Posted by Susan Doll on September 3, 2012
Visions of Light never fails to impress me. Produced in 1993 through the AFI, this documentary covers the history of film through the eyes of cinematographers. The film has many strengths, but two stand out: It makes watching classic films seem infectious, as though you can’t wait to see some of the movies mentioned; and it will forever change the way you look at films.
While actors get the adoration of fans, and directors get critical acclaim from reviewers, cinematographers are rarely acknowledged. Visions of Light not only explores the role of the cinematographer, it also explains film history through the major changes in camera technology, including the impact of sound, the adoption of color, and the introduction of widescreen. Most importantly, it reveals how filmmaking techniques such as lighting, angle, and camera movement help tell the story in a film.
The documentary is structured chronologically. It brushes past the dawn of cinema with a few clips from the films of the Lumiere Brothers, Georges Melies, and D.W. Griffith, among others. The German Expressionists are given their due because of their advances in lighting effects and camera movement, but it is the discussion of the classic films from the Golden Age of Hollywood that will fascinate movie-lovers. Until Visions of Light, I did not realize the vital connection between movie stars and cinematographers. Unlike today’s stars who form intimate relationships with their plastic surgeons (who make them all look alike), stars from the 1930s and 1940s advocated for certain cameramen because these men knew how to light actors to their best advantage. Whether it was Charles Lang favoring Claudette Colbert’s good side or William Daniels collaborating with Garbo on her signature look, the cameramen of this period understood that audiences went to the movies to see the stars look their best.
The section on film noir includes some of the most beautiful black and white photography in the history of Hollywood, some of it almost abstract in the extreme contrast between light and dark. John Alton, who wrote a primer on cinematography called Painting with Light, is lauded in the film. He is surpassed only by Gregg Toland in the eyes of the cinematographers interviewed. Toland, who was Orson Welles’s cameraman on Citizen Kane, was probably the most influential cinematographer of the Golden Age.
Most of the interviewees in the film are directors of photography (d.p.’s) who came of age during the 1960s. Like the directors they worked with, these cinematographers respected the work of the Hollywood veterans who came before them but were also influenced by those European filmmakers who were breaking the rules. The result was arguably the most creative generation of cinematographers in Hollywood history. They collaborated with the Film School Generation to produce some of America’s most artistic films. The stories they tell about working with Roman Polanski, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg on such masterpieces as Chinatown, Raging Bull, and Jaws reveal the collaborative nature of filmmaking as well as how filmmaking techniques such as lighting, camera angle, and editing shape content in movies. Time and again, the cinematographers refer to these techniques as a language—one that is international in scope and more important than dialogue.
William Fraker and John Alonzo recall with admiration their work with Roman Polanski. The former shot Rosemary’s Baby and the latter Chinatown. In Rosemary’s Baby, Polanski asked Fraker to frame a shot of Ruth Gordon’s character talking on the phone in a back bedroom as though we were looking through a doorway at her. Fraker centered in the doorway, but Polanski had him move the camera to the left so that half of her was cut off by the doorway. Only part of her was visible, but we can hear her murmuring on the phone. The result was more voyeuristic, as though we were listening in on something she didn’t want us to hear. Polanski achieved a similar effect using a different technique in Chinatown when he asked Alonzo to follow Nicholson’s character, Jake Gittes, and shoot just over his shoulder with a hand-held camera as Gittes spies something in Evelyn Mulray’s pond. Bill Butler, the cinematographer for Jaws, beams with pride as he talks about how all of the shots on the boat were hand-held. Spielberg had wanted Butler to lock down the camera on a tripod, but Butler knew that the resulting footage would look like a rocking boat and make the audience seasick. He convinced Spielberg to let him and his operators to hand hold the camera to steady it as the boat rocked. It also allowed the operators to go where a tripod could not, creating the illusion that the audience was on the boat, too. It is some of the best hand-held work I have ever seen in a film—partly because it doesn’t look hand-held.
Among the most respected of this generation were Conrad Hall and Gordon Willis. Hall, who was the son of James Norman Hall, author of Mutiny on the Bounty, died in 2003. He is credited with experimenting with “mistakes” and turning them into legitimate techniques. For example, flaring in the lens would not have been allowed during the studio era, but it is used effectively in Cool Hand Luke when the men are working in the hot sun as part of the chain gang. The flare of the sunlight in the lens intensifies the sensation of heat. Gordon Willis has been nicknamed the Prince of Darkness for underexposing in key dramatic scenes, including in Godfather Part IIwhen Michael Corleone lies to his mother that he will not hurt his brother Fredo. Michael makes promises to his mother in such low-key lighting that it is clear he is hiding something from her. Despite pushing the boundaries of cinematography, these techniques still service the material; that is, they enhance the story or comment on the situation.
The cinematographers interviewed clearly love movies from all eras, and their enthusiasm for the films that they admire is infectious. Though they speak from the perspective of experts, they are also fans; they are neither pretentious nor overly technical in their explanations and comments.
I was reminded of how much I enjoy this film after showing it in back-to-back classes this semester, which means I saw it twice in one afternoon. I wanted to introduce my freshman students not only to the importance of filmmaking techniques in telling a story visually but also the joy of watching movies from other eras. I had a lot of faith that this documentary would work its magic in that regard, and based on their response, I think it succeeded. Many, including Hannah, Jamie, Norelys, and Dominic, found that understanding the history of cinema through the eyes of cinematographers made for an intriguing perspective—like going behind the scenes. Several, like Sara and Jackie, learned that cinematography is “more than just pointing the camera” and that this film “made you aware of what you might not notice.”
Film teachers and movie lovers are dismayed at the lack of interest in black-and-white movies by younger generations, which often results from a misconception that films were shot in black and white because color hadn’t been invented yet. In other words, black and white must be technically inferior to color, so why watch it? Visions of Light spends a great deal of screen time explaining the effects of black and white cinematography and its visual impact. Discovering the beauty and artistry of black and white was a revelation to many students, such as Sana, who had found black-and-white movies to be unrealistic before, but the film has changed her mind. Patty and Dan also remarked on their newfound understanding of black and white as a stylistic option and not a technical limitation. Based on the clips from Citizen Kane and the comments made about its black-and-white photography, 52 of my 117 students are considering watching the film on their own.
Many responded to specific sections or certain cinematographers: Kyle found the explanation of the single-source lighting of film noir to be valuable; Sterling liked Vittorio Storaro’s explanation of his color symbolism in the film The Last Emperor; Miranda was struck by the way stars formed relationships with cameramen to achieve their signature looks; and Norelys noticed that most of the cinematographers talked about the coming of sound as a catastrophe to the artistry of the movies. These specific examples and segments helped the students see cinema in a different way. Others offered more generalized comments: Chris and Yaron noticed how the cinematographers chose familiar or famous titles and then explained in straightforward language how certain techniques and effects in those films were achieved. Victoria was impressed by the variety of movies that were represented while Lucy liked that so many cinematographers were interviewed. I enjoyed listening to all of the students’ comments, insights, and observations.
Sometimes a colleague or acquaintance feels compelled to tell me that they are reluctant to learn about filmmaking techniques because to do so will demystify film for them, or destroy “the magic of the movies.” In all of my years of teaching cinema, I have never known this to occur for any of my students; on the contrary, to learn more about the movies can intensify the magic. As Francois Truffaut remarked after the release of Day for Night, his behind-the-scenes valentine to filmmaking: “I’ve been asked a hundred times this year: ‘Aren’t you afraid of ruining the mystery of the craft you’re so fond of?’ And each time I’ve replied that an aviator can explain everything he knows about piloting a plane, but he will never succeed in demystifying the intoxication of flight.” The cinematographers interviewed in Visions of Light were clearly intoxicated by the movies they loved, which made an impression on my very perceptive students, who are beginning to understand how the magic works.
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