- When Thomas Edison applied for his patent on August 24th, 1891, for his motion picture camera which he called the Kinetograph, there was no thought of its use in mass media as we know it now. In fact, Edison's first display device, which he called the Kinetoscope, could only be viewed by one person at a time. Even though Edison later built a projecting Kinetoscope, he still bought the patent for the Vitascope, invented by Thomas Armat in 1895.
This device is considered to be the first modern motion picture projector, allowing people to view an image as a group. This is historically important because film as a popular medium, didn't take off until the projector helped make it a shared experience. The idea that you can sit down with other people, and watch something together, has shaped filmmaking to this day. Understanding your audience and the story you're trying to tell them, is the most important part of being a cinematographer.
As early filmmaking methods progressed, two opposing filmmaking philosophies developed. One side, wanted to bring the real world into the studio where conditions could be controlled, as Edison did in the first, professional motion picture studio, The Black Maria. The other side began taking the camera out into the real world, as the Lumière brothers did, with their lightweight camera, the Cinématographe. By the way, that camera still works.
That tension still exists today, even as cameras have become smaller and more light-sensitive. With digital technology and computer generating graphics, that pendulum continues to swing back and forth, between the image control offered by the studio and the authenticity of having the real world present, right in front of our cameras. Those cameras continue to change as technology develops. The current digital camera, seems like a brand new innovation but in reality, the ideas behind capturing moving images are not that different than they were in Edison's day.
For example, in-exposure, we want consistency from scene to scene, so we have to use a light meter. When sound was first introduced, we had to sync the picture with the recorded sound. Modern, digital workflows often record picture and audio separately to maintain the highest quality. Filmmakers have always wanted to make sure that the image we see on the set is an accurate rendition of what the audience will see. Early cameras employed a mechanical reflex system, and modern digital cinema cameras use color, calibrated monitors, so that the director and the cinematographer can see exactly what the final image will look like.
Even though, the technology of capturing images today has a lot of similarities to the earliest days of filmmaking, what's really changed is the technology of digital post-manipulation of our images. Computers and software are so powerful and inexpensive, that even low-budget productions have ability to do things that couldn't be imagined back in Edison's day. This change requires that cinematographers see how his images will appear to the audience even though they don't look remotely like that when they're shooting them.
For example, there may be characters who aren't present on the set, the set itself may not even exist. Even though the history of the technology of filmmaking is over a hundred years old, the goal remains what it's always been; to get all that technology out of the way to allow the cinematographer to tell a great story.
Follow along and learn the fundamentals required to shoot a story with a camera. Learn how to plan your production, assemble a crew, choose the right camera and lenses, and make creative choices that best fit the themes, characters, and story of your film. Bill covers the elements of composition, exposure, optics, lighting, and camera movement. Part 2 (coming in November 2016) will show you how to put all these ideas together on set, and deliver the footage to an editor and director for assembly into a complete, coherent, and compelling story.
- Motion picture history
- Preproduction planning
- Working with a crew and actors
- Understanding the story
- Composition in film
- Working with different types of cameras
- Recording, compression, and storage
- Choosing a lens and focal length
- Finding the correct exposure
- Lighting a scene
- Lighting and grip equipment
- Camera movement