A Brief History of Cinematography for Today's Creatives

Great films are group efforts: more than 1000 crew members typically work on a major film in today’s Hollywood. In fact, it’s hard to name another creative endeavor that requires the same kind of  close collaboration on such a grand scale. Yet, at the top of this massive undertaking lies a single partnership — the one between director and cinematographer — that functions as a film’s primary creative engine, often from the earliest stages of story development to the final days of a shoot. The best of these partnerships also reveal much about what it means to collaborate creatively in any commercial field.

To explore this important partnership more fully, we’ve rounded up a survey of the history of cinematography, and included a sampling of the some of the greatest films ever to emerge from the craft. If you are interested in film (or want to learn to work more collaboratively), getting better acquainted with the art, science, and history of cinematography will help guide you to make more productive relationships and more powerful, interesting work.

 Cinematographers work collaboratively with to establish the look and feel of a film.

Cinematographers work collaboratively with to establish the look and feel of a film.

What is Cinematography?

Cinematography refers to the art and craft of capturing images on film (or today, most often as digital files). The cinematographer — whose title has shifted to director of photography in the modern era, or “DP” for short — handles lighting, camera and lens selection, exposure and framing of shots, while  overseeing the work of many supporting crewmembers. The DP is ultimately responsible for the unique look and feel of a film.

They don’t work in a vacuum, however. All of their  creative choices must also fulfill a larger aesthetic vision that is established by the film’s director. That’s why the working relationship between director and DP is crucial to the creative success of a film. Director-DP partnerships come in many forms and typically are unique to the individuals involved. But the nature of that partnership has continually evolved to reflect advances in the art, technology, and business of film  — just as it has in other creative fields.

Inventing the Future

 George Méliès’  A Trip to the Moon  in 1902 was one of the first films to realize the medium’s creative potential ( image source )

George Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon in 1902 was one of the first films to realize the medium’s creative potential (image source)

Film evolved rapidly in the early 20th century from a novelty displayed in penny arcades to a powerful medium evoking strong emotions from audiences. The early years of narrative film were characterized by experimentation and exploration as filmmakers struggled to develop a visual language for storytelling despite severe technical limitations (including the absence of sound before 1929). Brilliant early innovators like Edwin S. Porter (The Great Train Robbery, 1902) and George Méliès (A Trip to the Moon, 1903) were among the first to realize film’s potential but tended to handle most aspects of filmmaking on their own without benefit of full creative collaborators.

It may be no accident that film’s first great leap forward arrived soon after through the medium’s first great creative partnership, between director D. W. Griffith and cinematographer Billy Bitzer. The duo worked together from 1908 to 1924 and made nearly 500 films. They are credited with originating essential film techniques including the close-up, fade-out, soft focus, and backlighting.

Working together on films like and Intolerance and The Birth of a Nation (which rightly inspired a century’s worth of public outrage for its heroic depiction of the Ku Klux Klan) Griffith and Bitzer transformed the new medium into an expressive art form. So symbiotic and complete was their partnership that historians have a hard time separating their individual contributions to their craft, but there’s little argument about the key role of that partnership in the early evolution of film.

The Studio Era

Film entered the studio era (often referred to as the Golden Age of Hollywood) after the addition of sound. Five major studio dominated U.S. film production: Paramount, Warner Bros, RKO, MGM, and 20th Century Fox. Each had its own aesthetic for which it was known and loved: Warner Bros. specialized in gangster movies and introduced tough guys like James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, while RKO served up elegant musicals starring Ginger Rodgers and Fred Astaire.

Directors and DPs working within the studio system were expected to adhere to each studio’s established visual style or risk losing their jobs. Their work had to be of the highest quality without calling attention to itself or distracting audiences from the story. For all its limitations, this approach resulted in countless studio-era masterpieces such as Casablanca and The Wizard of Oz.

 The 1941 release of  Citizen Cane  caused an instant sensation ( image source )

The 1941 release of Citizen Cane caused an instant sensation (image source)

Such tight strictures inevitably lead to earthshaking innovation, exactly the kind that  arrived in 1941 in the form of director Orson Welles’ and DP Gregg Toland’s Citizen Kane. Toland’s experiments with lighting and lenses resulted in the development of deep focus, which created a depth of field that allowed all elements of a complex shot to be seen simultaneously.

This singular breakthrough in Citizen Kane allowed Welles to push storytelling on film into the modern era.It also marked the return of the director-DP creative partnership and a new emphasis on individual artistic expression as the studio era drew to a close.

The Modern Age

The 1950s and 1960s brought an era of big-screen spectacle as Hollywood tried to distinguish itself from the new medium of television. Widespread use of color and new ultra-widescreen formats including CinemaScope and Cinerama inspired the creation of historical epics, which range from mainstream fare like The Ten Commandments to artistic triumphs such as Lawrence of Arabia (see recommended films below). Hollywood’s leading DPs adapted to changing times by mastering new technologies in pursuit of epic grandeur as required by their industry.

One of the greatest shifts in the history of cinematography arrived as part of the New Hollywood era of the late 1960s and early 1970s. A wave of young DPs entered the profession as the old guard retired and union rules were relaxed to allow new memberships. Their timing was perfect, as a wave of visionary young directors had also entered the fray to make mind-blowing, era-defining films.

 Peter O’ Toole in  Lawrence of Arabia,  a grand, historic epic that used new technology to push cinematography to new heights ( image source )

Peter O’ Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, a grand, historic epic that used new technology to push cinematography to new heights (image source)

Together, teams like Martin Scorsese and Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver), Robert Altman and Paul Lohmann (Nashville), Francis Ford Coppola and Gordon Willis (The Godfather), Mike Nichols  and Robert Surtees (The Graduate), and Steven Spielberg and Bill Butler (Jaws) bucked long-held Hollywood restrictions on methodology and film content, defied industry conventions, and found new ways to artistically contribute to the language of film.  The extraordinary work of all these artists (and many others of the time) helped create a new era of independent film that continues to this day.

Cinematography to Watch

Want to see some all-time great DPs in action? Here  are three all-time great films that feature breathtaking cinematography and represent  a real creative bond between director and DP:

Vertigo (1958). Director: Alfred Hitchcock, DP: Robert Burks. Because the great Hitchcock imagined and storyboarded every shot of his films before anyone picked up a camera, it might seem as though there would be little for a DP to bring to the work. But DP Robert Burks used inventive lighting and tracking shots to give the experimental Vertigo a gauzy, dreamlike quality that perfectly suited its tragic tale of romantic obsession. Burks’ technical innovations also included the immortal “Vertigo Shot,” which recreates the heights-induced dizziness of the film’s title.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Director: David Lean, DP: Freddie Young. Featuring what may be the most gorgeous outdoor cinematography ever committed to film, Lawrence of Arabia permanently raised the bar for artistic achievement in a Hollywood epic. DP Freddie Young’s unforgettable desert images lend context and meaning to Lean’s cautionary tale of conflicted British army officer T.E. Lawrence and his personal struggles during World War I.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971). Director: Robert Altman, DP: Vilmos Zsigmond. With McCabe and Mrs. Miller, director Altman sought to deconstruct and demythologize the Hollywood Western. The heroism of cowboys is replaced by the harsh realities of the West’s physical hardships and the coming evils of corporate greed. At Altman’s side was brilliant DP Zsigmond, who provides visual authenticity through deeply muted colors meant to recall the look of an aging antique photograph. The grand vistas of the epic Western are nowhere in sight.

 Cinematography’s technologies will continue to evolve but its core lessons remain the same ( image source )

Cinematography’s technologies will continue to evolve but its core lessons remain the same (image source)

As with so many creative fields, new technologies have greatly expanded today’s cinematographers’ toolkits - and blown open the possibilities of what they can create. With powerful post-production programs, DPs can conjure just about any look, feel, or visual element that a director can imagine. As the industry continues to develop, though, taking a look back at some of film’s greatest storytellers can reminds us of so much that remains constant; creative and professional success is built on a relentless pursuit of new ideas, an appetite for risk, and sometimes, finding a great collaborator to work with along the way.