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).
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.
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
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.
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.
“Proper camera angles can make the difference between audience appreciation and indifference.”
The famous “trunk shot” from Quentin Tarantino’s modern classic, Pulp Fiction.
“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.”
The beautiful, yet sad montage of memories in the second of Pixar’s Toy Story series, Toy Story 2, directed by John Lasseter.
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.