focal length and fast motion

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Stephen Vaughan/© Warner Bros./Courtesy Everett Collection

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chapter 3 Cinematography Framing What We See

In a revealing scene from Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010), the protagonist Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) explains the secrets of his trade — dream extraction — to new recruit Ariadne (Ellen Page) while the two are sitting at a sidewalk café in Paris. Suddenly the familiar scene turns uncanny as nearby fruit stands, a bookseller, and the façades of buildings explode around them, shattering into pieces like a jigsaw puzzle as they remain seated, unharmed. Ariadne realizes she’s entered a dream: “I guess I thought dreams were all about the visual, but it is more the feeling of it.” These lines take on some irony in the next few moments, when it is overwhelmingly the visual aspect of cinema that generates “feeling” in the viewer response. Paris is folded up like a piece of origami in just one of the film’s mind-blowing visual effects.

Working with Oscar-winning director of photography Wally Pfister, cinematographer on all his films since Memento (2000), Nolan chose high-resolution Vistavision film over digital cinematography for the film’s lush imagery and spectacular settings. Many of the film’s most impressive special effects were achieved without computer-generated imagery (CGI), instead relying on camera tricks. For a scene in which Cobb’s associate is trapped by a building’s ever- morphing “paradoxical architecture,” for example, the filmmakers constructed a rotating hallway with built-in camera tracks to create the illusion of a shifting building. Cues that we normally rely on to orient ourselves toward an unfolding story — optical points of view that tell us whose perspective guides a scene or camera placements and angles that imply spatial relationships — are not trustworthy in the world of Inception. Instead, consistent choices of color palette subtly guide us. Sense memories of the characters’ waking lives are built into small tokens that they carry with them to navigate dream levels. Viewers, however, must rely on untrustworthy images that can’t guarantee which level of movie illusion entraps us.

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V

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isual stimuli determine a significant part of our experience of the world around us: we look left and right for cars before we cross a busy street, we watch sunsets in the distance, we focus on a face across the room.

The visual dynamics through which we encounter our world vary. Sometimes we are caught up in the close-ups of a crowded sidewalk; sometimes we watch from a window high above the street. Vision allows us to distinguish colors and light, to evaluate the sizes of things near and far, to track moving objects, or to invent shapes out of formless clouds. Vision also allows us to project ourselves into the world, to explore objects and places, and to transform them in our minds. In the cinema, we know the material world only as it is relayed to us through the filmed images and accompanying sounds that we process in our minds. The filming of those images is called cinematography, which means motion-picture photography or, literally, “writing in movement.”

This chapter describes the feature at the center of most individuals’ experiences of movies: film images. Although film images may sometimes seem like windows on the world, they are purposefully constructed and manipulated. Here we will detail the subtle ways cinematography composes individual movie images in order to communicate feelings, ideas, and other impressions.

KEY OBJECTIVES

▪ Outline the development of the film image from a historical heritage of visual spectacles. ▪ Describe how the frame of an image positions our point of view according to different distances and

angles. ▪ Explain how film shots use the depth of the image in various ways. ▪ Identify how the elements of cinematography — film stock, color, lighting, and compositional features

of the image — can be employed in a movie. ▪ Compare and contrast the effects of different patterns of movement on the film image. ▪ Introduce the array of techniques used to create visual effects. ▪ Describe prevailing concepts of the film image within different cinematic conventions.

We go to the movies to enjoy stimulating sights, share other people’s perspectives, and explore different worlds through the details contained in a film image. In Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966), a woman’s tense and mysterious face suggests the complex depths of her personality. At the beginning of Saving Private Ryan (1998), we share the visceral experience of confused and wounded soldiers as bullets zip across the ocean surface during the D-Day invasion [Figure 3.1]. The Hurt Locker (2008) uses a different approach for a

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different combat context; brightly and starkly lit images capture not simply an arid desert landscape but also the brittle tension that seems to electrify the light [Figure 3.2].

3.1 Saving Private Ryan (1998). The film uses visceral camera work to bring viewers close to the dying on D-Day.

3.2 The Hurt Locker (2008). In a very different war, monochromatic cinematography conveys the tension that permeates the desert spaces.

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Vision occurs when light rays reflected from an object strike the retina of the eye and stimulate our perception of that object’s image in the mind. Photography, which means “light writing,” mimics vision in the way it registers light patterns onto film or codes them to be reproduced digitally. Yet whereas vision is continuous, photography is not; rather, it freezes a single moment in the form of an image. Movies connect a series of these single moments and project them above a particular rate of frames per second to create the illusion of movement. Humans process the incremental differences among sequential still images just as we process actual motion — this effect is called short-range apparent motion, and it explains our perception of movement when watching films.

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A Short History of the Cinematic Image The human fascination with creating illusions is an ancient one; in the Republic, Plato wrote of humans trapped in a cave who mistake the shadows on the wall for the actual world. Leonardo da Vinci described how a light source entering a hole in a camera obscura (literally, “dark room”) projected an upside-down image on the opposite wall, offering it as an analogy of human vision and anticipating the mechanism of the camera. One of the earliest technologies that used a light source to project images was the magic lantern. In the eighteenth century, showmen used these to develop elaborate spectacles called “phantasmagoria.” The most famous of these were Étienne-Gaspard Robert’s terrifying mobile projections of ghosts and skeletons on columns of smoke in an abandoned Paris crypt. These fanciful devices provided the basis for the technology that drives modern cinematography and the film image’s power to control, explain, and entertain. In this section, we will examine the historical development of some of the key features in the production and projection of the film image.

1820s–1880s: The Invention of Photography and the Prehistory of Cinema The components that would finally converge in cinema — photographic recording of reality and the animation of those images — were central to the visual culture of the nineteenth century. Combining amusement and science, the phenakistiscope (developed in 1832) and the zoetrope (developed in 1834), among other such pre- cinema contraptions, allowed a person to view a series of images through slits in a circular wheel, a view that creates the illusion of a moving image [Figure 3.3]. In 1839, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre announced the first still photograph, building on the work of Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. Photography’s mechanical ability to produce images of reality and make them readily available to the masses was among the most significant developments of nineteenth-century culture. Photography permeated everything from family albums to scientific study to private pornography collections. In the 1880s, both Étienne-Jules Marey in France and Englishman Eadweard Muybridge, working in the United States, conducted extensive studies of human and animal figures in motion using chronophotography, series of still images that recorded incremental movement and formed the basis of cinematography [Figure 3.4]. Muybridge’s Zoopraxiscope, introduced in 1879, enabled moving images to be projected for the first time.

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3.3 Zoetrope. An early pre-cinema device that permitted individuals to view a series of images through a circular wheel, creating the illusion of movement. Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis

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3.4 Eadweard Muybridge’s motion studies. Experimenting with still photographs of figures in motion, Muybridge laid the groundwork for cinematography. Copyright by Eadweard Muybridge. From: Animal locomotion/Eadweard Muybridge. Philadelphia: Photogravure Company of New York, 1887, pl. 636. Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-102354.

1890s–1920s: The Emergence and Refinement of Cinematography The official birth date of the movies is widely accepted as December 28, 1895, when the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière debuted their Cinématographe at the Grand Café in Paris, showing ten short films, including a famous scene of workers leaving the Lumière factory. The Lumières successfully joined two key elements: the ability to record a sequence of images on a flexible, transparent medium, and the capacity to project the sequence.

The very first movies consisted of a single moving image. The Lumières’ Niagara Falls (1897) simply shows the famous falls and a group of bystanders, but its compositional balance of a powerful natural phenomenon and the people on its edge draws on a long history of painting, infusing the film with remarkable energy and beauty that motion renders almost sublime [Figure 3.5]. In the United States, Thomas Edison patented his Kinetoscopic camera in 1891. The early Edison films were viewed by looking into a Kinetoscope or “peep show” machine; The Kiss (1896) titillated viewers by giving them a playfully analytical snapshot of an intimate moment [Figure 3.6].

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3.5 Niagara Falls (1897). One of the Lumière brothers’ actualities, or nonfiction moving snapshots, shows the wonder and balance of a single moving image.

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3.6 The Kiss (1896). From the Edison company, one of the most famous early films regards an intimate moment.

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In the early years of film history, technical innovations in the film medium and in camera and projection hardware were rapid and competitive. Eastman Kodak quickly established itself as the primary manufacturer of film stock, which consists of a flexible backing or base such as celluloid and a light-sensitive emulsion. The standard nitrate film base was highly flammable, and its pervasive use is one reason why so much of the world’s silent film heritage is lost. Nitrate film would not be replaced by safety film, less flammable acetate- based film stock, until 1952.

After early competition among technologies, the width of the strip of film, or film gauge, used for filming and exhibiting movies was standardized as 35mm in 1909. While 16mm was common among independent filmmakers, and higher resolution 70mm was experimented with for more spectacular effects, 35mm remained the industry standard for production and exhibition until challenged by digital formats at the end of the twentieth century [Figures 3.7, 3.8, and 3.9]. By the 1920s, the rate at which moving images were recorded and later projected increased from sixteen frames to twenty-four frames per second (fps), offering more clarity and definition to moving images.

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3.7 16mm film gauge drawn to scale. The lightweight cameras and portable projectors used with this format have been effective for documentary, newsreel, and independent film as well as for prints of films shown in educational and home settings.

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3.8 35mm film gauge drawn to scale. The standard gauge for theatrically released films, introduced in 1892 by Edison and the dominant format for both production and exhibition until the end of the twentieth century.

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3.9 70mm film gauge drawn to scale. A wide, high-resolution gauge, in use since the early days of the film industry, but first used for feature films in the 1950s for spectacular effect. A horizontal variant of 70mm is used for IMAX formats.

The silent film era saw major innovations in lighting, mechanisms for moving the camera and varying the scale of shots, and the introduction of panchromatic stock, which responded to a full spectrum of colors and became the standard for black-and-white movies after 1926. Cinematographers like Billy Bitzer, working with D. W. Griffith in the United States, and Karl Freund, shooting such German expressionist classics as Metropolis (1927), brought cinematographic art to a pinnacle of visual creativity. These visual achievements were adversely affected by the introduction of sound in 1927, since bulky and sensitive sound recording equipment created restrictions on outdoor and mobile shooting.

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1930s–1940s: Developments in Color, Wide-Angle, and Small-Gauge Cinematography Technical innovations increased even as the aesthetic potential of the medium was explored. By the 1930s, color processes had evolved from the individually hand-painted frames or tinted sequences of silent films to colored stocks and, finally, the rich Technicolor process that would dominate color film production until the 1950s. The Disney cartoon Flowers and Trees (1932) was the first to use Technicolor’s three-strip process, which recorded different colors separately, using a dye transfer process to create a single image with a full spectrum of color. The process offered new realism but was often used to highlight artifice and spectacle, notably in The Wizard of Oz (1939) [Figures 3.10a–3.10c].

(a)

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(b)

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(c)

3.10a–3.10c The Wizard of Oz (1939). Viewers sometimes find the opening, sepia-tinted scenes of the film jarring (a), having vivid memories of the film in Technicolor. When Dorothy first opens the door to Munchkinland, the drab tints of Kansas are left behind (b). Technicolor’s saturated primary colors are so important in the film (c), the silver slippers of the book were changed to ruby slippers for the screen.

Meanwhile, the introduction of new camera lenses allowed cinematographers new possibilities. Wide-angle, telephoto, and zoom lenses use different focal lengths — the distance from the center of the lens to the point where light rays meet in sharp focus — that alter the perspective relations of an image. Wide-angle lenses have a short focal length, telephoto lenses have a long one, and a zoom is a variable focus lens. The range of perspectives offered by these advancements allowed for better resolution, wider angles, more variation in perspective, and more depth of field, the portion of the image that is in focus.

During the 1920s, filmmakers used gauzy fabrics and, later, special lenses to develop a so-called soft style, through which the main action or character could be highlighted. From the mid-1930s through the 1940s, the development of the wide-angle lens (commonly considered a lens of less than 35mm in focal length) allowed cinematographers to explore a greater depth of field that could show different visual planes simultaneously. Cinematographer Gregg Toland is most closely associated with refinements in using wide-angle lenses, characterized by the dramatic use of deep-focus cinematography in his work on Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) and William Wyler’s The Heiress (1949) [Figure 3.11].

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3.11 The Heiress (1949). Gregg Toland’s cinematography made use of wide-angle lenses and faster film stocks to create images with greater depth of field. Both foreground and background are in sharp focus.

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Camera technology developed with the introduction of more lightweight handheld cameras that were widely used during World War II for newsreels and other purposes. Small-gauge production also expanded during this period, with the 8mm film developed in 1932 for the amateur filmmaker and the addition of sound and color to the 16mm format. The portability and affordability of 16mm film encouraged its use in educational films and other documentaries, as well as in low-budget independent and avant-garde productions.

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VIEWING CUE Think about the cinematography of your class’s most recent film screening in relation to the larger history of the image. Does the film include shots that seem like paintings, photographs, or other kinds of visual displays? Explain how a specific shot or series of shots affects your understanding or interpretation of those images or the entire film.

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1950s–1960s: Widescreen, 3-D, and New Color Processes The early 1950s witnessed the arrival of several widescreen processes, which altered the size and shape of the image, dramatically widening it by changing the ratio of width to height, the aspect ratio. The larger image was introduced in part to distinguish the cinema from the new competition of television. One of the most popular of these processes in the 1950s, CinemaScope, used an anamorphic lens, which squeezed a wide-angle view onto a strip of 35mm film and then “unsqueezed” it during projection with another such lens. Other widescreen films, such as Lawrence of Arabia (1962), used a wider film gauge of 70mm [Figure 3.12]. This period, during which the popularity of television urged motion-picture producers to more spectacular displays, also saw a craze for 3- D movies such as House of Wax (1953). By now most movies were shot in color, facilitated by the introduction of Eastmancolor as an alternative to the proprietary Technicolor process. In the 1960s, Hollywood began to court the youth market, and cinematographers experimented more aggressively with ways to distort or call attention to the image by using one or more of the following tools:

3.12 Lawrence of Arabia (1962). The film’s 70mm widescreen format is suited to panoramic desert scenes and military maneuvers.

▪ filters or transparent sheets of glass or gels placed in front of the lens, ▪ flares, created by directing strong light at the

lens, ▪ telephoto lenses or lenses with a focal length of

at least 75mm that were capable of magnifying and flattening distant objects, and ▪ zooming or changing focal length and fast motion.

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