Five Cinematographers You Need To Know
To anyone who presumes to call themself a “Cinematographer,” there are five quintessential cameramen who redefined what modern motion picture photography is. They are:
Raoul Courtard is attributed for defining the look of the French New Wave—hand held camera, shooting on real locations and using the real light that was there. He also developed a style of mounting an array of lights overhead on a ceiling and having the light show down through silk or scrim material to make the light soft and diffused, allowing him to shoot anywhere in any direction without having to adjust the lights.
Personally, I’ve never been a fan of either of these films. But I have used all of the groundbreaking techniques that he innovated.
Breathless A bout de souffle (1960, dir: Jean-Luc Godard)
Jules et Jim (1962, dir: Francois Truffaut)
Two-time Oscar-winner Haskell Wexler carried the New Wave techniques across the Atlantic, even buying his own French Éclair CM3 movie camera, which was the flag waver of the French cinematic revolution. He initially established himself by shooting some of the most definitive black and white films of the 1960s, then blazed new trails in how to think in color.
America, America (1963, dir: Elia Kazan)
The Loved One (1965, dir: Tony Richardson)
The Thomas Crown Affair (1968, dir: Norman Jewison)
Bound For Glory (1976, dir: Hal Ashby)
A master of light and the carefully composed shot. His collaboration with Richard Brooks produced some of the most unparalleled work in cinema, elevating the B-movie genres of the western and the murder mystery to high intellectual art.
The Professionals (1966, dir: Richard Brooks)
In Cold Blood (1967, dir: Richard Brooks)
The master of low light levels and shadows. During the big Hollywood studio era you could always pick out where the lights were—there’s the key light, then a fill light on the actor’s face, a backlight kicker for the hair and shoulders and to separate them from the background and so on. Gordon Willis turned off all of those lights and re-wrote the book. Watch any film he shot and try to figure out where the lights are. After The Godfather it would be a decade before anybody would shoot a period film without a tobacco filter over the lens. I just picked up a DVD of Bright Lights, Big City solely because it included an audio commentary by Willis on his lighting, and he didn’t disappoint. It’s well worth the time and money for his master class on how to shoot and light a film.
The Landlord (1970, dir: Hal Ashby)
Klute (1971, dir: Alan Pakula)
The Godfather & Godfather, Part Two (1972, 1974, sir: Francis Ford Coppola)
The Paper Chase (1973, dir: James Bridges)
Manhattan (1979, dir: Woody Allen)
Zsigsmond was an emigrant from Czechoslovakia, along with Lazlo Kovacs, and his eye for wide screen composition, use of available light and pushing film to shoot under very low light levels continue to resonate in virtually every contemporary wide screen film shot today.
McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971, dir: Robert Altman)
Sugarland Express (1974, dir Steven Spielberg)
Steven Spielberg’s first feature film and my personal favorite of his films. Vilmos Zsigsmond’s photography has eye-popping compositions and dazzling 360 degree camerawork shot from inside a moving car.
The Deer Hunter (1978, dir: Michael Cimino)
The Long Goodbye (1972, dir: Robert Altman)
This film holds the record for zoom lens shots in a film. I believe there is only one shot in the whole film where the camera is not tracking and/or zooming. Total style. I’ve honestly never understood it very much, but it’s beautiful to soak in.