Disclaimer: This article does not contain any major spoiler from the movies mentioned. Ruining your experience enjoying these great films is the last thing I want.
Storytelling is the heart of photography. A photo, no matter how dazzling it is visually, without story, is empty at its core. The story is the message behind the picture that the photographer wants to deliver. However, storytelling is also the most challenging aspect of photography. All that’s given to a photographer is merely a single frame to capture a moment in time–no sound, nor motion. Therefore, photographers must strive to evoke emotions and thoughts through what is available, such as composition, lighting, and color. And the best ways to learn storytelling is to study other people’s works.
Cinematography of films, for example, is one of the great ways to gain inspiration for photography. Cinema, the ultimate art form, incorporates arts such as drama, writing, music, and cinematography all for the sole purpose of storytelling. Thus, every creative decision in a film serves the story. And studying its cinematography with the context of the story provided by the movie can reveal why the creators made these decisions. Therefore, here are three aspects of cinematography photographers can learn about storytelling from films.
First, we have composition. Composition guides the viewers’ eyes and gives them information almost subconsciously. Storytellers use it to tell the audience what they want them to know or feel, whether it’s scale, dynamics between characters, or focus on a subject.
Take this shot from Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, for example, where the spaceship Endurance flies pass Saturn. The most distinguishing feature of the composition is the use of negative space. Negative space refers to the area surrounding the main subject that’s left unoccupied. In this case, it consists of the immense shadowed planet and the endless darkness of space. The negative space creates a dramatic contrast of scale between Saturn and Endurance to visually emphasize the vastness of space. In context of the story, however, this shot means more. The heart of the movie is about the relationship between a father and his daughter. Thus, the shot symbolizes the core of the story that love is the one thing mankind is capable of perceiving that transcends time and space (Interstellar).
This shot from Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit, in contrast, serves a different part of storytelling. It perfectly establishes the dynamic between two characters. Using the rule of thirds and a straight-on angle, the composition draws the audience’s focus toward the characters and their ridiculous contrast in height. Without even knowing the plot, viewers can see the tall man’s dominating power over the other while the shorter man awkwardly tries to dissolve the tension with a smile.
Another indispensable element for both photography and cinematography is lighting. Lighting contributes to the mood and emotion of a picture, making it invaluable for storytelling. For example, in this scene from Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, a young British boy, prisoner in an internment camp, salutes Japanese pilots under a Zero fighter plane. The setting sun, sparks, and smoke create a perfect backlighting for the silhouette of this shot. From the angle of storytelling, the silhouette conceals the features of the pilots, dissipating their identity as enemy. All that’s left is a child’s respect for those who are willing to sacrifice their lives for their country.
Finally, color, like lighting, is another powerful storytelling device that affects the mood of a picture.
In the movie Dunkirk, for example, the color in the majority of the film is quite cold, to accompany the constant anxiety throughout the story. However, large amount of warm color is used in the ending scene. The yellow of the sunset and orange of the burning Spitfire complements the usual blue green hue. The sudden warmth added into the picture conveys a sense of hope. Surrounded by German troops in Dunkirk, France, during World War II, the Allied Force only expected to evacuate forty-five thousand men back to Britain. However, the operation brought home more than three hundred and thirty thousand men across the English Channel because of the help of hundreds of civilian boats. Though the Allies withdrew and lost their foothold in France, the success of the operation signifies that there is still hope in the wars to come, and it is perfectly captured with the use of color in this scene.
In this shot from The Dark Knight, the color usage is directly opposite of the last example. Though still complementary colors of blue and orange, it is the cold colors that evokes emotion. A large amount of the colors used prior to this moment are warm colors from streetlights and flames. However, this cold hue before the break of dawn introduces a mournful atmosphere to the scene.
In summary, every detail in a film from composition to lighting and color is a creative decision for better storytelling, and photography should be the same. The story is the soul of a picture. Therefore, photographers should strive to use every tool of photography to better tell that story.
Adrian vs. the World, adrianvstheworld.files.wordpress.com/2018/01/dunkirk-spitfire-landing1.jpg.
Colin McMahon, redringsofredemption.files.wordpress.com/2014/11/o-interstellar-trailer-facebook.jpg.
“Dunkirk (2017) – Ending Scene – HD.” Youtube, i.ytimg.com/vi/OvCX2fs8nlE/maxresdefault.jpg.
Nolan, Christopher, director. Interstellar. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2014.
“Sam Rockwell and Stephen Merchant in Jojo Rabbit (2019).” IMDb, m.media-amazon.com/images/M/MV5BMjhiMzk0OGEtYTBhZC00NmJmLWJkNTMtMmEwOWUzMTRjN2E0XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzI1NzMxNzM@._V1_.jpg.
Photo of the Month: Christmas
Here are all the amazing submissions from December’s Photo of the Month. I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas!
by Abigail Kusuma
by Avian Hall
by Andrew Chen
by Aidan DeGuzman
by Laura Cervantez
by Sophia Thuemmel
by Rachel Beth H.
Next month’s theme is: Winter
Please submit your photos with this Google Form: https://forms.gle/QKRNCx9ATwZg8tU67
The submission deadline is January 24th. If you have any questions, please let me know in the comment section.