What is Cinematography?

There are many popular definitions of cinematography you’ll find online:

the art of photography and camerawork in film-making

the art or science of motion-picture photography

the art and methods of film photography

They all seem to agree it’s an art, and it has something to do with photography.

They are good enough definitions, but pedantic. It’s one thing to read words and figure out the meaning, and yet another to understand it from a level of experience.

In this video I try to explain what it feels like to practice cinematography:

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Finding a muse

A cinematographer is someone who practices cinematography. How is he or she different from a regular person? Both can appreciate a good image, but only one can create it from a blank slate.

You start with nothing, darkness. A subject walks in. She is interesting, you want to know more about her.

She might smile or be moody, or be dancing or just being, and you want a closer look. You pick a position, it’s your position. Your point of view. She moves, and you move with her. You follow, you are drawn in, and you realize you can’t escape her world. It’s the same story. Her story is now your story.

You must tell this story. You want everyone to know her emotions, her life, her truth.

You realize you can hide or show some features. As she moves in and out of the light her different aspects reveal themselves, – her body, her emotions, her actions, her reactions – you realize you have the power to shape the story through light and darkness. It’s all in your hands. Turn away, or show…hide or reveal…fixate on a smile, or terrify with a frown.

The kind of light you add makes a difference. Hard light, soft light, butterfly light, under light, these are like musical notes that everyone can play, but the music you make with them is uniquely you. As you paint her picture you forget who is painting. Is she making you move, or are you making her shine? It doesn’t matter, the very fact of thinking breaks the spell, breaks the magic.

Then the colors. Black or white, saturated or desaturated, pastel or stark, the colors change their moods with your light. Your light is strong, powerful, with meaning. Or soft, subtle, with caring. If you don’t give it meaning it will take a meaning of its own. You can’t have that. This is your story. Yeah I know it’s her story, but told by you. This one is personal.

How do you tell the world this woman’s story? You want to capture it, the essence, no, you want to capture it all. You can use film or digital, virtual reality or 3D, a mobile phone or an IMAX camera, live action or animation. The tools are overwhelming, the answer to picking them lies with you. How do you know you have the right tool? Simple. As you look through it, it will vanish, and you will be left alone with your story.

The mechanism of capture isn’t important. Time and technology is changing, the medium is fluid, and so are you – the light won’t stop moving, the stories will continue, only you can stop, only you can give up. If you want to keep telling stories, you must focus on the light, not your eyes.

Light has no sex or race. What you show shows you.

This is what I feel when I’m practicing cinematography nowadays.

What is cinematography?

For me:

Cinematography is the art of capturing moving light.

Sareesh Sudhakaran

I must capture it when I have the chance, because it will be gone tomorrow. In many ways I am a historian – a very biased historian of art, because it is my own. You will do it differently. They will do it differently, but only I can tell my own story.

The medium keeps changing, sometimes I can’t afford what you can afford, sometimes you can’t have what I have. But we all have light. As much as we want. It is our birthright. The only constant I have is light. It helps me see, and it helps me show. What I show shows me.

The art of capturing moving light

The art of capturing moving light, where:

It’s an Art. Because it is subjective, and it depends on the person and audience.

Moving means:

  1. moving pictures (motion picture film),
  2. emotionally moving images, and
  3. the moving camera – the freedom to move your perspective in space and time, through whatever medium you have available.

And we have to Capture it. Because the medium doesn’t matter, and if not captured it is not recorded.

I’ve removed these restrictive terms:

  • Actors or objects or animals, doesn’t matter. You are painting with light.
  • Film lighting. Doesn’t matter, because you can light or use natural light, or darkness.
  • The camera, because it allows for visual effects and animation. It also allows for new technologies like holography and VR.
  • The display, because it can be a mobile phone, a giant cinema screen or VR glasses.
  • Science and methods. This is obvious, since technology determines the method. The cinematographer picks the methods that work for him or her.

I haven’t discovered anything new, by the way. After all, photography is photo or light, plus drawing – the practice of drawing with light. The key difference is the missing word “moving”, and all its implications.

And so cinematography is the art of capturing moving light.

What do you think?

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2 Comments

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    1. If you remove all of that, the light should remain the same unless the light you wish to capture is only attainable through all the things you’ve mentioned.