Cinematographers tell stories visually

filming a woman at library
Photo by cottonbro on

By Daniel Guerrero

Cinematography is an important aspect of storytelling because it allows the audience to further understand the conflicts that the characters experience in the story without telling them directly. Therefore, the cinematographer uses light, color, art direction, and camera movement to provide a sense of symbolism and tone of the story while making it beautiful to look at, which adds to the words of the screenplay. 

Cinematographers use three main techniques to do this: lighting, exposure, and art direction. 

  An example of lighting and exposure is the film, “Roma” by Alfonso Curón. In the second act of the film, Cleo Gutiérrez (Yalztia Apercicio) decides to go to the field where her love interest, Fermín (Jorge Antonion Guerrero) is doing a martial art class with his peers. As Cleo watches Femín perform martial arts, the instructor tells the students to perform a tee pose with their eyes closed. As everyone in the field begins to perform the pose, Cleo was the only person in the field able to perform the pose, perfectly whereas others begin to struggle. Curón filmed this scene by placing the camera behind Cleo and the participants attempting to perform the pose, while exposing a lot of light on Cleo, specifically. In other words, Curón utilizes exposure, therefore capturing the audience’s attention on Cleo. Curón exposes a lot of light on Cleo to showcase the amount of strength and power that she contains. 

“Every frame needs to have information in every single inch of it, meaning I want it to go into deep blacks but still have some detail, and I will go into highlights but still have detail,” Curon told The Hollywood Reporter. 

 Besides lighting and exposure, art direction helps expand the visual tone of the film, which is the color of the production design. This further correlates with the mood of the character. For instance, Hoyte Van Hoytema’s “Her” utilizes the color red in the background throughout the film. Specifically, in the scene in which the main character Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) was logging on to this computer to connect with Samantha (Scarlett Johnson). The camera focuses on Theodore while showing the audience the color of the login screen of the website. The color is red represents the love connection that Theodore has with Samantha.  

“I mostly used small LEDs, like the shot near the end where he’s standing in front of the windows — I hung an LED lightbox for an overall ambiance, that we could also color exactly as the city appears outside,” Van Hoytema told No Film School.

Similar to the way cinematographers utilize art direction in their films, some utilize color in general, which can also be presented through clothes and lighting. Also, each cinematographer has a unique way of utilizing color due to having a variety of meanings. In other words, each cinematographer has his or her own “color palette” for visual storytelling. 

There are three ways of showcasing the tone and color of the film: hue, saturation, and brightness. 

One film that best represents this technique of cinematography is “La La Land” by Linus Sandergan. Throughout the film, Sandergan transitions between colors to represent the moods of each character being affected by the conflict of the plot. For example, one of the main characters, Mia Dolan (Emma Stone) wears vibrant colors and a bright yellow dress in the beginning of the film in order to showcase her high joyful energy on pursuing her dreams in Hollywood. However, as the film begins to progress, Mia begins to wear dull and low saturated colors, when she does not book auditions and gets into arguments with her love interest Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). Before the film concludes, the audience is left with watching a screen that is low in saturation and brightness, while containing unappealing colors. 

However, the film then switches to a seven-minute scene when Mia and Sebastian see each other again. This scene showcases an alternate reality of what would have happened if they proceed to stay with each other throughout the entire plot of the film. In this scene, it then switches to the screen saturated with brightness. Also, Mia, Sebastian, and the background extras all wear bright and vibrant colors, as they sing and dance throughout the plots of the film in seven minutes. Therefore, Sandergan’s “color palette” is that the vibrant colors showcase the joy that the characters contain and the fantasy that they desire to live in. In contrast, the dull colors symbolize the depression that the characters are going through, where they struggle to overcome obstacles in life.

“Some of this film takes place in reality and some takes place in some sort of dream. [Writer-director Damien Chazelle] wanted to make sure there wasn’t much of a jump between reality and dream, so we made reality a little more heightened, as well as magic in away. Damien felt the film should feel romantic, with colors like Technicolor,” Spanderan said to the Los Angeles Times

 Another example of this is from the film, “I, Tonya” by Nicholas Karakatasin. In the scene where Tony Harding (Margot Robbie) is about to do a triple axle in the ice rink, the camera moves alongside with her, as if it was “skating” with her. Therefore, this provides tension to the film, leaving audiences wondering if Tonya would successfully perform the triple axel or not.

  “We acted more on the spur of the moment as to how the action or the sequence was playing out and moved the camera according to our instincts at the time,” Karakatasin said to Kodak.  

  Along with these camera movements, cinematographers utilize different kinds of lenses to showcase the period of the plot or the way that the director wants the film to look like. This situation is similar to how people would change the filter of their photos that they took to improve its beauty. For instance, Robert Richardson’s “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” was shot in Kodak 35 millimeter to showcase the retro style of the 1960s in Hollywood. 

“When Quentin goes, ‘I want to feel retro but I want to be contemporary,’ I tried to weave time periods,” Richardson said to Indiewire. 

Generally, these techniques of cinematography benefit the film and its powerful meaning, where the audience can analyze over time. Also, it further explains that a film is a form of art that society should consider when watching these kinds of films. Each cinematographer has a unique way of visually telling a story, similar to how an artist has different kinds of artistic styles of drawing and painting. The cinematography makes a film look beautiful, in which the audience can look at and be inspired to create their style of filmmaking. 


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