From profound questions of “what is art“, we now take a much needed intermission. Time for popcorn and a movie. But wait, there’s work involved here.
Our next “Find Your Eye” assignment asks us to explore the world of cinematography. From the Greek kinema “movement” and graphein “to record”, cinematography is the art and technique of movie photography. On the film set, the cinematographer, or Director of Photography, is responsible for all operations concerning camera work and lighting during movie production, controlling the film choice, the selection of lens focal lengths, aperture exposure and focus.
Sounds a lot like still photography, doesn’t it? The two mediums share many of the same characteristics; therefore, actively studying great cinematography can teach us ways to enhance our visual storytelling.
So, popcorn by my side, I settled in to watch ”Serenity“ - the cinematic sequel to the “Firefly“ TV series, created by Joss Whedon. Even if you don’t consider yourself a sci-fi fan, I highly recommend spending time in Whedon’s futuristic world. If you are a fan of the charming Nathan Fillion of “Castle” TV fame, you will definitely want to tune in – Fillion, as Captain Malcolm Reynolds, leads the ensemble cast .
I won’t detail the plot for you – that’s what Wikipedia is for. Suffice it say, much of the film’s action takes place onboard Serenity, the “Firefly-class” spaceship which our rag-tag crew call home. In Whedon’s words, “the ship is the tenth character.” This ship in no way resembles the shiny technological wonder of something like the Starship Enterprise. No, Serenity is held together with spit and baling wire and duct tape, bought second-hand from the used lot.
But this is what makes the lighting of the interior scenes so spectacular. Everything is shot in low light. Shadows abound, flitting across the faces of the characters; enhancing mood; supporting the story. The ship’s bridge is bathed in a cool blue light, its windows looking out into the blackness of deep space, further emphasizing the fact that our crew lives on the dark, lonely edges of “the ‘verse”. They have only each other and Serenity to make it through this new world – gone is the “Earth that was”.
Backlighting and rim lighting are used to highlight characters and situations. In a night scene, lit only by firelight, the black negative space surrounds the faces, leading the eye to what is important. During a pivotal scene, the moment when a key moral decision of self-sacrifice is made, Mal is bathed in a bright wash of heavenly light.
An extreme high-key look with glowing, blurred edges represents the dreams and internal mental state of one character. Blown highlights, bleached color and harsh shadows embody the world of the planet Miranda, where everything is too bright, too sharp – you know something is horribly wrong.
This movie is one of my favorites and I have watched it many times. But, this time was different. This time I was seeing as a photographer; tracking the light, the framing, the depth of field. Learning how the visual language supported the story and the emotional sub-text. Discerning details and visual clues. And because of this, the experience was richer, more rewarding.
Photography has had a significant impact on how I see the world around me. This change extends to the way I watch movies and television. Even as I am caught up in the plot, a part of my mind is thinking – “oh, look at the way the light is coming through those windows” or “I wish I could capture that reflection!” or “Gorgeous bokeh!” For as I watch, I am seeing.
So many gifts, photography has given me.
If sci-fi isn’t your thing, here are additional movie favorites, each nominated for Best Cinematography: Shakespeare in Love (1998 ), Moulin Rouge (2001) and Chicago (2002)
Written for “Find Your Eye: Journey of Inspiration”