One hundred and ten world-class cinematographers’ thoughts on their widely discussed but little understood art-plus-craft are packed into 86 minutes in “Cinematographer Style.” For a film about cinema’s visual aspects, docu is strikingly contained to talking-heads shots — often closely held — of the lensers, who rep the cream of the English-language film world. The open and gracious manner of the subjects confirms what some already know: That no group in the film biz matches lensers as a collection of classy, level-headed folks. Tech-heads may chirp about lack of inside baseball chatter, but docu (aimed for eventual DVD release) is rightly directed toward a general aud of movie lovers.
Though each participant has an average of 45 seconds’ worth of screen time, a few inevitably dominate the discussion by virtue of the sheer depth, value and theatricality of their comments. The unquestioned star is Italian maestro Vittorio Storaro (“The Conformist,” “Apocalypse Now”), legendary in film circles as the greatest living philosopher/practitioner on the application of light, color and shadow for the film camera.
Storaro not only stands apart for being the only lenser filmed inside a cinema, but he uses props (light bulbs, dimmers) to demonstrate such techniques as light placement and the effect of color on mood. And to makes matters clear, he also explicitly states at the start, “I am a cinematographer. I am not a director of photography.”
Alongside Storaro in impact is vet lenser Gordon Willis (“The Godfathers,” “Manhattan”), whose frank and matter-of-fact statements lend pic a vibe of honesty and common sense. Willis addresses pic’s title, saying that, in cinematography, “there is no formula … style comes out of you.”
Willis’ biggest admission is that he didn’t decide on the look of “The Godfather” until about 20 minutes before first day’s filming, and he draws possibly the biggest laugh by asking fellow lenser and pic’s director Jon Fauer to momentarily turn off most of the lights in the room during his interview; now viewed in near darkness, with just a splash of backlight, Willis says, “See? That’s about right.”
Fauer’s esteemed group reflects a pleasing range in age — from elders such as William Fraker, Ron Dexter and Fred Koenekamp to relative youngsters like Remi Adefarasin, Ernest Dickerson and Matthew Libatique — ethnicity and even (in this male-heavy profession) gender. Each IDs themselves at the start in a rapid montage in alphabetical order and are never again identified with graphics. This may confuse some viewers trying to be sure who is saying what, but it also stresses content of the comments over individual names.
Discussion starts with childhood and education (a striking number here were not science, physics or chemistry students, contrary to assumptions), first jobs, mentoring and such themes as style, artistic influences, the values of color, shadow and beauty — or not (highly regarded cinematographer Roger Deakins remarks that “ugliness can have a certain beauty”).
Controversy is pushed aside in “Cinematographer Style,” so this is not the film to expect a crosscutting debate on the merits of, say, film versus video. (Fauer himself appears to opt for film, since pic is shot on 35mm stock donated by Kodak, one of the docu’s co-presenting companies.)
Ellen Kuras and others note that working in documentaries was crucial for them in developing an eye and the ability to work with cameras and light, while a number here (including a typically jolly Allen Daviau) stress how key making commercials was in their development. Not surprisingly, most insist that their work on a film begins with the script. The incisive Caleb Deschanel says he reads a script “at least” 10 times before prepping.
Where “Cinematographer Style” perhaps suffers as a filmic demonstration of the art is its lack of clips as illustrative examples. When Deakins discusses “the happy accidents” that late, great lenser Conrad Hall used to his advantage on the set, it screams out for a clip or two from Hall masterworks like “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” or “Fat City.”
New docu is thus notably different from, and a useful counterpoint to, the 1993 film “Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography,” made by Variety chief film critic Todd McCarthy, Arnold Glassman and Stuart Samuels, which liberally deployed clips and focused on a more select group of hall-of-famers.
Fauer shares the all-crucial lensing duties with Jeff Laszlo, Brian Heller and David Morgan, and the team playfully adapts to their subjects. Deakins at one point instructs the cameraman to change from a telephoto (used for his interview segment) to wide lens in order to correctly illustrate that the long lens is a poor tool for conveying psychological warmth.
With so many subjects’ noggins on screen, talking-head framing is deliberately similar, in standard TV docu fashion. Below-the-line hero of the film is unquestionably supervising sound editor Chris Stangroom.
Closing credits, reflecting the special nature of the project, contains several technical items (including digital intermediate finishing, details on Avid editing tools, negative database prep, terrablock data storage, and answer and release print details) rarely if ever noted in credit rolls.