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June 3, 2022

What Is Cinematography? Everything You Need to Know about the Job

Becoming a screenwriter involves much more than just writing. You need to understand how your script fits into the broader production from directing to editing to cinematography. In this blog, we will examine what cinematography is and what a cinematographer does on set.

Let's dive in.

What is cinematography?

Cinematography is the general composition of the film during the production phase. This includes the choice of lighting, camera and camera angles, and the integration of any special effects into the picture. The term is generally used to refer to the professional movie industry, with videography used to describe the process of capturing any video, including amateur recording.

However, the lines between what is professional and what is an independent film are increasingly becoming blurred.

The cinematography department is usually headed by the cinematographer, also known as the director of photography. The director of photography is guided by their assistants and oversees the filming crew, the gaffers, and the lighting team.

When was cinematography invented?

Cinematography was not originally part of the film production process; cinematography was, in fact, part of directing the picture.

The earliest films were essentially just recorded plays with one still camera, so there were no decisions to be made about camera angles and different shots. With the picture in black and white, lighting was also limited. Initially, the director managed the cinematography and even managed the single-camera itself until the silent movies of the late 1910s became more complex and required greater decision-making.

The American Society of Cinematographers was founded in 1919 in Hollywood, Los Angeles, to advance the science of cinematography and to assist its members in working their way up the career ladder. But you should note that it is not a trade union.

What does cinematography entail?

A lot goes into cinematography; this is why the role is also called the director of photography, and the cinematographer is generally the number two on the totem pole.

Cinematography is the creation of the pictures you see on screen. As films have become more sophisticated, so too has the concept of cinematography.

Key variables in cinematography include:

  • The type of shots used
  • The types of lenses used in the cameras
  • The kind of camera and whether it's a handheld camera or a stationary camera
  • The number of cameras
  • The angles and shots
  • The lighting set up
  • The special effects (on bigger films, the special effects are referred to as a second unit)

Cinematography takes place across all the stages of the film's life: pre-production, production, and post-production.

The cinematographer and sometimes the writer will plan the individual shots and line the script during the pre-production stage, revising the script as appropriate to develop a shooting script.

With the shots and scenes confirmed, the cinematographer can liaise with executive producers and senior managers about the budget and approve the plan for the film.

In the production phase, the cinematographer works with an entire team of assistants, gaffers, cameramen, assistant camera operators, and technical experts to implement the director's vision.

Every camera will typically have around 3-5 assistant cameramen working on it, each fulfilling different roles from adjusting the focus to controlling the dolly's movement. The role of the cinematographer is to manage this huge team and to make sure they all work together in tandem. This frees up the director to focus on the film's overall vision and on managing the actors rather than the practicalities of cameras and lighting.

If appropriate, the cinematographer also manages the second unit (special effects team) during the post-production phase to ensure the final picture lives up to expectations.

How do you become a cinematographer?

You can read more about this within our more in-depth guide to becoming a cinematographer. In short, however, there is no straightforward path to becoming a cinematographer.

The easiest way is to attend film school and then get a junior job on the set of a major motion picture or television series. If you have the technical know-how, you can begin as a third assistant cameraman, and if not, you will most likely start your career in film as a junior researcher or runner doing odd jobs or admin tasks around the set.

However, remember that the industry is changing rapidly, and there are now many opportunities to make money on independent films, through streaming services, and even series for YouTube.

In these scenarios, you might be hired by a director and take on some of the tasks carried out by a cinematographer without working your way up through the industry. On smaller films, the setup can be similar to how it was in the 1910s when the director was also the cinematographer.

Cinematography is key to the film and TV industry

Alongside the writing, directing, and acting, cinematography is a vital part of the film and TV industry. If you're considering a career as a screenwriter, it is well worth noting how cinematography works so that you can apply this knowledge to your scripts.

Arc Studio can help you realize your dream of becoming a writer with its industry-standard tools that assist you in preparing and formatting a script to wow executives and agents.


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What Is Cinematography? Everything You Need to Know about the Job
Harry Verity

Harry is a professional writer. His first novel The Talk Show was published in the U.S and the U.K by Bloodhound Books in 2021 and he is currently working on adapting it for screen using Arc Studio. He's also written for Media Magazine - a UK magazine for students of A-level Film, Media and Television Studies. His journalism has appeared in The Guardian, Readers' Digest and Newsweek, amongst many other publications. He has just finished his second novel for young adults, set in a boarding school. He holds a BA in English from Loughborough University.

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