motion picture photography

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

motion picture photography

motion picture photography or cinematography, photographic arts and techniques involved in making motion pictures.

See also photography, still.

The Camera

The motion picture camera (see under camera) was developed from simple multi-image devices that, when spun or flipped, displayed the parts of a continuous movement, which, combined with the ocular principle of persistence of vision, produces the illusion of movement. The camera takes a series of photographs on negative film; when the positive is moved through a projector at a speed consistent with that of the camera, they throw a realistically perceived moving image on a wall or screen.

Film Editing

In the first decade of filmmaking, pioneers Georges Méliès and Edwin S. Porter found that the effect of motion could be warped, shooting the film at a slower speed than it was projected to produce a speeded-up image (and vice versa) which could be used for comical or fantastical purposes. Porter and especially D. W. Griffith discovered that cutting, or editing, strips of films did not destroy the viewer's ability to comprehend the flow of images.

Griffith developed the use of the close-up, a full view of a detail within the larger image, often a hand, face, or object, the audience retaining the context of the scene into which the close-up was cut. With this method, Griffith was able to bind the audience closer to the characters on the screen, intensifying emotional involvement with the story. Griffith also experimented with cutting scenes widely separated in space but meant to communicate a temporal simultaneity. Thus, in The Lonesdale Operator (1909), when the heroine is menaced by the villain, Griffith could cut to her approaching rescuers and through ever-shorter alternations between the two actions could imply that the rescuers were coming closer until, finally, the two converge in the same frame and the heroine is rescued. Griffith's use of editing became extremely sophisticated, but was a largely intuitive process.

The initial codification of editing possibilities and the theory and application of it for aesthetic purposes began in the Soviet Union in the 1920s. Montage, the cutting of images so that meaning could be generated from their juxtaposition, was devised by Sergei M. Eisenstein and demonstrated with unusual power in the scene depicting the slaughter of civilians by Russian troops on the Odessa steps in the classic film The Battleship Potemkin (1925). In this scene, hundreds of shots, some on screen for no longer than a second or two, communicate an overwhelming sense of violence and terror while depicting no direct violence in any one image. Filmmakers in general incorporated editing as one element of a total work rather than the determining element of the work itself.

Early Cinematography

Cinematography is the act of lighting and photographing the images. Its history includes aesthetic elements, such as the way a set or location may be lighted to bolster the drama. Also important are technological elements, which broaden the expressive capacity of the image and even affect the environment of the film-watching experience, for example, the variety of framing options offered by masking the screen or, later, through methods intended to increase the medium's panoramic possibilities.

Striking work on this level was done in Germany during the 1920s, as filmmakers worked to bring expressionism, then a movement in drama and painting, to their medium. Fritz Lang and F. W. Murnau tried through manipulation of the image to portray the psychic and emotional states of their films' characters. Through an increased attention to the meanings that could be generated through sculpting the individual images with light and particularly darkness, they evolved a highly subjective film style in which these elements were combined to reflect the mental state of the characters. This sort of subjectivity is particularly vivid in Murnau's The Last Laugh (1924), in which the tribulations of a hotel doorman who faces a series of humiliations is so vividly expressed through the photographic treatment that no titles (intercut written texts) were necessary to explain the narrative.


From 1927, the addition of the soundtrack to film posed the problem of incorporating sound into the visual repertoire of the silents. The first feature with dialogue, The Jazz Singer (1927), used a film and phonograph method that allowed for camera mobility but was difficult to synchronize. It was soon displaced by a method in which sound and image were recorded together and projected on a single piece of film.

Directors such as René Clair and Rouben Mamoulian were pioneers in the effort to use sound creatively and in conjunction with the image, but most films simply recorded dialogue to accompany static images, as early sound recording methods required that the camera be encumbered within a soundproof booth. As the technological difficulties of sound recording receded, the image regained its prominence and the stalled work begun in the twenties went forward.

Sound and Cinematography: Citizen Kane

Orson Welles's Citizen Kane (1941) is a compendium of photographic techniques combined with a creative use of sound. Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland developed or enhanced techniques for allowing the drama to develop on multiple planes of vision and sound. Deep focus photography, which Toland had used in more limited fashion in earlier films, allowed actors and objects to remain in focus whatever their distance from the camera. Using this method, multiple actions could be staged within a single frame and remain comprehensible, allowing for complex interactions between foreground and background.

The soundtrack followed suit. Welles created a complex soundtrack that merged multiple dialogues, sometimes spoken simultaneously, and music into a comprehensible whole. Toland also developed ways to light sets so that it was no longer necessary to avoid extreme low-angle shots for fear of exposing the lamps; the effect of allowing different, often extreme, camera angles was to intensify the meaning of a given shot or scene.


While sound was rapidly merged with the image, color proved more difficult. Many early films were hand-painted, and various mechanical methods of suggesting color were developed. But the technology necessary to reproduce color comparable to that perceived by the eye only developed during the 1920s and attained a full palette in 1933 with the introduction of three-color Technicolor. Ironically, by this time, black-and-white was assumed to represent "reality" on screen and color was first used primarily in musicals, fantasies, and large-scale spectacles. Color replaced black-and-white as the dominant medium during the late 1950s, perhaps because it could be marketed as an alternative to black-and-white television.

Wide-Screen and Other Processes

The studios responded to television, and its rapid siphoning of the movie audience, with a battery of technical "advances," many of them modernized versions of processes developed two to three decades earlier. Three techniques were introduced that employed panoramic framing, which met with varying degrees of success. The standard film aspect ratio had been 1.33:1, nearly square. In 1953, Twentieth Century-Fox studio initiated CinemaScope, with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. CinemaScope is an anamorphic process, using a lens while filming which squeezes a wide image onto a standard-sized frame of film; the image is unsqueezed via a complementary lens on the projector. A competing system, VistaVision, has a ratio of 1.85:1, accomplished by turning the film strip 45 degrees and photographing and projecting the film horizontally. These aspect ratios became the industry standard.

A third process, Cinerama, used three cameras to photograph a scene and three projectors that showed the image on a curved screen. The intention was to duplicate peripheral vision and thus trick the mind into generating a realistic three-dimensional image. Artistically, Cinerama reached its apex with 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), in which director Stanley Kubrick used the format to convey the enormousness of outer space. Expensive and cumbersome, the format was retired in 1973.

Also during the 1950s, 3-D, which reproduced depth perception through the use of glasses that merged split images, proved unworkable and headache inducing. In the early 1990s a much more sophisticated 3-D technique, IMAX, was introduced. Requiring a headset equipped with infrared sensors, liquid crystal lenses, and stereo speakers, its effects are remarkably lifelike. It uses images produced by two spools of synchronized film whose frames are more than ten times the size of conventional 35-mm images. It was uncertain whether or not the process would prove viable for large-scale production and acceptable to large audiences. IMAX in a non-3-D version, which does not require a headset, in a high definition (HD) format, also came into wide usage in the early 1990s. Shot with a bulky and complex camera, it produces images about 10 times larger and with 10 times greater resolution than that produced by a standard 35-mm print. The depth and sharpness of these images are thought to be the highest quality ever produced for the motion picture. At first, IMAX was primarily used to shoot short science documentaries dealing with outer space, undersea life, and other such subjects. These continue to be popular features and are usually shown in special IMAX theaters with huge screens, many of them located in theme parks. In the 2000s, Hollywood directors began using sections of IMAX images in their feature films.

Prominent Cinematographers

Cinematography developed as a separate craft very early in film history; the first prominent cinematographer was Billy Bitzer, who worked on Griffith's films. The best cinematographers develop styles that carry over to the films of the many directors with whom they work. Occasionally, a collaboration between a director and cinematographer will produce a series of films of unusually consistent photographic quality. The foremost American cameramen from the first half of the 20th cent. include Gregg Toland (Wuthering Heights, The Grapes of Wrath, Citizen Kane), Charles Rosher (Sunrise, The Yearling), James Wong Howe (The Thin Man, The Rose Tattoo, Picnic, Hud), Lee Garmes (Morocco, Shanghai Express, Duel in the Sun), and Karl Freund (The Last Laugh, Metropolis, Camille).

The French directors of the "new wave" of the 1960s, including Alain Resnais, Louis Malle, François Truffaut, and Jean-Luc Godard, revolutionized photographic technique by using newly invented smaller cameras and faster film stocks requiring less deliberate lighting techniques. These films feature a rawer style, more usually associated with documentary, that attempts to present an unmediated naturalistic narrative. The basic methodology was carried back into a documentary movement loosely grouped under the cinéma vérité rubric. Hollywood filmmakers adapted these methods, but continued to strive for a photographically "perfect" environment, in which the audience is never made aware of the mechanics of producing a movie.

Some prominent cinematographers of the last 20 years include Sven Nykvist (Persona and virtually every film directed by Ingmar Bergman after 1960), Gordon Willis (The Godfather, Annie Hall), Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, The Sheltering Sky), Vilmos Zsigmond (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, McCabe and Mrs. Miller) and Nestor Almendros (The Story of Adele H., Places in the Heart).


See S. M. Eisenstein, Film Form and Film Sense (tr. 1949, repr. separately 1969) and Notes of a Film Director (rev. ed. tr. 1970); H. M. Geduld, ed., Film Makers on Film Making (1967); R. L. Bare, The Film Director: A Practical Guide to Motion Picture and Television Techniques (1971).

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