Imagery In Cinema as a Concentrated History Of Painting

Article by Yuri Neyman, ASC

We live in an unusual situation that has not been seen before - a visual environment and matchless marketplace where the traditional, “classical” pictorial styles must compete with newly formed styles created in the era of iPhone, Instagram and Videogames.

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“Gone With The Wind” (1939) Dir: Victor Fleming
Cinematographer Ernest Haller, ASC

“Moonrise over the Sea” (1822) Caspar David Friedrich

Among the younger generations (X, Y, Z etc) new vision and visual ideas are taking superiority over proven and more traditional approaches and experiences. Our industry does a lot to upgrade the technical skill of cinematographers, but isn’t it time to give the cinematographer profession new tools for survival, in order to avoid the fate of already gone or disappearing professions like photographers etc (check the list on google).

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“A Trip to the Moon” (1902) Dir: Georges Méliès DP: Théophile Michault
& Lucie

"Lamentation of Christ” (1305) Giotto di Bondone

In many areas of the industry, retraining and upgrading technical skills is a very valuable and sometimes the only option to stay in competition. But today, to upgrade only technical skills is not nearly enough.
It is time to give to the cinematographer profession new aesthetic tools for survival!
For many years the cinematographer’s contribution to film and film language was often overlooked. Neglect of cinematographers is due to lack of understanding how the cinematography works and what it specifically contributes to the film, beside the mention of the "beautiful landscapes" and "handsome portraits”.
There are almost unchartered, murky and dangerous waters of the "artistic” side of our profession. While many books are written about cinematography, very few dealt with aesthetic specifics. Authors were forced to describe cinematography at worst in terms of content and plot, and at best in the terms borrowed from traditional visual art and painting.

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 “Workers Leaving The Lumière Factory in Lyon” (1895) Dir: Louis Lumière
DP: Louis Lumière
 “The repentant Magdalen” (c. 1635-1640) Georges de La Tour

The most essential part of cinematography, the visual communication in time in the imitation of 3D space is completely neglected. And this is not surprising, if we will look at cinematography as a traditional form of aesthetic activities.
As we all know the art of cinema itself comes into existence as result of the synthesis of previously existing arts and creates its own image and concept based on aesthetic qualities of its own structural parts such as drama, acting, music, camera, sound, etc.
Each of these active participants in the creation process, including the cinematographer, use their own methods of working. But all these methods and means of creation and its results have a few specific things in common:
1) They are only a part of the whole film concept;
2) They have originated and been adopted from other, more traditional kinds of aesthetic activities which have been applied specifically to the art of filmmaking and its particular concept in given film;
3) They all use means of mass production and depend on technology for manufacturing and distribution.

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 “The repentant Magdalen” (c. 1635-1640) Georges de La Tour  “Barry Lyndon” (1975) Dir: Stanley Kubrick DP: John Alcott, BSC

Film creates its own time and space. For us, cinematographers and image-makers, it is important to remember that cinema is first of all a spacial art. The space in the frame is our main form of expression. By interpretation of space via creating a 3D illusion on a 2D screen, we are transmitting our visual and aesthetic message through light, color, movement of the camera etc.
We all know that in different times the same images emit different emotion, allusions and symbols. It is all depends, on the individual viewer’s aesthetic and general experience, from the complicated interwoven factors of the common and cultural trends in the society.
Studies of imagery created with help of the new artistic and technical tool, Virtual Cinematography, and its application in Video games and in other forms of Interactive entertainment just underlined our point.
It is not a difficult to see that there are similarities in the development of perception of visual forms and space in painting and in the cinema.
We can say that cinema is a condensed history of painting, repetitiously following the stages in development of the sense of space and form in the traditional painting.
If we will look at the paintings of Gotto, Ucello and other masters of Quattrocetto and Italian Renaissance and compare it with frames from Melies and Lumiere films we will see a striking similarities. The space has a three dimensions, and limited by height and width of the frame, and in the depth by enclosed background. The space is only the background for action and does not have any artistic value. The same way actors in these films and personages in the painting stand facing spectators. Many scenes from "Intolerance” and "Alexander Nevsky" are motivated by Paolo Ucello.

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 “Alexander Nevsky” (1938) Dir: Sergei Eisenstein DP: Eduard Tisse  “The Battle of San Romano” (1438-1440) Paolo Uccello

The classical and romantic schools of oil painting master the space, make it freer, less "theatrical" and more subordinate to rigid rules of prospective. And if we will look again from this point of view on the films of thepeak of the age silent films and "Golden Age of Hollywood" we will find very strong following and adoption of aesthetics of the classical and romantic painting in films of 1930-40. Especially I want to note the amazingly cinematic style of lighting in the paintings of George De La Tour.

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 L'Absinthe” (1875) Edgar Degas
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 "Skid" (1960) Dir: Zbynek Brynych DP: Jan Kalis
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 "...and the Fifth Horseman Is Fear" (1965) Dir: Zbynek Brynych DP: Jan Kalis

When Impressionists started to break the classical perspective and the space in their paintings ceased to have shape and depth. The unusual prospective and point of view appeared. If we look at the painting of Dega "Absent", it is hard not to notice cinematic framing and composition.

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 “Place Pigalle at Night” (c. 1905 - 1908) Pierre Bonnard

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 “Blade Runner” (1982) Dir: Ridley Scott DP: Jordan Cronenweth, ASC

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 "Citizen Kane” (1941) Dir: Orson Welles DP: Gregg Toland, ASC

In one of the painting of Pierre Bonnard "Place Pigalle at Night" (c. 1905 - 1908) we can see deep focus composition that became a sign of a film shot by Orson Welles & Gregg Toland and many others. In film history it is also a period of "freedom" of camera, unusual angles and complicated travelling shots, and visual style of Caligary, Metropolis and The Last Man.

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 “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1920) Dir: Robert Wiene DP: Willy Hameister  “Metropolis” (1927) Dir: Fritz Lang DP: Karl Freund, ASC

With the appearance of cubists and later abstract expressionists traditional space in painting became a two-dimensional. And use of tele-photo lenses not as magnifying glass, but as tool for condescension of a space, so effectively used in French and Italian films in the 60s and especially in film of Pontecorvo “Battle for Algeria” and “Cranes Are Flying” just confirms again the spiral-like relationship between paintings and film.
But if painting until 1960s was the only source of adoption, the trends in photography and especially in advertising photography and computerized animation made themselves adoptable for cinematic Moloch. And on another turn of spiral the films of "film-noir" style, adopted from the German expressionists school, became another source of transfigurations.
I don't know whether this posting will sound as an elementary or quite opposite, too complicated, but in either situation it seems to me necessary for cinematographers to start to think about place of our profession at the present and to try to look in the tomorrow, with feeling of the history and with some kind of systematic approach.

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It will be wrong to establish some kind of rules, especially when all existence of cinematography went among technical experiments and aesthetic breakthroughs.
The evolution of our profession continues under influence of the three main factors:
Technical - the new developments in optics, chemistry, electronics, etc. determine the aesthetic progress. Wide angle lenses permitted to design the deep focus scenes; the new film technology opened for us a natural light; electronics helped to create Steadicam, progress in computer’s software and hardware technologies facilitated creation virtual cinematography and sophisticated optics.
Social - in the way of demands of public seeing or being pressed to see certain genres and types of cinema and interactive entertainment productions.
Aesthetic - the necessary factor which is destined to be under control of cinematographers, because only by keeping alive the urge of invention of new means of expression and visual communication we can prevent to be replaced by computers, robots and AI cinematographers.
We are now in the beginning of the next stage of our professional evolution, let's do not miss the chance.

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