“A cinematographer or director of photography (sometimes shortened to DP or DOP) is the chief over the camera and light crews working on a film, television production or other live action piece and is responsible for making artistic and technical decisions related to the image. The study and practice of this field is referred to as cinematography.”
I have always been attracted by images behind the screen, as far as I remember. From the black and white cathodic TV in the early 1980s in Dakar, Senegal to the Ultra HD 4K Oled TVs of today, I just love the stories being told by the succession of images at 25 frames per second.
In a lot of movies, the DP (Director Of Photography) plays a central role in the visuals of the final movie. More than the quality of each individual picture or each scene, the key to a visually compelling motion picture resides on the 3 fundamental notions below:
- Color and Contrast
- Life in motion
- The 2 grounds
When those 3 elements are mastered correctly throughout the movie, they are like that magic ingredient that adds an extra dimension to the whole story. Of course, if the story is badly written, no amount of visual effects could make it better.
Let’s embark on the journey of exploring the parallel worlds of cinematography and real life, to see how we can be the DP of our own life.
COLOR AND CONTRAST — or the art of adding color and contrasting it with its opposite or complementary color.
In Cinematography — in the early 1900s until the latest 1980s, most motion pictures and TV productions were in black and white. With color, movies, and TV productions made a huge leap into making pictures that are closer to what we can experience in the real world. Color itself is a great asset in a movie. Yet the best movies that I have loved like the Dark Knight Trilogy movies by Christopher Nolan were visually compelling because of the mastery of the color wheel. In the second movie, for example, The Dark Knight, you have Batman as the hero and the joker as the villain. And on the screen -, the contrast in colors makes their differences even more compelling. Batman is always wearing dark colors. The Joker is always wearing a white and red mask and a purple jacket. The clever use of those colors reflects the moods of each character and adds a layer to the story. Contrast is the other side of color. When mastered, contrast adds a new dimension that colors on itself cannot achieve.
In real life — Color in real life can be translated as the energy emitted by people around us. Imagine that each person around you is vibrating at a certain frequency. So like the stars in the universe, that person radiates a unique color, based on their social and cultural backgrounds, their walks of life, their mindset. Often in our life, personal or professional, we tend to surround ourselves with people who radiate the same light like us.
Imagine looking up to the universe, and all the stars are having one single color, without any contrast. That would be a boring sky. Imagine an eclipse and everything is dark, that is a boring life. Now contrast that vision with one of our own universe, where we have billions of colors emitted by billions of stars, it is just mind-blowing.
Often we are monochromatic in our relationships, our friends, our environment and we wonder why we have so much low energy. Diversity in colors is key to add more vivid colors to our life. We must always seek people with different shines, sometimes one that complements us, sometimes one that is opposite to ours and challenges us. Only then we can see the bright side of our life.
LIFE IN MOTION — or the art of motion and movement to create life by using a moving environment.
In Cinematography — One at a time is key to create a moving scene. That is the magic rule for a visually compelling scene in movies. Either character moves in a static environment, or the character is static and the environment is moving. The Star Wars first trilogy movies by George Lucas are examples of that. The space battle scenes with space ships lighting everywhere were supported by a static dark background. Or often when there are some battles in space ships, most of the time, those duels, like the one between Obiwan and Darth Vader, were set in a fixed space. We love Star Wars because there is a lot of motion and emotions involved. Characters are following their arc emotionally and also going through a journey, physically, jumping from one planet to another at the speed of light. Motion is life and life is motion for those characters that we adore.
In real life — Motion is also important in real life. The only people that do not move in our world today are either people in a coma or dead people. Every other human being, to feel alive, needs some kind of motion, be it physical or even mental. Physical motion might sound obvious. Yet often we might be moving physically, yet we are going nowhere. This is the case when we are blocked in our daily routines, our 9 to 5 job, waiting for the weekend, to go consume and be consumed. And then we start over every week 52 times for every year of our life. We are like zombies wandering around, lost in translation. We are stuck in a box, no matter how big. We might think that we are in motion, yet the box is moving nowhere.
We need to add motion, real motion into our lives. We have to get outside of our box, move towards new people, embark on a journey by exploring paths we have never explored before. We have to feel emotions from within. We cannot afford to be just the Walking Dead. Even in the most static places in the world, like the Sahara desert, if you look close enough, you will see a grain of sand floating over the ground, on a journey to find a new Dune to settle in.
Stillness is death, motion is life.
THE 2 GROUNDS — or the art of using the background as an emotional support to the foreground.
In Cinematography — In each scene of a movie, you generally have a character in the foreground. The character is the main focus of the camera, at the centre of our attention. Everything else can be set as the background of the scene, other people, the environment, the stage behind the characters. A great movie, like Dunkirk by Christopher Nolan, uses the background to support the foreground. And this is what makes this movie about World War II more than just another war movie. Nolan uses the background to support the journey of his characters. It can be an aircraft flying in the background while the main focus is on a pilot battling his own life trying to not drown in the wrecked fuselage in the water.
The background should not just be there as a static painting filling the void behind the characters in the foreground. It must be an ally to the characters, supporting their emotions, challenging them, and even contradicting their words. This is what makes Dunkirk a movie above the crowd from the other war movies genre.
In real life — Often we live our life like zombies. We just focus on what we are doing. We tend to forget our surroundings. We are not conscious of our environment. We don’t listen to it. It might be sending us signals that we are not focusing on the right input.
Me, Me, Me, this is the society we are living in right now. All that matters to me is how I can get more for me, how I can shine more than the others, how I can occupy more space than my neighbor. With this mindset, we are blind to our background. By occulting our surroundings, we are getting rid of our common sense. We might succeed, eventually. Yet when we reach that success spot, we might find ourselves isolated, in a desert area, on a remote planet, lost in the ends of the universe, alone.
We might be the main characters in our life. We might think that the camera should only focus on us to succeed. Yet our own existence is defined by the background on which our story is set. Taking the time to understand that background, to get to know it, to make it our ally, is key to having as our emotional support. Because, no matter how rich we are, no matter how famous we are, no matter how successful we are, when we fall, the ground below our feet is the first responder. Our background is our neighbors, our colleagues, our friends, and our family. We should always keep an eye wide open, an ear eager to listen, an open mind ready to receive their feedback.
By adding more contrast to our life, we will bring more vivid colors.
By being in motion, we build a variety of emotions that propels us forward.
By making our background our ally, we intensify the power of our foreground.
Next time you are moved by a movie, you should definitely check out how the DP mastered the art of color and contrast, the art of motion and emotions, the art of bringing the power of the background in support of the foreground in each picture.
Then you will really grasp the importance of being your DP in your own life.
How diverse is your will of colors?
How contrasted is the light in your life?
How blurry is the background of your life?
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You can read my previous article on The 1 magic square that makes you TICK.