In the last post, we took a whistlestop tour through the basic concepts of using visual style to analyse a film text. Okay, yeah, that probably wants a bit more explanation. Have a graphic.
Cinematography is top of that list, followed closely by mise-en-scene and montage. In this article, we’ll look in more detail at what we mean when we talk about cinematography and how we can use it to understand the language of film.
What is cinematography?
Cinematography refers to every aspect of visual information that’s created specifically with the camera. The following elements are all aspects of cinematography:
- Shot size
- Type of shot
- Camera angle
- Focal length
You may, if you’re anything like us, have come across the term cinematographer as it relates to a particular job in the field of filmmaking. Also known as the Director of Photography (or DoP/DP), a cinematographer’s role is to realise the director’s vision for the look of the film. The cinematographer heads up the camera crew and has overall responsibility for various aspects of cinematography, such as all of the above, with the added responsibility of making sure the lighting matches the visual feel that the director has in mind. Lighting, however, is not an element of cinematography, which tends to be a slight mindf*** for new students of film theory, since it’s arguably the most easily recognisable signifier of a particular movie’s visual style.
What can we say. Sorry? We didn’t make the rules.
Anyway, with that said, let’s take a look at the elements of cinematography one by one.
The easiest way to think of shot size is in terms of the human body (whether or not there’s actually a human body in the frame of any particular shot). We’ll consider shot size in terms of how much of the body we would be able to see in each particular shot.
An Extreme Close-up will show only part of the face. It’s used when it’s necessary to draw attention to a very specific object on the screen, particularly an object that would be too small to draw the audience’s attention without focusing on it directly. When used to capture part of the face, like in this shot, it emphasises a particular emotion – in this case extreme fear.
A Close-up shows the full face. Like the Extreme Close-up, it’s used to draw attention to an object or emphasise emotion.
You’ll also hear this referred to as Mid Shot or, potentially, Medium Long Shot, though Medium Long Shot generally shows a bit more of the body than the Medium Shot (think waist up for Medium Shot; knees up for Medium Long Shot). This is a shot that shows most, but not all, of the human body. As you might imagine, there’s potential for ambiguity around the point at which a Medium Shot becomes a Medium Long Shot becomes a Long Shot. This is generally used as a fairly workaday, utilitarian set up in which the director doesn’t want to use the camera to produce any specific meaning – the meaning will generally be derived from what’s in front of the camera (see Mise-en-Scene).
The full human body is shown in this shot. There’s a degree of flexibility over where a Long Shot becomes an Extreme Long Shot, though filmmakers will often use Wide Shot for a shot that comes somewhere between the two. (In this case, Long Shot would be a shot in which the full body is shown and is the main subject of the shot, while Wide Shot would be a shot in which the full body is shown but the shot is emphasising the background over the human/s within the background.)
Extreme Long Shot
Also known as Extreme Wide Shot, this shot is about place rather than body, and if individual figures are shown at all, they will be dwarfed by the background. An Extreme Long Shot is often used as an Establishing Shot, which, as the name suggests, establishes the location and the geography of that location for the viewers.
Why is shot size important?
Shot size tells you a lot about what information the camera wants you to prioritise. Look out for unexpected framing and ask yourself: why is the camera choosing to show me this information? It’s rare for information to make it onto screen by accident – so rare that when it happens, you’ll find screen shots on IMDB under Goofs. Make no mistake: the camera is guiding your attention. Shot size is one of the ways it does this. Another is camera angle.
Camera angle refers to the height of the camera relative to the subject. You have five basic options when it comes to camera angle, and almost infinite variety after that. Let’s start with the most familiar camera angle of all, which is so ubiquitous that that you’d have to really stretch yourself to notice it. It’s designed to mimic how most adults interact with the world in real life: that is, eyeline to eyeline. And for that reason, it’s known as an eye-level shot.
The eye-level shot is another one of those workaday compositions – similar to the Mid-shot – that you see when the camera is, effectively, in neutral. Generally speaking, there’s no additional meaning to be read into this kind of camera angle; it’ll be more useful to isolate and analyse other visual cues when reading a scene shot at eye-level. This angle is designed to make us feel engaged with the subject and it’s designed to be invisible. If you’re seeing an Eye Level shot, you’re probably not going to want to read too much into that. Unlike, say…
A low angle shot. Here, the camera is placed well below eye level and it’s looking up at its subject. Notice as well that where the eyes would normally sit in an Eye-level shot — along the upper third of the frame — instead, we’ve got the sharpness of Thatcher’s chin. This is one of the things that the low angle shot does to make its point. Another thing it can do, especially in a shot like this, is to create very sharp angles with other items within the shot – for example, the dado rail – which emphasises the sharpness of Thatcher’s manner and the disorientating effect of the viewing angle.
This is a very extreme angle — in fact, this is such an extreme low angle that one might be tempted to call it a worm’s eye view, though it’s not actually quite as low as that. A low-angle shot just has to look up from below the eye-line. It can be as subtle as this….
…in which the camera is level with the table and angled slightly upwards on the subject, Hank Quinlan. But notice how, despite the less pronounced angle, it’s still Quinlan’s mouth sitting on the upper third that would be where his eyes sat in an eye level shot. Or this more visible example…
…which is how we’re introduced to the character of Hank Quinlan, who is not a good guy. This is our very first sight of Quinlan in the movie, and it’s in a low-angle shot.
A low angle shot is used to imply a sense of power; to make the subject look imposing. The angle also reorders the power dynamics between the viewer and the viewed and creates a sense of disorder in our perspective. Orson Welles – who directed Touch of Evil and also plays Hank Quinlan – was a director highly skilled in the use of camera angle to guide audience perceptions; his directorial debut, Citizen Kane, pioneered the use of extreme low angle camera work to frame the title character’s simultaneous rise to power and descent into petty despotism. The cinematography Welles used on Citizen Kane were not unique to the film even at the time, but his widespread and strategic use of the camera required the development of several new techniques, including – unusually for the time – having ceilings built onto his sets to allow for his extreme low angle shots without inadvertently capturing the studio’s lighting rig. Greg Toland, Director of Photography on the movie, also developed a new type of camera lens specifically to facilitate the deep focus shots that Welles envisioned.
Citizen Kane is full of great examples of strategic low angle camera work, and also examples from the opposite end of the spectrum: high angle shots.
The high angle shot is filmed with a camera placed above the subject.
If the low-angle shot tends to connote a sense of power on the person it’s shooting, the high-angle shot does the opposite. This still, from Citizen Kane, shows Susan Kane, Charles Kane’s second wife. Throughout the film, she regularly appears in high-angle shots. Susan is portrayed as largely powerless in the face of forces outside of her control that turn her life upside down and strip her of her agency.
Bird’s Eye Shot
The close associate of the high angle shot is the bird’s eye shot. it’s used in a similar fashion but it tends to connote something slightly different.
One of the uses of the bird’s eye shot is to emphasise just how very small and insignificant someone or something is — in this still from 28 Days Later (2002), you can just about see our hero, Jim, in his green hospital gown wandering through the deserted streets of London. Again, we’re being asked to read his vulnerability; how small he is compared to the magnitude of what’s been happening to the world.
The bird’s eye shot can also be used to unsettle or to unseat expectations, because the angle of perspective is one that we’re not used to having. The familiar becomes unfamiliar by virtue of viewing it from an unusual angle. For this reason, you’ll see the bird’s eye shot used quite a lot in film noir.
In The Third Man (1949), we regularly see extreme angles used to create a sense of disjointedness or “wrongness.” This shot also incorporates a sense that we’re looking down on this character, as though we’re spying on him. The camera position feels furtive, transgressive.
The Dutch Tilt
Another camera angle found regularly in film noir is known variously as a Dutch Tilt, Dutch Angle, German Angle or Canted Angle, where the camera is positioned at a slight angle to the vertical, so that the image acquires a sense of being off-kilter. This is very much in keeping with the atmosphere that film noir aims to create: the world is off-kilter in this film cycle, and the camera angle supports that assumption.
Go ahead and try to count the number of Dutch angle shots in this sequence from The Third Man. We dare you.
See? That’s what we mean.
Why is camera angle important?
In the last post, we looked at a sequence from Citizen Kane and suggested that the camera is used to pick out the balance of power that exists between Kane and his wife Susan throughout their argument. Have another look and see if you can pinpoint the moment that power balance shifts.
If you didn’t quite get it, that’s because it’s subtle – Orson Welles was a master of this kind of thing, and his cinematographer, Greg Toland, was an innovator in the field. At the beginning of the sequence, where Susan is bitterly reproaching Kane for his attitude towards her, she’s shot from a slightly low angle, and Kane from a slightly high angle. She’s afforded power by virtue of being “above” the eye level; he’s slumped, defeated, in his chair and we’re staring down at him from above, as though he’s a misbehaving child and we’re scolding him.
But when he stands up to strike Susan, the camera angle shifts dramatically. It’s disguised, to a certain extent, as an effort to follow his sudden movement upwards, but we’re forced into quite an extreme low angle on him by the action, and suddenly Kane holds all the power. Susan, though she hasn’t moved, is now pictured in her more typical high-angle shot.
It’s an unsettling scene, and the camera is a driving force in shaping our reaction.
Which brings us to camera movement. How’s that for a seamless segue?
Within any given scene, the number of options for a camera’s motion approach infinity, we’d suggest, but they all boil down to movement along three planes: left/right, up/down, and within the story space itself. These are known, respectively, as pan, tilt, and track.
This is what a pan looks like:
This is literally all that happens in this clip, by the way. If you’re waiting for something more interesting to happen? Don’t. It doesn’t. This is the pan distilled to its purest essence and nothing else.
It’s important to note that in a pan, the camera does not move within the story space. It rotates on a horizontal axis but remains otherwise fixed on the spot. It’s not really the most exciting thing you can do with a camera, but it usually does the job.
If you want to get flashy with your pan, you can speed it up to what’s known as a whip pan – what we like to call Pan To The Max. A whip pan can be used in exactly the same way as a regular pan (only more so), or it’s often used as a transition between shots. If you’ve ever seen a Guy Richie movie, you’ve seen a whip pan.
And this is a tilt…
Again, this is a very simple motion, but it allows us to keep Andy and the record in medium close-up, which helps preserve that sense of intimacy and emotional significance that’s embodied in the record and the action of Andy lifting it from its place of storage. Because it’s medium close-up rather than close-up, the effect is less pronounced for a gentler, more placid feel, and the tilt allows us first to register the record as the most important item in shot, and then to physically link that important item to Andy. The same effect could, arguably, be achieved by cutting between two static MCUs, but the gentle motion of the tilt avoids introducing a choppy, jumpy, discordant note to what becomes a soft, lyrical moment outside of the brutal realities of prison life.
And here’s a tracking shot, probably one of the most famous in film history, and just an absolutely magnificent example:
This is one option for your tracking shot — this one’s done with a steadicam, a shoulder-mounted camera, the technology of which has spent the past number of decades significantly improving on the homemade, bouncy, cinema verite quality of yore into the barely noticeable wibble of modern indie filmmaking. But if you also have quite a bit of extra money and time, you can achieve a much smoother tracking shot by use of a dolly, which is a camera platform that runs on tracks that can be laid down and taken up as needed. This type of shot is almost ubiquitous in action movies: any time somebody starts running (Tom Cruise, we’re looking at you) and the camera moves slickly alongside their path of motion, that’s a dolly shot.
Wildcard: Crane Shot
And if you really REALLY have lots of money, you can go even fancier and use a crane, which lets you move within the story space not only forward and backwards and left and right but also up and down. Here’s really famous example of a crane shot from High Noon:
There are a number of reasons you might use a crane shot, and one of them, absolutely, is to show off how much money you have to make your film. (Although, having said that, the rise of the drone-mounted camera has significantly reduced the cost of staging this kind of shot – an expensive, flashy crane is no longer a requirement, though it does tend to make your shot look that bit fancier.) From a visual style point of view, though, you would use a crane shot when you really want to emphasise a character’s isolation, or if you’ve just had an intimate moment with a character and you want to politely withdraw, or if you want to emphasise a character’s spatial relationship to the environment all around them.
Talking of a character’s spatial relationship to the environment all around them, let’s discuss focal length. In order to properly do this element justice, we’d need to take a deep dive into the mathematics of depth of field, but we don’t think you want us to do that any more than we do*.
So, let’s look instead at the visual outcome, because it can be both dramatic and arresting, and also so invisibly woven into the fabric of a movie’s visual style that the average viewer scarcely notices the effort that’s gone into every scene.
A shot’s depth of field is the distance through which the elements of an image are in sharp focus. If we think about the construction of an image in various planes, it’s easier to conceptualise what we’re talking about, and for the sake of simplicity let’s talk in terms of three planes: (1) close to the camera, (2) in the middle distance, and (3) distant from the camera. (Those lengths are relative, of course, depending on the overall depth of the image. “Distant” could be six feet away. It could also be 100 miles away.)
By far and away, the most common application of depth of field is a shot that uses selective focus. You’ve definitely seen this in action. It’s so ubiquitous, in fact, that it takes an effort even to notice it happening on the screen. When selective focus is applied, objects in one plane will be in clear focus while objects in other planes will be blurry. Say we’ve chosen to focus on a character in plane 1. Depending on the camera lens used, and the distance of the objects from the camera, objects in planes 2 and 3 may be slightly fuzzy or so blurry that it’s almost impossible to discern any features.
Here’s an example of a shot using selective focus, with a short focal length so that objects in plane 1 are in sharp focus and all other planes are deeply blurred.
And here’s what happens when the director wants to shift the audience’s attention to an object in plane 2. It’s known as a rack focus.
The camera operator shifts the camera’s focal length so that plane 1 is out of focus and plane 3 is in focus.
Again, this technique is the most commonly employed, since it gives the director control over where to direct the audience’s attention. In that respect, it’s fulfilling a similar function to a close-up or extreme close-up: it’s making sure that you’re looking at the thing the director wants you to be looking at. It relies on what’s known as shallow focus, since only a narrow portion of the shot is in focus. Of course, the existence of a shallow focus implies that deep focus is also an option, and if that’s what you’re thinking, you’d be right.
Deep focus is much less common, mostly because it’s a faff to achieve. To keep all objects in every plane in sharp focus, you need specialist lenses and a very careful lighting set-up to make sure that the camera is able to pick out the necessary level of detail throughout the setting. Deep focus was pioneered by Orson Welles and cinematographer Greg Toland on the set of Citizen Kane. Here’s one of the most famous examples, from close to the start of that movie.
In this shot, deep focus is used to phenomenal emotional effect: in the background we see the young, carefree Charles Foster Kane playing happily outside in the snow, while, in the foreground his mother signs the contract that will change his life forever. In the mid-ground, largely ignored, his father strenuously objects to her decision. We won’t know until the end of the movie, but this sequence answers its central question: who or what is Rosebud, and what’s the significance of Kane’s final word?
So, while it’s less able to direct the audience’s attention than selective focus, deep focus can provide the viewer with a great deal of information, prompting causal links between separate actions, the meaning of which may not become clear until much later. It’s a nifty tool in the director’s playbox, and one that demands engagement from the audience.
Finally, exposure, which refers to the degree to which light is allowed to pass through a camera’s aperture and the effect that this has on the image created.
Generally speaking, exposure is controlled so that the image looks as “natural” (always a slippery word when it comes to film) as possible: the idea is to replicate the tones, colour saturation, light level and so on that a human eye would observe were it physically present in the scene. Astute observers will immediately propose a number of objections to this, but the idea is to set the exposure in a kind of “neutral” gear – nothing visually startling or unexpected.
However, by leaving the aperture open a little longer, you allow light to flood the film stock (or, these days, photosites), and more light you allow through, the more the image will begin to shift away from that posited “neutral” above. More light equates to a paler, more washed out image. When an image becomes so pale that the detail begins to disappear, it’s described as overexposed. And you can manipulate the exposure of an image so as to guide an audience’s response to a scene**.
There are many reasons why a director might choose to deliberately overexpose a sequence. Suggesting a sense of “otherworldliness” or the divine is one – scenes set in heaven are frequently overexposed. For another, have a look at this still from Traffic (2000).
Traffic makes good use of overexposure in establishing its visual language – in fact, all of the sequences set in the Northern Mexico desert are overexposed. In this case, it’s to evoke a sense of a barren, desolate land, mercilessly scoured by the sun. Whatever the climatic truth of that assertion, for the purposes of Traffic’s narrative, the goal of this stylistic decision is to render the impression of a kind of no-man’s land, hostile and forbidding, in which police and customs enforcers have no control.
Alternatively, by reducing the amount of light that gets through the aperture, you can deliberately underexpose a shot. This is very common in genres such as horror where darkness – both literal and metaphorical – is used strategically, and comes in particularly handy when you want to withhold information in a sequence to ratchet up the tension.
However, one of the most common uses of an underexposed shot is day-for-night shoots. Stop and actually think about this for a minute. This…
…is not what darkness looks like. This is what darkness looks like.
Now, it’s pretty obvious that the light levels in the second one are going to make it difficult to pick out what’s happening on screen, which is a problem in a medium designed to convey information through visual means. But… still. This…
…takes learning to read as night. Very young children, presumably, look at this and think, “Huh. Blue.” They know what night looks like. You know what night looks like. But you’ve learned, through years of interacting with screen media, to accept a day-for-night image as representative of night, regardless of the fact that your brain knows that’s nonsense, just because it’s an absolute pain in the pants, when making a movie, to light an actual night shoot, and screen actors tend to have really good unions that make you pay them extra for unsociable hours.
Weird hill to die on, but here we are: this is why it’s important to understand the intricacies of film language. Because you’ve learned so completely to recognise “Ah! Navy blue tones – the sun has set,” that, most often, you don’t even realise that you’re doing it. Every interaction with film is an interaction with the language hidden within the image. The language we use to make meaning.
Sometimes that meaning is “okay, night time.” Other times… it’s not.
Come back again next month, and we’ll look at how mise-en-scene contributes to the subtextual stories you read without realising.
* If we’re wrong about that, there’s a truly outstanding discussion of the physics of focal length in David Bordwell and Kristen Thompson’s seminal Film Art: An Introduction.
** Note that the same effect can often be achieved through the film’s lighting design.