Cinema is arguably one of the most complex art forms when it comes to narrative storytelling because it blends so many elements. The filmmaking process is extremely arduous, from its birth in writing all the way to colour-correcting and fine-tuning every frame in post-production. A great film will make the most of every weapon in its arsenal and will be an attack on your eyes and ears.
How do you tell a story through film? The actual storytelling, however, should be visual and should reach you on this primal level. Steven Spielberg famously said that, in order to see if a director has done their job, you should be able to watch a film with the sound off. Therefore cinematography is going to be a crucial component in the process, and it’s an art form that has kept on changing and evolving and improving since the invention of cinema itself.
These days, it’s not that easy to pick the next movie you are going to watch on the silver screen. There are so many out there, so many choices. It’s hard to simply go on with just one at a time. The publicity for some of them mimics tsunamis and the Internet inherently creates an unprecedented global hype.
But if you pause to take stock and think things through, don’t you feel like there is little innovation and originality left to be displayed? Aren’t you a bit dismayed by the same good old Hollywood tried-and-tested recipes? When was the last time you actually saw a groundbreaking movie that seemed to break and defy everything you knew about cinema?
Check out: How the Cinematography of ‘Drive’ Utilized Quadrants for ‘Tightly Composed & Weirdly Unpredictable’ Frames:
In truth, no matter how spectacular the special effects are and no matter how well the scripts are written, there are indeed few modern masterpieces that can be deemed as groundbreaking. Films that break the rules of cinematography, be it in the script, in the filming technique or the very idea, are rare gemstones that raise the bar high and change the very way we position ourselves to the cinema.
So take a look at 14 other blockbusters, iconic movies that did not only break the rules of typical cinematography but went down in our collective memory as history makers.
1. Psycho (1960)
Alfred Hitchcock is still one of the most celebrated filmmakers of all times and for the right reasons: he was gutsy, thinking ahead of his times and passionate about what he was doing. Hitchcock was a praised artist by the time he made Psycho, but this movie, in particular, broke cinema all the way through by coming up with ideas and scenes that left everybody in awe.
Psycho distinguishes itself from everything ever made until its debut and everything that came after from at least three points of view:
- The death of the main character at the end of the first act of the movie – the idea took the world by the storm and cinema was never the same again.
- The tapping into the concept of multiple personality disorder – it wasn’t the first movie to focus on the problem, but it was one that gave filmmakers everywhere a clear idea of its potential.
- Psycho is presumably the first American movie (and the first fictional film) that showed a toilet flushing on screen – screenplay writer Joseph Stefano was adamant to introduce such a scene in the movie to make it more realistic, and he succeeded.
Add the haunting music of the shower scene – and the shower scene in and out of itself – and you can understand why Psycho broke the rules and how glad everybody is it did.
2. Persona (1966)
Persona is a 1966 black and white Swedish film written and directed by Ingmar Bergman and starring Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann. Dissecting sexuality, contemplating violence, and deconstructing the history of filmmaking all in the opening sequence, this is an Ingmar Bergman-helmed film not to miss.
Bergman’s film, “Persona” (1966), is considered to be one of the most original films ever made, and one of the most imitated, referenced and parodied. Most frequently noted, the film inspired the scene in “Fight Club” (1999) where Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) splices images of an erect penis into children’s films. Needless to say, “Persona” defeats all of its imitators, elevated to a higher level of cinema by Bergman’s intimidating ability.
The film explores the relationship between a nurse and her patient, an actress who suddenly becomes catatonic on the set of a movie. The nurse, Alma (Bergman regular, Bibi Andersson) becomes obsessed with Elisabet (even more frequent Bergman collaborator, Liv Ullman). Slowly their relationship disintegrates with Elisabet’s silence, and Alma’s affable nature degenerates into bitterness.
Though impeded by hostile episodes, Alma and Elisabet still grow closer through talking, listening, sharing experiences, and impressing emotional maturation upon each other; they come closest, however, in dream sequences.
Ingmar Bergman’s Persona begins with one of the most audacious reset clicks in movie history. From a blank black screen a light grows into a carbon igniting within a projector, firing a series of images that seem to represent the very stirrings of the cinema itself: an ancient cartoon, a silent comedy, a nail driven into a hand, an erect penis, a boy awakening in a stark white hospital room – or is it a morgue – who reaches out toward us only long enough for perspective to flip so we see him touching a screen from behind – a screen on which a woman’s face spectrally emerges, and then the credits begin.
Bergman’s film is so delicate and complex, yet it never becomes confusing nor dull. To fully understand how original and truly inimitable Bergman’s work is, watch the opening sequence, which is available on YouTube.
Filmed largely on the island of Faro where Bergman so frequently retreated, Persona is shot by the sublime Sven Nykvist as a study in purposefully colliding contrasts: bright white and deep blacks, looming facial close-ups and chilly long shots, objects as characters and characters as objects. Sound – appropriately for a movie about wilfully withheld language – is pitched between tense silence and bursts of noise, and the performances, considering the movie’s ruthless fascination with artifice, treachery and the unmasked psyche, are simply stunning.
Naturally enough, Bergman always refused to explain what he “meant” by Persona, as if any movie so deeply suspicious of the machinery of meaning and purity of artistic intention could ever be reduced to a single MO anyway. Besides, the question indicates a singular lack of attention paid in the first place. If you can watch Persona closely and still trust that art means solely what an artist intends, you’re living in another dream entirely.
3. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Stanley Kubrick was not a prolific filmmaker, having made 13 films over a career that spanned five decades, yet every one of his films made indelible contributions to the film world. Everything in his filmography is worth watching, re-watching and analysing, which is undoubtedly true for A Clockwork Orange.
In the graphic break-in and attack scene when Alex assaults a woman with a phallic sculpture, Kubrick displays a tremendous amount of freedom with his camera. Strangely, he seems unconstrained: the amazing component of this scene is that nowhere can you see film lights on the set. They’re all in the set design. Not only must this have eased production, but it’s also a fantastic trick to lower your film’s electricity bill.
4. The Godfather (1972)
The Godfather famously had an extremely rocky production. Marlon Brando’s performance was scaring Paramount executives and Francis Ford Coppola thought he was going to get fired every single day. It went on to become one of the landmarks of American cinema for its depiction of morality and corruption in this mafia clan.
One of the key elements that made the film so arresting was the cinematography by Gordon Willis. Called “the prince of darkness” by his peers, his creative use of shadows, colour and motion took the film to higher levels of artistry and made The Godfather one of the landmark films of the 1970’s, in the company of some of his other work such as The Parallax View and Klute, both directed by Alan J. Pakula.
In this video from Screen Prism, it’s argued that the origin point of these dark dramas, at least technically-speaking, is The Godfather.
Willis earned this moniker for his adept balancing of light and shadow, much like the chiaroscuro style of Film Noir or German Expressionism, only Willis worked in color while the former genres were exclusively black-and-white.
5. The Shining (1980)
Another one of Kubrick’s films, another landmark. The horror feature was later rejected by Stephen King, the author of the source novel, but the film itself has since become the object of a cult following among Kubrick fans, horror fans and conspiracy theorists alike.
The film makes groundbreaking use of the then-new steadicam, and manages to convey with eerie perfection the sense of unease that Kubrick wanted. The genius bit is that Kubrick plays with the audience’s knowledge of film grammar. Being accustomed to cuts, the fact that the camera keeps on moving only heightens the tension.
Although, the film would’ve been a disaster without Jack Nicholson. So in terms of giving credits, don’t ever leave old Jack out of it!
6. Schindler’s List (1993)
Steven Spielberg’s work defies easy definition. You can find common themes and threads throughout his filmography, yet each one of his films is very distinctive. He has made classics that have been dismissed as entertainment, and it’s easy to do so when the artistry and hard work behind the movies is so well concealed.
Never has Spielberg’s craftsmanship been better displayed, and at the same time better hidden than in Schindler’s List. Along with his collaborator Janusz Kaminsky, they created a timeless narrative.
The black-and-white cinematography brings a sense of history while the minimalistic approach (“no toys”, said Spielberg) puts the emotional stakes and the characters front and center.
7. Pulp Fiction (1994)
Quentin Tarantino and the non-linear movie structure is the first thing everyone is thinking about when it comes to the rules of screenwriting. However, while this technique is certainly unconventional – and quite used and reused ever since – there is more to Pulp Fiction than the eye can see. When it comes to cinematography, Pulp Fiction broke another rule: the extensive use of dialogue. Pages upon pages of just dialogue – considered a huge mistake in screenwriting. However, Tarantino didn’t just get away with it, he managed to create one of the most quotable movies of all times.
Moreover, when we think about the dialogue in Pulp Fiction, we can’t but notice the elevated speech, the eclectic use of words and the power of words over people – brilliantly manifested through the acting of Samuel L. Jackson. Dialogue became on of Tarantino’s landmarks, and Pulp Fiction deemed as one of the most influential movies ever made – counting on both non-linear structure and the unprecedented use of dialogue.
8. The Matrix (1999)
Pushing the boundaries of technology, The Matrix changed the way we look at action movies forever. The Wachowskis literally reinvented filming techniques and special effects when it came to shooting angles, the bullet-time photography (known as the Flow-Mo filming technique at shooting around 12,000 frames per second), the martial arts moves, the green filters and, of course, the main plot.
The Matrix won four Oscars and left behind a veritable legacy, as today, whenever you see the bullet-time technique you think about this movie and none other. With an unprecedented visual impact and a thrilling story (many are still trying to wrap their minds around), The Matrix is perhaps one of the most groundbreaking movies ever made, both conceptually and technically.
9. Memento (2000)
Grossing over $40 million and earning one nomination for Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards together with winning 13 awards at various film festivals for best screenplay, Memento broke the rules of the common linear storytelling technique, breaking the rules of cinematography one by one. To add even more uniqueness to the pool of originality, Christopher Nolan used different colors to depict the two different narratives: color was used for the scenes conveying the story in reverse chronological sequencing and black and white was used for the other narrative.
This technique made the viewers as confused as the main character, making the film one of the most appreciated of its time. There are few movies that tried to pull off such a scheme, and it is probably for the best – presenting a story in reverse needs a screenplay writer and a director perfectly in control of their skills.
10. Shrek (2001)
Before Shrek, animated movies emphasized on moral messages to children, chock full of naivety and beauty for beauty’s sake. In a world dominated by Disney, the Ogre literally erupted with his crude humor, cheeky attitude and adult-oriented jokes and issues. It was politically incorrect, irreverent, imprudent, clearly not dedicated to small children but mostly to their parents.
However, while being a risking bet, Shrek managed to bring the best of both worlds: give children the necessary moral-wrapped adventure and adults plenty of edgy humor to keep them glued to the cinema seats. Since then, we witness the rise of a subculture in animation movie making – those films appealing equally to children and adults.
11. Inception (2010)
Christopher Nolan’s films defy easy definition, this one in particular. Its storyline is so intricate that it would take a bunch of dry diagrams to explain everything, and even those who have seen the film several times still can’t quite explain it.
Nolan feels primarily like a writer, and it shouldn’t be too surprising as he’s an English Lit graduate (he studied English after his parents didn’t want him to study Film). He’s an extremely efficient and story-focused director. Inception had to manage the tricky feat of taking the viewer by the hand and letting them know where they were, visually, at any given time without being obvious about it- the perfect interaction between story and storytelling, writing and cinematography.
12. Gravity (2013)
It’s no surprise that such a complex film spent seven years in development hell. Alfonso Cuarón, his producer David Heyman and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki spent a long time developing the visual effects technology to achieve this singular vision. The team continually had to overcome challenges, creating a 20 foot light box to emulate the sun, educating animators from scratch on how fire moves in space and designing new ways of shooting anti-gravity after the need for long shots (and Sandra Bullock’s nerves) clashed with the vomit comet technique.
Gravity displays stellar craftsmanship, using SFX and 3D to quickly join the ranks of the classic space films that made awesome use of cutting-edge technology whilst also ensuring its relevance to the story. The result is that the viewer is effortlessly transported into space. It’s not just “the story of how George Clooney prefers to float away into space and die rather than spend one more minute with a woman his own age”.
13. Tangerine (2015)
Tangerine is the latest film to break the rules and re-write them, but it is perhaps the one that has the least flourishes about it. It’s a very small film made with a very small budget and a great heart. You may have heard of it as “the film that was shot on an iPhone”.
The fact that it was shot on an iPhone is almost irrelevant, except to say that it cleverly blends the misfit aspect of the story with the DIY style of filmmaking. It also decidedly marks a turning point in film, showing that audiences won’t care about digital versus film, or what techniques are used, or what toys the director plays with, as long as the story hooks the audience.
14. The Revenant (2015)
In 2016, Emmanuel Lubezki Became the First Cinematographer to Win Three Consecutive Academy Awards. With his win for Alejandro G. Inarritu’s The Revenant, director of photography Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki has become the first person to win three consecutive Oscars in cinematography. He previously won Academy Awards for Inarritu’s Birdman in 2015 and Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity in 2014.
“This is incredible,” Lubezki said. ” I want to share it with the cast and crew, especially with my compadre, Mr. Inarritu. To your passion, Alejandro. And I want to share this also with Leo [DiCaprio] and Tom [Hardy], for their great performances.”
The win also makes him the eighth cinematographer to win a total of three Oscars, joining, among others, Freddie Young (Lawrence of Arabia), Conrad Hall (American Beauty), Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now) and Robert Richardson, who was nominated for an Oscar this year for The Hateful Eight and previously won Oscars for Hugo, The Aviator and JFK. Only two cinematographers have won a record four Oscars in the category: The late Leon Shamroy (Cleopatra) and the late Joseph Ruttenberg (Gigi).
Last year, Lubezki became one of four cinematographers to win back-to-back Oscars, joining John Toll (Legends of the Fall in 1995 and Braveheart in 1996), the late Winton Hoch (Joan of Arc in 1949 and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon in 1950), and aforementioned Shamroy (Wilson in 1945 and Leave Her to Heaven in 1946).
Lubezki, born in Mexico City in 1964, also won his fourth BAFTA in four tries just a month before his OSCAR triumph in London. It was also his third BAFTA in as many years. Furthermore, he got his third American Society of Cinematographers Award in a row for The Revenant and his fifth overall.
Also nominated in the Oscar cinematography category last year were “Sicario” Cinematographer Roger Deakins, who has been nominated 13 times and is still seeking his first win; Mad Max: Fury Road’s John Seale, who previously won an Oscar for The English Patient; and Carol’s Ed Lachman.
The Revenant was filmed on location in Canada and Argentina. Roughly 40 percent of the photography used the Arri Alexa 65, a new 6K large-format digital cinematography camera.
See this full documentary for more details: “The Cinematography of The Revenant”
Here’s an album filled with some of my favorite Cinematographic shots:
Hover your mouse pointer on each image to see which film the shot belongs to.
Thanks a lot for checking it out folks!
© 2017 Asif Ahsan Khan. ® All rights reserved.