The best photography is admitted to come prom Germany. Here one of the most original German camera-men who in 1932 came to Britain to photograph Gloria Swanson’s first British film, " Perfect Understanding," outlines the work he does. 1
I WONDER how much the cinema public realizes what is contributed to its enjoyment by the work of the cameraman. They probably do not even notice his name when it flashes on the screen at the beginning of the film ; they do not, as a rule, talk about him, as they do about the stars of the picture; certainly they know little about his work.
Yet the cameraman is really responsible for the technical perfection of the film, as well as the artistic result or final form. The cameraman, if he is not an artist, can ruin the work of the most artistic director in the world. Stars, scenery, and story can be made or marred by him.
Consider the cameraman as an artist. Try to compare his task with that of a painter or an etcher. The painter has his colours, his canvases of varying grain, his brushes of different sizes. He can put down at a moment’s notice, without restriction, all that he may see or feel. The etcher does the same with his steel pen and his copper plate.
But the cameraman works with a box of wheels and sprockets, an optical lens, and strips of celluloid coated with chemicals. The devices of colour are denied him, save rarely: and he
cannot, like the painter, take palette knife or turpentine and make corrections in his work. Once he has pronounced the inexorable word “ Ready ! ” and his camera has begun to turn, he has committed himself, for better or for worse, to the lighting, the grouping, the angles and movements which he has arranged ; and the
results of his artistry—or lack of it— will appear, unalterably, in the picture. I need hardly emphasize the significance of this little word “ ready,” nor its power in justifying or wasting the huge expenditure on films, in setting, dressing, and salaries.
Since the change-over to talkies, the cameraman’s task has become harder. Sound must be carefully considered in its relation to camera work, and great care must be taken that sound and action are properly blended. Acoustic difficulties often necessitate the shooting of scenes in the studio, when for ideal reproduction exteriors would have been desirable. In such instances the cameraman has to reproduce as best he can the light of Nature, whether it be moonlight, sunshine, or grey haze. This he must do in such a way that the film-goer shall never suspect that the scene is not an actual exterior. Outdoor night-scenes, for instance, are almost invariably shot inside the studio, since the lighting and recording of such scenes in the open air is next to impossible.
The cameraman, too, is the deviser of tricks and technique, whereby shipwrecks, train-smashes, aeroplane, and motor-car accidents, fire, flood, and earthquake may be reproduced, in miniature or by artifice, and yet give an atmosphere of reality. Film stars are too valuable to risk their necks in dare-devil falls ancf climbs ; and so it fails to the lot of the cameraman to reproduce this hair-breadth escape, or that miraculous rescue, with the minimum of risk for the actor, and the maximum effect for the film.
bearing in mind the fact that the public must never be allowed to suspect trickery.
Your good cameraman makes himself expert in all branches of his craft. He must know how to build up and photograph interiors ; he must have a broad sense of “ landscape " ; he must specialize in showing lovely woman even lovelier than she is. He must be constantly improving his methods of4 lighting for all these different types of photography, and bettering his methods of make-up and shading for the men and women whose faces form so large a part of his finished work.
Have you noticed the tremendous diversity of scene and subject contained in any one evening’s entertainment at your local cinema ? There will be in one film views of a beautiful countryside, dreaming portraits of some famous star, the shaded lamp glowing softly on her upturned face, lighting the wistful appeal of her features as she awaits, maybe, the coming of some handsome hero—for whose manly colouring and hard skin an entirely different lighting and makeup-system has to be thought out by some hard-working cameraman ? Notice how cunningly the lighting of the boudoir-scene is contrasted with the love-scene on the terrace, or “ matched up ” with that little moment in my lady’s ante-room !
There are a hundred-and-one different little “ special jobs ” which the cameraman must master. The oroper lighting and photography of
manuscripts, letters, and so on, for instance, is quite an art in itself. Or perhaps a close-up has to be made of a handshake, a gracefully-turned ankle, or the face of a watch ; dozens of such little “ bits ” appear in films, and, if badly done, can look absurdly harsh and unnecessary.
His technical knowledge must be comprehensive enough to enable him, by moving his camera slightly, to enhance that star’s height, to make this player appear slimmer ; even to alter the colour of their eyes.
The director of a film certainly is in charge of its production. He conceives this, that, and the other scene ; he rehearses the players in their movements and their lines. The art director builds glorious settings at his bidding. But he must lean most of all on the skill of his cameraman, for is he not, after all, making motion pictures ?
It would take a book to describe all the various branches of camera-art as applied in the film studio. But bear in mind always that the cameraman, in order to please your eye, has carried consistently in his head questions of lighting, make-up, position, action, decoration, and distance. His work must never be for himself, in order to test some pet theory or wildcat scheme ; he must always work for the best results possible with the material which the film itself gives him. He seldom figures in the headlines. His personal successes are seldom recognized by the public. He is just the man behind the camera; technical expert, craftsman, and artist.
IVOR NOVELLO and ELIZABETH ALLAN in The Lodger.
DOUGLAS FAIRBANKS, Jnr.
The world film encyclopedia, 1933
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