Sci-Fi Cine: Cinematography 101

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It’s in every movie, right in front of you. Sometimes it goes unnoticed. Other times it makes you go “Wow! Look at that shot!” It is what separates an epic film from shit. It is cinematography. Cinematography is the art of making motion pictures. Just like with a painting, a cinematographer (also called Director of Photography) decides what lighting and filters to use, what camera angles and lenses to use, and works very closely with the director to make every scene in a film have an emotional and visual impact.

A movie can be made without a director, but don’t expect to see it on IMDB’s Top 50 Films of All Time list. However, in my research I couldn’t find any occurrences of a film being made without a Director of Photography. A basic idea of cinematography—history and terms/processes—will be extremely helpful for understanding my upcoming SciFi Cine series here on WWAC. SciFi Cine series will explore the early films of the 20th century (1900-1960) and its cinematography, specifically focusing on the birth of the science fiction genre and its characters, story, and cinematography style.

In the first few decades of the twentieth century, film cinematography was just starting to take root. What cinematographers and directors could express visually was very limited due to the limited technology. Film projectors, lighting equipment, lenses, and camera tricks were being invented in reel (heh see what I did there) time as the movie industries around the world became profitable. It wasn’t until the late ’60s and early ’70s did filmmakers, studios, and society start to realize the importance of preserving these early films that inspired generations of cinematographers and directors. In some cases, many of these first forays into film are the birthplace of numerous movie genres.

Seeing where the scifi genre becomes firmly established (Metropolis) or where the first uses of the dutch angle (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) is watching history unfold before your very eyes.

An extreme long shot (ELS) used in Gravity (2013) Source: moviescreencaps.com

Listed below is some basic terminology used with cinematography and its meanings that I might reference in future articles:

Extreme long shot (ELS): a shot used to show massive scale.

Long shot (aka full shot) (LS, FS): Usually used to reflect emotional distance rather than show scale. The camera is usually a casual observer and not aware of what’s happening.

Bird’s eye shot: High above. Things (roads, buildings, etc) are just shapes and lines.

Bird’s eye shot from The Dark Knight (2008). Source: moviescreencaps.com

Medium long shot (aka three-quarters shot, knee shot): Halfway between a long shot and a close-up. It is emotionally neutral but informative.

Medium shot: Visible emotions and usually has two people in frame.

Close up: You are engaging with the character. Emotions are impactful and intimate.

Extreme close up (aka reaction shot): Very intense emotions. Small things on the screen appear huge.

Dutch angle (aka camera tilt): Things are off balanced, off kilter, and unsettling. The dutch angle shows the odd emotional or mental state of a character.

Dutch angle used in Marvel’s Thor (2011). Source: moviescreencaps.com

Deep focus: Foreground and background are kept in focus. Camera doesn’t move or change depth (Orson Welles was a huge fan of using this).

Dolly shot: Camera moves towards or away from a subject.

Rack (racking) focus: Shallow focus, the depth of field is altered. The background is slowly brought into focus while foreground is taken slowly out of focus (70s films were pretty notorious for this).

Tracking (follow) shot: Camera moves alongside/parallel to its subject.

Crane shot: Camera is on a moving crane.

Over the shoulder shot: Camera angle that’s cover the shoulder of another person.

Over the shoulder shot from 1993’s Super Mario Bros. Source: moviescreencaps.com

Low-angle shot: Camera is low, anywhere below the eyeline and looking up. Often shows the subject as powerful and strong.

High-angle shot: Looking down at a subject from a high angle. Often shows the subject as vulnerable and powerless.

And there you have it folks. A super Cliff notes version of cinematography. The first movie in this series, as badly as I wanted to, won’t be Metropolis by the godfather of scifi Fritz Lang. One of Lang’s lesser known films, The Woman in the Moon (1927), will begin our mission into science fiction cinema.

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About Author

Amanda has been a sci-fi & film disciple since birth. She reads, tweets, loves Canada and is a roller derby referee for her hometown team. She is Chief Editor for Spaceboy Books.

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