Reference: StudentFilmmakers Magazine, February 2007. Motivational Imagery: Using the Story to Get the Most Captivating Shot by Saro Varjabedian. Pages 12 and 13.
Cinematography as an art form is unique in the sense that some of the most captivating works are often the ones that seem like they were done with the most ease. As if the cinematographer did nothing more than just place the camera in front of the scene and let it naturally unfold. This is because a film is successful when it manages to look as realistic as possible. The realistic look of the film draws the audience into the story by allowing them to believe in it. At the same time, if the shots are not captivating, the audience can lose interest very quickly. Therefore, the real art behind filmmaking comes from the constant dynamic between creating reality and achieving the most captivating image. It is a powerful dynamic which goes unnoticed until it does not work.
So how does one bring to terms two seemingly competing forces, the creation of a captivating shot and a realistic experience, to achieve an artful film?
A film starts and ends with its story. It is the main driving force of any movie. Therefore the role of the cinematographer is to support the story by making it seem real and look captivating. In order to achieve this,the cinematographer finds a way to allow the story to motivate the image as stylistically as possible. Lighting, camera work and setting are the three elements that are motivated by the story and impact the style of the image.
A simple example of how the story can motivate the lighting is based on the time of day, or season in which the story takes place. For example, think back to what your bedroom looks like on a sunny summer day compared to a snowy winter afternoon. The sunny summer day would probably seem yellowish in hue with some directional light streaming in through the window. The snowy winter afternoon might be more bluish in tone and have less contrast. The point is that the aspects of lighting such as color, contrast, highlights and shadows are motivated by reality. By defining when the story takes place, you can establish a mood and create stylistic shots.
Recently, I had the opportunity to work on a project where the director (Marco Aguilar) was open to rewriting elements within the story to achieve captivating imagery. The story was a very internal, psychologically driven piece, and the director wanted to use as little dialogue as possible. To convey the psychology of the main character, it was decided that the images would have to tell the story. The story follows the psychological evolution of a young female painter who gets raped and develops agoraphobia. We use stylistic imagery that changed with the psychological transitions of the character. Prior to the character being raped we wanted to use lots of yellow and reddish tones and have a softer quality to the lighting. Therefore, we decided to have the story start during a sunny summer day, motivating the light qualities. After the rape as the protagonist’s psychology begins to break down, the quality of lighting becomes harsher and bluer in tone. Her psychological break down occurs over time so the story transitions into fall and winter and every day would seem to be cloudy.
The climax of the movie occurs when the protagonist has captured the rapist and is contemplating ways of torturing her assailant. At this point, I wanted to make the lighting look as frantic and ugly as possible. We talked about using candlelight all around the rapist as if it were a sacrificial altar. I felt the recreation of candlelight would not be ugly enough and might not have made sense for the storyline. We asked ourselves what type of lighting would a painter own. I thought that the protagonist could own quartz worker lights. So I positioned two 500-watt, quartz worker lights on the floor pointing up at the assailant. This was the only light source used within the scene, and the quality of the light produced by these quartz lights is very directional and harsh creating disturbing shadows.
Setting was a major factor used to convey the psychological break down of the character. In the same scene where the assailant is tied up, he is placed in front of one of her final paintings. The painting is awkward in design and adds to the distressing feel of the scene.
Since the majority of the story takes place in the protagonist’s apartment, the challenge was to find a way to make the shots within the apartment seem new. What we decided was to have the paintings in the apartment change with the passage of time and the transitioning psychology of the protagonist. As the movie opens up, the paintings within the apartment were brighter in color and seemingly conveyed joy. After the rape the paintings within the apartment would use dull blues and sickly greens colors. Also, the paintings would look as disturbing as her mental anguish. This made perfect sense within the context of the story because artists would use their art to try to work through their psychological states. The setting was stylistic and fresh and yet motivated by the story adding to the reality of the apartment.
Camera work is the other element that adds to the style of an image. The camera attributes of movement, framing, depth of field and frame rate could be motivated by the story as well. In the movie, once the character developed agoraphobia, she would get anxiety attacks any time she left her apartment. We used camera work to convey these anxiety attacks. During the attacks, most of the shots were hand held. The shaky camera work expressed her instability. Her POV shots would be wide angle shots which skewed her perspective, and there would be lots of fast pans creating a dizzying feel. We used the Panasonic AG-HVX200 which allowed us to do in-camera fast motion. I shot at 18 and 12 fps to express that the world around her continues to move while she remains stuck because of her hampering psychological disorder. These stylistic camera work choices seem natural because of the context of scene. By having the camera work convey the experience of the protagonist, the shots seem natural and based on reality, as if the world was being seen through the eyes of an agoraphobic.
Balancing the dynamics between creating reality and producing captivating imagery is the artistic challenge of the cinematographer. By finding ways to create the motivation within the story to allow for the stylistic choices of lighting, camera work and setting, the cinematographer can achieve reality within the movie and produce captivating shots.
Saro Varjabedian is a director of photography based in New York and has worked on over twenty films, music videos and corporate videos for various production companies. He has recently finished production on Erza, Story 353, Agoraphobia, and Hero the Great. Saro is currently working on the pilot Power-Outage.