Review: The Film Experience Chapter 3/Cinematography: Framing What We See

Although movie images sometimes seem like transparent windows into the world, they are actually carefully constructed and filmed. The magic of the film image comes from its power to re-create how we see the world through imagistic compositions that direct, expand, and even transform our natural vision. The filming of images is called cinematography, which means motion-picture photography or, literally, “writing in movement.”

A Short History of the Cinematic Image
Human beings have long had an interest in visual illusions and the reproduction of images. The scientific study of vision led to the development of optical devices such as the phenakistiscope (1832) and the zoetrope (1834) that create the illusion of movement. The ability to mechanically create the illusion of movement and the subsequent invention of photography helped pave the way for motion-picture cinematography. In the last decade of the nineteenth century, inventors such as the Frenchmen Auguste and Louis Lumière developed the first motion-picture cameras and projectors.
Equally integral to the development of the cinema was Eastman Kodak’s creation of strong but flexible and transparent film stock that could move through the mechanisms of the camera and projector with minimal breakage. Early film stock was made from highly flammable nitrate, which caused numerous fires and fatalities before the eventual development of acetate-based safety film.
Although early movies were filmed in black and white, they were often colored through tinting or toning processes before the eventual development of two-strip and three-strip Technicolor processes in the 1930s.
The development of different camera lenses allowed for different focal lengths—the distance from the center of the lens to the point where light rays meet in sharp focus—that alter the perspective relations of an image. Wide-angle lenses have a short focal length, telephoto lenses have a long one, and a zoom is a variable focus lens. The technology of cinematography has continued to develop over the years with the introduction of more lightweight handheld cameras that were widely used during World War II, the arrival of widescreen cinematography in the 1950s, the invention of the Steadicam in the 1970s, the development of digital cinematography in the 1990s, and the recent advances in 3-D cinema.

The Elements of Cinematography
The most basic unit of cinematography is the shot—a continuous exposed piece of film without stops or edits. Each shot orchestrates four important attributes: framing, depth of field, color, and movement. In cinematographic terms, point of view refers to the position from which a person, an event, or an object is seen (or filmed). The aspect ratio describes the relation of width to height of the film frame as it appears on a movie screen or television monitor. Onscreen space refers to the space visible within the frame of the image, whereas off screen space is the implied space or world that exists outside the film’s frame.
The scale of the shot—the distance between the camera and the shot subject—is described by a variety of terms, including close-ups, extreme close-ups, medium close-ups, long shots, extreme long shots, medium shots, and medium long shots. A deep-focus shot is one in which multiple focal planes—foreground, middle ground, and background—are all in sharp focus.
Film shots are positioned according to a multitude of angles, from straight on to above or below. High angles present a point of view from above, directed at a downward angle on individuals or a scene, while low angles present a point of view from below, directed at an upward angle.
The film camera can be moved in a variety of ways to create a moving frame that seeks to replicate aspects of human vision in the natural world. While on a tripod, the camera can pan or tilt to provide horizontal or vertical movement. Reframing refers to the movement of the frame from one position to another within a single continuous shot. A tracking shot changes the position of the point of view by moving the camera forward or backward or around the subject, usually on tracks that have been constructed in advance. The camera can be mounted on a dolly to create tracking shots, on a crane for overhead shots, or on a Steadicam (essentially a gyroscope harness worn by the camera operator) to create smooth moving shots. For example, the long, flowing shots of Danny riding his tricycle through the hallways of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining (1980) were created using a Steadicam. A handheld shot allows freedom of movement like a Steadicam, but results in a shaky image, such as often seen in documentary war footage, for example.
Animation traditionally refers to moving images that are drawn or painted on individual cels that are then photographed onto single frames of film. Stop-motion animation is created by manipulating three-dimensional objects (often clay figures) and by exposing one frame of film at a time to create movement, as seen in Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). After the runaway success of Pixar Studios’ Toy Story (1995), contemporary animated feature films are more commonly created using digital technology.
Special effects cinematography includes not only computer-generated imagery (CGI) but also manipulations like slow motion, fast motion, process shots, and matte shots.

Making Sense of the Film Image
The cinematic image has two primary values: as presentation, or as a true record of the world, and as representation, an interpretation or suggested meaning of that record. Two traditions of compositional practice for the film image are presence, in which the audience identifies emotionally with the image, and textuality, in which the audience identifies intellectually with the image. The phenomenological image and the psychological image are variations on the tradition of presence. The aesthetic image and the semiotic image are variations on the tradition of textuality.

Discussion Questions
After watching the clip from Touch of Evil, consider the questions below.
1. While much of the film uses tracking shots, this sequence uses editing to show the difficulty of tracking Quinlan. Make sketches of two sets of more juxtaposed shots. How are angles and compositional elements used to relate frame to frame?

2. The name film noir was given to a cycle of postwar films whose themes were as dark as their lighting schemes. Comment on cinematographer Russell Metty’s use of darkness in this scene.

The unsettling moods of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films are established through expressive cinematography. Shot primarily on large format, highly color sensitive 65mm film, The Master (2012) tells the story of unstable World War II veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) who drifts from place to place before falling in with the Cause, led by the charismatic Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). This sequence starts with Quell being chased off a farm after poisoning another migrant worker with his moonshine and ends with his stumbling across Dodd’s yacht. The surreal passage is conveyed without words by cinematographer Mihai Mălaimare Jr.

After watching the clip from The Master, consider the questions below.
1. A radical change in setting occurs between two scenes shot primarily in darkness. How is the greater image area allowed by 65mm utilized to convey the impact of the transition between settings though different values of light?

2. The filmmakers did not use a digital intermediate in the postproduction process to adjust color values and other aspects of the image, taking care to capture depth and clarity in shooting and then faithfully render the photochemical process onscreen. Describe the expressionist use of color in this scene. How does the quality of the image convey Quell’s subjective experience?

VIEWING CUE: Rear Window
With the exception of a single shot, the entirety of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) is filmed from the apartment window of L.B. Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart). By this point in the film, Jeffries is convinced that he has witnessed a murder across the courtyard and is looking for clues within the hubbub of everyday life.
After watching the clip from Rear Window, consider the questions below.
1. Describe the moving camera in this shot. Is camera movement "motivated"? Is it "invisible"?

2. Describe how the view could be shown with several different shots. Would the effect of cutting change the way we experience the film’s primary theme of looking?

VIEWING CUE: The Battle of Algiers
A fiction film with a documentary look, The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966) describes the war between the French and the Algerian resistance during the 1950s, recreating an important episode in that struggle. This scene immediately follows a devastating French attack on the casbah. In it, three Algerian women prepare to serve the revolutionary cause by carrying explosives into the French quarter.
After watching the clip from The Battle of Algiers, consider the questions below.
1. How does black-and-white cinematography contribute to the authenticity of the film?

2. How does lighting contribute to the drama of transformation?

In the wordless scene from Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958), private eye Scottie (Jimmy Stewart) follows his college friend’s wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) on her mysterious wanderings.
Discussion Questions
After watching the clip from Vertigo, consider the questions below.
1. Explain in as much detail as possible how the framing shapes the meaning of this sequence. What does it say about Scottie’s point of view and Madeleine’s position as object of that point of view?

2. Towards the conclusion of the sequence, the image contains a remarkable “double image.” Why is this shot so disconcerting and complicated?

Framing, Camera Angles, and Special Effects in Vertigo
            Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo is perhaps one of the most complex and disturbing movies ever made. While the story at first appears to be a well-worn tale of lost love and tragic obsession, it becomes a rich and layered film about seeing on every level, supported by its intricate drama of images and cinematography. Ex-detective Scottie Ferguson has just recovered from a trauma and taken a job as a private eye. His former friend, Gavin Elster, asks Scottie to
            follow his wife, Madeleine. VistaVision, the aspect ratio used in Vertigo, is one of the film's immediately recognizable and significant formal features. The open space of the widescreen frame enhances Scottie's anxious searches through the wide vistas of San Francisco. In the film's early sequences, the cinematography reinforces Scottie's pursuit of Madeleine through point-of-view shots and
            framing masks. Hitchcock cleverly creates masking effects by using natural objects within the frame, unlike the artificially obvious masks used in some older films. Here the frame of the car windshield masks and intensifies Scottie's perspective as he follows Madeleine. And in another scene Scottie follows Madeleine to a flower shop. The masking effects here isolate and dramatize Scottie's intense gazing, emphasizing his point of view. The brilliance
            of the framing creates one of the most powerful and revealing images of the film. We see both Scottie peering at Madeleine and Madeleine's reflection in the mirror. In this double image, Scottie's looking literally contains Madeleine as an image. Madeleine frequently evades Scottie's point of view, disappearing like a ghost beyond the frame's borders, which is part of what entices Scottie and draws him to her. The shock of Madeleine's fall to her death from
            the top of the church tower at the end of the first half of the film is especially disturbing because it occurs offscreen and is revealed only as Scottie watches her blurred body flash by the tower window. The window acts as a frame, limiting Scottie's perception of what has actually happened.
            Distance and Angles
            Given that the crisis of Vertigo is in one sense about far distances seen from high angles, camera distance and angles play a major role in the film. Throughout the
            film, Scottie is locked in the frame of his own perspective and desires. As Scottie follows Madeleine from a distance in the first part of the film, his desire to know the mysteries she conceals and his longing for her create a continual drama of looking. Like many other Hitchcock films, Vertigo continuously exploits the edges of the frame to tease and mislead us with what we and Scottie cannot see. At a dramatic turning point in the film, Scottie watches
            Madeleine in a long shot, distanced and mysterious under the Golden Gate Bridge. As she dives into the bay, Scottie quickly crosses that distance to save her. Seeing Madeleine's face as a close-up after he rescues her is an image that will haunt him throughout the film. Hitchcock uses frequent close-ups and even extreme close-ups to concentrate on significant
            details of Madeleine's image. He shifts constantly between Madeleine's face and the fetishized extensions of her face, her hair, the necklace, and the flowers, emphasizing and reinforcing Scottie's obsessive fascination with Madeleine. Another key feature of the cinematography that reinforces the drama of Vertigo is the use of camera angles. In some cases, the film's sharp angles enhance Scottie's complex psychological
            and moral concerns about power and control. In the scene when Gavin persuades Scottie to follow Madeleine, framing and camera angles say much more than the words of the two men. The conversation begins normally enough, with Scottie looking offscreen at Gavin. Shortly after, Gavin appears through a low-angle shot to be positioned significantly higher up than Scottie. The visual conflicts and tensions of
            this shot become further emphasized when Gavin moves into the foreground to continue the conversation, now visually dominating the seated Scottie. Toward the end of the sequence, Scottie sits literally cornered by the framing and camera angle. Although neither we nor Scottie know it yet, he is already being positioned and manipulated through the frames and angles that depict him.
            The Vertigo Effect: Zooms and Tracks
            In Vertigo, the cinematography
            foregrounds the movement of the frame as a way to reflect the swirling movement of Scottie's psyche. One of the best examples of this takes place when Scottie finds Madeleine standing before a portrait of her great-grandmother, Carlotta Valdez, in an art museum. Inside the museum the camera executes several complex moves that mimic Scottie's perspective. The camera simultaneously zooms in and tracks on the swirl in Madeleine's hair and then reframes by tracking and
            zooming in on the same hairstyle in the painting of Carlotta. These camera movements in the museum sequence resemble those used in the thrilling opening sequence. Scottie is hanging from the gutter and suddenly paralyzed with vertigo. This is captured in a celebrated combination of a tracking movement forward and a backward zoom. Visually this combination of seemingly contradictory movements produces two effects. First, a flattening of the image as the zoom effaces the depth of the track. And second, an odd spirally action as the distant ground is drawn up
            through the advancing track. The various spiraling effects in Vertigo continually remind us of the connection between Scottie's trauma and his relentless desire for Madeleine. The spinning vortex becomes emblematic of Scottie's vertigo. In fact, his vertigo and the film's themes of seeing death and abstraction, are hinted at from the very beginning, in the famous opening credits designed by Saul Bass.
            Special Effects and Animation
            Although Vertigo is to a certain extent a realistic thriller, it employs animation and special effects as a prominent way of representing Scottie's psychological state. One of the strangest uses of special effects is Scottie's nightmarish hallucinations, which occur after Madeleine's death and his subsequent breakdown because of his guilt over having caused a second death. Triggered by his psychotic depression, this
            eruption of animation depicts the scattering of the mythical Carlotta's bouquet of flowers and a black abstract form of Scottie's body falling onto the roof of the church. Another powerful example of special-effects animation occurs when Scottie begins to lose his grip on one reality and become engulfed in another. As Scottie kisses Judy, the woman Gavin Elster hired to impersonate his wife, they spin free of the background of the room and become literally
            engulfed in each other, like a kind of exotic dream. Of course, this dream won't survive these special effects or Scottie's realization that Judy as Madeleine had been part of an elaborate scheme. At the end of the film, Scottie and Judy return to the church and tower to confront his vertigo. Judy is startled by a nun emerging from a trapdoor and steps backward, falling out the tower window to her death.
            An eerie matte shot superimposes a tower on the actual church at San Juan Bautista, perhaps to add a crucial element to the setting where Scottie's fear of heights is exploited. And as if to enhance the nightmarish significance of the tower, in the last shot the matted image of the tower appears to glow ominously as it looms over yet another dead body.


We learn in the first few minutes of Fritz Lang’s M (1931) that a child murderer is terrorizing Berlin. As the opening sequence unfolds, we return to the flat where Elsie Beckman's mother is expecting her daughter’s return.

After watching this clip from M, consider the questions below. Then submit your response.
1. M was made early in the development of the sound film. How does cinematography play off sound and silence in this scene to enhance the mood?

2. What point of view does the camera assume, especially in shots without people in them?

Cinematography: Meaning through Images in M

            Narrator:  Fritz Lang's M, a gruesome tale of a child's murder is rightly hailed for its subtle and complex cinematography. Blending the documentary look of German street films, and the dark psychological images of German expressionism, the film uses images to analyze and decipher a troubled society between the two World Wars. Early in the film, various shots capture the stark reality of life, with a combination of close-ups and medium long shots. In many of these shots, the almost documentary-like realism is infused
            with an anxiety and tension created by low angles and tight framing, suggesting troubling meanings beneath the surface of these images.

Title Card: Framing & Offscreen Space
            Narrator:  Shortly after the opening shots in M, we see Elsie Beckmann walking home, bouncing a ball in the street. Then in one of the more subtly frightening images in the film, there is a shot of a poster offering a reward for catching a child murderer. As Elsie bounces her ball off of it, a dark shadow of a man drifts over the poster. This ominous image is captured from a low angle, recreating Elsie's point of view. The framing and angles hint at a menacing figure
            lurking just offscreen, on the edges of the image.
            Narrator:  Through its framing and use of offscreen space, M rigorously avoids graphic violence, thus making that violence more mysterious and disturbing. You see the shadowy stranger buy Elsie a balloon from a blind man. Shortly after, all we see is Elsie's ball rolling away in the grass in a chilling medium long shot that shows the balloon tangled in telephone wires. Demonstrating how cinematography can create complex symbols and connotations, these shots dramatically depict Elsie's death without actually showing it. The tangled balloon also serves as a
            metaphor, suggesting that Elsie's death more broadly represents a twisted modern world that traps and destroys innocents.

Title Card: Good vs. Evil
            Narrator:  The way viewers understand the dark world of M and its images is indeed more than just good versus evil. And the film's cinematography works relentlessly to obscure those distinctions. Criminals and the police are regularly confused and visually blurred together. As Lang alternates between scenes of the police and the mob bosses, both groups gathering to discuss how to catch the murderer, the similarities are striking. Both groups are clustered around a table, plotting and planning in excessively smoky rooms. Even the murderer, Beckert, played by Peter
            Lorre, struggles to understand his own violence and evil. At one point, he examines and tugs at his own face while looking in a mirror, trying to understand how such a monster can exist beneath this pudgy baby-face. And although we know him to be evil, Beckert's chubby body is strangely reminiscent of Elsie's balloon tangled in the telephone wires, a sign of destroyed innocence.

Title Card: The Spiral Image
            Narrator:  Amidst the many shapes, frames and angles of the cinematography in M, one visual graphic stands out, the spiral. The spiral image is seen early in the film in an overhead point-of-view shot as Elsie's mother searches by the staircase for Elsie. This shape occurs again later when Beckert sees another young girl in the reflection of a shop window. Beckert and the girl are both framed by hypnotic spirals. Perhaps an imagistic emblem of the society of Beckert's dark unconscious, the spiraling shape seems to describe a
            world that twists and turns in unstable and irrational ways. The spiral graphic returns yet again in the penultimate sequence, when Beckert is caught and tried by the criminals in a kangaroo court. This trial, the film's ironic conclusion is appropriately framed and shaped as a spiraling crowd. M is a film about the difficulty of deciphering images and signs. Here, criminals must become the vehicle for the law, and a blind man must identify the murderer.