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10 Films That Can Teach You Everything You Need To Know About Cinematography

12 February 2014 | Features, Film Lists | by David Biggins

Barry Lyndon

The word cinematography literally means ‘to record movements’. A director relies on their cinematographer to manipulate the mood and implication of a shot.

For example; you might not think that there’d be many ways to film a person walking down a corridor – but what if that corridor had seedy red lighting? What if the person cast a long dark shadow? What if they were walking down the corridor in slow motion?

The smallest change in lighting or lens can create a whole new emphasis and completely change the meaning of a rudimentary action. This list aims to give you a good background on all the cinematographic tricks of the trade.


1. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)


What it can teach you about: Lighting

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is shot with low levels of lighting for a very simple reason: playing with lighting can make some very interesting shadows. The film’s cinematography may be extreme, but it’s a perfect example of how darkness and shadow can emphasize evil, and how light can emphasize good.

More than this, the jagged, twisted lighting literally helps to emphasize the madness within the film; characters are literally trapped in a nightmare. Another point of interest, is that German Expressionist films like Dr. Caligari were filmed in war torn and poor Weimar Germany. Shadows may be effective, but they’re also cheap.


2. The Bicycle Thieves (1948)


What it can teach you about: Focus, Camera Movement

Following the fall of Mussolini, Italy was a broken and depressed country. Vittorio Director De Sica wanted to capture more than just the plight of his protagonists, he wanted to capture the plight of his country. He does so, startlingly, by using static shots that lingerer on depressed buildings and depressed people.

Cinematographer Carlo Montuori used a deep focus to capture the surroundings, making sure that everything was in focus. Frequently we’re presented with stunning photography, but we’re never able to escape from Rome’s squalor and poverty – much the same as the central characters.


3. The Searchers (1956)

The Searchers Monument Valley

What it can teach you about: Aspect Ratio, Colour

The nineteen fifties were the golden years of television; every American household owned one, so why bother go to the cinema? It was a question that film directors had to answer, and answer they did. The Searchers is a glittering example of a film that delivered its audience an experience they’d be unable to replicate in their own living rooms. Its technicolor is inherently beautiful. It’s grand, it’s immersive and it’s obviously vibrantly colorful.

John Ford and his cinematographer Winton C. Hoch pushed the envelope further by filming in a high-res widescreen format known as VistaVision. The Searchers is BIG, and should be viewed in a cinema whenever possible.


4. Barry Lyndon (1975)

best cinematography

What it can teach you about: Lighting, Effect of Lenses

Stanley Kubrick was so determined to film certain scenes of Barry Lyndon using natural light, that he went to the length of using camera lenses that had been developed by NASA. Most famously, this allowed Kubrick to film indoor night scenes using only candlelight (try it sometime, it’s near-impossible).

When he did deploy electric light, cinematographer John Alcott went to great lengths to make sure that the lighting looked as natural as possible by using filters. Using natural light (or natural looking light) is a great way of making a film look realistic, but Kubrick and Alcott’s extreme lengths created a particularly please aesthetic that replicated eighteenth century paintings.


5. Hard Boiled (1992)


What it can teach you about: Length of Shot, Camera Movement

Long takes are traditionally used for unintrusive and natural-feeling scenes. John Woo used the long take to devastating effect in the action bonanza Hard Boiled. Modern action films often heavily edit and shake up the action to create a false sense of adrenaline. Cinematographer Wang Wing-Heng does exactly the opposite here.

By using a long, uninterrupted three minute take during the final siege, he enhanced the peri by impressing the critics with just how REAL the chaos looked. Pyrotechnics fly, actors get clobbered, and the audience watches wide-eyed at the action packed brilliance of it all.



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  • David Budo

    Great write up! I only disagree on The Bourne Supremacy. Otherwise, you nailed together a great list for teaching people how much impact cinematography has on a film.

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  • David Ehrenstein

    What is this ? No Sternberg? No Dreyer? No Bresson? No Wong Kar Wai? This list is WORTHLESS!

    • wikig1itch

      Make your own list up if you think this is WORTHLESS. I’ll make sure to drop a comment similar to yours so you feel special.

    • Ted

      YOU are worthless, you loud-mouth piece of shlt.

    • couldnt agree more

    • Dave

      It’s a decent list in a Cinematography101 kind of way for explaining the basics. I might of replaced a few with Double Indemnity, Lawrence of Arabia, Days of Heaven or In The Mood For Love, but then I realize understanding the technological and artistic achievements in those films requires a basic understanding of the science of cinematography which I think the author was trying to convey. People get too caught up with the film’s on the list and disregard the intent of the list.

    • Jason Poon

      David Ehrenstein: “my opinion matters!” LOLLOLOLLOL

  • yuvaraj.c

    its mixed taste, ever before i never tasted.. have to follow up

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  • vincent

    rewatched bourne supremacy lately and was reminded how bad the camera shaking was. not only that i felt the camera was zoomed in too much.

  • Elcoguy

    Most new digital cameras can now shoot by candlelight without really fast lenses. Kubrick was up against (relatively) slow film stocks so yes, the new faster lenses he used made the difference.

    • LOL

      Wrong. Professional digital camera’s typically rate at 800 ASA, nowhere near the speed at which to shoot by candlelight with a standard lens.

      Whilst Kubrick had a relatively slow film stock to shoot Barry Lyndon, it was the NASA developed f0.7 lens kit that allowed him to make his film.

      • Elcoguy

        It’s not the ASA rating it’s the dynamic range and today’s digital cameras (RED/Alexa) outperform today’s film stocks not to mention the stocks from the 60’s and 70’s.

      • Agustín Lorenzo

        WRONG, haven’t you heard of the new Sony A7s? you should check Phillip Blooms “Now I See” video going clean up to 12k ISO (asa).
        youre welcome:

  • Tara Vanflower

    I can’t believe there’s no Kubrik in this list.

    • luis

      you do know that barry lyndon is a kubrick film, right?

      • Tara Vanflower

        Sorry, slipped my mind since I haven’t seen that one.

  • Stockyboi

    I think the long tracking shot of Dunkirk beach in ‘Atonement’ deserves to be on this list for camera movement (as well as sound); one of the most powerful images in modern cinema.

  • Rigged4fun

    Unfortunately lighting in the black and whites is so very different from lighting color. Lighting today’s film and video has very little to do what’s gone on in the past. Today’s lighting is based on exposure not lighting for effect. There are very few cinematographers if any that could light black & white without making it look “flat.”

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  • Agustín Lorenzo

    The affordable $2.5k Sony A7s can shoot easily on candlelight.

  • Thanks for sharing

  • Ricardo Filipe Matos

    Not so great list, but good effort. You do realize that the scenary on Dr Calligary was painted, so what is the meaning of “lightning” here? Although i’m a huge fan of De Sica (and neo-realism), to talk about the importance of deep focus (and the capture of reality, in a cinematic way, of course) the first and better example is Citizen Kane (and also, in a realistic point of view, isn’t Bresson and mostly Renoir important here?). And, where is Eisenstein and the russian formalism school and the editing/montage issues here? Where do you put acting and narrativity here? It’s obvious the missing of Hitchcock in questions of point-and-view and the importance of showing objects. Where is Godard or Truffaut and the nouvelle vague who rebelled in showing new ways of filming and telling a story in moving pictures. And what about the question of time in Tarkovsky?

    • Doby Gillis

      It’s about cinematography, not about being a pretentious douche.

  • I agree with Saving Private Ryan, because I feel the same what you’ve written when I watched it.

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  • Wasif

    Talk about Cinematography and no Kar Wai; huh!

  • Marcinema

    Eh, a few good choices, but not very impressed.

  • Daniel Anaya

    No, yeah it IS kind of a stupid list, sorry, and teaching everything you need to know about cinematography is kind of relative, for who? The guy who is sacking groceries at Whole Foods, which is hey an honorable job or at least, you know a job… BUT he doesn’t need to know much about cinematography so no, NOT a great list. I can tell you one thing, not likely to visit this sorry ass website again.

  • The Last Latino

    U need a top 10 list , here is a list. Fast and furious 1-7 , The Pacifiers and The Toothfairy.

  • The Last Latino

    Oh shit that’s 9, okay and Are we there yet

  • suresh

    What about life of milty walter??

  • this bear is tops blooby

    Anything from Christopher Doyle for the love of god!

  • GrandTale

    Ehh I kinda feel disappointed Lawrence of Arabia or any Wong Kar Wai films didn’t make the cut but still quite a concise list nonetheless.

  • Relf

    Pulp Fiction, is by far the most overrated movie of all time

    • Doby Gillis

      As is your opinion.

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  • Ari Novic

    Sven Nykvist?

  • Adrian

    Workable list. I’d add Citizen Kane for good measure though. It could replace just about any of the films on it. But we’ve all got different ideas..

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