The visual complexity of successful motion picture work––particularly high-concept imagery––can be challenging to deconstruct, even for those of us who do it for a living. As the audience we know viscerally when a piece works, but it’s often difficult to understand what elements came together to create this effect, or even how the artists conceived such complexity to start with. We can feel that it works, but we don’t know why.
I find it useful when designing a project to think in terms of layers. I’m not talking about the spatial layering of the image (foreground, subject, background), though that is of course also important. I’m talking about the layers of visual technique that are used to deepen the viewer’s experience. The music video for Timbaland’s The Way I Are, shot by Swedish cinematographer Eric Maddison, provides a good example:
Music videos are fertile ground for visual layering because they are designed explicitly to project style. The base canvas in this video is fairly simple: night exterior shots of two artists performing, intercut with football players doing some fancy footwork in a tunnel. But it is the layers added to this canvas that make the video so engaging. For me the first layer is the addition of a high-contrast look, with strong cyan highlights in the background. The next layer is the selective focus (achieved in this case via swing and shift lenses). Additional layers include the frenetic camera movement, the flashing lights with lens flares, off-camera lights moving across the actors, double exposures (achieved in post-production), and the hi-speed work. Though individually none of these techniques is anything to write home about, their combined effect leads to spectacular results, and this is due entirely to careful planning on the part of the cinematographer.
Post-production and VFX have begun to play an increasingly important role in this process of layering. In Damascus, a seductive city portrait produced by Waref Abu Quba, is a non-fiction project with magnificent VFX layering over surprisingly simple cinematography:
As Waref shows us in his making-of video, he uses a wide array of VFX tools to deliver an intricately layered image: composite elements, film looks, camera movement, sky replacement, textures, and considerable manipulation of focus, to name just a few. Strong work.
Great cinematographers are great in part because of their ability to visualize complex layering––the potential depth of an image––during the project’s development. I can see farther now than I used to, but for me developing this kind of foresight is still very much a work in progress, and I expect it will stay that way throughout my career. Whenever I hit a wall when researching the look of an upcoming project––when I know there are more layers, but I just can’t see them yet––I often call upon visual artists I’m close with to help brainstorm. I consider myself very fortunate to have friends and colleagues far more talented than myself, and I hope this will always be the case.
The view from Kostava Street: rain and rain. Happy to be back in Tbilisi!