The Director of Photography

'From First Cameraman to Director of Photography' by Bill Hines

'The Motion Picture Cameraman' by Gregg Toland

'What Is a Director of Photography?' by Charles G. Clarke


Page 1: From First Cameraman to Director of PhotographY | The Motion
Picture Cameraman | What Is a Director of Photography?
Page 2: Film vs. DigitaL | ALEXA | Digital Intermediate | D-Cinema
Page 3: Oliver Stapleton: 'So You Wanna Work in Movies?'
Page 4: A History of Aerial Cinematography [Part 1 & 2]
Page 5: Wizards of Visual Effects: The Golden Age [Part 1 & 2]


'From First Cameraman to Director of Photography'

By Bill Hines, SOC [1993]

 

One hundred years have passed since the motion picture camera and the motion picture projector were invented.

The cameraman was the technical [and often creative] key to the movie-making process, providing his personal camera equipment and the overall technical direction of the recording process. He would set up his camera, load film into it, set the exposure functions, frame the action, crank film through the camera at a given rate, set fades and dissolves and irising, unload the film, develop the film, print the film, and, when early story films required moving the camera from place to place, he would edit and splice scenes together, print and then project the final result, a veritable one-man band.

By 1899, story-telling techniques developed. Scenarios were written. Film presentations were one reel in length, approximately seventeen minutes at 16 fps. At 8 frames per turn, the cameraman-operator would crank film through the camera at the rate of two turns per second in order to maintain that 16 fps rate.

By 1904, the static camera instead of recording the entire production from a single position, began being purposefully placed at varying distances from the action or subject matter. Somewhat later, the camera was placed on a mobile platform and moved while filming from a long view to a close view, while panning and tilting to hold the action in frame.

In the USA, two cameras were being used during production. The principal, or first camera, operated by the principal, or first cameraman, was placed in the optimal position with respect to the blocked action and was used to expose the more important domestic release negative. Next to it with the same focal length lens and similar coverage, was placed the second camera, operated by the second cameraman, which was used for the foreign release negative. [During this period there was still difficulty in producing a good copy negative from the original negative. Two negatives were required so that the second one could be expeditiously sent to Europe for that concurrent movie market. Often two cameras were operated at the same site so as to generate two original negatives.]

 

Director Maurice Tourneur [left] with his 1st cameraman Lucien Andriot and

2nd cameraman John Van den Brouk on the set of 'Poor Little Rich Girl'.

Paragon Studios, Fort Lee, New Jersey, 1916

 

It was the first cameraman's responsibility to determine the position of the camera[s], the lens, the f-stop, the focus, the lighting balance and to adjust the muslin and/or to have the studio rotated to maintain proper relationship to sunlight. When sodium vapor lamps were adapted to motion picture use, it made it possible to film on sets in studio interiors. The first cameraman had to spend much time adjusting or supervising the adjustment of the lamps in order to properly illuminate the studio settings and balance the lighting on the actors. With these heavy lights, he was given an assistant, a chief electrician, to place, connect and adjust the lights. The chief electrician would often save himself the trouble of using a ladder to adjust each light by using a boat gaff stick to reach up and tilt, turn or swing each light to a desired position, or to switch a light on or off; hence, the term, gaffer.

With the advent of sound in 1926 for major studio production, lighting procedures, handling large crews and the multiple-camera requirements of sound recording finally divorced the first cameraman from operating a camera. Each camera had a constant-speed electric motor set to run at 24 fps but, because the silent era did not require silent running, produced an unacceptably high noise level for production-quality sound. In addition, the strong lights made the studios extremely hot and uncomfortable.

Compounding the problem, the recording of production sound required that all cameras and their operators be enclosed in soundproofed, non-air-conditioned cabinets [called 'hot boxes']. Up to ten cameras, two to a booth, were used to film heavily-rehearsed sequences in one full-load take [up to 11 minutes per 1,000' load]. In order to avoid this torture, soundproofing blimps were soon developed to contain the noise of the silent-era production cameras and self-blimped cameras were promptly put on the drawing boards.

Microphone and boom shadows were everywhere and had to be controlled. The first cameraman, now called the director of photography, had to be on the floor to be able to see what was happening, monitoring his lighting and the action, ready to take immediate corrective action. The responsibility for operating the camera, and keeping microphone, microphone booms and their shadows out of frame, fell to the second cameraman to whom the title, camera operator, was applied.

The camera operator, the person looking through the viewfinder, has always been responsible for framing the action and including essential parts of that action in frame. In the days before video assist, the camera operator saw the framed action first and was the only one able to say accurately whether the take was pictorially acceptable or not until dailies were looked at the following day.

The heavier, bulkier precision production sound cameras with their gear heads required assistance to move, set up and operate. What had been possible for a camera operator, operating a smaller camera on a friction head - making adjustments while panning and tilting such as, focus, shutter angle, irising, sliding diffusion, etc. - became impossible or impractical to accomplish with both hands on the control wheels of a heavy-duty gear head. So the camera assistant became the first assistant camera operator [focus puller] and the second assistant camera operator helped the first assistant and slated scenes, while a loader kept film magazines loaded, downloaded and exposed film properly identified. [From article by Bill Hines, SOC, in the Spring 1993 issue of 'The Operating Cameraman'.]

 

'The Motion Picture Cameraman'

By Gregg Toland [1941]

 

 

I enjoy being a motion picture cameraman. Of all the people who make up a movie production unit, the cameraman is the only one who can call himself a free soul. He is certainly the least inhibited. The producer, director, film editor, the players, all act as checks upon the creative impulses of one another. But the cameraman may do exactly what he wants to do, for the simple reason that while the work of the others is visually obvious at the time it is being performed, the work of the cameraman is not revealed until twenty-four hours later when the film which has passed through his camera is flashed upon the screen in a projection room.

 

While he is actually making a scene, no one can rightfully say, 'I don't like the way you are doing that; suppose we try it this way.' No, the cameraman is perfectly at liberty to carry out his own ideas, even to introduce an occasional revolutionary departure - within the bounds of reason, of course. This freedom of idea expression is to any human being a precious privilege. A cameraman's function is basic. He is fundamental in the scheme of things. Of all the personnel in the complex production system, he is the one and the only one who actually 'makes pictures'. Inside the highly sensitive mechanism under his control a miracle occurs. Then out of it emerge small strips of celluloid upon which visual realities have been transmuted into the imagery of the storyteller. Regarded from this viewpoint, his responsibility is considerable, for these strips of celluloid comprise the sole asset of the producer, represent a huge outlay of money, time and the talents of authors, scenarists, producers, players and artisans. Exposed film is the only tangible thing the industry has to show for its investment.

 

Of equal importance is the cameraman's responsibility to the vast multitudes of people who attend the movies. A simple definition of a motion picture cameraman should necessarily be preceded by a definition of his camera, for that is his medium. The camera, when you get right down to cases, is the eyes of the audience. Thus the cameraman is the censor [I dislike the word but it is applicable here] over the most important of the five physical senses of millions of entertainment seekers. Great is his crime, artistically speaking, if he violates this trust by failing to present in the most telling manner the dramatic content of the plot.

 

The cameraman's further responsibilities are both artistic and economic, inasmuch as he is a factor in an art-industry. From the art side of the picture, there are three things he must know:

1. The mechanics of the camera.
2. Where to place the camera, and,
3. How to light the scene to be photographed.

 

The first is purely routine. The second and third functions involve the creative ingredient. The placement of the camera determines the angle from which the action is to be viewed by audiences. The importance of this angle to dramatic effect cannot be overemphasized. The lighting of the scene is an equally potent factor in the determination of dramatic effect, in addition to its basic function - visibility. To the eye of an expert cameraman, the manner in which a set is lighted is an infallible key to the mood to be established. He can step onto a lighted set which he has never seen before and predict with astonishing accuracy what kind of scene is about to be photographed.

 

On the industrial side, it is within his power to save or waste a lot of money. A fine cameraman begins his work long before the actual start of his photographic duties. In the case of 'The Little Foxes', for Samuel Goldwyn, my work began six weeks before we shot the first scene. There were long conferences with the producer, with William Wyler, the director, with the architect who designed the sets, with the property man and other artisans. Discussions with the director involved a complete breakdown of the script, scene by scene, with an eye to the photographic approach, considering the various dramatic effects desired. While this advance discussion pertained to the art ingredient, it was also of economic benefit because it meant the saving of much time and money once actual photography began.

We built knock-down miniature models of the most important sets and juggled the walls about for the purpose of fixing upon the best angles, the best places to set up the camera. We took into consideration color values, types of wallpaper or background finishes, the color and styles of costumes to be worn by the principals, the furnishings and investiture. We set the photographic key for various sequences - the light or gay ones, dramatically speaking, in a high key of light, the more somber or moody scenes in a low and more 'contrasty' key.

We determined that Bette Davis, the star, should wear a pure white make-up. This is revolutionary, but it is a potent device in suggesting the kind of character she portrays in the story - a woman waging the eternal conflict with age, trying to cling to her fading beauty. But because of the contrast between her make-up and that of the other principals, we had to discover exactly the balance of light which would illuminate both to advantage. Ascertaining this light balance required extensive make-up tests.

 

Other conferences had to do purely with the economic phase. It was discovered that certain sets could be entirely eliminated because their importance to the dramatic whole did not justify their cost. Time being the costliest item in movie making, a cameraman must consider it his duty to save all the time he can. If he can set up in fifteen minutes instead of a half hour, so much the better.

 

It is obvious that the relationship of the cameraman to his director must be one of complete coordination. The director will have his own ideas about camera angles, but in the final analysis it is the cameraman who must determine whether those ideas are workable and what the results will be. It has been my pleasure to be associated with some of the foremost directors in the industry - Leo McCarey, Mervyn LeRoy, King Vidor, Rouben Mamoulian, Richard Boleslawsky, Sidney Franklin, Howard Hawks, William Wyler, John Ford and Orson Welles. In the production of 'Citizen Kane', Orson Welles functioned in a fourfold capacity - as producer, writer, director and star. His authority to make decisions was virtually unlimited. To cap it all he proved one of the most cooperative artists with whom it has been my privilege to work. He let down all bars on originality of photographic effects and angles and I believe the results have fully justified that policy. Photographing 'Citizen Kane' was indeed the most exciting professional adventure of my career.

 

The cameraman's responsibility does not end with the recording of the final scene of the picture. Personally, I have conformed to the policy of following through until the picture is ready for release. In addition to dissolves and other added camera work, there is the duty of inspecting all laboratory work, checking the first and succeeding answer prints, recommending changes to the laboratory for general improvement in quality, then double-checking on the changes after they have been made. I saw 'Citizen Kane' a total of twenty-seven times in the projection room. But at the end of that twenty-seventh look I was satisfied that the laboratory work was as nearly perfect as possible. I considered it a good investment of time to protect the quality of the work I had put into the photography.

 

Among the qualifications of a good cameraman, I think serious application is of first importance. A cameraman is the hardest worker in a picture set-up. The actors have days off; the director can relax while each scene is being lighted. But the cameraman lines up each and every shot, shoots it when ready, follows through the laboratory processes. He is among the first to arrive on the set every morning, the last to leave the studio at night. Watch him at work and you will find him the one person who is never idle. Others can be seen sitting around at times but never the cameraman. Throughout all preparation for a scene, the entire stage staff is at his disposal. It is not unusual for him to have a crew of forty to fifty various technicians.

 

There is one controversy which will always rage in Hollywood. It concerns the 'star system'. As a cameraman, I have been unable to sidestep that issue. The question has too often been asked, point-blank: What do you think of the star system? This is my answer. Although it is of undeniable economic importance and practically speaking, a virtual necessity, I cannot help but regard it as a dramatic deterrent. Such a system is doomed always to be in conflict with the ideal of perfect realistic effect. The star system predisposes to the theory that the star is the thing, in opposition to the truth that the play's the thing. It often becomes necessary to please the star, to the detriment of the general effect. This is understandable, from the cameraman's viewpoint, when you consider the importance of lighting and angles in securing that effect. The best angle, the most appropriate lighting for the scene, may have to be discarded in favor of the particular angle or light value most flattering to a star or principal. Such photo-flattery often means the subjugation of realism to personality.

 

The perfect vehicle, to the cameraman's way of thinking, is the picture in which story and dramatic values are uppermost and the players are regarded in their true category, i.e., as characters in the play rather than motion picture personalities. It was this theory, so astutely adhered to in some of the continental importations such as 'Pépé le Moko', 'La femme du boulanger/The Baker's Wife' and others of that ilk, which made those pictures classic examples of the potentialities of camera effectiveness.

 

New developments in the science of motion picture photography are not abundant at this advanced stage of the game but periodically one is perfected to make this a greater art. Of these I am in an excellent position to discuss what is termed 'pan-focus', as I have been active for two years in its development and used it for the first time in 'Citizen Kane'. Through its use, it is possible to photograph action from a range of eighteen inches from the camera lens to over two hundred feet away, with extreme foreground and background figures and action both recorded in sharp relief. Hitherto, the camera had to be focused either for a close or a distant shot, all efforts to encompass both at the same time resulting in one or the other being out of focus. This handicap necessitated the breaking up of a scene into long and short angles, with much consequent loss of realism. With pan-focus, the camera, like the human eye, sees an entire panorama at once, with everything clear and lifelike.

 

Pan-focus was only possible after the development of speedy new film, enabling the cameraman to stop down his lens to the small aperture required for sharp focus. With the slow sensitivity characteristic of the film of a few years ago, this would have been impossible as not enough light could have gotten through such a small aperture to expose the film properly. Today, we get as much value out of fifty candlepower light as we once would have obtained from two hundred candlepower, so sensitive is the modern speed film.

 

Any list of the most important photographic developments since the beginning of the industry should include the following items:

1. High speed film.

2. More efficient lighting units made possible by the more sensitive film, which requires less light.

3. The light meter, an amazingly efficient little instrument which, held to the light, indicates by gauge the exact amount of light on a set. The use of this meter eliminates all guesswork, enabling the cameraman to set his basic light key and maintain that key throughout a sequence, thus doing away with light jumps in the assembled picture.

4. Mechanization of equipment. The perfection of booms, dollies and other devices which allow perfect flexibility of movement to the camera. These contrivances, so delicately balanced they can be moved with the pressure of a finger, are marvels of efficiency and virtually give wings to the previously earthbound camera.

 

And what of the future?

I freely predict some form of third dimension photography within five years. A number of systems are now in experimental stages.

Television is arriving but I believe it will not come into general use for some time. When it does, it will not prove a menace to the motion picture industry for the simple reason that motion picture film is the best medium for televising.

 

Color will continue to be improved but will never be a hundred per cent successful. Nor will it ever entirely replace black and white film because of the inflexibility of light in color photography and the consequent sacrifice of dramatic contrasts. Anything done in the gay, high-key light which color photography necessitates for its existence [such as musical comedies] will continue to be suitable as a subject for color film. But the low-key, more dramatic use of light seems to me automatically to rule color out in pictures of another type. Paradoxically enough, realism suffers in the color medium. The sky, as reproduced, is many shades deeper than its natural blue. The faces of the characters are usually a straw shade. Three prime colors are now utilized but not enough shades are possible with those three. More basic colors would involve too complex a problem to be economically practicable. In the black and white picture, color is automatically supplied by the imagination of the spectator and the imagination is infallible, always supplying exactly the right shade. That is something physical science will continue to find tough competition.

 

One thing more - the camera itself. Its value, fully equipped, is about $15,000. It has seven lenses of varying focal lengths. In its operation, I use an average of a million feet of film a year. And with sixteen pictures to each foot - that's a lot of pictures! [By Gregg Toland from 'International Photographer', 1941]

 

'What Is a Director of Photography?'

By Charles G. Clarke [1967]

 

 

As some confusion exists about the title director of photography, perhaps a brief summary at this time would be in order.

 

Since the inception of the movies, there have been cameramen. Then, as the peculiar technique of cinema was developed, the cameraman became the cinematographer. As the industry progressed, cinematography took on specialized fields. The cinematographer now devoted more of his talents to composition and lighting and left the mechanics of the camera to members of his staff. Today he directs and supervises the efforts of a large crew of workers, and is known as the director of photography. He selects the composition, sets the exposure, conceives the lighting, and designates the filters or other photographic controls to be employed.

 

One of the great problems of motion picture production is securing stories for the screen. Several hundred productions are turned out annually by the industry, and any author will concur that no such number of new plots exist. The studios are therefore obliged to revamp many of the old reliables, give them new casts and dialogue, a change of locale, and depend heavily on new photographic treatment. This continual search for a new photographic approach is one of the most exciting aspects of the industry. That the director of photography will contribute his share is taken for granted in Hollywood. Every production attempts to be different from another, and each presents a challenge for a new photographic approach. The director and cinematographer work as a team, and exchange suggestions about the lighting and staging of scenes. Whenever possible, the style of lighting is varied from sequence to sequence so as to add interest and impact to the photographic effects.

 

At all times must the players be photographed to their best advantage. The studios have made tremendous investments in building their stars. Every effort is expended to display them most ideally. As no retouching is possible on movie film, our stars must be very carefully lit so that they appear their most glamorous. The science of lighting is therefore highly developed among the directors of photography, and is an art that is constantly being refined.

 

We strive to obtain photographic interest combined with a sense of reality, yet being on guard that the photography never detract nor overpower the story being unfolded upon the screen.

 

The economics of motion picture production invariably fall on the director of photography. He is expected to utilize more tricks and lighting devices to cover lack of actual construction, yet create the illusion that such construction exists. More and more of our scenes call for process photography, whereby a still or motion picture is projected from the rear on a translucent screen. To effect a composite scene realistically, ingenious lighting must be devised to illuminate the subject naturally, yet keep the screen in darkness.

 

In recent years, there has been an increasing tendency to utilize natural interiors for motion picture settings. Many of our current productions transpire in some courthouse, private home, or public building. This has given our productions a sense of authenticity, but in doing so it has presented new problems to the cinematographer. To light such interiors and the players therein to the standards expected of us is a challenge. To meet with these conditions, huge filters often need to be placed over windows and doors to balance exterior light with that available inside. As lights can seldom be placed overhead, horizontal sources must be employed. Reflections from glass, marble and other shining surfaces add to the complications of natural reproduction.

 

As action is the motivating force of the cinema, the majority of our scenes today require the mobile camera technique. Our cranes, dollies and camera mounts are wonders of engineering and construction. Few realize, however, the difficulties of lighting these moving shots. The actors must be well-photographed under all conditions, yet there can be no shadows from these traveling monsters.

 

The ever-present microphone constantly hovering close overhead, darting here and there as the actors speak, creates a shadow problem of no mean proportion. To cope with the microphone situation in sound films, a whole new lighting technique had to be devised.

 

Our sets are broken up with light patterns that stay clear of the microphone. We use dimmers for incandescent lamps and shutters for arc lights to bring their illumination into play where needed. The sound blimp encasing the camera is a bulk in itself that is an obstacle to lighting. and in moving shots it is a shadow-maker. Thus, many moving scenes cannot entirely be pre-lit because of shadows cast by the equipment. Until the precise moment shadows are clear, offending lights remain out. They are then brought on, and dimmed out after they have fulfilled their use.

 

With color taking over more and more as the preferred photographic medium for both theatrical and television filming, the role of the director of photography has become even more important. He has had to adapt his camera techniques and lighting methods to keep abreast of the requirements of production in color on an industry-wide scale. He is being aided, of course, by the development of faster and better color emulsions, advanced laboratory processes and innovations in camera, lens and lighting equipment. But in the end, it is his own individual creativity that is the most important determinant of the artistic result.

 

The technology of motion picture production is undergoing a dramatic revolution as new and more efficient tools of the cinematographer's trade are being developed. He has the responsibility, not only to the film industry, but to his own integrity as a camera artist, to keep pace with these innovations so that he may use them to photograph motion pictures as artistically and economically as possible.

 

Indeed, the modern director of photography is in the very vanguard of the research and development from which this new technology is evolving. He assists in new technical development by suggesting improvements and by testing new materials before they become commercially available. We invite cooperation from all sources that will enhance that miracle of the modern age - motion picture photography. [From an article by Charles G. Clarke, ASC in 'American Cinematographer', May 1967.]