Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Alexander Mackendrick Talks About Cinematography


Ideally the cinematographer’s relationship with the director is a symbiotic one. The cinematographer embraces the director’s vision and uses his visual talent and technical knowledge to capture the director’s inner thoughts and put them on the screen. Needless to say, the process of choosing a cinematographer is of no small importance to the director.

It is my impression that most of the cameramen I know have developed a highly personal style. They have an individual character that becomes their stock in trade. During the planning for Sweet Smell Of Success, the producer, Harold Hecht, suggested James Wong Howe. I remember Jimmy as extremely good with strong, melodramatic material and felt his hard-edged approach would be ideal for this particular subject, so I was delighted.

Often a director will screen several films shot by a prospective cinematographer.

In effect, I believe you have to trust the taste and temperament of the cameraman as you see it in his previous work. Obviously, you should take care to see a number of his films to see how he handles different genres; to see what range he has. Wong Howe had considerable range: I looked at both Body and Soul and Picnic which was in color and much more sentimental. But what I asked Jimmy for was the black-and-white harshness I’d seen in his melodramatic movies.
Once the director finds a cinematographer who interests him, he sends him a script.


A cinematographer cannot separate the problem of light from the problem of color. Through the film stock he is using, through the filters on lights and lenses, and through the printing in the lab, he cooperates with the art director in the orchestration of colors or in the modulation of the gray scale in the black-and-white films.

I’ve always felt that melodrama and satire have characteristics in common. Ideally, I would prefer to shoot both of these genres in black and white. Distributors nowadays declare that black-and-white movies are unsalable. A compromise may be the kind of cinematography where there is a very emphatic range of tonal values, black to white, at the expense of hue values; strong directional lighting of chiaroscuro, which underlines the architectural structures at the expense of the local colors of the surface.

When the first Japanese color features arrived in Britain, I remember well their impact on British filmmakers. Accustomed to the brilliance of Californian light, the bright hues and crisp shadows, we marveled at the subtleties of shades and tone produced by the mists of the Japanese scenery. With the coming of color and more sensitive film stocks the sunlight, which was the original incentive for a migration to the Californian West Coast, is no longer quite such an essential.

There are personal idiosyncrasies when it comes to particular colors, for both aesthetic and practical reasons.


Ideally all the major contributing people should be brought in early on the project. Those fortunate enough to work on Ingmar Bergman’s films have the luxury of a 2-month intensive dialogue with the director, actors and other members of crew. As well as watching rehearsals, Bergman’s cameraman Sven Nykvist (ASC) has the opportunity to shoot extensive tests and discuss the sets and costumes with the art director. This relationship with the art director cannot be stressed too much. He is an invaluable partner because he supervises the designers of sets and costumes.

The positioning and intensity of the practicals on the set is something the cinematographer should established with the art director. These visible light sources of various kinds serve to visually enrich the scene, to justify the directions of studio lighting and to contribute to the level of illumination on the set. They may even serve as the major modeling lights for the scene.

The shape of the set and certain architectural components such as beams or moldings help the cinematographer to hide his lamps, stands and cables. The shape, texture and color of the walls and furniture have understandable impact on the visual organization of the frame. The way in which the set is positioned on the studio floor, for example, how much space there is outside the windows, will also influence the lighting directions and angles. For these reasons the production designer, art director and all the people involved in shaping and dressing the sets, or in choosing locations should work hand-in-hand with with the cinematographer. He, in turn, can either enhance their efforts or diminish them with his lighting.

If the casting of key talents has not been done wisely, there can be misunderstandings between the production designer and the director of photography. An assertive designer may hanker after lighting that is diffused, general and unobtrusive, so that tone and color values in the settings and costumes retain their pictorial values. Equally assertive cinematographers may prefer the set, costumes and furniture to be neutral in color and tone so that the scene is left for him to ‘paint with light.’ If there is discord between the production designer and director of photography, the director and producer should resolve the disagreements at the earliest stage of production planning.
Filmmaking is not only teamwork but the team is composed of people with strong creative egos. This makes it doubly difficult to keep on an even keel.


The basic need to represent a three dimensional reality on a two dimensional surface is certainly not new in the visual arts. What separates film from the other visual arts is that it is kinetic. The filmmaker is composing motion.
Composition of movement in time can be broken down into several dynamics. Movement of the camera is called intraframe movement. Screen sizes and angles of view can be manipulated in this way. Interframe movement is created by editing, cutting from one angle to another or from long shot to close up. The combination of camera movements and editing becomes a truly powerful system for manipulating the film reality. Whether static or moving, the frame represents spatial depth, or three dimensions, on a 2 dimensional screen.

We’re told by those who have studied the psychology of perception that shadows are one of the clues by which the brain recognizes spatial depth. The fact that the projected image is always seen as a window into a 3 dimensional world is one reason for the filmmaker’s use of these dark and light areas for ‘designing in depth.’

The figurative painters and engravers of graphic illustrations in the 19th century are worth study by filmmakers. Gustav Dore’s work is an example. He used a formula enormously effective in emphasizing design in depth. In the foreground a subject might be lit strongly, with an emphatic key light and strong modeling. But behind this would be figures more or less in silhouette, in shadow and 2 dimensional. These, in turn, would be outlined against a brighter area in middle distance, a part of light illuminating features of architecture or figures in an area of light. These were again silhouetted, light against dark, against a further background of shadow, gray but still dark. Each recessive plane contrasts with the one beyond it or in front.

The Spanish painter Francisco Goya wrote some 200 years ago. “I see (in nature) only forms that advance, forms that recede, masses in light and shadow.”

Composing in depth isn’t simply a matter of pictorial richness. It has value in the narrative of the action, the pacing of the scene. Within the same frame, t he director can organize the action so that preparation for what will happen next is seen in the background of what is happening now. While our attention is concentrated on what we see nearest to us, we are simultaneously aware of secondary activities that lie beyond, and sometimes even of a third plane of distant activity the dramatic density of the scene is much greater.

Design the blocking of the actors, the framing of the shot, with this sort of thing in mind and the cinematographer with a grain of sense will instantly realize your intention. He will use light to assist the eye path of the audience and to give dramatic depth to the scene. Most cameramen I’ve worked with have been very intelligent, quick to pick up on t he director’s intentions without the need for explanation.
Composition, both in framing and lighting, directs the viewer’s eye to the appropriate part of the scene.

In the 1950s a real problem cropped up when the framing of the image became ambiguous, unpredictable. Were we working just for the cinema screen or for television? When the framing has to be a compromise the result is often disastrous.

When any of my films were reframed – the film image rephotographed for television broadcast – I could not help feeling a sense of outrage. If I remember rightly, Augustus John, a well-known British portrait painter, discovered that after he had sold a portrait, the new owner cut nine inches off the bottom of the painting so that it would fit a space on his wall. John sued for damages, even though the painting was no longer his, and, as I recall, won his case. I feel the same way about screen images. And it’s not just aesthetics; it affects the narrative.

In ‘A High Wind’ in Jamaica one of the key shots was a wide screen shot of seven children sitting in a row as they are interrogated by the lawyer; the point of the scene was the silent reaction of 2 children who happened to be on each end; neither of them appeared in the television version.

It is the unfortunate lot of filmmakers that they are not in charge when their work is being projected. A visit to a local theatre can at times be a heart breaking experience, let alone seeing one’s film on television.
In spite of this uncertain future, the film crew puts all its talents and skills into producing a well-composed picture.


There are three people on the crew ultimately concerned with composition of the frame: the director, the cinematographer, and the camera operator. The balance of power among these 3 individuals is affected by many factors: personal experience, the subject matter or genre of this story, the individual background and national tradition. An American cinematographer who also directs discusses his interpretation of the balance of power.

I distinguish between the way I work with the lighting cameraman and way I work with the operator. As Director of Photography, and boss of the whole camera crew, some cinematographers will probably challenge me on this, insisting that they are responsible for all of it. However, my temperament has been to feel that I have to design every camera angle, every screen size, every camera move. I have to work directly with the camera operator on this and cannot afford to go through the Director of Photography, though, of course, he will be present as the decisions are made. This is because, as director, I am, above all things, concerned with narrative content, the story. Other values are very important, but they come later. Since the story is told through positioning of the actors in relation to the camera, since the blocking of camera moves within the scene is inseparable from the design of camera operator and I are concerned with narrative. He is the director’s right hand and he is my man.

Mackendrick’s description of the role of the operator stems from the heyday of the British studio system. In this tradition the cinematographer is known as the Lighting Cameraman and his role is to predominantly light the set. The operator is more concerned with the narrative. Hollywood tradition is different.

No comments:

Post a Comment