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Films That Made Me Think Critically About My Cinematography

I’ve somewhat accepted that at this point, I will do just about every one of these entries as a David Letterman-style list. It helps to give my writing structure and it seems as if more people are willing to read something in this style. So for this week’s installment of FMMC Buzzfeed, I’d like to talk about some movies that helped me to get inspired behind the camera. This is not a list of the best shot films, but it is a list of ones that I think the average person can find enjoyable while also noticing and appreciating their cinematic uniqueness. I’ve managed to tame my inner snob and have avoided adding films like Stalker and 8 1/12. I would still recommend them, but I want to keep this list accessible to a wider audience. I’ve chosen these films for a variety of different reasons, but the one connecting thread is that they have accomplished something unique behind the camera that I have wanted to emulate in my own filmmaking.

Waves (2019) DP: Drew Daniels

For starters this is basically two films in terms of style. In the first half, the cinematography is extremely kinetic. The camera literally does not stop moving until a tragic turning point in the story. After an hour of that whirlwind style, the emotional blow of the story’s midpoint hits you as an audience member. I felt my heat drop when I first saw the film in theaters. The second half is much more traditional in terms of cinematography, but retains some of the slight graceful movements of the first half. Almost as if a depression has blanketed across the characters and the camera itself, making it harder for them to move as freely. There are a great many documentaries, skate films, and high-octane action films with a similar amount of movement, but never this controlled. The handful of slight shakey-cam accents are extremely intentional. I am frankly still unaware of how a film can contain this much movement without feeling like an amusement park ride. Speaking of which…

City of God (2002) DP: César Charlone

City of God feels like a fly on the wall style documentary in so many ways. The staging is done so impeccably that you feel as if you might not witness what’s in the next shot. The characters do not feel bound by the frame at all and yet everything is still captured. The effect of this shooting style is an extremely raw and emotionally charged atmosphere that imbues the plot with so much more of an emotional punch.

Mid90s (2018) DP: Chris Blauvelt

When it comes to capturing the atmosphere of an era, look no further than Mid90s. The set decoration and wardrobe are doing some heavy lifting, but it is the cinematography that makes you feel as if you are watching a product of the 1990s. The choice to shoot on 16mm with a relatively high ISO made the film feel like a prolonged skate flick. Other hallmarks of skater films from that era like fish-eye lenses, and the lesser used 1.37:1 aspect ratio make the final product ooze cultural ambience.

Portrait of a Woman on Fire (2019) DP: Claire Mathon

Ok, so I know I said I would avoid pretentious films, but I just couldn’t help myself on this one. It may not be the most exhilarating film, but it will still easily keep viewers attention, which is strange because it breaks from so many modern conventions. The norm nowadays is snappy dialogue and quick cuts, but Portrait of a Woman on Fire intentionally avoids that altogether. The dialogue alone doesn’t even tell a complete story of the complex relationship that emerges between the two leads. Portrait of a Woman on Fire is a prime example of a visually driven story. So much character development and plot comes from the shots. I would like to say more, but I’m afraid to give away what makes this film so special.

There Will Be Blood (2007) DP: Robert Elswit

I could really go on here, but to put it simply, this is a film without a wasted shot. Every shot here aids in developing a character, progressing the story, or both. It’s all so painfully intentional and methodically planned that it would be hard to recreate if given all the time in the world.

Her (2013) DP: Hoyte van Hoytema

Oftentimes when people think of cinematographic styles they gravitate towards something like Wes Anderson and Robert Yeoman’s iconic look. This is all well and good, but most style in cinematography is far more subtle. Additionally, I’m of the opinion that your style should add to the story. When styles like Yeoman’s are on display, I find myself extremely distracted by the spectacle of this look and less involved in the story. Her, stands out to me in this way. Its style so thoroughly compliments the story that the two feel inseparable. The way Joaquin Phoenix sits in the frame is so out of place. Hoytema uses depth of field artfully to emphasize the separation between Phoenix’s character and the rest of the world. Furthermore the color palette, lenses, camera, exposure, and color correction all blend in a mesmerizing way. The end product is visual poetry.

Hero (2002) DP: Christopher Doyle

I could go on with this list for an annoying amount of time, but for now I would like to leave you with the film that first opened my eyes to the art of filmmaking. Hero has every right to be an over-the-top action film with zero imagination behind its camerawork. It could’ve made a lot of money doing just that. But instead, it is a truly innovative masterpiece. In the film, few trusted individuals are allowed within 100-paces of the Chinese emperor. Therefore, spacial relations are played with in a number of unique ways to denote trust, status, importance, etc. The film also utilizes a unique form of storytelling that sees the colors black, white, red, green, and blue used to represent the subjective perspectives of individual characters who witnessed the same events. The transitions between these perspectives/colors is masterful and a delight to watch.

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