A film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet.
Cinematography is the capturing of motion on film, and thus is the central part of the larger creative process of filmmaking. Like a lot of words that we wish were shorter and easier to say, cinematography is a composite of ancient Greek words, namely kinemat- (motion), and graphos (drawing or recording). In Hollywood usage, the person responsible for cinematography in film production is a cinematographer. Perhaps because of the tedium in saying cinematographer again and again, we now call the professional who is responsible for cinematography the director of photography or even more simply the DP.
The Cinematographer vs. the Film Director
The boundary between film directing and cinematography is a little fuzzy and flexible. A director may give more or less responsibility to the director of photography (DP), depending on the relative competence and interests of the two persons. For example, a director may be more interested in directing the acting talent and leave some of the details of scene composition and other graphic artistry to a highly competent DP. At the other extreme, the director may assume much control over lighting, camera angle, camera movement, transition effects and even the details of scene content in trying to achieve his or her vision. Even at the extremes, a close cooperation and interaction between director and DP during the process is still necessary.
The work of the DP in making modern movies involves many arts and skills, a whole lot of expensive equipment, and a large bag of tricks and techniques. Cost and time management is also a major responsibility of the DP throughout the shooting process. The DP will plan and manage the shooting of scenes for optimum use of time, equipment, crew, talent, existing lighting, weather on location, and many other details. Shooting that maximizes flexibility in editing and the other subsequent steps of the filmmaking process is another constant concern. The DP will also work with the director on the selection of sites for location (out of studio) shooting.
In most filming, the work is divided up among the members of crews that may range in size from a few people for small productions to dozens for large productions. The DP manages the camera operators, grips, gaffers, and electrical technicians. In large productions, each of those functions will require a crew of its own, each with a supervisor that works under the DP.
One good way to understand the process is to consider its basic elements, which are the subject, the equipment, the medium, and process management.
The cinematographic subject is what the camera sees. It is defined to a rather skeletal extent by the screenplay
. The director of the film interprets the sketchy screenplay into a rather fully imagined series of visual ideas. The DP's job is to actually capture the director's imagination on film
. Scenes are broken up into sequences of shots
. (A shot is the basic unit of filming and refers to a filmed segment from when the camera is turned on ('Action!') until it is turned off again ('Cut!'.) Decisions are made on framing the subject, lighting, camera angle
, depth of field
, selection of lenses and filters
, and other factors that are shared with still photography
. For the DP, there is an additional range of considerations that concern the extension of a shot over time, including camerawork
(movement of the camera), the three-dimensional relationships of the actors and set elements, the changes in the basic photographic parameters over time and coordination with sound
. In short, most of what is actually seen in the final film is probably there because of a decision made by the DP.
The central piece of equipment in filming is the camera
. For each shot, the DP decides the kind of camera and lens system to use, camera focus
, the control of light entering the lens with a matte box, light metering and filters, and the camera mounting (hand-held, tripod
, crane, etc.). The DP must also understand the capabilities of the gaffer's lighting equipment and be able to direct its use.
The traditional medium for moviemaking is film, and film is currently still the mainstream medium. Like the still photographer, the DP must have expert knowledge of the characteristics of different types of film and how the films are processed. Matching the medium and its processing to the shooting parameters and the intended visual effect is part of the art of cinematography.
In recent years, however, professional camera systems that capture images in digital electronic formats have come into use, particularly in television production. From another angle, computer-generated graphics techniques based on 3-D modeling are being used in highly successful feature-length animated movies. Computer-generatics graphic technology is now approaching photorealism, and coupled with highly realistic physics simulation, can create entire convincing artificial visual realities. How these new, non-film media will pan out is something this generation will enjoy watching. The film medium and the art and craft of film cinematographers may hold out or they may not.
Even in the furthest imaginable extreme, however, where films may be produced entirely in 3-D virtual realities with virtual actors, the core artistry of the DP will still be in demand.