"Scott" vs "Ephron"
December 14, 2006 4:27 PM   Subscribe

FilmSchoolFilter: In terms of cinematography, what factors cause different movies to, well...look different?

Take the films of, say, Tony (or Ridley) Scott, compared with, say, Nora Ephron (or any random contemporary "romantic comedy" director). It's hard to put into words, but Scott's films have that really "movie" look--narrow depth of field, almost grainy, with sharp lens flares, etc. Meanwhile Ephron's movies look almost like video--bright light, wide angle lenses, almost simplistic.

Another example of two movies by the same director, Rob Reiner. "A Few Good Men" has that "movie" look I described above, but "The Princess Bride" looks completely different, that more simplistic style.

Is this a difference in lenses? Cameras? Film stock? Lighting? All of the above?
posted by zardoz to Media & Arts (19 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Your list seems pretty comprehensive, but other factors can play in as well. Post processing of the film (developing the film stock), camera positioning (handheld, steadycam, trolly, crane, etc) all can have very different effects on the final product.

Also non-film things can have huge impact on how you see the movie: set design/ location, wardrobe, hell even the music cues can totally change the feeling of a film (see the Shining trailer re-edit for a great example of this; same film stock, completely different vibe.)
posted by quin at 5:06 PM on December 14, 2006 [1 favorite]

In addition to cinematography, there are other things, such as adherence to a limited palette when making costume/set decisions, giving the film a coherent and distinctive look that looks very... filmish. Eg in "City of Lost Children" and "Amilie", almost everything is either red/brown, or green (also, red and green are complimentary), with brown/gold filling out most of the rest. While in "The Matrix", nothing is blue.

Video productions don't generally have that coherent "painterly" look, because for both production budget and design reasons, they don't have such complete control over everything in frame - if they had those kinds of resources to play with, they would most likely put some of them towards shooting with film :)
posted by -harlequin- at 5:13 PM on December 14, 2006

(Of course, cinematography plays a huge role in achieving a consistant palette throughout the film, I meant to point to the design/prop/costume budget as a contributing factor to things like this but which don't really fall under cameras or light.)
posted by -harlequin- at 5:18 PM on December 14, 2006

I'll throw you an intro to film vocabulary bone, here: Mise-en-scene.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 5:33 PM on December 14, 2006

In a word: contrast.
posted by Brian B. at 5:39 PM on December 14, 2006

Filtration, filtration is huge. The Princess Bride is soft and hazy because it was probably shot through Promists or some diffusion filter. Robert Richardson's films look the way they do because of brutal toplight and Black Promists. Gordon Willis that tone in The Godfather. Filters and tons of subtle things like shutter speed play a huge role.
posted by nathancaswell at 5:40 PM on December 14, 2006

Not to discredit lenses, John McTiernan movies for instance all have a very Panavision anamorphic look, long blue lens flares etc.
posted by nathancaswell at 5:42 PM on December 14, 2006

This all should have been one comment, but 90% of the things you see (commercials, music videos, etc) are shot on Kodak Vision 500T. It has really become the standard. Feature films, however, still tend to use a lot more diverse stocks, and that difference is important.
posted by nathancaswell at 5:46 PM on December 14, 2006

Vision2 500T, not Vision 500T. The link's right.
posted by nathancaswell at 5:52 PM on December 14, 2006

Interrobang scooped me.

There's a Kubrick documnetary that dicusses his obsession with technique, also the director/conematographer commentaries on DVD's yield tons of information.
posted by Phred182 at 5:58 PM on December 14, 2006

er, conematographically speaking.
posted by Phred182 at 5:59 PM on December 14, 2006

Film vs. video also makes a difference. If you've seen something that switches back and forth (like the Larry Sanders Show), you can see the difference. Video is crisper and sharper, film is granier and fuzzier.
posted by kirkaracha at 6:05 PM on December 14, 2006

Don't forget about digital color correction applied to the entire film. Best examples I've seen are Saving Private Ryan and O' Brother Where Art Thou. The latter has an entire DVD extra piece on the process.
posted by frogan at 7:15 PM on December 14, 2006

I don't know why my comment was axed, because I was serious about it. The question was: In terms of cinematography, what factors cause different movies to, well...look different? The answer to this question is cinematography. There are no "terms of cinematography" about it.
posted by interrobang at 10:23 PM on December 14, 2006


I get your point, and perhaps I wasn't clear enough with my questioning. I'm basing my question on the fact that others will "get it"--able to see the differences between rather specific styles. Think of "Top Gun", and imagine the shots of F-16s taking off the carriers, then think of basically any shot from, say "Home Alone". To my eye, they're fundamentally different in terms of...well, that's just it, I don't know the terms. In other words, how would a cinematographer make "Home Alone" look like "Top Gun", and vice versa?

From what little I know of photography, I'd guess it mostly comes down to lenses--focal length, depth of field, etc., but I'm sure there's more. Did they use different cameras/film stock for those movies? And, yes, I'm aware of the concept of cinematography, I'm just lazy and want a quick answer from my fellow MeFites :)
posted by zardoz at 10:43 PM on December 14, 2006

nathancaswell : Filters and tons of subtle things like shutter speed play a huge role.

Ack, can't believe I missed these two in my earlier post. Filters affect everything and shutter speed has become a hugely used tool in current films. By way of example, the shutters in 'Blade' were synced in the opening fight scene to the strobes to give that really grainy "every things in focus and really real" look that Norrington was going for. Whereas in 'Charlie's Angels' (and countless spin-offs) MgG ran the shutter at double speed so he could go in post and remove every other frame to create a sort of reverse slow motion.

Neat trick. Abused by many since.
posted by quin at 11:14 PM on December 14, 2006

Also things like light source and whether the film is on location or a set. The set is _much_ more artificial but also has tighter control in regards to the different elements (lighting, sound etc). On location you can use natural light and everything looks remarkably different.
posted by Napierzaza at 12:32 AM on December 15, 2006

Tons of great answers here.

Make sure, if you decide to study this, that you (a) turn the sound off and (b) freeze the image. You're interested in knowing what makes one film's PHOTOGRAPHY look different from another's. I think you'll find that it's the same aspects that make one still photographer's photos look different from another's. Why does Ansel Adams work look different from Diane Arbus's? Lighting, lenses, film stock, etc.

Audio also causes styles to "look" different, so you want to factor that out if you're interested in photography.

But the biggest factor you want to factor out is editing. If you take the same cinematographer and the same footage, and give it to two different editors you'll get two totally different films.
posted by grumblebee at 7:32 AM on December 15, 2006

What frogan said about color correction - this is the modern way to accomplish what harlequin said about a limited palette. This is a great way to "cheat" with special effects.

For example, Saving Private Ryan and Minority Report had A surpising number of computer generated images, the brown cast in the former and the blue cast in the latter made it easier to get away with (contrast to Star Wars Episode 2, in which effects shots are full color without any noticeable color cast).

If you recall, the battle scenes in Return of the King were so brown, they were nearly monochromatic. It does convey a dusty, gritty mood, but it also helps blend CG effects with real elements.
posted by Pastabagel at 9:08 AM on December 15, 2006

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