Hi. How are you? Awesome. So, I'm gonna be honest with you up front. It's late. I've been writing for several hours now, and I'm a little drunk. But I watched The Bourne Supremacy the other day and it got me to thinking: I should have a legitimate discussion on cinematography. Why? Well in part because I have received complaints over my 3+ years of writing reviews (holy crap it's been over 3 years....) that I don't talk about things other than acting, scripts, and directing and I fail to highlight more technical aspects of film like cinematography, editing, costumes, lighting and sound. Well, let me answer that right now. I don't highlight the technical side of a film as much because I think it's a lot easier to do and get right more than things like acting, an engaging story, or the 30 million things a director has to do at any given moment. Am I saying it's easy to be a cinematographer? No. Absolutely not. There are still cinematographers like Roger Deakins, Donald McAlpine, or Robert Yeoman that are able to create pure art with a camera and make half of a film's viewing experience about staring at the picture that is placed before you. Much less anything else that's going on. And of course there's the incredible work that Emmanuel Lubezki is doing right now with a camera between films like Gravity and Birdman. That is some of the best cinematography I have ever seen. What I'm saying is that when it comes to something like cinematography, I am very easy to please. Give me some cool b-roll footage for establishing shots and record action sequences from wide angles and I'm usually pretty happy. However when a film like The Bourne Supremacy rolls around and completely f***s up their cinematography, it brings the entire film down with it.
Let's talk about this film, shall we? Overall, the Jason Bourne series is an interesting premise. From a story standpoint it's actually surprisingly engaging, albeit rather predictable. And the acting is awesome. I mean you can never go wrong with Matt Damon, right? But I really just do not like this film. Why? Because of the cinematography. This film gets everything, and I mean EVERYTHING wrong when it comes to cinematography. All the establishing shots for new locations are vague. Action sequences are shot in extreme close ups. And shaky cam. Good GOD the shaky cam! Why anyone ever thought that using shaky cam would help "increase tension" in an action sequence is BEYOND me. And holy crap is the shaky cam turned up to 11 in this film. But not only that, almost every major shot in this film feels wrong. Characters are shot at weird/uncomfortable angles. You find yourself disoriented from time to time because the camera never really tells you where you are. And of course the shaky cam makes you want to throw up. Overall the cinematography of The Bourne Supremacy is some of the worst cinematography I have EVER seen, and it brings an otherwise good film down with it.
So, for any of you wannabe cinematographers reading along, listen up. Cinematography is easy to do well, but hard to do great. So what do you need to do for some good cinematography? Start with no lens flares, (Shots fired over at JJ Abrams there) and start with NO FREAKING SHAKY CAM. Start with some good wideshots of the city you're going to. If you don't have time/money to rent a helicopter to fly over it, pick the most recognizable part of a particular city and film a closeup of it from really far away. For example your characters are going to Seattle? Give us a shot of the Space Needle. Rome? The Coliseum. DC? The White House. Going to Vancouver for once? Well.....good luck finding an iconic shot there. (I have absolutely no idea why I insulted Vancouver there I'm sure it's a very nice city.) But after that, that's when your skill truly comes out. There is a fascinating documentary out on Netflix right now called Side By Side, which is a documentary from Keanu Reeves interviewing directors and cinematographers alike and getting their thoughts on the movie industry's slow adoption from reel-based cameras to digital-based cameras. While the industry is still very torn over the rise of digital cameras in film, things like the incredible cinematography Lubezki is doing right now simply weren't possible with reel-based technologies. Digital cameras have been a game-changer technology-wise, and yet a miniscule amount of Hollywood has fully embraced the premise. Why? Because their art comes (in their mind, at least) from reel-based cameras. This. The battle over digital cameras. This is where the art comes out. Not in how well you shoot a scene, but rather what feelings you can portray with it and the sadly narrow view we as the audience will actually see of it. And whether you feel you're better at this with digital or reel-based cameras is entirely up to you. I can't provide pointers on artful/great cinematography, because if I could I would be trying to do that for a living. So I will continue to glance over cinematography most of the time, because in most films it doesn't matter to. Most of the time a cinematographer will turn on a certain filter, deliver good cinematography, and call it a day. But whenever the art does come out, I will go out of my way to commend it. Because when cinematography is truly spectacular it can be the centerpiece of a film. Oh, and if a film is shot in a perceived single take again, I will be the first one in the seats to see whether it is a gimmick or something truly memorable. After all it was the first time around.
Unfriended (2015): A group of online chat room friends find themselves haunted by a mysterious, supernatural force using the account of their dead friend.
But you can be terrifying without pop scares. Just look at It Follows! There's 2-3 pop scares in that entire film, and yet it is one of the scariest films the genre has seen in a loooong time. So, for all you filmmakers out there, how is It Follows so great and creative? How does it succeed at thinking outside the box when Unfriended does not? Well, first off, it puts rules on its antagonist. Its entity, so to say. In Unfriended, that entity could do whatever it wanted, so you knew it could be anywhere and everywhere at the same time. There was no rules for it. I would argue that this greatly reduces the scare factor, because you're expecting it to be everywhere. The entity in It Follows was limited by rules, and thus you knew there was stuff it could not do. By grounding the entity with rules, the filmmakers made what the entity did do that much scarier. Next up, for the love of God, don't wait until the last moments of your film to reveal the entity to the audience. Yes, it makes those final pop scares more dramatic, but if you allow the entity to show itself early on, there's so much more you can do with it! Insidious was a good film, but had the lady in black revealed herself early on in the film, it would've been that much creepier. Unfriended waits until literally the last moment of the film to actually reveal the entity, which was a complete waste of something that should have been extremely creepy from the start. Even though yes, it was a great last scare. But there could be a lot more if they had revealed the entity earlier. Finally, don't have a gimmick be your selling point. Because if it is, and your film is successful, we're gonna see that gimmick used 100 more times. Paranormal Activity was scary because of the fact that many people were sold on it being ACTUAL found footage. But now, how many "found footage" films have we gotten? I mean there's only 457 Paranormal Activity films now. Plus that Sinister film, which is now somehow getting a sequel too. And a lot more. Unfriended uses the "found footage" formula as well. But show some creativity! You don't need a clown suit to sell your scary movie. (Aka Clown's selling point) After all, there is nothing out of the ordinary with the entity in It Follows. They're ordinary people following our protagonists. No super weird makeup or anything. But each and every time we see the entity, it's memorable and creepy.
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