Elements of film
Photography in film through time
The use of Photography in the production of film has changed greatly through the course of time as both technology and taste have evolved. As you will see from this paper the use of photography in film began very simply, using rudimentary techniques and effects. Then changed as the medium moved from a novelty to a form culture and art using more sophisticated and creative techniques. Finally ending where it is today as a product of commerce where the use of photography is greatly varied and highly complex in an attempt to please the audience.
Before we begin though we must consider what exactly photography means to film? According to the dictionary photography is the process or art of producing images of objects on sensitized surfaces by the chemical action of light or of other forms of radiant energy. Certainly this is a formal and precise technical definition of what photography is. However Robert Hughes, the famous art critic, may have summed up the purpose of photography when he said, “People inscribe their histories, beliefs, attitudes, desires and dreams in the images they make.” With these varying definitions in mind let us take a look at the history of photography in cinema and see if we cannot determine for ourselves what photographs in movies mean.
When films first came about, under the direction of the lumière brothers (Auguste and Louis), the role of the cinematographer, the person who is in charge of directing the camera, didn’t exist. For example the film Arrival of a train at La Ciotat (1895)(6) took an entire crew of one to shoot, a number which today is absolutely unprecedented for a professional film. This is a result of the fact that in the early years of film, the medium was considered a novelty, something fit for a county fair rather than an a complex artistic expression worthy of a theater. Indeed rather than being shown in theaters, early movies were only shown in “Nickelodeons,” (1.) the original indoor spaces dedicated to motion pictures, so called because it cost a mere nickel to make the machine run. During these original vaudeville stages, little thought was given to the art of photography occurring in movies. Primarily a function of acting, cinematographers, were given little to no recognition at all. It is difficult to say when this first stage ended. Nickelodeons had dropped out of style by about 1915 and yet Charlie Chaplin made well liked movies into the 1930’s and his cinematographer, Rollie Totherho, did little besides set up the camera.
Either way eventually movies moved from a novelty to a form of culture and art in the American psyche. During this period the use of technology in film expanded greatly. Cameras became more lightweight, portable, and sensitive. Allowing for an expanded array of angles and lighting to be available to cinematographers and directors. For example the cinematographer William Daniels had a prestigious reputation with MGM (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) studios as “Greta Garbo’s cameraman” because of his ability to glamorously portray main actresses with extra lighting, something novelty cinema rarely did. However this period was one of artistry not simply aesthetics, William Daniels also shot the harshly realistic Greed (1924)(2) and Naked City (1948)(3). Indeed the nineteen forties and early fifties was the age of film noir, a time when the American taste in movies craved a high contrast between black and white, with harshly realistic portrayals of urban life and many of the traditionally juxtapositional methods practiced by Russian filmmakers. Cinematographers during this time first became an essential part of the film production crew and formed into the American Society of Cinematographers (A.S.C.) in 1911 earning full recognition as part of an elite society of artists. This age too would fade as many companies began to see movies as a route to profit rather than simply art, when this happened though is difficult to say. Both the first color film and America’s best-selling film of all time came out in 1939, but the Academy still gave out black and white cinematography awards until 1966.
This final and most modern phase saw leaps in technology and a development of niche markets for films. In the 1950’s as personal home televisions became popular, movie companies began to develop gimmicks to try and draw in audiences. Some of these gimmicks included Smell-o-vision in which theater managers would, on cue, waft smells into the movie theater. Ultimately these gimmicks failed; however they helped the movie and cinematography industry realize that in order to remain a viable enterprise they would need to begin making movies targeted at specific audiences rather than the populace at large. Even today we can see examples of this in movies like Riding Giants (2004)(4) and Gum for my Boat (2009) which are films geared solely toward people fascinated by surfing. Technology has also expanded by leaps and bounds within this last phase. Though many new stocks and lenses came into viable use for Cinematographers in the film industry, perhaps the biggest technological leap was the computer. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s directors for the first time began to insert computer generated animations into films. This slowly grew more and more common in the late 20th century until the 1990’s with the culmination of PIXAR animation studios, a film company which makes solely computer generated animations of astoundingly high quality. Cinematography of today is still a very highly respected art form. That said film has also evolved into a form of commerce which has made the cinematographer of today more like a business man than his counterpart form the second phase of movie history. For example Mauro Fiore won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography at the 82nd Academy Awards because of his work on the world’s highest grossing movie ever produced, Avatar (2009), despite the fact he worked on less than 30% of the film.
The use of photography in film then is something which has always undergone change, be that for the better or worse. From a simple single person production for a novelty Nickelodeon in the early days of movies, cinematography became a complex, intricate and valid form of art. Before evolving one last time into something which is also a business. That then may say something about what photography means to film, without it a film would be nothing but sound in a theater, yet with it the whole film becomes intricate, complex and capable of invoking emotion and meaning within people.
1.) A nickelodeon -- Toronto, Canada, 1910
1.) A nickelodeon -- Toronto, Canada, 1910