An Introduction to the Basics of Cinematography

An Introduction to the Basics of Cinematography
Photo by Kyle Loftus from Pexels

In this article we’ll look at some of the basics of cinematography and certain filming techniques that are commonly used across many genres and which you’ll have no doubt seen in TV shows and movies. This is by no means an exhaustive list and with something as multi-faceted and broad as cinematography there is always more to learn and discover. Having said that, let’s take a look into some great techniques that you should definitely consider taking into your filmmaking toolkit.

The One-Shot Sequence

This concept is basically filming a scene with no cuts, breaks or transitions apart from what is seen by the camera. This has been used to great effect and there are fantastic examples of it from virtually every director but recently this technique has been taken to the extreme and by Sam Mendes in his film 1917. Through some clever editing the film appears to take place in front of the camera’s lens without pause and a lot of it was in fact; there’s only a handful of cuts as the majority of filming was long-takes with handheld cameras following the action. 

This technique certainly allows for gripping storytelling as 1917 proves but what is the purpose behind a one-take shot? Long takes are quite often used as the ‘master shot’ - giving the production crew the overview of a dramatic scene and thus information of where they might want to cut and film from: offering different perspectives within the scene. Though sometimes, the director may not want to cut away from the action. A hugely popular example of this is a scene from Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas where we get an establishing shot of a main character entering his world so to speak. 

This is a great example of the power and effect of a long take, just over 3 minutes in fact, as we get the establishing shot of the world we’re about to enter followed by interactions between Ray Liotta’s character and the revellers and staff of the club. It’s not always necessary for a one-shot sequence to be so long but in this instance it was worth letting the whole scene play out. Not only in terms of scenery but the audience also sees how the character moves, talks and acts in a given scenario. We often get huge amounts of information which is why a one-shot sequence can be so valuable!

Close-Up

This is a standard filming technique to capture the subject’s/ actor’s face. It’s as simple as that but it is also hugely impactful - the close-up serves to remove all other visual distraction and shift focus to what’s being said, a reaction or a glance. We are able to read what goes across the actor’s face in a close-up and we don’t get anything else. This has been used in various ways and is an essential shot for any filmmaker to use. A scene may play out in its entirety but all the information we get is from the close-up; in this instance the director could be hiding information from us or it could be for the simple reason that they want us to see pivotal information as it dawns on the character’s face. 

The close-up has many uses and also has uses beyond the more typical head-on approach. A profile close-up gives us a completely different experience and may be used in a conversation, cutting between the two. It can even be to squeeze some distance between audience and character - we want to see their face to get some kind of clue or insight into the story but are unable to because it’s partially obscured as it’s shot in profile for instance. It can also be used to give a sense of direction: the classic western duel is often portrayed with profile close-ups of the duelists facing one another but not in the same frame. Two individuals who are now engaging in a duel to the death, the profile may show us confidence or nervousness, but we are reminded that their attention is on the other gunslinger. By doing this you also add more gravitas for when you do shoot a head-on close-up because the audience has only caught their profile and not the full face. This is, of course, just scratching the surface of the possibilities with close-up shots!

Composition

Another broad topic that I will attempt to explain some rudimentary ideas succinctly in, is composition. This really encompasses a great amount of photography and art as well as cinematography. Generally speaking in filmmaking you are capturing movement and you want to think carefully about how to capture this: where does the action take place, what direction are we moving in and how can you capture this in a way that is visually interesting? Certain established concepts such as the rule of thirds, the golden ratio, the golden triangle to name just a handful, have been put forward as aesthetically pleasing composition techniques to portray a scene. And while there is definite truth in these, there’s also a whole world of possibility to explore when composing your shots. 

How to capture motion in a scene is certainly challenging but it helps to consider what the tone of this scene is. A fight scene for instance may be composed of a wide angle with sweeping camera movements that get coverage of the entire set (think Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) or it could be getting the camera as close to the action as possible (Chad Stahelski’s John Wick). Each serves their own purpose and represents the film’s tone and feel perfectly well but each are strikingly different in terms of composition. The allure of Ang Lee’s work is the beauty and grace of the combat which is reflected in the wide-angle sweeping camera movements that follow alongside the warriors. John Wick on the other hand is in your face, unrelenting violence which is seen by the close-ups, quick cuts and jarring angles that displays the action in quite a unique perspective. 

As you can tell the subject of cinematography is a lifetime's worth of understanding through practise and perseverance. It’s well worth doing a deep dive on your favourite director to see what techniques they’ve used and to observe how and why it works. As I’ve established throughout, this is only the briefest of introductions to the topic but hopefully it stands up as a starting point from where you can develop your filmmaking skills. 

Author Bio: Andrew Farron works for Fable Studios, a Creative-led boutique video and animation studio that creates tailored brand stories that endure in your audience’s mind. Fable combines your objectives with audience insights and inspired ideas to create unforgettable productions that tell the unique story of your brand.



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