Cinematography: The art, science and work
of photography in making films.

We’re surrounded by cinematography. In a YouTube world of instantly accessible mini-movies — as crude as a kitten captured with an iPhone or as refined as the accidental aerial photography of a larcenous seagull — filmed and recorded images are everywhere, ever-proliferating, captured and posted and forwarded at shutter-click speed. In fact, cinematography has become such a ubiquitous and democratized part of common life that’s it’s easy to forget it’s not just the “science and work” of film photography, as Webster’s would have it, but also an art. Happily, “Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff” has arrived to remind us just what an expressive art form cinematography can be. The captivating,

enlightening and thoroughly absorbing documentary, by Scottish filmmaker Craig McCall, chronicles the life of a man whose name may be unfamiliar but whose work as a camera operator and director of photography, through a career that spanned 90 — yes, 90 — years, indelibly shaped the look of modern cinema, even as he pushed its boundaries to their most experimental limits.

Cardiff began life as a child star, the son of British music hall performers. Working his way up from a “clapper boy” on cinema’s earliest films, he finally landed behind the camera, where his love of painting found an outlet on celluloid. In the 1930s, when Technicolor brought dazzling new possibilities to what was once just black and white, the company chose Cardiff to be the first British cameraman trained in using its new cameras. And Cardiff rose to the challenge, working with the directing team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger to push Technicolor’s super-saturated palette (those reds!) to its most expressive, even lurid, extremes.

In “Cameraman,” which McCall filmed before Cardiff’s death in 2009, the cinematographer recalls how he brought Vermeer’s principles of shadow and light and J.M.W. Turner’s control of tonal values to bear on films as diverse as Powell and Pressburger’s “Black Narcissus” and Richard Fleischer’s “The Vikings.” For most filmgoers, Cardiff’s most famous work — which also constitutes the apex of his collaboration with Powell and Pressburger — was the 1948 psychological melodrama “The Red Shoes,” a fever dream of a film in which color, movement, camera effects and vertiginous staging combine to create a by turns beguiling and grotesque portrait of creative obsession.

Says director Martin Scorsese in “Cameraman”: Watching a Jack Cardiff film “was like being bathed in color. It was palpable. The color itself became the emotion of the picture.”

Over the years, with the introduction of lighter cameras and more elastic artistic principles, the heightened emotions and highly pitched color schemes of Cardiff’s Powell and Pressburger films fell out of fashion, giving way to more naturalistic, spontaneous styles. But even without using self-conscious flourishes, Cardiff could still match his visual style to the emotional tone of whatever movie he was filming — including the all-out aggression of “Rambo: First Blood Part II,” on which he served as director of photography.

“The way a movie is photographed creates a mood,” Lauren Bacall says in “Cameraman.” (Cardiff had filmed her husband, Humphrey Bogart, in “The African Queen.”) “So the audience is prepared for the kind of movie it’s going to be.”

Leave it to an actress with her own flawless sense of the camera to sum up brilliantly and succinctly what the art of cinematography is all about. And it’s observations such as Bacall’s and Scorsese’s that makes “Cameraman,” like 1992’s wonderful “Visions of Light” before it, such a lively and engaging primer in an element of filmmaking that perhaps has never been more important — if only because it is being so deeply affected by changing technologies and aesthetic expectations.

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.”

Thanks to the lenses, he said, he was able to get the evocative, naturalistic mood Coppola desired without having to tinker with the image after the fact.

And sometimes, even in the most CGI-heavy special-effects extravaganzas, a mood can be created with something as primitive as light. Matthew Libatique — who was nominated for an Oscar this year for his edgily expressive hand-held camera work on “Black Swan” — also served as director of photography on the “Iron Man” movies, where the challenge was to establish a grounded emotional tone within a comic-book world. With the scripts for both films undergoing revisions until the last minute, he took his cues from the character of Tony Stark.

In “Iron Man,” Libatique said, he wanted to convey a character who starts out being “arrogant, ambivalent and who winds up being captured.” In the film’s early scenes, set in the caves of Afghanistan where Stark has been kidnapped, Libatique used varying temperatures and hues of light “to create an atmosphere of conflict.”

By the time Stark escapes, “everything’s very clean. There’s a lack of disparate color temperature and he’s more in control and back to normal.”

For Libatique, whether he’s working with the intense character studies of Darren Aronofsky or big popcorn movies, the first several minutes are crucial. “If you do your job right, in the first act you convince people they’re in this world,” he said. “Part of the responsibility of a cinematographer is to define an atmosphere, whatever genre it happens to be, and once you make that choice, stick to it from the first frame to the last.”

With “Black Swan,” and previously with “The Wrestler,” Aronofsky favored a “subjective” camera, following his protagonists closely, often from behind, with the camera operator virtually matching them step-for-step. The effect was both intimate and jarring, as viewers came to occupy the same mind-cloud of anxieties and desires. Other directors have similar cinematographic tics: Scorsese and Joe Wright with their signature unbroken tracking shots, Spike Lee filming characters frantically moving through space on a dolly.

Such self-conscious moves can subtly illuminate or enhance the audience’s emotional experience of a film, said veteran cinematographer John Bailey. But they can also be abused.

“Are you constantly aware of the camera being at an angle that makes you aware that there’s a camera there?” he asked. “Are there so many arbitrary camera moves that seem to be calling attention to themselves? . . . A lot of young filmmakers today don’t place it in an overall narrative context. They look at the camera as a device they can throw around anywhere that occurs to them.”

Libatique agreed: “I get annoyed when I see too much technique,” he said. “And people can argue that I’m guilty of it. But I like to think that every technique I’ve used . . . is a partner to the story, and not just Christmas wrapping. I like to think it’s part of the gift.”

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff


(90 minutes), at West End Cinema,
is not rated.