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The Camera’s Rolling: How Cinematography Depicts Visual Storytelling

Updated: Jul 6, 2023

How often do we witness a notable and award-winning film, and admire not just the storyline, but also the visual quality it possesses in delivering the plot? Cinematography can be defined as the art and technology of motion-picture photography. In film, cinematography decides how the motion and visuals are arranged and presented in relation to the scene, storyline, and actors.

Cinematography to a director is like a palette of colours to an artist. It is where the director chooses to tell their story through precise elements that complements and uplifts the story and the message it tries to convey. Cinematography refines a film, gives it aesthetic values, and leaves a lasting memory to the audience to carry with themselves forever.

“A film is - or should be - more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what's behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later.” – Stanley Kubrick

But what does cinematography consist of? Is there a guide to orchestrate how you want the motions and visuals to turn out in a film? A few elements define this work of art, starting with camera framing. Camera framing determines the placement and position of a subject in a shot, which is essential in composing the desired outcome of an image. The size of the subject in the frame portrays the importance of the subject. If the camera is zoomed in on the subject, it shows the relative importance of it in the scene, and also brings the attention from the audience. The number of characters in a frame shows the relationship present between the characters. For example, two characters in one frame perhaps focuses on a romantic relationship that is introduced or further explained in the scene.

Camera framing also determines the balance of the elements in a frame, such as whether the elements are symmetrical on either side of the frame or not. To provide more context on camera framing, framing can be categorised into several types, namely single shot, 2-shot, 3-shot, over-the-hip shot (where the camera is placed further than the hip level of the actor), POV shot, over-the-shoulder shot (where the camera is placed above shoulder level of the actor), and insert shot (where the camera focuses on the character focusing on a subject, and the subsequent shot brings attention to the earlier POV of the character).

As an audience, we witness a film through the lens of the camera. Our eyes follow where the camera goes. The movement of the camera has the potential to bring out emotions or even suspense in a scene. Camera movement plays a large role in delivering the emotions in a scene to the audience, allowing the audience to feel and understand. Let's say the camera is moving towards the character or moving simultaneously with the character at a low or high speed. This allows the audience to gain perspective on what is happening and understand the situation or emotions of the character. On the other hand, if the camera is static, the audience is separated from the scene; like they are peering into the scene from the position of a bystander.

More often than not, there are several different visual elements in a scene at once. Visual elements can be objects or even actors. Shot composition guides how all elements are arranged in a single camera frame. A carefully planned shot composition allows a clearer message that the director wants the audience to capture and comprehend.

That's shot composition. Now, let's talk about shot size. When filming a scene, how much of the scene should be in the shot? Imagine shot size is like zooming in or out on a photo. Shot size differs throughout a film and depends on the scene and the desired details relevant to the scene. For example, a close-up of a woman peering out the window brings attention to her, but an extreme close-up of the tears rolling down her face brings attention to her sorrow or melancholy.

When watching a film, you may notice that in some scenes there are several actions going on simultaneously. But how does the director ensure which parts are highlighted? This is allowed with camera focus, where the direct focus of the camera emphasizes the aspects of the story that the audience needs to pay attention to in order to be on the same page.

Many film directors have their own signature style in which they choose to incorporate certain elements in the cinematography of their films. Their signature styles showcase authenticity and bring remarkable visual storytelling that not only amaze viewers but also brings them recognition in the film industry. Here are a few notable film directors and their signature visual styles.

1. Stanley Kubrick

A Space Odyssey (2001)

Stanley Kubrick loves to focus on perspective and visual arts in his films. His signature style is using one-point perspectives in his shots, where the camera movement and action leads the viewer towards a specific point in the shot.

2. Wes Anderson

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

A man of distinguished and meticulous taste, Wes Anderson's films are never not aesthetically pleasing. Anderson loves symmetry and pastel, soft tones in his films. Working alongside cinematographer Robert Yeoman, Anderson brings incredible and one of a kind stories to life that touches many hearts.

3. Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino is well known for his films that are mostly action-packed and bloodshed. Tarantino uses a lot of wide shot and crash-zoom-in shots in his films, giving the audience a good view to the details in his films. Tarantino works alongside cinematographer Robert Richardson, who helps bring his artistic visions to life.

4. Christopher Nolan

Inception (2010)

One of the most notable directors, Christopher Nolan's films are iconic and bring the beauty of uncertainty and suspense to his viewers. As such, his films often incorporate the rolling movement of the camera where the camera rolls in a barrel-like way and turns everything in view on its side. Nolan also loves to shoot his actors from their backside, with their view focusing on a subject.

Written by Reena Nadhirah IG Page: @shotbyreens

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