The Art of Visual Storytelling

The story of a cinematographer begins from the evolution of pictures. The human mind has always strived to express itself through the medium of pictures. Long before the written word had evolved, the Neanderthal stored his stories in the form of pictorial messages on the walls of his caves. We have come a long way from the classic stick and circle figure of a man to creating actual animations of him on the electronic medium.

The evolution of pictures can be traced to Roundhay Garden Scene, a film by Louis Le Prince. It is the first motion picture film and was shot on paper film. The following year held another landmark in the history of cinema in the form of Phantoscope, a projector by Charles Francis Jenkins. Louis and Auguste Lumiere fine-tuned the Cinematography, an apparatus that took, printed and projected a film and were the first to present moving, photographic, pictures to a paying audience.


The journey of Colour Films was a long, reluctant process. The audience, by the 1930’s, were comfortable with black and white pictures. So were the directors, who did not prefer colour films due to technological, aesthetic and economic reasons. The birth of Technicolor in 1915 was not as much of a game changer as one would believe, for the elaborate process and heavy machinery was considered cumbersome as well as time-consuming. Another significant problem was the difficulty in lighting. The movie Wizard of Oz needed 800-1000 foot-candles, and the temperatures on this set would near 38 degrees! If we compare this to the regular black and white set which needed a mere 250-400 foot candles, it is hardly surprising that the directors did not prefer colour film.

In 1954, Technicolor introduced Eastman colour, which was used as a colour standard for the rest of the 1900’s. Colour digital cinematography, the preferred technique of today’s cinematographers, became popular only in the recent one decade. Thus, we seem to have come full circle, from drawing on the walls of caves, to filming movies in these very caves our ancestors have etched their dreams on.


At the heart of every movie is its story. As a cinematographer, it is crucial to understand the script. There are several decisions involved here- your choice of lighting, the aspect ratios, character analysis, camera movement are all engraved in the script itself. Therefore, a cinematographer works for hand in glove with the Director to deliver the film. Their relationship has been described by many as that of a married couple. While disagreements are a certainty, the institution of marriage must prevail, and for that, one needs a certain element of understanding, compromise and trust in the partners’ vision. This holds true for this particular couple as well.

The Director and the Cinematographer frame a series of rules while discussing the film. As a cinematographer, you might find yourself sticking to these rules, as that’s exactly why you framed them in the first place. However, the Director might decide that, perhaps, the camera needs to be moved. Or the lighting effects changed. It could be anything, and you might not be ready for this change. You might not even think a change is necessary. Your instinct would be to stick to the rules you have created. But here’s the truth – your rules are meant to be broken. If it feels right, change the rules. As a cinematographer, your job is to assist in the art of storytelling, to make it look good. Anything that helps your creative process should be added.


  • Matthew Libatique is the excellent cinematographer of the movie, Black Swan. In this movie, we follow the story of a girl, Nina, who on her quest for perfection ultimately kills herself. Dementia. Nothing in Nina, the protagonist’s life, is certain. Even in her waking dream, the camera begins to quake as her dance concludes. Throughout the movie, the handheld camera is never steady, just like the clouds of doubt darkening Nina’s mind. This is in contrast with her orderly ballet word, where control over movement is primary. We are involved in her tension, her fear of falling short of expectations. The camera always follows her from behind, adding to the sense of fear that her ceaseless paranoia, jealousy and nervousness create. Even in her moment of glory, when Nina dances as the pure, virginal White Swan, the fear in her eyes is not translated to the audience; it is for you, the viewer, alone to see. The angle of her final dance is a wide shot, it is telling you that she is dancing for the audience, that this is her dream. Until she breaks down into her character and dies.

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  • Emmanuel Lubezki, the Oscar-winning cinematographer was the DoP for the Oscar-wining movie, Birdman. Here’s a movie that was raved about for all the right reasons. The cinematography, in particular, was a talking point. The greatness of the film lies in its seamless flow. Nothing in life follows the structured scene/cut pattern of a motion picture. Birdman recognizes this. It understands the importance of a movie where the scenes blend into each other, giving the audience a feeling that the 119 minutes of this movie were shot continuously. Birdman was shot in sequences, like any other movie. The duration of these sequences were ten minutes on an average, fifteen for some scenes. These were then fused together in a masterful manner. The difficulties that went into filming such long shots are endless. The camera used for the handheld scenes was ALEXA M and for the scenes that were shot on SteadyCam, an ALEXA XT was used. The vision that the Director of Birdman, Alejandro González Iñárritu, built for Birdman was faithfully and beautifully shot by Lubezki, a true collaboration of talent and passion for storytelling.

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  • The colour palette of a film contributes to the sentiments, emotions, and reaction of the audience to the film. In Yuva, Ravi Chandran, the ace cinematographer made use of colour to dictate the characters of his protagonists. For Lallan Singh, played by Abhishek Bachchan in the movie, his character is predominantly characterized by red as the background colour. The camera is handheld, and the shots are short. This helped in bringing about the violence of his character, his unglamorous life. Arjun, played by Vivek Oberoi, is a self-centered character whose only ambition is to go the USA. His background colour is blue. He was shot in long range, and everything about his life was shown quite stylishly, to drive home this point. The scenes with Michael Mukherjee, a revolutionary and idealist played by Ajay Devgn, was shot with predominantly green as the background. Unline Arjun, in whose shots he was predominantly focused on, Michael’s was shot wide range, always surrounded by the aam aadmi.
  • Black, despite a decade since its release, remains one of the most poignant movies ever made. The world of Michelle, the protagonist, is black. This color scheme can be a depressing trap to fall into. As Debraj, her tutor, teaches her to ‘see’ and ‘feel’ things, every single accomplishment becomes an act of victory. Through the muted colors of the movie, light begins to permeate and fade, carrying us along the tide of this girl’s trials and Debraj’s ultimate debilitation. This has been weaved together, lucidly and cleverly by the master DoP Ravi Chandran. Together, the collaboration of Bhansali and Ravi Chandran has made this movie evocative, strong and unforgettable.

The muted colors of Debraj, and the brightness of the birds flying away…

Carlos Catalan is the cinematographer of Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara. This movie is a visual delight, with splendid visuals of Spain, wide shots of the protagonist’s adventures and compelling while they each come into peace with the tumults in their lives. The movie preaches free-spiritedness and taking chances without making it sound preachy at all. This is in large part due to the efforts of the cinematographer, a sample of his cinematography can be seen in

An Act of Valour is noteworthy for many reasons, but for me, its most interesting aspect is its cinematography. The movie was shot on a Canon 5D, with Zeiss Prime lenses (18, 25,35,50,85,100 mm macro). Shane Hurlbut, the cinematographer of this movie, has thus become a trailblazer with his out of the box filming, which gave a sense of authenticity and reality to the movie. Shout-out to thinkers like him, who make the art of filmmaking accessible to those of us who have a passion for this craft, but lack the resources for it.

As a cinematographer, your job is not limited to the nitty-gritty details of lens, cameras and other equipment. Long before other crew members emerged, the cinematographer was a one-man army behind the making of the film. Even now, in fact, especially now, it is crucial that the cinematographer doesn’t lose sight of the emotional arc of the story. As a visual storyteller, your connection with the Director, your understanding of the script is the two things that cannot be compromised on. Do not lose sight of these cardinal points, and you might well be the next cinematographer a zealous movie-goer writes her next blog on.

- Open Face Team


* This disclaimer informs readers that the views, thoughts, and opinians expressed in the text belongs solely to the author, and not necessarily to Openface Media Organization, or any other group or individual.*


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