Book Review: The Five C’s of Cinematography – Part 5: Composition

PrinceOfEgypt

Dreamworks Pictures’ 1998 classical animation debut, Prince of Egypt, was one of the first to feature near epic scale and grandeur in animated pictures.

We continue our discussion of Joseph Mascelli’s Five C’s of Cinematography, completing the series with our focus on composition. (To begin at the start of the series with Part 1, visit here).

5. COMPOSITION

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A movie loaded with gorgeous cinematic images, David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia is the high water mark of great film photography.

Composition in film is highly under appreciated. Due to its fixed proportions (which has changed from the traditional 4:3 framing prior to the 1980’s to the now extreme wide framing of 2.85:1), film composition, relative to the other arts always seemed limited. However, I believe it’s because of its limited horizontal frame, that we see some of the most creative and breathtaking compositions in film.

The advantage of motion and the compounding impact of successive images, film composition can inform, calm, excite and even frighten the viewer.

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Mia Farrow in a harrowing moment in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s baby, a film with a host of sensational camera compositions that help make this film highly suspenseful.

Understanding composition means understanding what Mascelli’s calls compositional language – lines, forms, masses and movements.

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Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece, North By Northwest. The marvelous use of line and depth create distant space and carries the eye deep into the picture.

He also goes on to discuss the importance of balance and gravity in composition.

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Another image from North By Northwest depicting mass and gravity. The base of the massive heads and the placement of the main characters, give weight and meaning to the environment and the story.

A formally balanced picture suggests peace, quiet and equality, while an informal one features asymmetry, weighting and dominance in one area of the screen. Informal balance can create great interest and dynamism as seen in many outer-space science fiction epics.

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This shot from the climatic battle in George Lucas’ Return of the Jedi, shows not only excellent use of off-kilter balance, but also line, form, mass and movement to create tension and dynamic action.

The use of gravity also influences balance. Animators would do well to heed these words:

“Human senses rebel at compositions that defy the laws of gravity.

In the remainder of the chapter, he goes on to discuss the integration of camera angles, image size, perspective and image placement all of which help the artist to get the most effective results.

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Here, the master of the spaghetti western, Sergio Leone, employs physical elements (such as the collar, hat and hands) to triangulate your attention into the eyes and soul of Charles Bronson’s character in the 1968 film, Once Upon A Time In The West.

He concludes the chapter on composition and the book saying:

“… the viewer must be affected both pictorially and psychologically, to convey the script’s intent to arouse his emotions. Never allow more than one center of interest on the screen at one time unless a disturbed or scattered effect is desired.

Consider the viewer’s eye scan from shot to shot. Work for visual variety, by changing compositional elements often. Eliminate grills, gimmicks and complex arrangements. Make ‘keep it simple’ the working slogan for interesting compositions.”

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A shot from Akira Kurasawa’s 1961 comedy-action samurai flick, Yojimbo. The sideways cross composition makes for a very interesting and gorgeously powerful image.

This concludes our series on the Five C’s of Cinematography. This is the landmark book on camera work and any artist, both novice and professional, would do well to read or re-read it.

Follow up on another great book on cinematography, John Alton’s Painting with Light.

Book Review: The Five C’s of Cinematography – Part 4: Close-ups

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The iconic Clint Eastwood may have more close up shots than any other film actor in history. How can any director resist taking advantage of those intense, piercing eyes? (Image from Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.)

We continue our discussion of Joseph Mascelli’s Five C’s of Cinematography, with the focus on Part 4 of the series: close-ups. (To begin at the start of the series with Part 1, visit here).

4. CLOSE-UPS:

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A series of close up shots of the legendary actor, Toshiro Mifune, in Akira Kurasawa’s Rashoman.

The close up shot is pretty much a staple of modern day drama. Arguably the most powerful advantage that film has over the live stage actor, the cut into a close up of an actor’s face can evoke an intensity or subtlety of emotion that can rarely be surpassed. A held stare into the eyes or face of an actor allows an audience to get right inside the mind and heart of the character, creating a most direct and intense connection.

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Tom Cruise experiences a very personal and painful moment in P.T. Anderson’s magnetic drama, Magnolia. This director’s deeply-penetrating themes require the use of close ups as a main staple for getting us “inside” the character’s head.

In the words of Mascelli:

“Audience involvement is most successful when the viewers are brought into the picture … A sequence may be built to move towards cinematic close-ups. A sequence may (even) open with a close-up that surprises, startles or shocks an audience into attention.”

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An example of opening a film with a close-up shot, seen in Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece, The Godfather. Read up on the power of this sequence here.

He adds:

“Close-ups provide dramatic punch; point up story highlights; depict related action; comment on principal action; emphasize narrative by isolation of subject, and elimination of unwanted matter; or distract the audience to cover jump-cuts.”

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Extreme close-up shot depicting the trauma Malcolm McDowell’s character experiences in Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 dystopian film A Clockwork Orange.

The chapter on close-ups is incredibly detailed. Each section clarifies every use and style of the close-up shot; from over-the-shoulder close-ups and transitional close-ups, to cut-ins (which need to be established in a preceding wider shot) and cut-aways (which show vantage points, like an observer from a distance).

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A cut-away (med) close up shot, from Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves — a shot that doesn’t have to be established because it is not part of the main event.

Now, not all films require extensive use of close ups. You have to pick your spots. Master film-maker Woody Allen was notorious for not using them. In Richard Lucks’ excellent article on the history of film close-ups, he noted how actor Michael Caine was deeply concerned over Woody Allen’s preference to be mostly “close-up” free during shooting. The actor reminisces:

“I was always told to save my best work for my close-ups,” the great Sir Michael Caine remembers. “Which was a big problem when I came to work with Woody Allen on Hannah And Her Sisters in the mid-’80s, because he doesn’t cutaway to close-ups at all – the only close-ups you get come organically out of the master.”

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Michael Caine ponders carefully his next move, in Woody Allen’s 1986 classic, Hannah and Her Sisters. Despite the lack of close-ups, Caine still won an Oscar for his marvelously poignant performance.

But just because it isn’t absolutely necessary, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have its place. When used properly and judiciously, the close-up shot adds information, texture and style.

Mascelli concludes:

“Close-ups add spice, the ingredient that enhances dramatic flavor of the finished film.”

UsualSuspects_kobayashi

The ultimate reveal in Bryan Singer’s wicked-cool 1995 cops and robbers mystery caper, The Usual Suspects.

In our next post, we’ll conclude our series on the Five C’s of Cinematography, as we discuss Part 5: composition.

Book Review: The Five C’s of Cinematography – Part 3: Cutting

taxi_driver_openingTitles

This very creative sequence of images in the opening credits of Martin Scorcese’s 1976 classic, Taxi Driver, create a sense of tension and atmosphere right from the get go.

We continue our discussion of Joseph Mascelli’s Five C’s of Cinematography, with the focus on cutting. (To begin at the start of the series with Part 1, visit here).

3. CUTTING

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The chase sequence from Nick Park’s Oscar-winning stop-motion animated short, The Wrong Trousers, is a tour-de-force of cutting and directing applied in a comical yet exciting cartoon setting.

When it comes to cutting, animators often feel like they’ve got no real control over the layout and flow of their scenes. True, the final work of any animator is always subject to editing. But so is everyone else’s work. The interesting fact in this art form is that cutting is often planned far ahead in comparison to live action. Due to the immense costs of animated productions, sequences and shots are timed to the frame (but of course, still subject to editing). We don’t shoot eight hours of animation and then decipher it. In fact, the animation artist has, in comparison, actually a lot of control and foreknowledge of the flow between cuts. Therefore, knowledge of cutting/editing is a mandatory prerequisite for all animators.

Mascelli writes:

“The film editor strives to impart visual variety to the picture by skillful shot selection, arrangement and timing. He recreates rather than reproduces the photography to achieve a cumulative effect often greater than all the action in individual scenes put together.”

A thorough knowledge of cutting in continuity such as timing static shots and moving shots, or knowing where dissolves or other camera transitions might play out, can heavily effect how an animator might set up his or her scene.

The finale from Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. This marvelous sequence (beautifully complemented by Ennio Morricone’s timeless music) is one of the greatest displays of camera cutting ever.

On his advice to live action cameramen, Mascelli notes that they should learn from the cutting room, consider which camera angles and movements best portray particular situations, where to insert cut-ins, cut-aways or close-ups, and anticipate when it might be necessary for reaction shots and if, or when, shots might need to be shortened or lengthened.

Psycho

A selection from the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock classic, Psycho. This remarkable scene continues to stand as the most dramatic sequence of images in film history.

Mascelli writes:

“(the cameraman) becomes more proficient (when) he’s thinking editorially before and as he films.”

Think of this when you’re animating any shot. Did you leave enough leeway at the beginning or end of the shot to give the director extra flexibility in the cutting room? Have you placed the characters in positions or in movement that will allow the cuts to read and flow beautifully and seamlessly with surrounding scenes, ensuring good continuity?

A section from one of my favorite animated films, Wes Anderson’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Anderson’s preference for centrally-focused, single point perspective forces him to make very precise, direct and interesting camera transitions to create fun and excitement. This very flat, graphic composition style has since become his signature.

I remember doing a shot in one feature film where the director only told me after I had it half-animated it, that the shot was going to be cross-dissolved into another (rather than match-cutting the movement, I needed to end the scene with the character standing still.) Proper direction and clear communication beforehand might’ve not only saved time, but alter my approach to the acting and animation. Still, it’s better late than never, because after the feedback, I understood the intentions behind that directing choice,  thus allowing me to change my approach midstream. Humility and hard work has rescued me on many occasions.

Mascelli concludes his take on cutting, saying:

“A motion picture is conceived in the camera and assembled in the cutting room. (But) the better the conception, the better the assembled picture. A well-scripted motion picture, minutely planned and carefully broken down with a definite editing pattern in mind, will generally cut together with minor, easy-to-solve editorial problems.”

In our next post, we’ll reveal Part 4 of the Five C’s of Cinematography, as we discuss; close-ups.

Book Review: The Five C’s of Cinematography – Part 2: Continuity

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Steven Spielberg was a master of the camera. His control of the continuity in his film-making induced excitement and clarity that was rarely witnessed before his arrival.

We continue our discussion of Joseph Mascelli’s Five C’s of Cinematography, with the focus on Part 2: continuity. (To begin at the start of the series with Part 1, visit here).

2. CONTINUITY

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One of the many excellent diagrams from Joseph Mascelli’s book, the 5 C’s of Cinematography. This one indicating the correct placement and direction of cameras in a three character shot.

Many animation artists don’t spend enough time and thought towards the rhythm and flow of images, and often think of things and scenes as just isolated events, stacked together side by side, one after another. It’s not uncommon to see the work of one animator create a pattern of movement or acting choice that do not coincide with surrounding shots performed by others. Not only should artists try to achieve flow and harmony within their own shots, but those of the entire sequence. They need to know when and where the peaks and values of emotions/actions are, and how their work might fit in.

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Screenshots from Pixar’s The incredibles. Directed by Brad Bird, this was one of the first CG-animated features to deploy strong use of camera continuity and cut-aways to create frenetic action with clarity.

On his view on continuity and its importance as related to story telling, Mascelli writes:

Continuity is merely common sense in coordinated action. It requires thinking in sequences – instead of individual shots … Good continuity is expected by the audience. By drawing poor attention to itself, poor continuity detracts from the narrative. Nothing should interfere with the illusion through which the audience becomes involved in the story.”

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Another diagram from his chapter on continuity. This one showing how to position the camera for shots thru a window.

On a subject familiar to animators, Mascelli instructs:

“Learn how to analyze and handle cinematic time and space. Recognize differences between controlled and uncontrolled action.”

Steven Spielberg’s 1975 landmark film Jaws scared everyone from entering open water. This excellent sequence shows why. Masterful selection and control of camera angles along with precision continuity create tension, suspense and emotional reaction.

He concludes the chapter on continuity with these words that proclaim the importance of clarity, creativity and carefulness so that we can maintain the suspension of disbelief and enjoy the magic on screen:

“A motion picture is a constantly-changing series of images. Thinking continuously will make thoughtful continuity.”

In our next post, we’ll reveal Part 3 of the Five C’s of Cinematography, as we discuss cutting.

Book Review: The Five C’s of Cinematography – Part 1: Camera Angles

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Joseph Mascelli’s famous book, the Five C’s of Cinematography, published in 1965.

Joseph Mascelli’s richly detailed classic is one of my absolute favorites and everything that is taught in there still holds strong and true today. There’s good reason why it’s often referred to as the most widely respected book on cinematography ever printed.

Mascelli’s own history is fascinating in how he became a Hollywood cinematographer. After serving in WW II, he was hired by the U.S Air force to work primarily as a civilian cinematographer and director, where he became the first cameraman to shoot aerial footage of the first H-Bomb test at Bikini Atoll, as part of Operation Crossroads. He later came to California to work on rather obscure and forgotten movies like Wild Guitar, The Thrill Killers and Monstrosity (the one movie which he directed).

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An image from Monstrosity, also known as The Atomic Brain, a 1964 ‘schlock’ horror flick directed by Mascelli.

It’s almost hard to believe that doing military camera work, television commercials, and low budget horror flicks would help him become the renown teacher of cinematography that he is often regarded. But to make such judgement would be unfair, as we are unfamiliar with the times and circumstances that beset artists in those days, when studios were run quiet differently than they are today. Most films approved for production in the 50’s and 60’s were slotted into limited categories of western, gangster or horror. It’s clear Mascelli made the most of his experiences, studying and experimenting with the camera, as he went on to write numerous articles on camera work for photography magazines and trade journals culminating with his credentials as the editor of the American Cinematographer Manual and ultimately the author of his landmark book, the Five C’s of Cinematography.

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Mascelli demonstrates the correct vs incorrect use of camera angle, continuity, cutting, close ups and composition with regards to sights lines.

I recently gotten around to reading it again, and I was again moved by not only the clarity and presentation of techniques, but the importance of seeing how everything ties into the big picture. Too much camera work these days focus on flashy gimmicks and over-reliance on CG effects. We all love visual effects but like good camera work, it has to be there to support the story. New ways of doing things is exciting, but we mustn’t lose the knowledge and fundamentals that ground the work that we do as artists.

In the words of basketball great, Michael Jordan:

“You can have all the physical abilities in the world, but you still have to know the fundamentals.”

Mascelli’s book, in essence, teaches not just about the camera, but about film-making.  Every animator, story artist, and director should be fully equipped with the techniques and knowledge he offers. (Or at least be ready to refer back to them, like I do often, with books like his and those of many others.)

Let’s begin with a look at the first component of the Five C’s, camera angles:

1. CAMERA ANGLES

Spiderman2_TowerFight

Director Sami Rami uses the camera in the most creative ways. In Spiderman 2, this dramatic up-shot signals the arrival of the hero, descending from the heavens to save the people.

Dynamic cameras, when employed properly can lend really powerful emotional and atmospheric tension (and thus storytelling) in film-making. In animation, artists hate dealing with camera angles. Whether it’s 2D or 3D, posing and moving characters in real three dimensional space is challenging at the best of times. When tilted, angled or obtuse camera angles are used, animators must be careful not to flatten the look of their characters and their movements, else they create inconsistency with the intentions of the directing.

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Mufasa hangs on for dear life in Walt Disney’s The Lion King. Beautifully staged and animated with gripping emotion by Tony Fucile.

Good camera angles, however, can take the weight off the animator in terms of performance. Good planning and setting the best camera angles to work with can greatly raise the impact of any particular shot or sequence, otherwise difficult to achieve.

Mascelli writes:

“Proper camera angles can make the difference between audience appreciation and indifference.”

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The famous “trunk shot” from Quentin Tarantino’s modern classic, Pulp Fiction.

He continues;

“The series of shots comprising a sequence should be recorded with progressive, regressive, repetitious or contrasting treatment – singularly or in combination – not with an oddly assorted hodge-podge of shots.”

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The beautiful, yet sad montage of memories in the second of Pixar’s Toy Story series, Toy Story 2, directed by John Lasseter.

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The ending sequence from Pixar’s Toy Story 3, directed by Lee Unkrich, shows another uniquely dramatic moment from the opposite perspective. These distinct POV camera angles bring the audience closer to the emotions and thoughts of the characters, one a toy, the other it’s owner.

On what it takes to make films really great, he writes:

“A motion picture should visually surprise the audience by presenting fresh viewpoints, different types of shots, varied image sizes, in an unpredictable pattern … Players and /or camera movements should be changed, switched, reversed and not simply repeated in a similar pattern.”

In our next post, we’ll reveal Part 2 of our series on the Five C’s of Cinematography, as we discuss continuity.