What writing style is to literature, what colours and brush strokes are to painting is what cinematography to cinema. It’s often regarded as the language of cinema, as it is the tool to communicate to the audience without using words. Visuals have the power to manipulate how one feels about the subject, hence making it a commanding tool to convey the essence of a story.
Each shot of a film is the cinematographer’s conception. The lighting, blocking & framing, colour palette, and much more! Each of these decisions has an impact on how we perceive the image. It requires an acute understanding of the story, to replicate the same visually.
There are several rules (conventions rather) that have conceived through the years of cinema and have developed what we can call the language of cinema. These are the rules (of framing the character, camera angles, lighting, etc.) that make the image more pleasing and comprehensible. But rules are meant to be broken if you know how to! A lot of skilful cinematographers break these rules when the story demands and come out with visuals that are a class apart.
Cinematography has a very heavy bearing on how the film turns out, it can help a simple story become more engaging. This article explores films that have won the Academy Award for their captivating cinematography.
- 1917 – (2019): If 1917 didn’t deserve to win, then none ever did. To undertake such an ambitious project (a war film with only one hard cut!) required all the technical assistance it could gather. To pack so much action in a film like that is an accomplishment in itself. The most remarkable thing is the lighting, natural sources of lighting were used in most shots. It was a restriction they had to go around, and it turned out to be the realistic touch the film required.
- Roma – (2018): The film is a documentation of Alfonso Curran’s (the director and cinematographer) childhood memories. The film is from a viewpoint of an observer, observing moments (from Curran’s memory) from a distance. Everything in the frame tells a story, the images are all the exposition that the audiences need. It somehow takes the audiences to that place and time and has a sharp sense of realism to it. It’s a brave decision to make a black and white film in the age of colours, giving it a feel of a memory from that time period.
- La La Land – (2016): Can colours tell a story? The answer will be “yes” after watching La La Land. A film where colour is used in a supreme fashion to stimulate the natural reactions and emotions of a viewer in tandem with what the characters feel. The colour palette used in each scene has a meaning to it and has a psychological impact on the audience. There is a relation between the costumes, background, and the lighting; which visually tells the story.
- The Revenant – (2015): It will be challenging to find visuals as scintillating as in The Revenant. Pause the movie at any frame and it will be picturesque. But it is more than just magnificent landscapes, the visuals represent how indifferent nature is to human emotions. The film achieves visually what most films require exposition for, it let the visuals do all the talking.
- Gravity – (2013): Arguably the best shot space film to date, it depicts outer space in the most realistic style. Emptiness can be the most difficult feeling to convey through visuals. There is not a lot to play with for a cinematographer in such a film; no colours, no magnificent landscapes, just the lighting and the earth in the background of plain black. Despite all these restrictions, it is a masterpiece and a visual treat, well deserving of the accolade!
- Life Of Pi – (2012): An excellent combination of great cinematography with equally appealing VFX, how else would a story of a boy stuck in a boat with a tiger in the middle of the vast ocean come to life? The picturization of the ocean has a dreamy feeling, (which is the point of the film), to muddle reality with imagination. The use of contrasting colour palette in different situations helps us understand the protagonist’s state of mind.
- Inception – (2010): Inception is a unique mix of sci-fi, emotions and action. It is a very ambitious screenplay to bring to life. It’s the cinematography that helps the audience differentiate between the different dreams, due to the treatment given to each dream. And it also let the audience explore the tension on each character. Its cinematography is a testament that dreams can become reality (*winks*).
- There Will Be Blood – (2007): Being a character-driven film, the plot relies on the protagonist and his dynamics with the surroundings and other characters. The cinematography helps the audience understand those dynamics. There Will Be Blood is a masterclass for staging and blocking. The lighting brings out the harsh conditions the characters are thriving in. It was shot on film stock, which helps it achieve the feel of the early 1900s.
- Saving Private Ryan – (1998): An inspiration to a lot of films, the film is full of war scenes and well-crafted conversation. It is as much about the soldiers as it is about war. The war scenes are bordering on reality, it’s the camera work that makes it so engaging. In the middle of all the chaos, there are moments of calm. These moments take us closer to the characters, gives a sense of calm before an impending storm.
- Titanic – (1997): The impeccable cinematography is what holds the film together. It gives an immersive experience of the journey, social scenario, and finally the collapse. The film has two different moods, one is of luxury and comfort while the other is of fear and panic. This difference is felt visually through the lighting and camera movements. The film constitutes some of the most iconic shot in Hollywood history.