Cinematography is a popular form of art of motion-picture photography which lets creators tell powerful stories. Modern cinematography greatly differs from the one of previous years, as nowadays the filmmakers have a wide variety of tools to use for creating high-quality films.
We've reached out to different filmmakers to gather insights into today's cinematography. Now let's find out what they like and dislike in the industry, and what would they refine, avoid or rebel against in their work.
Facebook: Broken Head Productions
“One of my greatest disappointments is when ‘good’ films fail to fulfill their potential… when an otherwise strong film leaves you feeling a little… meh. The film looks great, the actors were terrific, the dialogue was well written… so why that feeling of indifference? I think this ambivalence comes down to one major flaw, which prevents good films from being great… that difference, in my opinion, it is an instinctual understanding and execution of the theme. To make a truly memorable, impactful film (of which there are statistically few), you have to understand what your film is about; how you’re connected to that theme; and then actually deliver on that thematic promise. Sometimes that means sacrificing scenes, characters, moments, shots and even full drafts, in the pursuit of something that is thematically resonant. So, what I’m basically saying is… to rise above the noise and the increasingly saturated market, the story has to come first.”
Vimeo: Kevork Aslanyan
“As I love cinema in general in almost every form, it will be very hard for me to give an answer to such a question. I am a cinema lover before creator after-all! The only thing I dislike not only in a movie but almost in every storytelling media is the lack of story. When the writer or writers were too lazy to make the world they are creating believable. As I think this is the basic foundation where cinema magic happens before our eyes. To make us believe!
I am too young as an author to try avoiding topics or just anything in general. All material is interesting and I am too hungry to say this is forbidden territory. All are interesting to me and I try to focus my thoughts on the search for a topic that will make me curious. There should be always an answer to the question “Why are you telling this story?”. For me, this has to have a meaning - always! I try to be, as much as I can, true to my taste - what I like or dislike when creating. Following other people’s taste is not the best scenario in general, but could help in the beginning. We have to make mistakes and to try to learn from them. To take bold decisions not everything the right once. Otherwise, the media we work in will become simply boring and unsatisfying. Every story is already told so just keep that in mind when you try rebelling towards the system.”
Vimeo: Mari Mantela
Facebook: En Autobiografi
“I believe that circumstances determine our behavior as human beings and that our social personality is programmed in our childhood. My fictive characters usually have great flaws and inner battles that they are totally blind to. They are their own worst enemy. The challenges begin when you communicate this view of life via a script. The financier-readers can be very conservative and they quickly need to define “good and bad” behavior. Some still think that to make the main character likable you need to write separate scenes for this. I believe that if the casting is done right, the same thing can be achieved with only an image with a suitable sound. I recently made a film about an older woman who knows everything about cars but nothing of herself. During her last days at work, she turns into a real asshole because she has no vocabulary to deal with her sorrow. It took me for ages to get the story financed but it was worth the battle.”
“I genuinely think there are some great things happening in independent film these days that are still pushing boundaries. The loose, naturalistic style feels pretty dominant these days and the aesthetic of tone seems to have taken precedence over a good story. I love something that knows it's tone and voice but that isn't enough to carry a film to an end. Surprising, good, unexpected stories will always prevail and this can be mistaken for something that has the surface level appearance of feeling fresh.
I'm always trying to one-up my own work and my own standards. The thing I rebel against is finding the easiest way to do something. I am compelled to make things challenging. I love to use techniques and effects but as I said above, style alone isn't enough to carry a story. I try to find ways to connect the theme to the effect I'm using. I don't try to avoid the gimmicks but rather elaborate on them.”
Tayler Vee Robinson
Vimeo: Tayler Vee Robinson
“I know I’m not the first to say it, but the representation of people of color, women, and members of the LGBTQ community in film and television is still pretty disappointing. If I rebel against one thing, it’s the types of characters I’ve seen my whole life in mainstream narratives. It seems pretty obvious to me that the way we achieve more diversity is to put more people from minority groups behind the camera as well as in front of it. Something I try to avoid in my work is overly polished storytelling: three-act structures, clearly defined genre, character tropes, etc. Life is messy, and I think the best films and TV reflect that.”
Vimeo: Thomas Grascoeur
“I am also an actor and I think lots of films are technically good but lack a real interest for actors. As a director, I try to be as precise as possible with my actors and to plan rehearsals long before the shooting, not to freeze things but to give me ideas, adapt my camera angles and give a chance to the actors to live some time with the spirit of their characters. I also give them clues of what the film will look like (ambiances, photos of the sets, of the costumes) to be sure everyone desires the same movie. Even without rehearsing too much, talking with actors while preparing the film is fundamental. You will earn time during the shooting and it is part of what I think a film is, i.e. a collective creation.”
“Cinema, stories through moving images be it TV or movie theater, I find both commendable and lamentable trends. Starting with the latter, we’ve seen an explosion in episodic TV. Beginning with quality offerings from HBO, then AMC and now saturated via streaming channels. While I celebrate that this has relegated reality TV to a relative entertainment backwater. As the stories on TV have blossomed, the theater has declined. Visually, Breaking Bad, GOT, Taboo, are as compelling as they’re dramatic. But as TV is still a writer’s playground, I find the level of visual storytelling technique becoming predictable and prosaic - as if the only purpose is a platform for dialogue. Rare is the visual metaphor, the indelible image. Must every scene go into coverage and close-ups? Did we forget that stories take place in a setting? I recently watched an episode of Queen Sugar on Oprah Network. It was nothing but a series of close-ups. They could’ve shot it in Baltimore or Westchester. Visually it wouldn’t have made a difference. It’s this reduction of storytelling to just verbal exposition and text, rote close-ups that lend all the artistry of a soap opera. It’s like when Buffy stopped slaying Vampires. On the good side, you have shows like Black Mirror, successful, risk-taking and satisfying on both a dramatic and aesthetic level. Now I haven’t said much about movies as I have little interest in superhero movies - I’m a grown ass man and got that out of my system when I was twelve. But overall, I see an opposite trend of TV. Whereas TV has content and uninspired technique to tell it, wide-release movies, for the most part, are all visual technique and little content. As a DP our holy grail is to make a living working on things we’d actually pay to see. My quest continues.
I try to avoid the latest and greatest technique for its own sake. One year it’s super slo-mo, another it’s unmotivated shaky cam, and then another it’s anamorphic lenses. I always try to wrap my head around what the film, video, show or project is about. What’s that thematic glue? From there, if we know the emotional and dramatic map, we can backward engineer to find the right technique. I find it telling when a director in an interview asks me how would I shoot their script? Or what camera would I use? This is where I usually blow it because I’ve no idea, I just met them. But say we decide to work together, we’ve dissected and deconstructed the story, and have an idea how to tell it, it’s at this stage where like a writer, I try to jettison any superfluous approaches and simplify everything. Can I do better with one light than two? Can I cover the beats by blocking than multiple angles? Will I just use salt, pepper and a few herbs than the whole spice rack?”
“In big-league cinema, I tend to recoil from anything that feels over-produced. I'd rather see bad practical effects (like a cheesy robotic shark) than computer-generated effects. Even when CGI is executed well I can immediately recognize it and I stop believing in the story.
In my own work, I try my best to rebel against trying too hard. I gravitate towards stories that inform and evoke a feeling in a powerful way while appearing effortless at the same time. Most of my work is a blend of documentary and experimental filmmaking. If things are beginning to feel contrived I know that I need to change something about my approach.”
Vimeo: Will Mayo
“My filmmaking partner likes to use the expression, 'gilding the lily.' A lot of not-great cinema, mainstream, and indie, tends to kill what's already beautiful in itself, with over-acting, swelling scores, and flashy cinematography. It's a reflex that insecure filmmakers have, and it distracts them from seeing that what they have might be simple and effective in itself, without any extra comment or opinion from music, camera, or performer. In my own work, I consciously try to fade into the background and let characters and situations speak for themselves. My goal is to get the audience to listen, not to buy.”
Vimeo: Yulia Ruditskaya
“As an animated film director and animator, I'd talk about animation and animated films. First of all, I'd like to say that there so many great films nowadays, especially shorts, and they are so much easier to find and watch thanks to the internet, as never before. I think we live in a very interesting time when animated storytelling evolves rapidly. That inspires me as an artist, and I encourage everyone to watch more shorts.
What I dislike: if to talk about animated films, especially often its the case with features, I don't like realistic 3D. Despite it's 'realistic' nature, it often lacks believability and expressiveness and looks artificial to me. Also, big studios for obvious reasons do not want to take risks, as the viewers are used to the "mainstream" sleek and polished, and "smooth" style of animation, which is entertaining and sweet, but the film doesn't really take you deeper or makes the viewer think. But I believe, the viewer can be "trained". It's very similar to music - when you only listen to pop songs, classical music makes no sense, might seem too heavy or even boring. But the more you listen, you learn to listen, and you discover so much more there! Same thing with the cinema. I much more prefer heavily stylized, sometimes simplified or more "abstract" animation, which feels much more alive to me, and fun to watch. It can tell the story better, in my opinion. In either case, it needs strong dramaturgy, in the first place, even if that's a non-narrative piece.
I myself work primarily in short form at the moment, as it gives me more freedom to experiment with visual style, narration and the subject of the story as well. I tend to avoid dialogue if I can. I think it should only be used if really necessary for the story. The animation is such a powerful tool of its own, that a lot can be told without any dialogue. I also like to try different animation techniques and approaches, and those possibilities seem endless. I always try to choose what works best to serve the story. Sometimes the most emotional stories can be told with just a few simple strokes and lines. I believe that those simple, minimalistic films are the hardest to make. I don't consider myself a rebel, I like to experiment of course but I learn a lot from classics of animation, from schools and traditions, including European, and American, Japanese, from all over the world. I have a deep respect for those "old-school" masters of the animation, and their works. Very often I find myself watching a film that has been made 20-30-40, even sometimes a hundred! years ago, and discover so many contemporary and revolutionary creative ideas and details there, that it blows my mind!”
Vimeo: Jude Chun
“Something I think is important in storytelling is to have two opposing, fully developed, and coherent worldviews. I dislike when a film has only one view of the world, even if I happen to agree with that view. The more obviously "correct" a worldview is (such as "all human life is sacred"), the harder it is (but still necessary) to find the opposing worldview, fully develop it, and express it coherently. Therefore, I end up doing a lot of research before finishing a script, but I feel that is necessary for a compelling story.”
Vimeo: Jess Thoubboron
“It's easier for me to talk about something I dislike in the cinema if I can first point out traits that I like. One thing I like is finding cinematic stories either told by or about people who have been traditionally underrepresented in cinema, which often have unique perspectives that can get audiences seeing their lives differently and potentially push them outside of their comfort zones. I also like when I see narrative films that experiment with form and still tell compelling stories. A fresh cinematic structure tells a story in and of itself. What I dislike are stories that feel recycled and safe. I dislike when you can tell that a filmmaker has focused too much on production quality rather than on substance. I dislike when films rest on their laurels or connections and offer nothing special to the world.
The most important thing for me is expressing what I feel like I need to express at the right moment. I don't worry much about the writing process. When I start working on a new script, the story is what bubbles up from deep from within my subconscious and demands to be heard. I trust my intuition. I don't think much in terms of avoiding or rebelling against things because both of those fall into the category of reactions to what other people are doing. If I make the films that I feel like I need to make, my art will be powerful because it's coming straight from the gut.”
“Personally, I find that many films theatrically released in cinema don't spend enough time on building deep, three-dimensional characters which feel like they're living and breathing. It's so often surface without depth which streaming TV has now so powerfully exploited... That said, there's still a chance for the film to create distinctive engaging standalone stories... and do something TV can't do and create a truly immersive cinematic experience which is unique to sitting in a dark room and experiencing with other people…
I struggle with self-censorship a lot. Much of the time it's about second-guessing yourself - trying to find the truth, the meaning in your work - at the same time as fighting the impulse to listen to the internal self criticism - that little voice that says well you don't know what the hell you're talking about - you're not really going to try and say this are you? So figuring out what is your 'real voice' and ignoring the noise - both internal and external - is a challenge every day. And - figuring out what cinematic really means. It's a well-used term - but what does cinematic mean - does that mean only some stories deserve to be shown on a big screen, told over 90-120 minutes (usually) or is it more complicated than that? So communicating emotion, feeling, plot and character with pictures without exposition - showing not telling - is a constant (and welcome) challenge…”
Vimeo: Dan Woodliff
“I don't think there's anything that I dislike or try to avoid because I'm still learning so much. I try to approach every project I'm the lead creative on with the mindset of everyone I'm working with has the potential to have the answers to the questions I'm asking myself regarding the creative approach. That is to know my overall goal but to collaborate as much as possible along the way.”
Vimeo: Judd Myers
“Of course. I see lots of flimsy characters that don’t feel like real people to me, which always takes me out of the experience because I just don’t buy it. It's also hard to get films financed right now because everyone wants a series. I could go on about trends in modern cinema that make things tough, but I don’t want to be negative. There are also lots of really great independent films being made right now and the best is yet to come.
Well, filmmaking requires so many different disciplines that you never master anything, really, so you’re always refining your approach. Each project is a chance to experiment with new modes of storytelling, and to venture outside your comfort zone and experience a whole new set of creative challenges. I’m always trying to analyze how I respond to things. Not just to films, media, or art, but to life in general: the people and places and relationships that I encounter daily. Everyone has their own point of view and I feel that in order to express that you have to really pay attention, to yourself and to the world around you, and catch inspiration when it comes. Your uniqueness as a human being is the only thing that you can offer the world that no one else can. My biggest fear is making something ordinary that anyone else could have made.”
“For me, a lot of the common qualities that bother me is the lack of story in a lot of the blockbuster films that come out. This is mainly found in big money action films. When it comes to watching films online, I find that a lot of people are putting out remixes of what’s been made before. This doesn’t take away from their merit. A lot of them are really good, but a lot of them look the same. Right now dark tones and quick edits are in. It’s about making something pop and not holding out scenes. It’s cool but not everlasting. I personally try not to focus on the trends, but I think in terms of perennial. I’ve been on a kick of directors from the 70’s and up and it’s been amazing to see the difference in how they tell stories. That’s everlasting and classic. We need more of that… Especially in a fast-paced world that we live in.
I just try to be me and have my own vision. I’m always trying to work on story an focusing on what works and what doesn’t work. That can come down from pre to post production. I try, and I mean truly try, to not compare or make something that looks similar to something I’ve seen prior. Of course, there’s always going to be inspirations and nothing is ever really “new” when it comes to things under the sun, but I’ve found that taking a step back from being less engaged in social media has helped me with my inner creative mind. I never really rebel against anything when it comes to my work or other people’s works. No matter what you see you’re always going to find something that sticks out and leaves you in awe. I just hope that whatever I make inspires others and gives them the courage to tell their stories and create. That’s what’s important. Find your voice and don’t worry about the criticism. In this industry, everyone has something to say and it’s not always nice.”
Vimeo: Sai Selvarajan
“One of the common qualities in cinema today that I dislike is catering to the lowest common denominator. As filmmakers, we should respect our viewers. We’re all high functioning beings. Our viewers are smart and they want to be pushed and pulled. They want to see and feel things that are different. As filmmakers, it is up to us to give them those experiences. Stories should be presented in a new and fresh ways
Things are I try to refine in my work is the story. From writing to directing, to editing, I’m always trying to refine the story over and over again. Things I try and avoid are gimmicks. I think every film has the potential to be timeless. Sometimes we muck it up with gimmicks and effects that at the time seem contemporary and hip but lose their shimmer as time goes on. So I try and stay away from gimmicks and try and keep the film as timeless as possible. Things I rebel against in my work are mainstream norms. I feel like South Asians are underrepresented in film and television, so I try my best to showcase South Asian stories and actors in my films.”