What Does A Cinematographer Do?

You’ve probably never heard of Emmanuel Lubezki. But you are almost certainly familiar with his work. Lubezki is one of the world’s leading cinematographers and the man behind the extraordinary beauty of The Revenant and Gravity.

He won Oscars for both these films, as he did for Birdman in the year in between. In doing so, the Mexican-born Lubezki made Academy Award history by becoming the first cinematographer to win three successive Oscars. (By the way, his wins followed five previous nominations, so he had been knocking on the door for a while.)

The quote above describes Lubezki’s approach to shooting The Revenant. “For each movie that I do, I like to find a specific language to tell the specific story,” says Lubezki. For The Revenant, he chose to shoot almost the entire film in natural light. This decision is one of the reasons why the film has such a raw intensity, as can be seen in the famous bear scene (warning NSFW).   

So what exactly does a cinematographer do? Surely, it’s the director who sets the visual tone for the film, as they are the person with ultimate control?

“My job is to help the director realise what’s in his head,” says Danny Cohen, Oscar-winning cinematographer of The King’s Speech.

“The cinematographer creates a consistent look for the film and makes images that help tell the story,” says Cohen. “It’s what’s in the frame, the lighting, getting the mood right – getting images that push the story along and keeps the audience inside, not outside, the film.”

As such the cinematographer (also called the director of photography or DP) is the person who actually shoots the film. They are in charge of the camera and lighting, and responsible for the film’s look and feel.

Important decisions a DP has to make (together with the director) include whether to shoot digitally or on film (almost all films are digital now) and whether the film should be in black and white or colour.

Most films these days are in colour and this then raises the question of how the colour is ‘graded’. It could be vivid and bright to suit an exciting movie or dull and textured for a drama, for example. (You can read more about colour grading in our blogs 5 Things to Send Your Colourist Before You Grade and our interview with James Willett.)

The relationship between a director and cinematographer is, therefore, one of the most important on a film, which is why many team up time and again.

Steven Spielberg first used Janusz Kamiński as his cinematographer on Schindler’s List (for which he won an Oscar). One key decision Spielberg and Kamiński made was to shoot Schindler’s List largely in black and white, though a small addition of colour in one memorable scene had a profound impact on audiences.

Spielberg and Kamiński have worked hand in hand on all Spielberg’s movies since, including War Horse, Lincoln and Saving Private Ryan (for which Kamiński won another Oscar).

Spielberg is quick to give Kamiński due credit for his contribution: “I think Janusz has brought a lighting style to my movies that I’d never had before … Janusz brought more daring, dangerous light into my films. I set the camera. I do all the blocking. I choose the lenses. I compose everything. But Janusz, basically, is my lighting guy. And he’s a master painter with light; he’s made tremendous contributions to my work through his art.”

Most cinematographers tend to have a ‘trade mark’ style. The cinematographer on The Godfather films, Gordon Willis, was known as ‘The Prince of Darkness’ for his lighting technique and use of shadows. He was versatile enough to work across various genres and with different directors though, including Woody Allen (Annie Hall and Manhattan) and Alan J. Pakula (All the President’s Men).

This adaptability is the sign of great cinematographer. One of the daddies of cinematography is Conrad Hall, who claimed three Oscars, one for a western (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) in 1970, his second 30 years later for a comedy drama (American Beauty) and his last three years later for a crime drama (Road to Perdition).

This scene in Road to Perdition starring Paul Newman and Tom Hanks is a powerful example of how great cinematography can enhance visual storytelling. Or, as Conrad Hall himself put it rather more eloquently: “Cinematography is infinite in its possibilities … much more so than music or language.”

About the Author

Nathan Haines

Nathan is the managing director of Element 26 and an expert in video production and video marketing. Nathan enjoys supporting companies to grow their businesses using video. Get in touch on Twitter @element26uk