, dry, dull, and technical one. I recalled having fallen asleep myself, as a young Cinematographer, reading one of the original books that existed on the subject, back in the day, the American Cinematographers Manual. It put me to sleep then and I guarantee that it will put you to sleep now.

Second: As I researched most of the top textbooks that already existed on the subject of Cinematography, I discovered that even in our new millennium, many of these volumes had also fallen into the trap of being too highly technical and thus quite sleep inducing.

How then was a novice author ever going to hold the attention of the YouTube Generation of young filmmakers and at the same time, introduce them to the Art and Craft of Cinematography? That was my ongoing dilemma.

Then, as Fate or Luck or Persistence or the Gods of Cinematography would have it, it was Orson Welles himself who came to my rescue. While doing my research, I came across a marvelous quote from the eloquent Mr. Welles, who had told his adoring entourage at one time or another that he had, "Learned everything about the Art of Cinematography, from the great cameraman, Gregg Toland, in half an hour."

Yes! This was the key, instant assimilation of the Art of Cinematography. That's what the young people of today want, that's what everyone wants, to learn the ABC's of something as complex as Cinematography in only half an hour, or at least no more than a weekend!

Needless to say that quote started my imagination working overtime and as I followed Mr. Welles boast to its illogical conclusion I surmised, that it was not just a half an hour, it was probably more like a very long weekend. Then by adding to that assumption, Mr. Welles highly touted appetites for food and booze and women, I finally arrived at my premise, which was: During their sessions learning about the ABC's of Cinematography and Filmmaking, what Mr. Welles and Mr. Toland no doubt had, was a weekend of orgiastic proportions.

That gave me my way in, my place to start, and my key to holding the younger generation's attention. Many drafts later I came to understand that I might have something unique, not exactly a graphic novel, but perhaps instead, a graphic textbook, a very graphic textbook in fact. One that weaves all of the ABC's of Cinematography and Filmmaking including: The Camera, The Lenses, The Film, The Lighting, The Exposure, The Blocking, The Coverage, The Continuity even The Editing and Post Production into and around and through a totally fictional, funny, irreverent, risqué and wild-weekend of a story.

As the Academy Award winning Writer of THE STING, David Ward wrote in his endorsement of my book: "If it didn't happen this way, it should have."

Did I succeed? Truthfully, only time and the future readers, teachers and students who might use this book as a tool to learn about and to begin to study the amazing Art and Craft called Cinematography can let me know. However, if you'd like to weigh in with your opinion, simply buy a copy of THE CITIZEN KANE CRASH COURSE IN CINEMATOGRAPHY. My email address is inside, read it and let me know your thoughts.

Exercises in Cinematography and Filmmaking

Presently, I'm teaching filmmaking and my students often show me their newest palm sized HD cameras, many of which can even shoot by candle light. So as of now, by owning a small HD camera and having Final Cut Pro or some similar system on your lap top, you have basically become your own studio. Which means that you can "green light" your own projects with out having to go through all of the Hollywood nonsense, so let's do just that.

Let's have a small: No Money No Script No Stars No Nonsense Film Festival! Let's see who can use whatever resources are at hand to do the Best Cinematography. Using only your home video, digital or HD cameras, available light or small practical lighting units and your computer editing systems, make a 3 to 5 minute short film by going through the following steps:

1. Select a subject, a Theme, a Concept, a Product, a Genre or a Song.
2. Prep it in a day, figuring out the Who & the What & the Where that you will need.
3. Shoot it on a Weekend, filming as many exciting Camera Angles as you need.
4. Edit it on your Final Cut Pro or what ever non linear system that you have.
5. Add some Music and Sound Effects, if it isn't a Music Video.
6. Add some Main & End Titles & Burn a DVD.
7. Now post it on YouTube and show it to your friends, classmates & family.
8. Make yourself a Certificate that says you are a No Nonsense Filmmaker.
9. Hang the Certificate up and when anyone asks about it: Show them your film.

Now, you have started to become a Cinematographer, a Director and an Editor, in other words a Filmmaker. Perhaps someday you will also become a part of that long tradition in the Art of The Cinema and Cinematography.

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