Cinematography Mailing List - CML

Movies as Music

I was talking to someone earlier today who'd just seen Armageddon and really enjoyed it, of course, he said, it'll get slammed by the critics.

He then said that we had a strange way of reviewing film if you compared it to the way music is reviewed.

With music you have reviewers that specialise in classical, or rock, or pop or blues or....whereas in film we have really only the one prominent kind of reviewer and that they equate roughly with the classical music reviewer.

So of course they hate Armageddon, it's rock & roll.

I got to thinking about it, I've spent the day sitting on the cliff watching the tide come in and then go back out, and there's an interesting analogy to be drawn here.

Up until fairly recently the movie industry has been stuck in that music period before the mid 60's where the studio's ruled and the artists were trampled.

We've just got to the stage where the artists are setting up their own record labels, sorta late 60's apple and rolling stone records, and we're also just going through the Sergeant Pepper, Itchycoo Park, Wheels on Fire, special effects era.

So soon we'll all settle down and just use the effects rather than over-use them.

How about movies shot on DV and transferred to 35mm as Punk?

So, where does that leave me? wanting to make the filmic equivalent of It's Only Rock & Roll that's where.

Drawing on all the source material but putting it together on a way that's fresh and timeless.


Geoff Boyle

Aaah. I wish. Can't resist a reply though, even from frantic, wintery Sydney.

Even within the sectors of the music industry, populism tends to be frowned on by the critics. Once the 3 Tenors traded in on their success, they were condemned in the eyes of the serious opera reviewers. David Helfgott (to take a popularly filmed example) may be technically clumsy, but he brought Rachmaninov and others to packed houses who were genuinely moved by the performances. But the critics slated him. Perhaps a Helfgott concert is like a good script badly shot and edited. (to come back on to topic).

Also, the ""rock'n'roll"" movies tend to get plenty of ""reviews"" of -shall we say - the uninformed, uncritical kind that make one look to the ownership of the newspaper/TV network and of the film studio. Generally it's a different type of reviewer or critic who deals with art-house, and who probably feels obliged to slate the blockbusters just to bring a bit of balance back.

Dominic Case

Atlab Australia

The primary story line may have been rock & roll, but the slick pristine commercial vision (as in tv commercial vision. . . meant as a compliment) that almost can be perceived as a movie within the movie was more like classical music . . . I even had flashes that some of the images were derivative of Robert Frank . . . in color. I am talking about the constant cutaways to the farm, or the street scenes of the cities. I don't remember seeing a second unit credit, but I would venture to say that Michael Bay and John Schwartzman had tremendous input in creating stylish, impeccably composed, well choreographed and stunningly art directed images adjunct to the core events of the movie.

Has anyone noticed that the majority of mainstream movies are running longer than the traditional 90 minutes these days? I guess it's good for Gross Global Product. -Mark Simon

PS Great post, by the way Geoff!

Just for argument's sake, some ""rock&roll"" can suck also and maybe ""Armageddon"" was mediocre even within the confines of the genre. I'm sure that a number of critics knew going in what kind of film it was trying to be and might have judged it on its own merits and still found it lacking.

Also, is it wrong for critics to have higher standards than audiences, or wish that the audience would demand better films?

There has always been a gap between ""serious"" film critics who dabble in theory and essay writing, and those who are more consumer advocates. Do we really need more Susan Grangers and Joel Seigels who seem to like everything? Should critics, who see a lot more films than anyone else, ignore their trained reactions and just try and guess what the ""average"" viewer will enjoy (like those Variety reviews which try to guess how well the film will do at the box office?)

Is it so bad when film critics don't agree with our own reactions? Personally, if I liked a movie, I don't really need the confirmation of critics that I have good taste. I guess all I want from a critic is consistency so I can judge what the movie must really be like, taking his or her biases into consideration when reading the review.

Now that I'm done playing devil's advocate (for my brother-in-law's sake, who is a classical music critic), I do agree that critics should be more open to the broad range of possibilities in filmmaking. They tend to either equate documentary realism as the highest state of film art (something Hitchcock and Truffaut discussed) and thus ignore the films of Michael Powell, for example, or they review films mainly for their literary value.

David Mullen Cinematographer/L.A.

Pardon my presumption. Just found your guys' site. It's now one of my favorites.

I am not a cinematographer. Got an MFA from Columbia (under Andrew Sarris) in Film History & Criticism in 1972 during the great Scorsese-Ashby-Coppola-Don Siegel/Dirty Harry decade.

Naturally I just retired from a career in Federal Law enforcement.

Be that as it may - regarding the analogy of music and films. Critics and audiences alike take one very basic film element for granted: You have to know where to put the camera. Ford did. So did Hawks. I'd love to see Gene Siskel's home movies. Or better yet still photos of his summer vacation(s). Every time I watch the opening chase sequence of Carpenter's remake of 'The Thing', I'm blown away by his handling of the helicopter, the dog, the guy with the rifle, and that deep snow. You know where each is in relation to the other and know exactly what's going on at all times..

When I think of what I went through for a tempo and editing exercise in film school with an 8 mm(!) camera and a tennis ball to make a coherent 5-minute film as the ball bounced anonymously from room to room...

One last analogy regarding film and criticism: I'll never forget the take on critics of one of my teacher/filmmakers in a documentary class - 'Saying that a(n American) movie is good because it is well-photographed is like saying 'Moby Dick' is a masterpiece because it has a nice type face.'

Peter Goodspeed

That is a great statement.

Steven Gladstone

Except that the artistry with which a story is photographed has substantially more to do with the viewers' appreciation of the story than the type face has to do with the reading experience. Try to visualize a poorly photographed CITIZEN KANE, for example.

--Wade Ramsey

At first, it seems like a clever statement.

But in fact, it's quite stupid. It reduces the role of the cinematographer to less than the role of a typesetter. It says that great cinematography is essentially unimportant, to be assumed, when there are films in which the shooting is as or more important than the script or performances. Imagine, say, Citizen Kane as shot by, oh, I won't name anyone, but think 70's sitcom style. Would it lose something?

A more apt but stupid clever statement would be to say, oh, that Bob Dylan's genius comes solely from his guitar playing. It may be a component of his music, and an important one, but it's hardly the most important one.

BTW, Geoff, great original post.

Jeff ""going back to a musical analogy"" Kreines

For once I have to Disagree with you Jeff. DO you think a typesetter goes home and thinks about how unimportant his job is or when he walks by a book store with his family, do you think he proudly makes a reference to that book being ""his"". I'll bet he is real proud of his work and doesn't gloat because the NY Time book review doesn't mention him. Of course the author thinks nothing of the typesetter in his thought of the book, but he is an intricate part of the entire process. Yes there is a relationship of the cinematographer to the director, but how many times is that directors work his. In other words, how many times is the director the author of the material that he is translating to celluloid. I don't think the writer of the screenplay sits there and says; ""I have a great cinematographer in mind for this story"", yet the cinematographer is no less important to the piece than the director. But so is the wardrobe person, the set designer and the like. They are no less important to the piece. Maybe in human terms considered less important (because of societies ridiculous teachings that there are winners and losers in life). It's all how you look at it. If you want to take it as an insult, then you are correct in your statement but if you want to look at it as a statement that says there is more to any film than any one element then you'll begin to see beyond the ""put down"". As I've said before, I've seen some great movies that had lousy cinematography and I've seen some lousy movies that had great cinematography. Just shows that a film is more than any one person.

++++saying...Bob Dylan's genius comes solely from his guitar playing. It may be a component of his music, and an important one, but it's hardly the most important one.++++

I know many who think as a writer of music, Bob Dylan is a genius but as a performer he sucks. I feel that way myself. I had the (opposite of pleasure) of working with him six years ago and his attitude on life sucks. If you didn't know he is considered a great song writer you would think he was nothing more than a bitter asshole. Doesn't make him any less a genius, but I would much rather here other people perform his songs than him singing his own. In fact more people have made better cuts and been a lot more successful at his songs than him. He even bitterly admits that and history has recorded that fact.

As for your guitar statement, I would love for you to talk to some of the greats and ask them how unimportant their guitar is. I think you'd find that you soon insult them with any reference to their guitar being just part of the equation. Les Paul made his whole career not on the music he wrote or sang, but on the guitar he sold to everyone. Ask a classical musician about his instrument and tell him that his instrument is merely part of the equation and you'll not make many friends or get into the concert for free. Whole companies; Steinway"", etc have made careers on having the best instruments and any good musician will tell you they are only as good as their instruments.

++++Imagine, say, Citizen Kane as shot by, oh, I won't name anyone, but think 70's sitcom style. Would it lose something? +++++

I think it is impossible to make any reference to a film, the person, who made it, and when it was made and try to give the scenario of ""what do you think would happen if they made it now?"". Kane was a masterpiece of it's time. It still is. But it was made when it was by a person who was successful when he was and it could never be duplicated or even come close. I have yet to see anyone agree that any remake of anything from the past is even close to the original.

There are too many factors in film making, when it was done, and who did it to try to make a weak comparison like ""what if???"". But you need not use a great like Kane either. No average film could be made the same way by any two different people.


Typesetting is an art. In many ways it is as underrated as cinematography is by the public. If you don't believe the font and it's layout can affect your mood then why are there so many? Having thrown that out, I would compare the book's binding to the theater seats and the type face to all the accouterments that affect our viewing of the projected images.

So is the statement valid? I don't think so. It's like comparing apples to oranges. Can't be done (though many try).

Great post Geoff. It really made me think. Though I would agree that there were reviewers bashing music before it could be recorded and stage plays long before films came along. I also note that reviewers are called critics. It's in their job description.

Eric Swenson Will watch any bad film if even one craft has done an exellent job.

And why do people have libraries of hard cover cloth bound books and no one prides themselves in paperbacks. People who like books take pleasure in the form of a book (e.g. the typesetting, the binding, the paper quality, etc). When I started the genre of commercials for the major publishers. I was told by many that these days, the cover of a book is as important to the sales as many of the authors. In fact some say that certain authors book covers are more important that the literary quality of the author. That comes from the vice president of Bantam books so if you want to complain about that statement call her.

Where years ago the cost of a paperback cover was on the order of a few cents, some have covers that cost up to a dollar per unit. Quite expensive when your selling a book.

Film is a colaborative effort utilizing the talents and skills of many people, towards a common goal.

The director has the following three elements at his disposal:

a) the story b) the actors performance c) the cinematography

Personaly I believe that cinematography has been neglected in the recent years, but is making a strong comeback. It's a shame because it's a third of the potential resources that you have at hand to tell your story. Proponents of ""pure cinema"" will argue it counts for more than a third. Murnau may have agreed with that statement, just take a look at something like ""The Last Laugh"".

Just my opinion.


Surely a really great film is when everyone has done their job well - and a really great director sees to it that everyone does their job well AND with the same effect. That's why CITIZEN KANE scores welle in all the ""10 best movies"" lists. Not only do the cinematographers love it, so do the actors, literary critics, editors, semiologists etc. And they love it even more because every great thing about the film is in tune with every other great thing.

But there are plenty of good films worth watching that gain their strength from excellence in some areas despite being only average in others. They just aren't in the top 10 of all time.

Dominic Case

Atlab Australia

PS. Not sure how Casablanca and GWTW earn their places in the top 10 according to the above theory. Discuss.

Try telling that to the editors.

For that matter, try watching a Hitchcock film without the Bernard Herrmann score (or with it when Hitch ran the scene sans music). Notwithstanding his visual and directorial excellence, I doubt if Hitchcock would have gained such eminence without his composer. The stories were all the same.

BTW - <Just my .02 cents:> - Feli - you should revise your rates. One fiftieth of a cent??

Dominic Case

Atlab Australia

Not meaning to belabor the point, but the previous Moby Dick remark was a compliment to the typeface itself, not how the book was set, or the craft of the typesetter. It would be like complimenting the cinematographer on the shape of, say, a 1.85 frame -- it's a choice often made by others (aspect ratio, or type family), a restriction that the typesetter or cinematographer lives with and works under.

I have great respect for typesetters -- my father was a printer, and I often spent long days at Ludlow and Linotype machines and watching ""strippers"" cut lith film to burn plates. All dead technology, of course!

Let's leave Dylan as off topic -- but ""Time out of Mind"" is a great album... not up to ""Blood on the Tracks"" or ""Blonde on Blonde"", but pretty damn good. But he doesn't need defending...

The only reason I mentioned Citizen Kane is that I was reading yet another Welles bio and it sprung to mind as a reference everyone would know.

Jeff ""the clarifier"" Kreines

In fact, if you look at many books, especially poetry books, you will see the selection of typeface, sizing, kerning, line spacing and line breaks, etc. have a great effect on the final appreciation by the reader for the book. In fact, paper selection and finishing materials for the case binding are often endlessly debated, too for fine books (not necessarily those produced for mass paperback consumption.) And the ""dumbing down"" of the craft of typeface design and typesetting are debated with as much fire as we reserve for DV cameras.

The actress who plays ""old Rose"" in Titanic has made a career of producing fine-art printed books which have been bought and displayed in many of the world's most prominent art museums.

So the analogy both slights fine cinematography and fine typography.

Mark ""I'll take Gill Sans over Arial anyday"" Schlicher

>The director has the following three elements at his disposal :

>a) the story b) the actors performance c) the cinematography

Also is, The Wardrobe, The set decoration, Music, Sound Effects, Special effects, Sound design, Editing. I'm sure there are more.

I don't think that Cinematography has been neglected in recent years. In that I believe you mean cinematographic technique. I see TOO many movies that have just Amazing Cinematography, but are lacking in Story, performance, and or Direction. Lot's of technique.

Steven Gladstone

so its rock and roll, but is it good rock and roll?

i hate to disagree, but there are a lot of very different types of movie reviewers, im sure if i looked at a month old newspaper with armageddon ads, there would be some quotes from reviewers who liked it.

as for DV features being punk rock, punk rock was not about a technical way of making music, it was about an attitude (after all, a lot of it still used the same blues progressions chuck berry used and the same instruments). i can't wait for punk attitude to hit films. i feel like contemporary films are in 1976 with billy joel playing on the radio, and some very frustrated young musicians are out there not wanting to be pink floyd or elton john. i certainly hope things in film are about to explode.


The cinematographer in a film is not the typesetter of a finished manuscript. He is the film equivalent of the part of the Herman Melville which is describing the surroundings, setting the atmosphere and mood and everything else that makes you picture the whale chase in your mind as you read the story.

Bruce Douglas

The thrust of my remark was to disparage neither bookmaking nor cinemaphotography - two of my life interests. It was to disparage - within the specific context of Geoff's original great post - the quality of american film criticism. Europeans have long held american cinematography in a higher regard than over here. Admiring the photographic work within a great film is one part of understanding the totality of the work. Some critics think, though, that that is all there is. Conversely they think mediocre films or worse have no photographic merit.

Carpent'er's remake of 'The Thing' was pretty much panned by the critical press. But it's opening helicopeter/sleddog/rifleman sequences are certainly worthy of inclusion in a course on editing, tempo, shot establishment, etc.And, like 'Armageddon' you guys would recognize even more valuable material and/or technique in them than even the most film-literate viewer.


Exactly!! Although I love beautiful and appropriate type faces and graphic design, my appreciation for Moby Dick would not change one iota whether I read it in a handwritten manuscript (so long as it was readable), typewritten pages, or the most elegantly presented layout and typeface--in my mind, where the story is taking place--the images would be exactly the same.

Film images replace the mental images as you watch a story. The contribution of all the craftspeople and artists becomes an important part of those images, naturally, and cannot be discounted. But the ""look"" of the images has a powerful effect on our appreciation of a good story, at least it does for me.

No typeface has any effect on my mental image of the story I read.

--Wade Ramsey

Re DV being punk, I am not so sure. It might also be something less wonderful... but Pixelvision might be closer to punk. And perhaps Betacam transferred to video is like, well, that self-produced, self-promoted CD of lounge music that even the friends of the artist don't listen to. (Got one in the mail once from someone named ""Skipper...)

I suppose the Dylan and Welles examples make some sense, as both of them were considered godlike in their mid-20s, and found it hard to top (or equal) their younger work...

Jeff ""not easy being a prodigy, is it?"" Kreines

>'Saying that a(n American) movie is good because it is well-photographed is like >saying 'Moby Dick' is a masterpiece because it has a nice type face.'

I can see the sense in the quote but I think some of the members are seeing something that's not there.

I was trained in the theatre where I was taught the play is everything. If someone remarks how nice you lit this or that then you'd basically failed in your job.

When I started to shoot promos the opposite seemed to apply and for that reason I stayed away from them for ages. Then when I did start shooting them I soon learned that if you applied the same reasoning then you were out on your backside. So I did a complete u-turn and started to throw the camera about and to light in a way that it was ""visible"".

It seems to me what the above quote is saying is ""most"" American films have no spine but a pretty skin. While there's nothing wrong with admiring a pretty skin don't go calling the body great or a masterpiece.

Citizen Cane may be a great movie but it would've been that anyway even if it had been photographed by another DP - it just has too many things going for it to be held back by ""bad"" photography. But this is something we will never know. However, I base my statement on some beautifully shot remakes of classic films which sunk like a ton of bricks! So why didn't the good photography buoy them up?

The majority of Hitchcock and Ford films are atrociously lit. But who complains about the bad lighting? Yet not a few of them are considered ""masterpieces"" of American cinema. I haven't seen the remake of Psycho but 10-1 it is beautifully lit but will sink into oblivion while Hitchcock's version will still be playing in 50 years time.

While the cinema is a visual medium primarily and an audio medium secondly it's as well to remember that it is a cerebral experience above all - unless, of course, you're on a date!

Shangara Singh

London Based DoP/Lighting Cameraman

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