I recently watched "Meet the Patels," which has what is possibly the worst cinematography ever committed to a publicly released movie. You might see stuff like this on YouTube, or on a news segment where the only available footage was shot on someone's phone. I'm sorry to say these things as I really liked the person behind the camera (Geeta Patel), who seems like an intelligent and charming person ... but the filming was terrible and I'm a snot about cinematography. And still I'd recommend this film to almost anyone because it's a wonderful story.

This made me think a lot about cinematography and its place in film. I'm a photographer (although not a cinematographer), so I deeply appreciate beautiful shots on screen. But this is a different media entirely than photography, and "Meet the Patels" made me realize that story is more important than visual presentation.

This also ties in to a YouTube "Top Ten list" I watched about six months ago that inspired and impressed me, "Top 10 Most Beautiful Movies of All Time" by YouTube user "CineFix," which shares a lot of overlap with this blog entry. A quote from that video is appropriate here: "... cinematographer Colin Watkinson filled the screen with so many gorgeous tableaux that there are literally half-second throw-away shots that are more beautiful than the entire oeuvres of lesser D.P.s." (A "D.P." is a Director of Photography - and they're referring to Tarsem Singh's "The Fall" - more on both the list and Tarsem Singh later.)

There's a class of film that has no story, or chooses to tell their story without words. Technically I suppose that's two very distinct classes (story/no story), but I tend to lump them all together as being visual pieces. "Koyaanisqatsi" is a quintessential example of a movie without words ... and possibly a movie without a story. Godfrey Reggio, who directed it, will tell you that the movie is about how out of balance our modern lives are with the world, and perhaps he would argue that this is "a story." Whether it is or not, the movie is a breath-taking piece of artwork, with a stream of truly amazing shots of nature, cities, and technology. Reggio made two sequels that I wasn't quite as taken with, and Ron Fricke, his cinematographer, went on to do a number of similar visual feasts ("Chronos," "Baraka," and "Samsara"). Fans of Fricke should also check out Jennifer Baichwal's fantastic "Manufactured Landscapes" (2006), which translates Ed Burtynsky's brilliant photography into cinematography.

An even odder beast in this category is "Microcosmos," which Wikipedia describes as "... primarily a record of detailed interactions between insects and other small invertebrates." It doesn't get much more exciting than that, right? It has no plot and no dialogue (excepting the unnecessary two minute introduction), and some of the most dazzling footage ever committed to celluloid. To further boost this into the stratosphere, they coupled the film with a fabulous soundtrack: the end product is a masterpiece (that no one's ever heard of).

And then there are movies whose cinematography is so good it drags your attention away from the story - at which point I have to wonder "if the story were good enough, would that have happened?" These are traditional films - in the sense that they're fictional and have a story - but stand out for their filming. I suppose the first time I really noticed this was with 2004's "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow." Kerry Conran clearly had a vision, a story set in 1939 using the pulp science fiction imagery of that era. And it was a brilliant vision: but normally the term "vision" when applied to film implies "story" as well as "visuals," and the story - particularly the prose - that Conran wrote was appalling. But the visuals he created, the sense of place and the imagery - excellent. And yet I've proven unable on a couple attempts to rewatch the movie with the wooden and clich├ęd prose mouthed by some of the best actors in the world. If only he'd trusted the story and directing to someone else and just done the artwork and cinematography ...

Equalling Conran's vision in not only visual style but also appalling dialogue and wooden acting is 2012's "Upside Down" directed by Juan Diego Solanas with cinematography by Pierre Gill. The movie lays out a number of rules about the world's logic: they denied physics as we know it, but I would have been okay with that if they'd stuck to their own rules. The imagery of the two worlds inverted to each other is mind-bogglingly fabulous, but - like "Sky Captain" - has utterly defied my attempts to rewatch it for precisely the same reasons.

Jim Sturgess appears to have something of a talent for picking movies like this, because he appears in both "Upside Down" and 2007's "Across the Universe." My review at the time said " Whatever they paid their director of photography, it wasn't enough: Every. Single. Shot. Was a thing of beauty." And like the two previous movies, this one's plot is a significant mess. At least this one has a great soundtrack and focus in the form of the Beatles.

While we're doing terrible plots attached to magnificent images, there's no greater director than Tarsem Singh. "Tarsem" - as he likes to singularly style himself - started as a director of music videos. His first full length film was "The Cell," and he chose Jennifer Lopez as the star - that should tell you something right there. He's followed this up with "The Fall" (mentioned previously) and "Immortals." I'll continue to watch his movies because I remain awestruck by his visual acumen, which continues to outweigh his inability to pick or direct actors - and maybe someday he'll create a truly great story worthy of his visuals.

"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" started a wave of high rent martial arts flicks, and one particular director took this as an opportunity to create three of the most beautiful wuxia films ever made. His name is Zhang Yimou, and those movies are "Hero," "House of Flying Daggers," and "Curse of the Golden Flower." Cinefix picked "Hero," and discarded "Golden Flower" as "the only movie that didn't make the cut for being too visually stimulating." "Hero" tells a number of pieces of the same story as seen from different points of view (much like "Rashomon"), but each story is filmed with emphasis on a particular colour. It's not a perfect film, but - unlike several of the previous movies - the story is passable. And the cinematography ... WOW.

I come at last to one of my favourite directors, and several other movies in his genre: Hayao Miyazaki and Anime. This is a genre where the director can control what appears in every square inch of every frame: as much as they try to do that when filming in the real world, this isn't always possible (although Tarsem Singh came close to changing my mind about that). Miyazaki's "Spirited Away" is possibly his greatest film, but "Princess Mononoke" and "Howl's Moving Castle" are right up there as well. "Ponyo" is possibly even more visually spectacular, but the story is (in my opinion) among his weakest. Hiromasa Yonebayashi turns his eye to the garden in the slow paced and contemplative "Arrietty" (2010) and Satoshi Kon's "Paprika" (2006) dazzles on every level - the opening credits alone are a masterclass in the miracles an animator can achieve. Speaking of Satoshi Kon - "Millennium Actress" is a love letter to cinema, and also fabulous to look at although the story is slightly repetitive.

The surprise here for me is that if the story's poor enough, I generally can't watch a movie more than once no matter how good the cinematography is. Better you should claim no story at all and let the images stand alone. Conversely, if the story is good enough, I'm disappointed if the cinematography is bad - but it's not ultimately a deterrent. I'm so visually oriented myself I've always assumed I skewed the other way: but in the end, I think this is as it should be.

CineFix's Full List

CineFix's "Top 10 Most Beautiful Movies of All Time:"

  • "Russian Ark" (#10)
  • "Manhattan"
  • "Citizen Kane"
  • "2001: A Space Odyssey"
  • "The Conformist"
  • "The Fall"
  • "Hero"
  • "Lawrence of Arabia"
  • "The Tree of Life"
  • "Samsara" (#1)

Further Viewing

You should also look at "Every Frame a Painting." His analysis of cinematography is often quite brilliant.