Popcorn and a Movie


From profound questions of “what is art“, we now take a much needed intermission. Time for popcorn and a movie. But wait, there’s work involved here.

Our next “Find Your Eye” assignment asks us to explore the world of cinematography. From the Greek kinema “movement” and graphein “to record”, cinematography is the art and technique of movie photography. On the film set, the cinematographer, or Director of Photography, is responsible for all operations concerning camera work and lighting during movie production, controlling the film choice, the selection of lens focal lengths, aperture exposure and focus.

Sounds a lot like still photography, doesn’t it? The two mediums share many of the same characteristics; therefore, actively studying great cinematography can teach us ways to enhance our visual storytelling.

So, popcorn by my side, I settled in to watch “Serenity” – the cinematic sequel to the Firefly TV series, created by Joss Whedon. Even if you don’t consider yourself a sci-fi fan, I highly recommend spending time in Whedon’s futuristic world. If you are a fan of the charming Nathan Fillion of “Castle” TV fame, you will definitely want to tune in – Fillion, as Captain Malcolm Reynolds, leads the ensemble cast .

I won’t detail the plot for you – that’s what Wikipedia is for. Suffice it say, much of the film’s action takes place onboard Serenity, the “Firefly-class” spaceship which our rag-tag crew call home. In Whedon’s words, “the ship is the tenth character.” This ship in no way resembles the shiny technological wonder of something like the Starship Enterprise. No, Serenity is held together with spit and baling wire and duct tape, bought second-hand from the used lot.

But this is what makes the lighting of the interior scenes so spectacular. Everything is shot in low light. Shadows abound, flitting across the faces of the characters; enhancing mood; supporting the story. The ship’s bridge is bathed in a cool blue light, its windows looking out into the blackness of deep space, further emphasizing the fact that our crew lives on the dark, lonely edges of “the ‘verse”. They have only each other and Serenity to make it through this new world – gone is the “Earth that was”.

Backlighting and rim lighting are used to highlight characters and situations. In a night scene, lit only by firelight, the black negative space surrounds the faces, leading the eye to what is important. During a pivotal scene, the moment when a key moral decision of self-sacrifice is made, Mal is bathed in a bright wash of heavenly light.

An extreme high-key look with glowing, blurred edges represents the dreams and internal mental state of one character. Blown highlights, bleached color and harsh shadows embody the world of the planet Miranda, where everything is too bright, too sharp – you know something is horribly wrong.

This movie is one of my favorites and I have watched it many times. But, this time was different. This time I was seeing as a photographer; tracking the light, the framing, the depth of field. Learning how the visual language supported the story and the emotional sub-text. Discerning details and visual clues. And because of this, the experience was richer, more rewarding.

Photography has had a significant impact on how I see the world around me. This change extends to the way I watch movies and television. Even as I am caught up in the plot, a part of my mind is thinking – “oh, look at the way the light is coming through those windows” or “I wish I could capture that reflection!” or “Gorgeous bokeh!” For as I watch, I am seeing.

So many gifts, photography has given me.

If sci-fi isn’t your thing, here are additional movie favorites, each nominated for Best Cinematography: Shakespeare in Love (1998 ), Moulin Rouge (2001) and Chicago (2002) 

Written for “Find Your Eye: Journey of Inspiration”


Posted on November 4, 2011, in Photography and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 20 Comments.

  1. It’s interesting that you talk about tv because great cinematography is one of the things I’ve been noticing more and more recently. I was watching Top Gear the other day and was amazed at the angles, lighting and drama that they were able to capture, especially as I was seeing it with a photographers eye.

    • Kathryn,
      Yes, me too! When they do those long panning shots through a big city, all I can see are the gorgeous reflections and I want to be there, with camera in hand. It was interesting watching a familiar movie – and noticing things that never caught my eye before.

  2. Isn’t it amazing how we start to see things differently thru the ‘eye’ of photography and our camera’s lens?? I – too – have begun to view cinematography as light and shadow and ‘art’. Love your image here. So well seen and framed..and filled with nostalgia and history.

    • Marcie,
      Yes, this has been the greatest gift that photography has given me – that added layer of enjoyment that comes from seeing with a photographer’s eye. Like this theatre marquee – located on the historic Lincoln Way, gracing the streets of small-town America – something I would barely have noticed in the past.

  3. I’m glad you chose to watch a well-loved favorite for this exercise Brenda! That really brings a great perspective to the experience. Already knowing and loving the story, it’s great to hear that watching for the cinematography enhanced your experience. I like how you put it – nice intermission to the deeper work we do as part of the Find Your Eye process!

    @Kathryn – I agree, Top Gear has fabulous cinematography! Some of the best in television, I think. It’s a show our whole family loves to watch. My son and husband for the cars, me for the cinematography and all of us enjoy the humor. It’s no wonder it’s a worldwide success.

    • Kat,
      I did enjoy watching it specifically for that purpose – I even went back and watched it again with the commentary turned on – hearing Joss Whedon’s (the director) comments regarding the lighting and how that fit with the emotional arc of the story added another layer of understanding. And I suppose I need to check out “Top Gear” – I have to admit that I have never even heard of it.

  4. What a fun topic! I used to be totally unaware of cinematography when I watched movies, and now even a bad movie or tv show is interesting because of the camera angles, lighting, colors. There is a definite style for different genres — it is amazing how it affects our emotional reactions to the story. Thanks for the film suggestions, I will put them on my list.

    • Gina,
      It was a fun topic! Watching it this way brought a whole new meaning to a favorite film. And I think you will love all of those movies – enjoy!

  5. Now that this has been brought to my attention, I doubt that I will ever look at a movie exactly the same again. It is amazing how much photography is changing how I look at everything.

    • Ginny,
      Once you begin to “see” as a photographer, you can’t “un-see” and that changes everything. And isn’t that wonderful?

  6. What a great exercise. Love your observations too. Moulin Rouge was the film that sprang to mind when I read your intro, love it and it’s cinematography. It’s so true, once you have your ‘photographic’ eye it really does affect how you see everything.

    • Becs,
      Oh, yes – Moulin Rouge is a wonderful example of inventive and creative visual story-telling. I didn’t recall that it had been nominated for Best Cinematography – but then, I probably wouldn’t have paid attention, not really understanding what role it played in the making of a film. But I understand now – which will change the way I watch films in the future.

  7. I truly enjoyed reading this.
    Thank you!
    Have a great start to your week!

  8. This was fun assignment for me, too! Just sitting back and watching a movie, although I did have a notebook and pen nearby. I catch myself watching commercials and looking for composition and light! I also like your comment to Ginny. I love the new “eye” I see the world with and I’m glad it will stay with me.

    • Cathy,
      Yes, I had a notebook by my side as well. I then went back and watched my movie again with the director’s commentary turned on – it provided another level of emotional and technical understanding to the experience. Watching movies as homework assignment – how cool is that?

  9. Hey Brenda-Popcorn and a movie indeed. I don’t know Firefly and admit I’m not much of a sci-fi fan, but if I see it amongst the DVDs at the local library I’ll give it a look.
    Rimmed lighting, back lighting….must be beautifully shot. Love your lead image, and always, the way you write.

    • Susan,
      Firefly is isn’t so much about the sci-fi aspects – it’s more about building relationships and has a very strong Western feel to it – it just happens to take place on a space ship 500 years in the future. It has wonderful characters and great writing. Definitely worth checking out from the library. If you hate it, that’s fine – as we have discovered together, all art is subjective 🙂

  10. I love the Firefly series and the Serenity movie!! The planet Miranda is so spooky because of the bright light — which is the opposite of what you’d expect. I didn’t make the connection until you pointed it out here.

    • Lisa,
      I knew I liked you for a reason! We are currently watching the “Firefly” series again – for the umpteenth time. The dialog never gets old and this time I am paying special attention to the cinematography. Good things never get old.

I greatly appreciate your comments!

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