How I discovered my love for cinematography

Article / 16 July 2018

In 2013, last year of high-school, I was in a learning spree.

At the time, I wanted to become a 3D lighting artist. I was E-mailing industry professionals all the time, asking for advice, etc.
I didn't get replies all the time, but some artists really helped.

Benjamin Venancie is one them. He is a lead lighting artist at Dreamworks and I had just asked him something along the lines of:
"On an artistic level, how does one learn about lighting? Any books or methods to recommend?"

I'm going to try my best to paraphrase and translate the answer, in a way that can help others develop their taste for cinematography.


  1. Photography: 
    Being a good lighter, it's first of all about a global understand of images, not just the light but also the composition and everything that has to do with the camera. A good way to understand the basics is to practice and study photography. It enables you to "train" your eye and taste, meaning when it's time to make a call, you can make good choices for the lighting.

    Recommended readings: The negative, The camera, and The print by Ansel Adams. (Note: very long and technical, but it covers the fundamentals of photography). Photographing Shadow and Light by Joey L. (Behind the scenes and lighting positions diagrams)
    Additional links: Guess the lighting, this website describes the lighting positions diagrams of fashion and editorial photographs.
    LightFilmSchool channel on YouTube to know more about light placements for film.

  2. Films:
    Benjamin gave me a list of movies that impressed him from a cinematography standpoint.
    I will now list every one of these movies and what I learned, how my taste evolved from watching them.

    Barry Lyndon (1975) directed by Stanley Kubrick.

    What I learned:
    Practical vs Natural
    From a cinematography standpoint, the interesting part of this movie is that it was entirely shot using natural light.
    You see usually when there's an interior shot, and say people are gathered around a table, on the table is a lamp.
    That lamp is called a "practical", but most of the time is just there as a "motivator" (reason why) that justifies the existence of a huge fresnel lamp off camera, pointed at the actor's faces. The reason why this is done is that the practical lamps often don't generate enough light for the sensitivity of the camera.
    What that does, is that any interior shot before recent groundbreaking ISO sensors has been "faked" with various levels of success.
    Compare two master of their craft Stanley Kubrick (and Larry Smith), and Roger Deakins.


    In this shot from the movie Skyfall, you can see Deakins uses the restaurant's table lamp as a practical to justify the lighting on the actress.
    A common practice is that the lamp should not be blown out white, as it's considered ugly. From a natural lighting perspective, this shot is unrealistic though, as the light would have to be blow out to light the actress that much. My guess would be that there is a diffuser hidden under the table, the angle and softness is slightly off. The image looks pleasing, but you know you are looking at a movie.

    Instead in this shot from Eyes wide shut , the practical is the sole light source on the actor's face. It is blow out to white because of the intensity, you can hardly see the actor... But doesn't it feel much closer to the feeling of being inside of a busy restaurant with Christmas lights?

    Bravo for practical lighting! If you want more information on Kubrick's use of practical lighting, check out this excellent video.
    (I think both options are perfectly valid, but as artists, we should know when we are breaking the laws of physics, and what we are trying to achieve by doing it).
    I will now post more of my favorite shots from Barry Lyndon:


      


      


      


      

    One of the reason I think the choice to go all-natural for the lighting of a period film, is that it feels familiar due to the fact that the classical painters had no other tools than the the sun, the sky, windows, and candles to complete their masterworks.
    Bonus : It's kind of obvious, but ominous skies as a foreshadowing device is really effective.

    In the Mood for Love (2001) by director Wong Kar-wai


    What I learned: Poetry within Chaos
    Christopher Doyle has to work fast. The productions are low budget, most of them shot on real world locations and in tiny cramped apartments. The director has no script and decides what to shoot right on the spot. Whoever thrives in this environment has to acquire a taste, an eye that can detect beauty within urban concrete jungles and neon lights.

    I really did not expect to like this film.
    In the following shots I want you to pay close attention to 1) the unexpected color choices, 2) the use of frames, windows, mirrors and pure black to create negative spaces.




    Now let's contrast this poetry by making a 180 degree turn to look at another movie with Christopher Doyle as DOP

    Hero (2002), directed by Zhang Yimou.


      


      


      


      


      



      



      



      



      

    What I learned:
    Simplicity is key in composition; Central compositions and symmetrical designs make the visuals stronger.
    Go bold with color. If you stick with mostly earthy/desaturated tones, reintroducing a single color color at a time makes for very bold images.

    Skyfall (2012) directed by Sam Mendes. Roger Deakins as DOP.

    What I learned:
    Silhouettes silhouettes silhouettes.
    Leading lines.
    Selectively lighting a part of an actor's face.


      






    The Fall (2006) directed by Tarsem Singh. Colin Watkinson as DOP.

    What I learned:
    The Fairy Tale Aesthetic
    Transitions (as seen below from a butterfly to an island)



     




  

What's really interesting in this movie is the juxtaposition of seemingly disparate elements to highlight the creativity of the young girl who wants her stay in how the fairy tale unfolds. Beautiful movie, I highly recommend.

On Benjamin's movie list was also Blade Runner, but I think we don't need any more Blade Runner inspired concept art these days :D
That's why I refuse to show it, however cool it looks like!

Overall, watching these movies and paying attention to the craft of cinematography set me on a watching spree, studying many other films and absorbing on-set dvds about lighting. I think you need to have watched a lot of good films to know what your taste in films is.
The same goes for painting, drawing etc.

I think I also need to stop there because I'm not sure the Arstation Blog feature was meant to handle 100 images.
I will leave you with the short film The bloody olive, I think the exaggerated lighting effects make it a great case study.
As a final note, I would like to thank Benjamin, and all the people who take the time to reply to emails to help people out.

What's your favorite film or short from a cinematography standpoint? Share in the comments below!