Lights, Camera, Action: The History of Cinematography

Great films require creative and logistical collaboration among hundreds of crew members to produce great films. Cinematography is both an art and a science, requiring powerful, productive relationships to create enjoyment for audiences.  How did box office hits come to be? Here is a few things about the history of filmmaking and cinematography.

What is Cinematography?

Cinematography is the act of capturing images on film. Today, the process has transitioned to capturing and uploading these files in a digital capacity. A cinematographer, or Director of Photography, is responsible for selecting the camera and lens, lighting, shot framing, and overseeing the camera, grip, and electric departments members on set. It is arguably the most difficult job in a production as it encompasses multiple departments and skillsets and is demanding throughout all three stages of production.

The visual style and tone of a film fall into the hands of the DP. The film’s director will establish their aesthetic vision for the movie and collaborate with the cinematographer to bring this creative perspective to life. The partnership between these two is critical to the success of the movie and requires both individuals to harness technology, art, leadership, and business fundamentals to produce a film that is well-received by viewers.

The Evolution of Film

The beginning of the 20th century saw films evolve from novelty to powerful vehicles for storytelling that could be used to elicit emotional responses from audience members. In earlier years, filmmakers struggled with visual storytelling, partly due to the limitations in technology, like the lack of sound, which wasn’t introduced until 1929.

Film took its first giant leap forward when the idea of creative collaboration was discovered, and a partnership was formed between cinematographer Bill Bitzer and director D. W. Griffith. Producing almost 500 films together, the pair worked side by side from 1908 until 1924, and they are responsible for introducing fundamental filmmaking techniques, such as the soft focus, fade out, close-up, and backlighting.

The Studio Era

The Golden Age of Hollywood, also known as the Studio Era. After the introduction of sound, major studios in the US began to dominate the scene, including Warner Bros, 20th Century Fox, Paramount, MGM, and RKO. Each company possessed its own visual language and expression on screen. For example, RKO specialized in charming musicals, creating stars like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, while Warner Brothers was known for their action-packed gangster movies, launching careers for brute bad guys like Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney.

At the time, the DP’s and directors working for these significant studios were required to abide by each studio’s defined visual style. Deviating from these established standards would mean running the risk of forfeiting your job. High expectations were in place for these individuals, as they were expected to produce quality work that kept audiences engaged and invested in the storyline. Despite these limitations, this strategy generated results, bringing about masterpieces and Hollywood classics, like The Wizard of Oz and Casablanca.

While you would think such tight guidelines would thwart creativity, the approach actually inspired innovation and moved the needle forward for the movie industry. One such breakthrough emerged in 1941 when Orson Welles’ and Gregg Toland were working on the production of Citizen Kane. Toland’s curiosity led him to experiment with various lenses and lighting setups, which ultimately gave rise to the development of deep focus. In cinematography, deep focus refers to a technique that allows the many components of a complex shot to be captured simultaneously.

This breakthrough was the catalyst that propelled film into the modern era, allowing storytellers like Welles to push the boundaries of the on-screen narrative. As the studio era came to its end, new trends emerged, such as the artistic expression on an individual level and a renewed emphasis on collaborative partnerships in the studio.

The Modern Age

A new era of film making emerged in the 50s and 60s as Hollywood pushed to produce striking big-screen adaptations. A significant proponent driving the initiative was Hollywood trying to compete and differentiate itself from the rise in popularity of television. With new widescreen displays, such as Cinerama and CinemaScope, and the inclusion of color, came the creation of epic on-screen flicks, including movies like The Ten Commandments. As time went on, more artistic triumphs emerged, as cinematographers mastered new techniques and technologies to create experiences of epic proportions.

The New Hollywood era began in the late 60s and brought a tremendous shift in cinematography. As union restrictions loosened, a wave of new memberships and young cinematographers entered the industry. As older directors retired and young visionaries entered the field, the cinematographer-director partnership paved the way for some genuinely era-defining movies.

Some legendary teams surfaced during this time, including Gordon Willis and Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather), Michael Chapman and Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver), Bill Butler and Steven Spielberg (Jaws), and Robert Surtees and Mike Nichols (The Graduate). These powerhouse partnerships defied industry norms, challenged old notions of film methodologies, and opened the doorway for new ways for artistic expression to be carried out on film. It was the incredible work of these individuals, along with many others, that paved the way for independent movies and filmmakers, which still exist today.

As technology continues to advance, so does the abilities of today’s cinematographers. 3D pictures, interactive storytelling, and many other trends are changing the way we create and showcase film. With CGI and similar post-production software, cinematographers can now conjure up visual elements that come purely from the director’s imagination.