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Watch These Movies to Learn Cinematography: The Top 10
A Cinemachanix Original Article by: Evan Sommer        12/9/13         No Spoilers!
My Definition of Good Cinematography:
To me, good Cinematography frames the scene well, is interesting to the eye, and tells a story without taking the viewer out of the plot. Good cinematography shouldn't attempt to wow the audience with ridiculous angles and camera movements without a purpose; this just distracts the audience from what's going on in the film. This is a list of the top 10 films I think exemplify these ideas, along with short explanations of why I think so. In some cases, the "Why I Like It" section may seem oddly specific. Keep in mind that under this section will be things that made the cinematography stand out in my eyes. Obviously all of these films are fantastic; I want to point out unique styles, colors, etc. that I think make them so.
10. Gladiator
Year: 2000
Cinematographer: John Mathieson

Why I Like It:

Battle Scene Coverage:
The scale of the battle scenes, both in the coliseum and the battle field, is captured wonderfully. This, combined with great atmospheric elements, creates a realistic view into what roman battles may have been. In the first example picture above you'll see some soldiers lined up behind their shields creating a sort of wall that's framed perfectly by some faint trees and atmospheric smoke in the background. And when it's time for a single soldier shot, desaturation, bokeh (shallow depth of field), and good subject framing combine to create an effective and beautiful shot.

Establishing Shot Scenery:
The use of wide angle shots to showcase the massive environments of a gladiator's life really went a long way toward providing a truly epic experience for the audience. Showing off the battle fields and arenas before more intimately focusing on the fights themselves did a lot to convey the scale and gravity of the life of a gladiator.

9. Slumdog Millionaire
Year: 2008
Cinematographer: Anthony Dod Mantle

Why I Like It:

Use of Dutch Angles
One thing I noticed throughout the film was the extensive use of Dutch angles. You can see this in all three example pictures above. If used improperly, Dutch angles quickly become evidence of a cinematographer trying to get a more "artsy" shot for no real purpose. But in Slumdog Millionaire, the way Anthony Dod Mantle uses them to either create tension, or complement lines in a shot is fantastic.

Shot composition
This classification may seem vague simply because the very definition of a good cinematography is one who can get an interesting shot composition. Anthony Dod Mantle did such a nice job in this film that I couldn't leave this off the list. The way he has different interesting objects placed on different focus planes in space really creates a nice looking shot, and his extensive use of lines leading toward/away from the camera (i.e. the highway supports and the pipelines) are great throughout the film.

8. Lord of the Rings
Year: 2001
Cinematographer: Andrew Lesnie

Why I Like It:

Grungy Color for Dark Scenes:
In the first two example pictures above, you'll see what I mean. In this fantasy of intense, dark battles and environments, Lesnie did a good job finding the right lighting and exposure. The color correction is the final step toward accomplishing this dark, grungy, green tinged look that I thought was perfect for its purposes.

Expansive Landscapes:
The word "fantasy" screams huge open world landscapes, and this is where I think this movie shines. Wide angle lens choices, along with great location scouting, create an expansive feeling that really lends this movie a great deal of scale and production value.

7. No Country for Old Men
Year: 2007
Cinematographer: Roger Deakins

Why I Like It:

Roger Deakins:
A master cinematographer, and one of my favorites. I'll go into depth on why later in this article.

Plain Color:
Deakins goal for this movie was obviously to keep it honest and realistic. The plain-Jane color features a great deal of detail in all levels of brightness. The blacks aren't crushed, and there are no over-exposed frames. I think that instead of sending the audience off to another planet with crazy saturation and blu-ish blacks, the simple color of this film affords the audience a certain level of emotional connection, which helps in creating a great deal of tension.

No-Frills Camera Movement:
The camera movement in this film, like the color, is simple. There are no zooms, and no crazy complex subject tracking shots. For me, this allows for focused, palpable tension. Had the acting not been so good, this style wouldn't have worked, as it would've only created focus on terrible character portrayals and pushed the audience out of the story. But thanks to the casting agents, the viewer was afforded intensely intimate emotional involvement, and therefore, a lot of on-the-edge-of-your-seat tension.

6. Les Miserables
Year: 2012
Cinematographer: Danny Cohen

Why I Like It:

Extreme close ups to show Emotion:
This is a repeated them throughout the movie. Getting the camera right up in the actor's face with a shallow depth of field really helps portray the level of emotion that this film's story line demands. The use of fish-eye lenses for this purpose is atypical, and this film had a very different cinematographic feel than others, but on the whole, I liked it.

Shots in the Dark:
All puns aside, a good deal of this movie was shot in the dark, and I feel like Danny Cohen did a great job handling this. The lighting was perfect; it wasn't bright enough to destroy the nighttime atmosphere, but wasn't dark enough to leave out any color detail.

I know that the color is fine-tuned in post-production, but on the set, it's the cinematographer's job to make sure the colorists have something to work with. Here, I really enjoyed the different color styles throughout the movie and think that Cohen did a wonderful job imagining the look of the scenes as he shot them.

5. Lincoln
Year: 2012
Cinematographer: Janusz Kaminski

Why I Like It:

If you've ever wanted a lesson on the Rule of Thirds, look no further. In such a conversation heavy movie, the framing of the subjects was critical, and in my eyes, Kaminski nailed it. Every character's face is right on the gridlines, creating organized, aesthetically appealing visuals during dialogue.

During the scenes of intense conversation, light coming in off the windows as seen in the pictures above creates a matching heavy atmosphere thanks to some practical smoke from cigars/cigarettes/pipes, and what could only be purposefully placed fog/smoke when nobody had any tobacco on them. This was a great touch to add a more interesting look. (This same idea was used by Roger Deakins in True Grit)

4. Shawshank Redemption
Year: 1994
Cinematographer: Roger Deakins

Why I Like It:

Roger Deakins:
The shots Deakins creates are simply magnificent. He's recognized as one of the masters of cinematography, and for good reason. The blacks aren't crushed too much, and none of the highlights stand out (except for the shot shown above, lit by "lighting"), creating color detail throughout the frame. This can be accomplished with a good camera with a high dynamic range, but only mastered after years of practice. His use of lines leading toward the camera creates an interesting image, and his placement of the camera helps to artistically arrange objects in the frame. The use of a great deal of natural light in this movie also highlights his expertise. There's something signature about the look of his image, but it would take a better writer than me to explain it. When I'm looking for inspiration for my own films, Deakins' highlight reels are some of the first I turn to. If you've seen this movie, and you're interested in truly cinematic cinematography, you understand how long I could talk about him. For the sake of time, however, I'll stop here, and if you haven't watched any of Deakins' movies, stop reading this article and go watch one.

3. The Dark Knight
Year: 2008
Cinematographer: Wally Pfister

Why I Like It:

The Wally Pfister Look:
People sometimes refer to the "Chris Nolan Look". But in reality, they're talking about the look his Cinematographer creates. Wally Pfister has worked with Nolan on every big film he's done, and the look he creates is immediately identifiable. What is this look? We briefly go into our interpretation below.

He seems to light the seen in such a way that when the colorists do their part, it's easy to create a cool, slightly desaturated image, while keeping the skin tones extremely rich and warm (just look at Alfred's face!). We especially liked how he was able to light the nighttime scenes. A movie like batman has a lot of them, and he did a superb job of creating a strong light from one side, and leaving the other slightly dark to keep batman in the shadows.

The only notes we have here that differ from the other cinematographers on our list is that Pfister doesn't seem afraid to put his subject in the middle of the frame. Only one of our example pictures shows this, but next time you watch one of his movies, keep an eye out.

2. Inception
Year: 2010
Cinematographer: Wally Pfister

Why I Like It:

The Wally Pfister Look:
Previously discussed. Extremely warm skin tones and cool, colors in most other places, except for when the scene called for an overall warm look (example picture three)

Use of Slow Motion:
This film deals a lot with differences in relative passage of time in different dream levels. Using slow motion to show this was very effective, and was extremely well done. In one shot, a van may be falling from a bridge in extreme slo-mo, and in the dream level below this, an elevator may be falling a little less slowly. This may be more of conceptual decision by Chris Nolan, but the angles and framing Pfister chooses when capturing this to film is fantastic.

Creative Camera Rigs:
In some scenes (namely the one where Joseph Gordon Levitt bounces around on the walls of a hotel hallway), creative camera setups had to be used to capture effective footage. Again, maybe this was a conceptual decision by Christopher Nolan, but, assuming some creative discussion between the two, the choices in angles, lenses, lighting, and framing by Pfister were able to convey the complicated, intense action brilliantly.

1. Skyfall
Year: 2012
Cinematographer: Roger Deakins

Why I Like It:

Roger Deakins:
Again, Deakins shows up on our list. Having praised him enough before I won't go into much more detail here, but I would like to point out that the overall aesthetic of the image in Skyfall is much different than in Shawshank Redemption. I think this is mostly because of the evolution of filmmaking technology between 1994, when Shawshank was released, and 2012. Probably the most significant of these advancements is the introduction of digital cinema cameras like the ARRI ALEXA, on which Skyfall was shot.

Diversity of Style:
We gave this film 9 different example pictures in an attempt to encompass all of the different lighting and color environments seen throughout. The artistry of Roger Deakins shines through as he creates image styles that complement the location and mood of the scene, all while keeping his usual excellent framing and interesting shot composition. If you haven't seen this film, I strongly encourage you to. The plot isn't complex, but the diversity of locations and imagery provides a great lesson in cinematography.

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