Cinematography: We’ve come a long way?

We don’t have to ask why we love videos and movies, visual literacy is becoming more important as time goes on.

First Silent Movie, The Great Train Robbery (1903)
Produced by Thomas Edison and directed and filmed by Edwin S. Porter, The Great Train Robbery was the first narrative movie ever made.

Thinking about today’s conventions I see in contrast to the silent films of the early years of cinema, the first thing is obvious: there are a lot of talking heads. The cinematic elements that make me love movies, especially silent movies, are mostly lacking, having given way to VFX and complicated dialogue. Cool effects work well in the right places but, as we learned from the great, early filmmakers, a story is best told with a visual, artful use of the tools to lead us to make connections on our own. This is what cinematography is. The American Society of Cinematographers defines cinematography as:

a creative and interpretive process that culminates in the authorship of an original work of art rather than the simple recording of a physical event.

The difference between a good film and a great one is that even with the audio removed a great film stands on its own. The audience can still make sense of the action because the cinematic elements keep moving the story forward.

Silent films didn’t have the luxury of audio tracks to bolster what was happening on the screen. Directors worked feverishly to keep the inclusion of cards with words on them to a minimum as audiences often found them distracting because they broke a certain rhythm to the visual story that was unfolding before them. The fundamentals of editing were more than enough for directors in those early days as they saw a seemingly infinite number of conventions that could be used to craft atmospheres, psychological experiences that led audiences to emotional heights and dramatic lows in response to the visual sequences taking place in front of them.

In contrast to now, when a majority of popular films have so many stylistic choices in common, produced with technology that can shoot high and low, inside and out, leave no stone unturned, no thought of a character unknown, possessing perhaps a similar cultural rhythm about them, too, that can at times make them feel almost like the same movie. Technology has certainly opened up many more options for modern day shooters, myself included. Shooting with a Canon 5D Mark II allows us to shoot cinema quality footage at 24p at a fraction of the cost. However, as in design, there is a time and place for whitespace, which is to say, to not exploit the tools for all they’re worth just for the sake of exploiting the tools for all they’re worth. Does it add to the story? Yes? Keep it. Does it not add to the story? Lose it.

I surely don’t mean to discount the work of the great cinematographers of our age, only to suggest that limitations are what create the opportunities for innovation, not a lack of them. The life pursuits and soaring accomplishments of a legion of great screen directors in the early days of cinema stand testament to it.

So how has the rapid deployment of these new tools impacted our ability to tell a story cinematically? Surely it’s both helped and hindered. A great story is still a great story, regardless of what tools are used to tell it.


  1. Lance Strate says:

    I agree with what you’ve said here 100%, Chad. There is much to learn from the films of the silent era, like Metropolis, The Passion of Joan of Arc, and The Gold Rush. Interestingly, MTV and music videos in general have often reached back to silent films for a sense of the visual that works without dialogue (or monologue). I did a blog post not too long ago about a recent example of this:

  2. c says:

    That’s a good point, Lance. I’ve not ever thought of it like that. Music videos do indeed employ a visual style, for lack of any access to “talky” gimmicks. This is refreshing. Now…to find the ones that do it best. I may toss this about in my mind and in my searches to find some worth posting. Thanks for the feedback. Sincerely appreciated. Cheers : )

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