The Art Behind the Screen

How the magicians behind the film industry transform words on a page into a moving work of art.


Photos by Grace Rowell

The seats of the theater are filling up with rows of people glancing up at the large screen in front of them, ready to become captivated by someone else’s story. This feeling of being swept off your feet and immersed into a separate world is something that filmmakers work hard to achieve

Cinematography proves itself to be both an art and a science, making it difficult to understand, recognize and produce. Cinema, and the ways in which it is consumed and fabricated is constantly evolving. Through this progression, movies have advanced into visual installments that are more than just a script, plot and a series of interactions between characters.

Despite new technological advances, the definition of cinematography has stayed consistent. Poetically, it can be explained as the translation of the dreams and thoughts of a director to a realistic visual format in which viewers are transported into lives that are different from their own.

Formally, there are multiple mechanical details that support this process in which a cinematographer connects the gap between dreams and reality through interpreting the ideas of the director. Cinematographers apply their educational background with photography and filming to create a scene that evokes emotion and accurately captures the director’s idea for the film. These elements help convey the story in an appealing manner and are ultimately the most important visual aspects of a film.

Cinematographers are characterized by their ability to capitalize on the current technological filmmaking commodities to yield a product that caters to the audience’s response and the director’s intended vision. The combination of ideas and technology result in the visuals that characterize a film. Certain cinematic elements make a film distinguishable, such as light, color, frame and depth. If viewers recognize these elements, they can better understand the underlying ideas of the film and thus the ultimate goal of a cinematographer is achieved.

An influential element in cinema is color, a facet that evokes emotional responses from readers through various depictions. A product of light, color and its usage impacts the visual experience, thus any variations of color will signify a change in composition. Color is commonly associated with emotions. The psychological element behind the use of color helps cinematographers link a certain mood to a frame or scene. It can also elicit responses from the audience or draw them to significant details, such as character traits and development or important themes. The three main components of color are hue, saturation and value. These terms correlate to the actual color, its intensity and its brightness. Differences within any of these parameters can impact the tone of the movie. Color schemes and palettes are created for certain scenes, and often cinematographers will use palettes that are of similar or different colors to create balance or discordance within the film. Additionally, balance and discordance can create harmony or tension within the film depending on the cinematographer’s usage of the basic color palette. A situation in which colors are used to convey a mood is exemplified to the right. Inspired by Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom,” childhood vitality and nostalgia are expressed through faded earthy tones. Warmer colors such as yellow, brown and orange, especially set at a lower contrast and saturation, tend to elude to lighter, more joyous sentiments. This color scheme and the way it creates balance within the film and influences the general mood ultimately reflects upon the importance of color in film.

Depth of field is the area in front of the camera that appears in sharp focus in the frame. This is changed based on the amount of light and the size of the lens aperture. For example, a bright

light and narrow lens aperture create a larger depth of field. Shallow depth of fields lead the viewer’s eyes to a specific object without the cinematographers putting in specific analytic cuts. Filmmakers use different depth of fields to focus in on different objects. They have certain elements in focus while others are not, attracting the attention of the viewer to those that are focused. In the provided example, it is clear that this is a shallow depth of field since the person in the front is focused while the rest of the image is just blurry in the background. In this scene, it is clear that the most important part that the filmmaker wants the viewers to focus on is the character in front.

One of the most influential elements of a film is light. Light is an integral part of cinematography because of its flexibility, possible variations and endless options of composition. Whether or not they are extreme, any changes in light are noticeable to the human mind and body. Any alterations made to the overall brightness of a scene will subtly convey a change in mood. Additionally, lighting is a result of the mixture of other components, such as exposure, depth, contrast, contour and atmosphere; all pieces that can set the mood for a film. The use of these elements is exemplified in a situation where the cinematographer uses a sidelight as the only source of light. Light coming from a parallel direction would create chiaroscuro lighting, a traditional technique used throughout the film noir period that creates a dramatic mood through the use of high levels of contrast. The lack of a sense of depth and the drastic contour add to the extremity of the composition, all elements the cinematographer has carefully considered to support the melodramatic undertone of the film. All of the inconspicuous ways in which light influences a film are intentional and are previously contemplated by cinematographers to create an emotionally responsive piece.

Much more goes into creating a film than expected due to the many factors of a film that are changed and manipulated to convey a specific emotion to the audience. There are many unnoticed aspects of each film that, even though they seem rather insignificant, have the ability to change the entire mood of the film. As unimportant as they may seem to the audience, filmmakers spend days fiddling with these different facets of the film to ensure that they produce a movie that will not be forgotten. Films would be less significant and impactful if these elements of the creating process were ignored. The magical ability films have to move people and fly them into another world, is the work of pure cinematographic genius.