Understanding the Cinematography of Christopher Doyle

In the world of cinematography Christopher Doyle is a rock star. I go through some of his cinematography lighting and camera techniques to help you understand his unique style.

Just to be clear: Christopher Doyle changes his style to suit the movies he shoots. The goal of this video and article is to drum up enthusiasm and a yearning to learn more.

Warning: I do not claim this knowledge is 100% accurate. Just think of it as an endorsement of his work. If you want accuracy, look someplace else.

Here’s the video illuminating the cinematography style of Christopher Doyle:

The circumstances Christopher Doyle worked in

At the beginning, he had to contend with low budgets and tight spaces. This limits camera movement and operation…to most people. Doyle used these constraints to find rhythm and energy in his shots.

He used the chaos that are Neon lights to his advantage, and managed to isolate pockets of light and mood for this actors to work in. One must also not overlook the importance of production design and locations for such low budget work.

Even when he became famous, his work with Won Kar-wai was under similar circumstances. They didn’t have a script, just actors and locations, and whatever was in the director’s mind at the time. This gave Doyle the freedom to find the absolute best shots and lighting he could…and he succeeded.

When he transitioned to big-budget Hollywood flicks he was surprised to find they built sets after having visualized the movie first. This was totally different to the way he knew, but he adapted and created some great work for lesser known films like Psycho (the remake), Lady in the Water, etc.

Cameras, formats and lenses

He shot most of his work on film, on both Fuji and Kodak stock (even some Agfa). He used both Zeiss and Cooke primes, and almost always carries an Angenieux Optimo as well.

He has shot on most aspect ratios and formats, whatever the director decides. Recently, he has shot on digital media, and has even used Red cameras and the Alexa for his commercial work.

Some of the experimental work he has done:

  • Dragging the shutter, or creating excessive motion blur
  • Slow motion
  • Moving the camera rhythmically
  • Moving the camera arbitrarily
  • Flashing lights
  • Using color filters
  • Switching off the camera during a take (or blackening it out, I’m not totally sure)
  • Photography and Montage work
  • Extreme wide angle compositions, even for close ups

Terms and equipment mentioned in the video

He used wide angle lenses to create depth in those tiny spaces, as wide as 18mm – even for close ups. But he also mixed those with long focal lengths and shallow depth of field.

He used all kinds of camera angles – dutch, steady, really-lopsided…and he moved the camera in unique ways, experimenting with the effects it created.

He used Promist and Black Promist filters (and possibly many other kinds as well) to smoothen out skin tones and create highlight blooms.

When shooting handheld, he strapped a cushion to his abdomen so he could rest his elbows on it. This gave him more stability and speed.

He prefers a fluid head (a Sachtler mostly, as these are most common in Asian countries) over a geared head.

I hope you’ve found this article useful. If I’ve stoked your interest in Christopher Doyle’s work, please watch the movies he shot, and read and watch his numerous interviews online.


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