“What is Realistic Cinematography?” by M. David Mullen, ASC

As most people know, the stylistic trend in cinematography over the century has been towards greater realism, which has been easier to achieve in low-light situations thanks to more sensitive film stocks and electronic sensors, plus faster lenses.

There has always been an impulse to make the lighting in a movie logically motivated, even in the heyday of the Hollywood Studio Era – for example, if someone lit a candle on the left side of the frame, the movie lamp simulating that source would not come from the right side of frame. A window on a soundstage set, in a scene set in the daytime, would have bright light shining through it, moonlight would appear darker than sunlight, etc. This natural drive to motivate light logically and dramatically, according to the needs of the story, was tempered by the studio’s request that actors look their best at all times.

Trends came and went over time, from the very diffused look of the 1930’s to the very crisp look of the 1940’s, from shallow-focus to deep-focus cinematography, or from the somewhat Expressionist or Baroque use of shadow patterns to the simpler lighting of the 1950’s. The experience of World War II caused a lot of directors and cinematographers to strip away some of the more elaborate visual flourishes of pre-war cinema in search of greater naturalism. However, to modern eyes, some of this simpler lighting strikes us now as looking more “brutal” rather than more natural, as if many scenes were lit by just parking a 10K next to the camera. What seems like realism to one generation often looks like artifice to the next.

What is called realistic cinematography today is not necessarily an image that replicates the way our own eyes see reality. For one thing, we do not perceive the world as that strobing, staccato motion a movie camera running at 24 fps give us, nor are our eyes closed fifty-percent of the time like most shutters are. Our eyes do not see a two-dimensional image with a surface grain texture. We don’t perceive a rectangular black border around reality with objects composed in pleasing patterns within that frame. Our view on the world is not hyper wide-angle nor telephoto in terms of optical compression.

All of this is to say that realism in modern cinematography is sometimes merely the artificial copying of artifacts from documentary work in which there are uncontrollable elements or moments causing certain artifacts (focus problems, lens flares, underexposed and thus, grainy or noisy images). It feels like reality because it looks rough, unplanned, unmanipulated – though the image may be as thoroughly designed and executed as the slickest shot ever made in a classic Hollywood movie. In other words, “realism” becomes just another form of artificial style, only this one conjures up associations with documentaries and thus gives the movie a false sense of honesty in its recreations. Of course, this is part of the pleasure of fictional movies, the willing suspension of disbelief, made possible partly through the believability of the images being presented.

With modern tools, it is more possible than ever to shoot movies in available light. This approach, used appropriately, can enhance the drama of a scene or an entire movie. But it sometimes can be used as a crutch by some filmmakers to avoid actually doing the hard work of making the movie: taking the time to think about the appropriate use of light and shadow to tell this particular story, and then executing that creative idea. This desire by some to avoid thinking about controlling or creating light even extends into other issues like composition; they fall into the trap of seeing the camera merely as a passive recording tool that follows whatever action occurs in front of it. Yet, oddly enough, these filmmakers are more than happy to take these sloppy images with their indifferent use of light and unimaginative use of composition, and then, edit them in a highly stylized and complicated manner, and then compound that giving the final production a strangely unnatural color-correction, maybe hyper-noisy and desaturated, even greenish as well. What results is a movie that is as stylized as The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari in terms of its connections to the real world.

I bring all of this up because I often wonder whether we have hit a certain aesthetic wall in regards to realism because it has become easy to do from a mechanical standpoint… but many filmmakers don’t have the artistic maturity to use it as an effective storytelling device, nor are the stories themselves imbued with any real insights into human existence – and thus the hyper-realistic cinematography being used comes off as a shallow stylistic trick. Either we need a healthier respect for what should constitute “realism” in movies, or we need to remind ourselves that realism is just another stylistic device that we can choose to employ when it will be the most effective way of telling the particular story at hand, or choose to discard when there are better approaches.

Congratulations to M. David Mullen, ASC on winning the Emmy Award for Outstanding Cinematography for a Single-Camera Series (One Hour), The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, “Simone”. (www.davidmullenasc.com)

David Mullen, ASC, was an Independent Spirit Award Nominee for best cinematography for Twin Falls Idaho in 1999 and for Northfork in 2003. His filmography consists of over 30 film titles, including Akeelah and the Bee (2006), The Astronaut Farmer (2006), and Shadowboxer (2005).


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