In the world of cinema, artistic praise is usually reserved for directors, writers, and producers. Film critics and audiences are quick to create a cult of celebrity around a visionary director who displays a distinct visual style and unique storytelling abilities that sets him apart from his peers.
The same could be said for screenwriters who craft witty dialogue, compelling narratives, and stories that stand the test of time. Producers are admired for bringing all the right pieces together – directors, writers, and actors making projects that both audiences and critics love, while at the same time, producing films that generate huge profits at the box office.
However, there is no person working on a film set more underrated yet so essential to the success of a film than the cinematographer. These masters of light use cameras, lenses, film stock, and lighting equipment to create powerful visual images to help a director bring their story to life on the big screen.
It can even be argued that, next to a director, the cinematographer is the most important person on a film production; there have been many films that began filming without a completed screenplay, but no movie can truly be successful if the photography isn’t outstanding.
Not all cinematographers live in obscurity; quite a few have gone on to become legends in the film industry, but even some of the most acclaimed directors of photography are sometimes overshadowed during the collaborating process with certain directors. We compiled a list containing 15 of the greatest cinematographers, past and present, who unfortunately took a back seat when they worked with certain iconic directors.
15. Gregg Toland
Gregg Toland was truly one of the most innovative and influential cinematographers to ever live. He was nominated five times for best cinematography and won an Oscar for “Wuthering Heights”, released in 1939.
Toland is best remembered for creating the deep focus technique on “Citizen Kane”, where the filmmakers were able to keep several elements of the frame in focus at the same time. Toland was able to accomplish this by closing down on the aperture, using extremely bright lights and faster film stock, and the results were visually stunning.
Rumor has it that Toland sought out Orson Welles, telling the young filmmaker that he wanted to photograph his next film, even bringing along the Oscar he won for Best Cinematography and showing it off to Welles.
Obviously, Welles made a wise decision by hiring Toland and the resulting collaboration on the film would go down in history as one of the greatest films ever made. While Welles is credited with being the young visionary genius behind “Citizen Kane” it is no doubt that Toland’s contribution is one of the main reasons the film is so revered to this very day.
14. John Alcott
What separated legendary film director Stanley Kubrick from other directors in the industry was the fact he was more than able to light a set on his own and was an unofficial cinematographer himself. But Kubrick only worked with one cinematographer more than once and that was John Alcott, with whom he collaborated on “A Clockwork Orange”, “Barry Lyndon”, and “The Shining”.
Alcott loved natural light and he approached lighting in a naturalistic style. For day exteriors, he often used reflectors and diffusion and had his actors backlighted. For interiors, he usually placed his actors by blown-out windows and loved to used ND and diffusion filters, and used side lighting to light his actor’s faces.
Alcott won an Oscar for Best Cinematography for “Barry Lyndon”, but it would be hard for anyone working on a Kubrick film to receive any recognition for their contribution. However, the fact Kubrick choose to work with Alcott on many of his films is testament to Alcott’s talents as a cinematographer.
13. Bradford Young
A new age director of photography who has come to prominence in the age of digital cinematography, Bradford Young often operates his own camera and shoots with a wide open aperture to accomplish a shallow depth of field. He loves to underexpose his films and uses soft light to achieve beautiful images. He usually uses top light, and for day exteriors he uses natural light, but will also use tungsten and HMI lights to get the results he wants.
Young is one of the hottest cinematographers in the business and is currently filming the standalone Han Solo film for the Star Wars franchise, and his involvement in a film can overshadow many journeymen directors working in the business.
As the cinematographer on the film “Arrival”, he was nominated for an Oscar and became the first African-American nominated for that category in the 87-year history of the ceremony. But even without that groundbreaking fact, it would be hard to outshine Denis Villeneuve, who is currently the hottest director in the industry.
When it comes to talent, it is does say a lot that after working with legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins on the film “Sicario”, Villeneuve would chose a cinematographer that was non-union just four years ago to photograph his big-budget film “Arrival” which means the hottest director in the industry is anointing Bradford Young as the go to cinematographer of the future.
12. Larry Fong
Looking at his filmography, you might think that all Larry Fong does all day is light a green screen, but watching the film “Super 8”, you see Fong can create rich and vibrant images.
On his big-budget films, Fong tries to keep a naturalistic look and often uses the Rembrandt or split-lighting style, and uses a harsh light opposite the key. When it comes to movement, the camera is always steady and rarely does he use shaky handheld camera movement. He loves the 27mm lens and his camera of choice is Panavision. He loves to mix in colors but in a subtle fashion.
In shooting the majority of Zach Snyder’s films, Fong has helped bring superheroes, zombies and Spartans to life in vivid fashion. Snyder gets the credit for being a maestro when it comes to big-budget action films but it’s Fong’s beautiful photography that breathes realism into fantasy.
11. Janusz Kaminski
When you’re the only cinematographer Steven Spielberg has worked for more than 20 years, it means you have been at the top of your game for a long time. From his arresting black-and-white photography in “Schindler’s List” or the realism of “Saving Private Ryan”, Kaminski is one of the best cinematographer to ever light a set.
Kaminski doesn’t try to replicate reality with his lighting; it’s more of impressionistic style. He tends to use a strong backlight as a second key using smoke or haze in the backlight as well. He even backlights his actors on day exteriors and will apply diffusion filters and nets on his lenses to get a softer image, and loves to use soft lights on his subject.
Working with Spielberg for so many years, many casual observers might attribute all the visuals in the films as the ownership of Spielberg alone. However, one of the best and most important decisions Spielberg has made to contribute to his success for all these decades is continuing his partnership with Kaminski.
10. Robert Yeoman
The visual style of “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is bold and striking, which is a departure from most of Wes Anderson’s films, which are usually subtle when it comes to the photography; it shows the range of Robert Yeoman, who can deliver beautiful cinematography that can go unnoticed, letting the story and actors take center stage.
Shooting day exteriors, Yeoman typically backlights his actors and creates soft light from a single source. He love to shoots day for night and often uses Chinese lanterns to light his actors, and the DP rarely uses filters on his lenses to achieve a sharper image.
Spike Lee once said he owes his entire career to cinematographer Ernest Dickerson and it’s safe to say Wes Anderson, considered one of the most important directors of our time, can say the same thing about Robert Yeoman.
9. Robert Elswit
Few cinematographers can take a barren location and make it look as gorgeous the way Robert Elswit did in the film “There Will Be Blood”. His frequent collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson have brought us some of the most hypnotic movies since the mid 90s. Elswit loves a contrasty image and he typically lights faces on a contrast ratio of 2:1 or 3:1.
Next to working with the director, he collaborates the most with the production designers on the set to help create a cohesive visual look. He often uses an overexposed side key light and likes to under expose his background. He usually uses Panavision cameras and prime lenses.
Elswit has filmed all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films except for one, and received an Oscar for “There Will Be Blood”. Anderson is considered one of the greatest directors of our time and Elswit’s brilliant photography is one of the reasons why.
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