8. Rodrigo Prieto
Part of the new wave of Mexican filmmakers that took Hollywood by storm in the early 2000’s, his collaboration with director Alejandro González Iñárritu has created some of the best movies of the 21th century with such films as “Amores Perros”, “21 Grams” and “Babel”. These two filmmakers have proven Hollywood can learn a thing or two about storytelling from filmmakers living south of the border.
Prieto loves to use a handheld camera and often operates the camera himself and will often assign a unique and different color tone to different characters. He’s been know to overexpose scenes to create dreamlike sequences; he prefers tungsten lights over HMIs and loves to use kino flos and uses color gels on his lights.
Alejandro González Iñárritu was one of the first Mexican filmmakers to garner widespread praise in Hollywood; his unconventional structure and storytelling was innovative and not to mention, his ability to bring out great performances from his actors was refreshing. But it was Prieto’s brilliant photography that announced to the world that Mexico was home of some of the best filmmakers working in the industry today.
7. Robert Richardson
Arguably one of the best cinematographers working in the business today, he first caught the attention of cinephiles in the 90s working with director Oliver Stone on such films as “JFK” and “Natural Born Killers”. However, it’s his recent collaboration with iconic film director Quentin Tarantino that’s produced some of the best movies of our modern era.
Richardson doesn’t subscribe to source lighting; instead, he creates a source light from any place he pleases, letting the story dictate the ideal place for setting up the lights. His signature lighting style is a harsh high top light that backlights the main subject, which also serves as a fill light for other actors in the scene.
He also uses artificial light for day exteriors and love to uses dimmers on his lights for certain scenes, and by using top light in most of his shots, the bounce comes from the bottom which is unconventional.
Richardson has won three Oscars, but just like Stanley Kubrick, anyone who works on a Tarantino film will get little credit unless your name is Samuel L. Jackson. However, Tarantino is wise enough to know if you’re going to make a great film, and a cinematographer like Richardson will make your job that much easier.
6. Michael Ballhaus
Recently we lost legendary German cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who passed away at 81. He first made a name for himself working with film director Rainer Werner Fassbinder; the two filmmakers are credited with creating the 360 tracking shot around actors.
Ballhaus loved movement and there was no better director for him to work with than Martin Scorsese, who is notorious for his love of camera movement. Scorsese once said about Ballhaus: “It was Michael who really gave me back my sense of excitement in making movies; for him, nothing was impossible.” The two men would go on to make the cinematic classics “Goodfellas”, “Casino”, “Gangs of New York” and “The Departed”.
For camera movement, Ballhaus preferred to have his cameras on tracks for dolly movements and often used the vertigo effect, pulling back the camera and zooming in with the lens at the same time, and would often use up to five F-stops in a single scene.
Scorsese is an iconic director and one day in the future he will probably be hailed as the greatest director of all time, but one of the main reasons he will earn that title is because Michael Ballhaus was working behind the camera for him on so many of best films.
5. Emmanuel Lubezki
Another powerhouse duo from Mexico would be Emmanuel Lubezki and Alfonso Cuarón. The two filmmakers worked on what is considered the best thought-provoking dystopian thriller of the 21st century, “Children of Men”.
Lubezki often uses long lenses to create glamorous commercial photography, but is also capable of shooting wide angle handheld camera work as well. He loves to use soft diffused lighting for close ups and is famous for rarely using artificial lighting for exterior shots, often shooting long takes with a moving camera.
He loves the 12mm lens and arri master primes and when it comes to digital photography, Lubezki loves shooting handheld with wide angles and frequently changes the compositions several times in one shot. His three Oscars and his frequent collaboration with Cuarón has made both men legends in the industry.
4. Wally Pfister
Christopher Nolan is considered one of the greatest directors working in movies today, and it’s been Wally Pfister’s job to bring his vision to the big screen with some of the best photography we’ve seen over the last 10 years. Pfister takes a naturalistic approach to his lighting; he loves high resolution and avoids grainy images. He often operates the camera himself and loves to side light his actors with soft light.
Even though Nolan usually receives most of the acclaim for the movies they work on, the director was wise enough to work with the Oscar-winning cinematographer on all his films, until Pfister retired from shooting other directors’ projects and embarked on a directing career himself.
3. Roger Deakins
Practically a living legend in the world of cinema, from film to digital, he creates some of the best images seen in films today. He can easily navigate from a James Bond film or create futuristic visuals for “Blade Runner 2049”, always creating a unique visual look for all of his films. Deakins loves to use practicals built into the set and will often light the background opposite the key light to create depth in the frame. He loves to use the 32mm lens and Arri master primes.
Deakins is one of the most sought after cinematographers in Hollywood, but whenever he collaborated with the iconic Coen brother, even the greatest DP working today will often get overshadowed by the cinematic duo. But one reason the Coen brothers are still at the top of their game after 30 years in the business is because their go-to cinematographer is Deakins, a wise choice for any director.
2. Gordon Willis
Gordon Willis is known as the ‘Prince of Darkness’ because of his visual style; he’s so influential that just about every filmmaker copies his style by crushing the blacks in their films.
In all his movies, Willis underexposed all his films and for exteriors he avoided artificial lights and used the sun to backlight his actors. When lighting his actors, he usually used a diffused top front light or side lighted his actor, and he always used the entire dynamic range of the films stock. The 40mm lens was his glass of choice and usually he shot an entire movie on one T-stop.
Willis was such a legend that he often outshone every director he worked with except for Francis Ford Coppola. “The Godfather” and “The Godfather Part II” were such actor and story-driven projects that even Willis’ brilliant photography took the back seat to the story and actors, and being the perfectionist that he was, Willis wouldn’t want to have it any other way.
1. Vittorio Storaro
Vittorio Storaro is the closest thing we have to a saint if cinematography was a religion. The son of a projectionist, it must have been destiny for Storaro to grow to create some of greatest images to ever be put on film. His vibrant use of color is legendary; he’s often faked magic hour with filters and tungsten lights to create a orange brown hue.
He often left out fill light but he’s best known for his use of color to create moods, which has never been matched by another cinematographer, and he’s probably the only director of photography to outshine every director he worked with except for Bernardo Bertolucci.
Since the two men practically started out together, Storaro developed his brilliant style while shooting the director’s early films, but Storaro would go on to become a legend in the industry and just about every cinematographer working today has been influenced by Storaro’s captivating photography.
Author Bio: R. Prince is a filmmaker from Harlem, New York and the author of the book How to Roll a Blunt for Dummies.