Look at any garden-variety piece of multiplex fodder these days and you’re likely to be faced with the visual equivalent of Muzak — an undistinguished mish-mash of blobby close-ups of people talking, sometimes filmed on cheap-looking digital video or, at best, in the bland, dimensionless tones of a TV soap opera. But it’s still possible to see cinematography being deployed with care and feeling, especially in films by writer-directors with defined artistic signatures.
Fans of Terrence Malick’s summertime head-scratcher “The Tree of Life” immediately recognized the filmmaker’s signature honey-dipped hues, even as his director of photography, the great Emmanuel Lubezki, introduced a new sense of spontaneity with swift, hand-held camera work.
And Woody Allen aficionados surely saw something familiar in the coppery light that suffuses the romantic comedy “Midnight in Paris.” At a news conference following the film’s debut at Cannes in May, Allen said that his visual approach always tends toward soft and autumnal.
“The requirement . . .for all my cinematographers is that the photography has to be very, very warm,” he said. “All the exposures have to be on the brown, red and yellow side, not on the blue side. . . . To me, it has enormous meaning, just like the rain in Paris has meaning and maybe to nobody else.”
To achieve the kind of glow that Allen is going for, a cinematographer may have to enhance the film photochemically after it’s shot. But in some cases, the precise effect can be achieved with something as simple as a particular piece of equipment.
For her film “Somewhere,” director Sofia Coppola told cinematographer Harris Savides that she wanted “to have a natural feeling,” Savides recalled recently, “with a simple structure — [a] no close-ups, no wide-shots-then-cut-to-a-closer-shot narrative structure.”
Coppola had found some camera lenses once used by her father, Francis Ford Coppola, which Savides used on “Somewhere” to create a filmy, hazy look that recalled movies of the 1970s. Noting that lens manufacturers today coat their products to reduce flare and deliver a sharper, more vivid, “contrastier” look, Savides said that the old lenses “released a little veiling,” or lens glare. “It’s very subtle, but you would notice if I showed you and went back and forth with the images.”