Thursday, August 15, 2013

Cinematographer's Journey

Idea of Seeing the World through the Frame

We see the world, continuously, through our eyes. Gradually the objects blur themselves out as they reach the border of our area of vision. If I move my hand slowly around my face and keep looking straight ahead, the hand after a point just vanishes. It goes beyond my field of vision.

Camera sees the world through a frame. The frame does not necessarily get blurred at the edges. Unlike my field of vision, camera frame suddenly cuts the reality off. The departure is sudden, from the screen to the real, dark space in the theatre.

The frame is rectangular. It could have been circular, or oval, or triangular instead. In fact, it could have been any regular or irregular shape. Indeed paintings and early still photographs had such varieties of frames. But, it follows a certain convention so that the projectionist in the dark theatre can reproduce the same standard frame with the standard apparatus. 

Sometimes, however, the cinematographer experiments with the frame in drastic ways and the frame changes its shape and size times and again, even in the same movie.

But, that is just the physical screen space where the cinematographer plays with shapes, forms, colour, lines, patterns, textures, light and shadows. It is like the playing field of football. It determines the play in a very big way, but the game itself can have innumerable rules and size of balls.

One such rule is the choice of the point of view. In literature, we face the choice of persons. Many novels like Dickens’ David Copperfiled start with a narration in the third person singular number. As the chapters progress, alteration between first and third persons appear to work. 

In more autobiographical modes, it is always I, the first person singular number. A novel or short story can very surely start like “I was born in Pasadena at the time of the War, when the Rosebowl games halted to non-existence for some time.”

Such a narration takes the reader immediately to a forgotten past that never happened. It speaks about an alternate reality. And the reader’s expectation from the following lines starts from there.

Sometimes, in a training manual or a management book the reader is directly addressed. The narration rotates around You. It builds a non-snapping bridge between the reader and the author.

A movie can address its audience in similar ways. And throughout the same movie, the narrated person can change, putting the spectator face to face with multiple points of view throughout a visual story.

It is the choice of the cinematographer to find out the most suitable camera angle vis-à-vis the characters and properties to tell the story. For that, the cinematographer has to think in terms of images.

Talking of images, it always puts the cinematographer at some emotional crisis. Which character or object in the frame is most important for a particular shot? Does the importance shift from one character to the other in the same shot? Where should the shot end and how?

It also carries the cinematographer to the realm of colours, tones, lines, shapes, patterns and shadows. If there is no difference in tones anywhere in the frame, the frame looks like a white, black or gray surface. If there are varieties of colour, the frame looks more dynamic, but flat in some ways.

A painter creates reality through a play of light and shadows – light and dark tones across the frame. If the play follows nature in some way, the painting looks more realistic.

 A cinematographer starts with real objects. Somewhere down the journey, his objective becomes to tune the external reality of the lit up objects and shadows up to that of the internal. He tries to create psychological spaces by creating external moods, and vice versa.

Cinematographer plays with shadows, and with the movement. It is movement, more than anything else, that attracts eyes in the big theatre screen. Those shadows start living, and the lifeless stones start talking about the past, as in K K Mahajan’s Khandhar (Directed by Mrinal Sen, 1984.) 

We get a massive feel of the ruins. We become enchanted. We want to pull back from the powerful oblivion before we lose. But it is always too late. Without talking much about the relationship, just by taking us to the external space and its lonely, august feel, the cinematographer creates a fearful emotion of nostalgia and waiting in our mind.

Vittorio Storaro did the same in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 movie Apocalypse Now. Such movies change life. They put us immovably before the question ‘Who am I?”

In that way, a cinematographer is a very powerful visual psychologist. All films talk about our lives only - our mundane lives, aspirations, failures and fears. That way they are quite akin to dreams. However, unlike the fragmented mindscapes which dreams manifest, movies are well-knit. They tell a story up to an end.

Cinema is an art which comes out like a sculpture, but in time. The cinematographer mercilessly shapes it up, cutting unnecessary spaces and movements. Cinematic movements are not the same as natural ones. Here reality is perceived through a frame. And frame does not show everything. It tends to show either too much, or too less.

Cinematographer’s journey involves a walk through the frame. A cinematographer is not one who designs the space well by lighting, or by keeping proper colour and shape stage properties in correct geometric arrangements. A cinematographer is not one who meticulously anatomize the screenplay to see how the frame changes in time with characters passing to and from one layer to another, and how camera moves in synchronization with them.

A cinematographer is all of these and much more. Such things come as building blocks of his repertoire, or as complementary. He is one who can watch the story visually, connecting to each individual moments of emotion and how one emotion leads to another, months before the film is taken to the floor. A cinematographer is a voice to the collectivity of the film crew in that regard.

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