3 Razor-sharp Cinematographers

What do I mean by ‘razor-sharp’?

If you watch the works of these great masters, you’ll wonder how they achieved the brilliance of their imagery, considering they worked with extreme rigor in their framing, depth of field, lens choices and lighting. They hardly had any room to maneuver!

They also happened to work with my favorite directors, all of whom had very special gifts when it came to camerawork.

Maybe it is a coincidence, but surely the directors can’t take credit for all of the imagery!

1. Asakazu Nakai

He shot Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, Red Beard, Dersu Uzala, and Ran for Akira Kurosawa. What is extremely sad is the fact that there are hardly any pictures of him to be found.

What he had to contend with:

  • Multiple camera setups under extreme weather conditions
  • Large expanses to light with maximum depth of field
  • Long lenses without camera shake or out of focus issues
  • Long and hard physical shoots under tough budgets

2. Greg Toland

Among others, he shot Citizen Kane for Orson Welles and The Grapes of Wrath for John Ford.

What he had to contend with:

  • Long takes of extreme precision
  • Maximum depth of field under highly complicated lighting
  • Wide angle lenses
  • Special effects

3. John Alcott

He shot A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, The Shining and a little bit of 2001: A Space Odyssey for Stanley Kubrick.

What he had to contend with:

  • Natural Lighting, including candle light
  • Extreme rigor in framing and the use of Zoom lenses
  • Countless retakes

Other than the fact that these three cinematographers were top class, I often wonder whether they had a secret skill not readily apparent. How did they manage to work with highly egoistic directors who probably knew more than them, knowing they could be replaced at the drop of a hat?

That’s probably a cinematographer’s greatest skill – not to make pretty pictures per se, but to make pictures that look pretty to their directors.

If a director is good, it pays off. Otherwise the movie is doomed anyway.