Thursday, 29 March 2012


"You have to understand the nature of light."

In my thesis I argue that the look of Hasse Ekman's films vary depending which cinematographer he worked with. The films he made together with masters such as Göran Strindberg and Sven Nykvist, and Gösta Roosling, are on a completely different level than the rest (which were often shot by Martin Bodin and Hilding Bladh). Ekman had an idea and a style, so you would not mistake a film by Ekman for a film by Bergman even if they would have the same cinematographer, but you will still be able to tell which of Ekman's films were shot by Strindberg and which were shot by Bladh for example.

When it comes to artists in film I think cinematographers are among the most important, and it is a shame that they, like so many other contributors, are often neglected by critics and scholars. Once I heard about an essay written about Gordon Willis and Carlo di Palma's work with Woody Allen. I got very excited that somebody was considering their vital contributions and I said to the writer that I thought Willis could light a set better than most. She replied that she did not know anything about lighting. She did not even know that this is what cinematographers do. I struggled to keep a straight face... But this is often the case. If you are not somebody really famous like Sven Nykvist or Jack Cardiff you seldom get any light shone on you, even though you yourself spend most of your time lighting others.

"Manipulating shadows and tonality is like writing music or a poem."

One of the greatest of all cinematographers, John Alton, has written a book called Painting With Light and that is what they do. The work of a good cinematographer (or DP - director of photography) can elevate the quality of a film far above the level of the script and the direction. A cinematographer, much like a director or a writer, can put his or her own individual mark on a film. Alton is an example of this, but there are others too. To name one example, the films Billy Wilder made with John F. Seitz look different from the ones Wilder made with Charles Lang. The films shot by Seitz have a harsher look, more clearly defined contrasts between white and black then those Wilder and Lang did together. But then again, the films that Lang did with Henry Hathaway look very different from than ones he made with Wilder.

"You are always a student, never a master. You have to keep moving forward."

Different DPs have their own fields that they work within. William Wyler preferred to have his films shot with extraordinary depth of field so he liked to work with Gregg Toland, beginning in 1936, who was an expert on that. They made seven films together, pushing the medium as far as it would go, much like John Ford would do with Toland on The Long Voyage Home (1940) and to a lesser extent on The Grapes of Wrath (1940). The following year Toland also worked with Orson Welles on Citizen Kane (1941). When Wyler made The Heiress (1949) he was unhappy about having to work with Leo Tover instead, who was not as good as Toland.

Speaking of Citizen Kane, it is worth pointing out that many innovations in film art have been made by cinematographers. One example is the above mentioned John F. Seitz, who took out 18 different patents during the course of his career. Another key innovator was James Wong Howe, the former boxer who became an ace cameraman. Among the things he is famous for his expressive use of deep focus on Transatlantic (
William K. Howard 1931) and for using handheld cameras, while on roller skates, on Body and Soul (Robert Rossen 1947). Howe also wrote an article, The Cameraman Talks Back, because he was upset about the lack of recognition for his work, and that of his peers. The article also gives a good overview of what a cinematographer does. One of my favourites in Howe's oeuvre is Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick 1957), which looks absolutely fantastic. It too might have influenced the French New Wave, not least its scenes out on streets or in bars feels similar.

There were two key cinematographers of the French New Wave, Henri Decaë and Raoul Coutard. Decaë had made documentaries and short films, and preferred to work outdoors with handheld cameras. That way of working he brought with him when he began shooting films first with Jean-Pierre Melville (such as Bob le flambeur (1956) and later as part of the French New Wave. The most famous example is probably The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups, François Truffaut 1959) but he also worked with Louis Malle and Claude Chabrol. But perhaps even more important was Coutard. He was cinematographer on films such as Breathless 
(A bout de souffle, Jean-Luc Godard 1960), Shoot the Piano Player (Tirez sur le pianiste, Truffaut 1960), Lola (Jacques Demy 1961) and Vivre sa vie (Godard 1961). Coutard and Godard worked together for several decades, and hence they are among the key couples in film history. Other important cinematographer/director relationships are Robert Burks and Alfred Hitchcock, Chris Doyle and Wong Kar-Wai, Agnes Godard and Claire Denis, Gunnar Fischer/Sven Nykvist and Ingmar Bergman and Billy Bitzer and D.W. Griffith. But some actors also form professional relationships with cinematographers, such as Greta Garbo with William H. Daniels (they did 22 films together and he clearly had a part in creating her aura and her fame).

This has not been a technical post but you can talk at great length about lenses, the film speed, candela and such, but that can wait for another day. Today the aim was just to celebrate their work.

"There are infinite shadings of light and shadows and colors... it's an extraordinarily subtle language. Figuring out how to speak that language is a lifetime job."

All the quotes are from Conrad Hall, one of the great masters. He was a treasured legend among cinematographers, and active all the way up to his death, in 2003. His last film was also one of his best: Road to Perdition (Sam Mendes 2002).

This post is based on one I wrote several years ago for my Swedish film blog. It has been slightly amended 2014-03-07.

1 comment:

  1. Great essay. Another cinematographer I don't think gets talked about as much is Guiseppe Rotunno. I've been watching a lot of Visconti and Fellini lately and his work is so crucial to the impact of some of these films.