The Overlooked Significance of Cinematography by Lynn Robchinsky

Movies, who doesn’t love them? Like dessert, films come in all shapes and sizes. Some are short and sweet, others are long and complex. But what separates great films from mediocre ones, is their ability to emulate the sensation of being withdrawn from reality. Humans deal with their emotions in vastly contrasting ways. While some regard movies as a means for entertainment, for others, watching films can be a form of escapism. I mean— the transcendence into another reality can be so visceral and enchanting, why ever leave? But I digress. Renowned films all share one common facet when it comes to success, and that is cinematography. A terribly neglected aspect of film that has a fascinating history, and an even greater influence in modern cinema.

From the Pioneer Era, which lasted between 1895 until 1910,  through the silent era and new Hollywood Era all the way to the current New Millennium, cinematography as we know it today has evolved tremendously. In the Pioneer Era, filmmakers lacked the experience and equipment needed for reproducing film. But during 1888, filmmakers began exploring the illusion of motion picture. Soon, “Roundhay Garden Scene” became the earliest surviving motion picture and lasted a brief 2.11 seconds. Thereafter, film quickly took shape, leading to the creation of “A Trip to the Moon” by Geogre Meiles in 1905. Meiles quickly adopted his own filmmaking style and set the bar for other filmmakers during this time. Fast forward to 1955, the emergence of Hollywood. During this era, films became more creative, intricate and avant-garde, and because of it, cinema was finally receiving the attention and credit it so rightfully deserved. Certain directors and filmmakers began rising to fame, like: Hitchcock, Bardot and Munroe. And some of the most iconic films in history were released, such as: A Streetcar Named Desire, The Big Country, Dracula, 12 Angry Men, Godzilla and A Place in the Sun, among several others. This concludes the postmodern era, whereas the New Millennium encompasses the modern film industry as we know it today. The New Millennium era of film has easily become more abstract, daring and flummoxing than ever before, and has simultaneously led to some of the most eminent names in Hollywood. 

Interstellar, Pulp Fiction and Jaws are some of the most critically acclaimed films in cinema to date. While we may credit the directors or auteurs of these movies: Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino and Steven Spielberg, I believe the real beauty in film emerges from the cinematography itself. While directors help establish the story, cinematographers help to execute this vision in a sensory-driven way. For instance, films like: Roma, Dunkirk and Parasite provide an almost tangible experience. In these realities: we grieve, lust, relish and rage with each respective character, as they take us through sensory odysseys. Now, one could easily break down each director’s directorial style, but for once I believe the credit should go to the cinematographers, in particular one, who I personally adore, Emmanuel Lubezki. The winner of three academy awards in a row for best cinematography, Lubezki is currently one of the most talented contemporary cinematographers in Hollywood. If you have ever watched a Lubezki film, you may have found yourself completely immersed in the world of the characters. This is because Lubezki has a truly idiosyncratic style of cinematography, which although subtle excels in lighting, camerawork and natural-environment usage. And this is part of the appeal of cinematography that half the time gets overlooked.

Lubezki is most known for his work in: Birdman, the Revenant and Gravity. Unlike cinematographer Robert Richardson, who prefers to use strong-overhead light and bold colours, Lubezki uses elements of naturalism and realism. Obsessed with the sun and the natural lighting it casts, Lubezki believes that illuminating his subjects makes them appear more humane and authentic. He argues that artificial lighting withdraws the viewer from the story and he’s right— through strategic lighting placements, it feels like you’re right there alongside the characters, experiencing everything with them. A cardinal shot you will see across Lubezki films is the use of sun as a backlight, letting the environment around the characters reflect the light back into their faces. Lubezki does this to avoid what he calls sandwiching, which is when “Two sides of the actor’s face are completely even.” (Wu, 02:58-03:24) Lubezki also likes to compact everything into one scene, he does this by “Using 40 millimetre lenses on four frame cameras.” (Wu, 03:30-03:51) Through his style, Lubezki is able to create a compassionate and symbiotic relationship between the viewer and the characters on screen. 

Despite his extensive portfolio, the one film that Lubezki created that I resonated with the most is, The Tree of Life. Starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain, The Tree of Life goes beyond standard storytelling, an avant-garde take on modern film. The entire plot revolves around the interconnectedness between the universe and humankind, suggesting its constant reciprocity. The film proposes philosophical queries and attempts to solve them through visual frameworks. It’s one of those films where you can only watch on occasion in order to preserve its mesmerism. I am especially enamoured by the constant interplay between realism and quixotism. The subjects in Lzubezki’s film appear both ethereal and figmental while also raw and authentic. While the story in itself is enticing, arguably, the film would not have had as much success if it weren’t for the visuals, which gave newfound purpose and meaning to the film’s message. The Tree of Life featured some of the most iconic shots in cinema. Let’s break down these six shots:

Through the use of deep focus in shots #1, #3 and #6, Lubezki captures the beauty in the simplicity of contrasting two characters, fiddling with foreground and background and the consistent uses of natural light. The discrepancy between the two character’s is so potent, and the disproportionality enables us to draw different interpretations from both characters – despite actually seeing very little of their  faces. In shot #6, Lubezki’s classic use of natural light is especially evident, as he uses the light from the window to cast a backlight behind Pitt and Chastain. As a result, we get this beautiful shot that shows the two in a state of total engrossment. In shot #1 and #4 Lubezki’s signature anti-sandwiching technique is being exercised in which one half of Pitt’s and Chastain’s face is far darker than the other side, the duality in the lightning exhibited encompasses elements of naturalism— rather than Lubezki adjusting the lighting to even-out their faces he obeys and adapts to the rays of sunlight peeking through the curtains and the artificial lighting emitting from the lamp. Such a subtle yet effective component that humanises the subject and the environment and helps the audience to better resonate with the film. Lubezki said it best “Instead of trying to modify what nature brought us, we embraced it.” In shots #5 and #2, the sunlight as a backlight is being used again, more patently, but rather than using the light to illuminate the shot, it’s used more to emphasize its beauty and etherealism. Shot #3 is particularly compelling because while deep focus is in use, the narrative that Lubezki is attempting to illustrate is the similarity between the two characters, rather than juxtaposing them. Illustrating how, while cinematography usually concerns the beauty and aesthetic of a film, it can also assist in the communication of the story. 

When I look at these shots, and really, the film as a whole, I see art. For Lubezki does not just create films, he creates masterpieces. Every shot, so meticulously crafted with intent and purpose. Every frame, conveying a story so commanding with passion and dedication, that the need for context or speech is redundant. Lubezki manages to compact a great deal of emotion into a scene through the sole use of simple, yet unique lighting placements and intentional, artistic camera techniques: this is how a film becomes completely original and distinctive from the rest. 

Without cinematography, we lose arguably the most important aspect of film, the visuals. Humans are so naturally observant, we are such self-aware beings that sight and perception is everything to us. We take it for granted every day and the truth is, we would feel astray without it. But more than that, without visuals we lose the ability to withdraw from reality, 

that peculiar yet tantalising sensation where for one moment in time— you are no longer yourself, you are the protagonist. You are in their shoes, their body, their mind. Cinematography forces us to emote and connect, relinquishing ourselves and simply experiencing the world we have been introduced to. And much like a perfect dessert, cinematography, too, has the secret ingredients, balancing sweetness with complexity. So next time you watch a film, I implore you to observe every visual, contemplate every detail and cherish the unique choices made, for cinematography is truly the hidden essence of an exceptional film.

Lynn is currently a student based in Singapore, who adores writing about culture, film & lifestyle. She works part-time as a Writer at Superbroadcast and TaraBliss. She is also the Editor-in-Chief of her school’s student-led newspaper, The Stamford Journal. When she’s not writing, you can often find her reading, painting, or taking photographs.

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