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What Is Cinematography?

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In 9th grade english class we read “The Outsiders”, took an exam and got to watch the movie after as a treat. In case you haven’t seen or read “The Outsiders,” it is about the protagonist, PonyBoy Curtis, and his friends that make up a gang called the Greasers, who rival with a gang of wealthy kids called the Socs. One evening PonyBoy and another Greaser, Johnny, are attacked in the park by the Socs and while Ponyboy is getting dunked in a fountain, Johnny takes out his switchblade and stabs Bob, accidentally killing him.

At this point in the movie, my english teacher pressed pause and said, “Pay attention here, the cinematography is amazing!” She pressed play and we watched the fountain slowly fill with red blood. She paused again, “wasn’t that great? Let’s watch it again!”

I’ll be honest, I wasn’t that impressed, and neither was my friend Amelia. After that we decided that “cinematography” was just a term used by movie critics to sound like they were smart. We thought it was a hoax. Kind of like how my grandpa doesn’t believe in cruise control because he thinks it actually uses more gas. But after learning more about filmmaking and pursuing studies in digital cinema, I was brought back to the light.

So what is cinematography? Google defines it as “the art of making motion pictures.” There is a lot that goes into making a film: writing a script, casting actors, scouting locations, building sets, renting equipment, I could go on and on. All of that makes a motion picture possible, but cinematography adds an important, but often over-looked element, the “art.”

medium shot

Sure, we can tell a story by filming the dialogue and interactions between two characters using a basic medium shot like the image above.

We can understand a lot by the subject of their conversation, but can we use the camera as a tool to further describe what is really happening? Here’s where we can bring in the cinematographer.

The following images show two different examples of shooting dialogue in a more interesting way. The first is an over-the-shoulder shot called a “dirty over.” This is good for showing the intensity or closeness between two characters – good for a heated debate or a romantic moment.

dirty over

The second example is called a “clean over,” because you don’t catch the shoulder of the second character in the frame. This is good for showing uncomfort or disconnect between the characters.

clean over

Where are the characters? What are they doing? Walking or sitting? Waiting for something? How are they feeling in this moment? The cinematographer should take advantage of the physical surroundings and the inner emotions to make every shot an intentional component of the bigger picture.


The cinematographer also has a close working relationship with the director to make sure the overall vision for the film is being accomplished. Not only are they overseeing that the camera operators use the  appropriate lenses and shooting techniques, but they also communicate with the light gaffers, actors and other crew members to make sure the scene is shot perfectly. Another important element they must keep in mind is the final edit and what shots they need to make a smooth and consistent final product.

There are many films with excellent cinematography, but here are ten of my personal favorites to get you started. And yes, animated films and television shows use cinematography as well!

  1. Gravity (2013)
  2. Breaking Bad (2008 – 2013)
  3. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
  4. Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
  5. Up (2009)
  6. No Country For Old Men (2007)
  7. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
  8. Road to Perdition (2002)
  9. The Shining (1980)
  10. Apocalypse Now (1979)

What are some of your favorite films that you think have great cinematography?

Author: leahmann

Multimedia Specialist at Candeo Creative.

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