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cinematography (cinematographer)

Contributor(s): Kevin Ferguson

Cinematography is a blend of science and art used to capture, manipulate and store moving images for the purpose of creating a motion picture. The person responsible for the technical process that gives a film its unique look and feel is called the cinematographer or director of photography (DP). The DP works closely with the film’s director, who is responsible for ensuring that the actors, set and technical choices made by the DP accurately reflect the script's intentions. In many instances, particularly smaller budget films, the director of photography will also serve as the camera operator.

Many of the same cinematic goals (for example, engaging the viewer and manipulating emotions) are used in both film and digital cinematography. Consider, for example, the depth of focus and framing. The first part of these, the depth of focus, refers to how much of the image on the screen, or frame, is in focus and how much is blurry. By having subjects closer to the camera in sharp focus and those in the background blurry, the eye is drawn to the foreground. Alternatively, having both near and distance objects in sharp focus gives equal weight to both. The director of photography can choose to alternate focus from foreground to background to heighten a sense of tension or to make a revelation to the viewer and the character in the foreground. Camera angle is another important consideration the cinematographer must consider. Scenes shot from a low-to-high angle, for example, can make the subject seem either foreboding or powerful.

The technical aspects the cinematographer must consider include the aspect ratio, depth of focus and framing, color, lighting, camera angle, frame rate, film stock (for example, 8mm, 16mm, 35mm, and 65mm) and special effects (FX). Each of these technical aspects requires specific equipment and settings on that equipment to achieve the desired results. It is the technical aspect of film making that has changed most over the years.

History of cinematography

Technical and artistic innovation have moved apace since the 1830s, when Simon von Stampfer, Joseph Plateau, William Horner and Eadweard Muybridge created the first moving pictures with their respective inventions: the stroboscope, the phenakistoscope, the zoetrope and the zoopraxiscope. With each technical innovation, cinematographers had a larger toolkit from which to draw. For example, Cooper Hewitt’s mercury-vapor lamps, introduced in 1901, made it practical to shoot films indoors without sunlight. The Bell and Howell 2709 movie camera invented in 1915 allowed directors to make close-ups without physically moving the camera.

Advances in color technology (Technicolor, in 1917, Kodachrome in 1935, and Eastmancolor in 1950) changed how cinematographers could elicit viewers’ emotions and attentions. Sound, though not technically part of the director of photography's responsibilities, was added to most film by the 1920s and became an additional consideration. Changes regarding the mechanics of camera movement also had an impact on viewers’ relation to the action they were seeing on film. Camera stabilizers, particularly the Steadicam which was invented by Garrett Brown in 1975, allowed the camera operator to smoothly shoot a scene while moving along an irregular surface and provide innovative first person views (FPVs).

Digital vs film cinematography

Like still-image photographers, cinematographers use a camera with a lens to focus light onto a substrate. If the camera is digital, the substrate is an electronic image sensor. If the camera uses film, the substrate is a light-sensitive material. Film movie cameras, like their still-image counterparts, store images on light-sensitive emulsion material. The images are chemically treated to form visible images which can then be projected in quick progression to create a motion picture. In contrast, electronic image sensors in a digital movie camera produce an electrical charge for each pixel in the frame and each frame is stored as a series of numbers. The higher the number of frames projected in a given second, the smoother the projection.

One of the key technical aspects that distinguishes digital from film cinematography is the use of sensors. Traditional film cameras capture light on photographic film, which consists of layers of light-sensitive silver halide emulsion coated on a flexible base. Digital cinematography cameras capture images is a fashion similar to digital photography, but use complementary metal oxide semiconductor (CMOS) or charge-couple device (CCD) sensors. In general CCD sensors produce less digital noise or graininess in an image, but they use up to 100 times more energy than CMOS sensors. Both convert photons to electrons for digital processing.

Another key aspect that distinguishes digital from film cinematography is how the images are formatted. Video formats traditionally have been specified in terms of their vertical resolution. One of the most common formats for cinema, for example, is 1080p, which measures 1920 x 1080 pixels. Increasingly, digital formats are measured by their horizontal resolution, where, for example a 2K image measures 2048 pixels wide and a 4K image measures 4096 pixels wide.

Digital audio is synchronized with the digital visual, but stored in a separate stream. Traditional films are seen at 23.97 seconds per second, though cinematographers can adjust that speed for specific effects. In contrast, digital film used to create virtual reality experiences are generally produced at 60 frames per second or higher.

Nowadays, a wide range of digital cameras are used in digital cinematography, ranging from smartphones, to 4K GoPro cameras, to prosumer DSLRs, such as Canon’s 5D and 7D, to higher-end digital models made by RED, Blackmagic, Silicon Imaging, Vision Research, Sony and Panasonic. Consumer drones equipped with lightweight digital movie cameras allow cinematographers with limited budget to capture unique first person drone shots that were previously possible, but quite costly and time-consuming to produce.

The future of cinematography

Virtual reality, augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR) are still emerging technologies and their ability to provide film makers with a viable cinematic platform for narrative is still developing. Films that use computer-generated imagery (CGI),  360-degree virtual reality (360 VR) or cinematic virtual reality can add several levels of complexity to the cinematographer's job. These complexities include the use of:

Special photographic and computing equipment that allows the cinematographer to digitally capture real-world objects and reproduce them as three-dimensional (3-D) digital images. This special equipment can also be used to virtually simulate camera angles and movements that would otherwise be physically impossible.

The addition of equirectangular frames in storyboard creation. Instead of mapping out a film’s key points and camera angles in a linear manner before filming begins, virtual reality film experiences must also consider action that takes place above and below the horizontal line. Essentially, equirectangular frames transform spherical coordinates into planar coordinates (think of how a globe must be flattened to create a map).

Quantum points of view. In traditional filmmaking, the cinematographer has the power to direct the viewer's interest by using photographic techniques such as changing the depth of focus. In virtual reality experience films, however, cinematographers have less control over where the viewers’ attention is drawn. The abundance of focal points and absence of a horizon point in virtual reality film making can cause something called virtual reality motion sickness.

For the most part, film makers are still at the point where they are applying AV, VR and MR technologies to traditional content models. It is expected that a new generation of approaches and techniques will emerge as DPs experiment with new ways to take advantage of the unique features that immersive storytelling provides. This, in turn, will help digital cinematography grow from being primarily used for entertainment into use cases for education, professional development and customer experience management (CXM).

Virtual cinematographer and director Jannicke Mikkelsen explains the challenges of her job and how the multiple story pathways that video game designers use may translate to immersive cinematographic experiences of the future.

This was last updated in April 2019

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