Cinematography Theory and Practice:
Image Making for Cinematographers, Directors and Videographers

by Blain Brown

Focal Press, 303 pp.
ISBN 0-240-80500-3

Los Angeles-based cinematographer Blain Brown has shot feature films, commercials, music videos and documentaries, and Cinematography Theory and Practice is his third book (following Motion Picture and Video Lighting and The Filmmaker’s Pocket Reference). His new book is a gorgeous piece of work that bids to become a classic text on cinematography. Full-color art and photography are featured throughout to illustrate the ideas under discussion.

Few books on cinematography meld aesthetics and pragmatics as deftly as this one. The Greek roots of the word cinematography, Brown writes in his introduction, mean "writing with motion." He continues, "At the heart of it, filmmaking is shooting, but cinematography is more than the mere act of photography. It is the process of taking ideas, words, actions, emotional subtext, tone and all other forms of non-verbal communication and rendering them in visual terms."

Brown stresses the symbiosis between the cinematographer and the director. At the heart of the collaboration, he notes, is "storytelling with the camera." With the exception of two sections on motion-picture film emulsions and laboratory practices, the information Brown imparts is universal to any form of shooting, whether it’s film or digital.

"Cinema is a language," writes Brown, "and within it are specific vocabularies and sub-languages of the lens, composition, visual design, lighting, image control, continuity, movement and point of view. Learning these languages and vocabularies is a never-ending and fascinating life-long study. As with any language, you can use it to compose clear and informative prose or to create visual poetry."

With chapters on exposure, color control, optics and lighting tools, this book offers plenty of technical information. Closing chapters on set operations, professional formats and "technical issues" provide numerous practical guidelines for production.

Where Brown really shines is with his analysis of the cinematographer’s art. To illustrate his concepts, Brown uses frames from films by Stanley Kubrick, Orson Welles and Akira Kurosawa. "This may seem to be an endorsement of a formalist and highly stylized type of filmmaking," he observes, "but the primary reason so many of the illustrations are drawn from their films is more instructional: not only do they serve as excellent examples of framing, composition, use of lens, blocking and color, but more importantly you know that nothing in the frame is an accident – it is easier to follow the choices that they made in order to serve the story."

Bridging film theory and practical scene-building, Brown rockets into his subject with a first chapter on "Filmspace." He explains that many subjective and manifold decisions are necessary in filmmaking. "Let’s give it a name, this method of separating the three-dimensional reality into pieces and showing them to the audience in an arranged order," he writes. "Let’s call it filmspace."

Though Brown’s concepts are complex, he explains them very simply, and the illustrations incorporating film frames, computer-generated schematics and diagrams make them come alive. The second chapter, "Visual Language," draws on the cinematography of John Alton, ASC and Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC with images from The Big Combo and The Conformist.

Particularly fine is the chapter "Lighting and Storytelling," which encompasses classic painting by Caravaggio, the origins of motion-picture lighting, film noir, and light as a visual metaphor. There is an in-depth discussion of Caleb Deschanel, ASC’s lighting for The Natural, which, Brown writes, "uses light as a metaphor and as storytelling perhaps better than any other [film] of the modern era." Frames from the film clearly illustrate his point. "Filmmakers who take a rejectionist attitude toward lighting are depriving themselves of one of the most important, subtle and powerful tools of visual storytelling," Brown observes. "Those who reject lighting are often those who least understand its usefulness and eloquence as a cinematic tool."

– Ray Zone

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© 2003 American Cinematographer.