cinematography school

4 Tips to Create Depth in a Shot

When it comes to 2D images, like a standard photograph or a film you’re watching projected on your local multiplex’s screen, depth is an illusion. From cinematography to photography to painting to hand-drawn animations, artists must fool the human eye into thinking it’s viewing something in a three-dimensional plane when it’s actually flat.

Piecing together a captivating story becomes easier when you master different techniques proven to add depth (or the illusion of depth) to a shot. Here are four tips that will help give your cinematography the power to convince viewers that they are experiencing a world as real as their own.

Shallow Focus

Focus is perhaps the most powerful (and common) method of creating depth in both photography and film. Our human eyes have evolved to do this wonderfully—hold out your finger in front of your eyes, focus your vision on it, and notice how everything behind it becomes a blur.

This lens technique, called shallow focus, allows filmmakers to achieve depth by fooling our brains into naturally believing there’s space in between the plane in focus and the one that’s out.

Depth

Light and Shadow

If there’s one natural agent that influences our depth perception in the real world, it’s light. Point a light at something, whether near you or behind other objects, and your eyes will be drawn to focus there. By using high contrast lighting, filmmakers are able to inject both depth and dimension to their compositions.

Whereas soft lighting can make an image appear flatter, sharper lighting delivers harsh shadows that help add an illusion of depth. Usually, the higher the contrast you create between shadow and light, the stronger depth you’ll get in a shot.

Linear Perspective

If you want a quick (and fun) way of better understanding linear perspective, take out a blank sheet of paper and draw from the perspective of someone looking down a long hallway, bridge, or railroad tracks. You’ll notice that to match a realistic sense of depth you’ll have to draw converging lines that start wide near the bottom and become closer as they recede toward the vanishing point.

By using camera placement in combination with wide angle lenses, you can add depth by making the horizon seem farther away. Veteran cinematographers learn to get creative by utilizing different camera placements to achieve depth and energy via varying perspectives.

Depth

Occlusion

Though it may seem like a simple concept, occlusion is a powerful tool for creating depth, especially in CGI films and video games. Occlusion refers to the visual obstruction of a distant object with another object in the foreground. Similarly, for astronomers, occultation is all about studying what stars become visible and hidden depending on the course of the Moon’s orbit around Earth.

In filmmaking, this technique works alongside parallax to create depth. Usually, this effect comes naturally when filming people and objects positioned in front of other things. But if you ever find yourself with a tracking shot that feels like it’s lacking depth, considering having more objects in order to have a sharper occlusion effect. If there’s one filmmaker who learned how to make the tracking shot his own by using different techniques, including occlusion, it’s Steven Spielberg.

You can find more information about studying cinematography at New York Film Academy here.

5 Cinematography Books Filmmakers Should Check Out

While there are plenty of YouTube videos and other visual aids to supplement your cinematography school education, there’s a tried-and-true source that works even when the wi-fi is down—books.

What’s great about books is that you can study each page at your own pace, and often books on cinematography come with simple yet informative visual aids. Also, if they are still in print, there’s a good chance they’ve had the time to prove themselves a useful resource.

Here are some books on cinematography you can check out:

Cinematography: Theory and Practice: Image Making for Cinematographers and Directors
by Blain Brown

A lot of the core tenets of cinematography have stayed the same for the last 100 years or so, but with the advent of digital filmmaking that is no longer the case. Blain Brown’s definitive 2016 book covers a broad range of cinematography topics and includes much of the modern, digital equipment and techniques that come along with them. This book makes a great basic blueprint for you to familiarize yourself with the craft before honing your skills in a hands-on cinematography program. In general, you should always try to get the most updated print; currently, Brown’s book is in its third edition.

FilmCraft: Cinematography
by Tim Grierson and Mike Goodridge 

By working on set with state-of-the-art equipment, cinematography school is a great way for you to master a complicated craft. However, the value of some books is how they can hone in on very specific projects or people, and use these examples to explore the practical techniques you’ve learned. FilmCraft’s Cinematography book is a prime example of this—by looking closely at iconic films like Psycho, Chicago, and Hero, and through discussions with veterans of the art form like Vittorio Storaro and Christopher Doyle, this book lets you see cinematography in action.

On Suspiria and Beyond: A Conversation with Cinematographer Luciano Tovoli
by Luciano Tovoli

Even more specific is On Suspiria and Beyond, a book that focuses on one specific director of photography, Luciano Tovoli. By devoting an entire book to an interview with Tovoli, you can get firsthand knowledge from a veteran who has worked with such esteemed and talented directors as Dario Argento, Michelangelo Antonioni, Andrej Tarkovskjj, Julie Taymor, and many others. Tovoli was passionate about the use of color and goes into vivid detail about specific sequences from his work on the mind-bending horror film Suspiria. This book looks at cinematography in a hyperfocused manner you won’t find elsewhere.

Painting with Light
by John Alton

Academy Award-winning director of photography John Alton (An American in Paris, The Big Combo) first published Painting with Light in 1949, but his writings on the art form still hold a lot of weight. Once you’ve mastered the tools and craft in cinematography school, Painting with Light will help you explore how to use image making to determine the visual mood of a film, incorporating lighting, camera techniques, location choices, and more. As a plus, the book is not afraid to use non-technical language, so even beginners can delve into Alton’s work, perhaps as a precursor to taking cinematography classes.

Masters of Light: Conversations with Contemporary Cinematographers
by Dennis Schaefer and Larry Salivate

This book features fifteen conversations with modern cinematographers to give a firsthand look at how directors of photography work on set and approach their jobs. Authors Dennis Schaefer and Larry Salvato are both film critics, while the newest edition of Masters of Light features a preface by veteran cinematographer John Bailey. This is a must read for anyone looking to get inside the heads of contemporary cinematographers.

2019 Academy Awards: Best Cinematography Nominees

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have announced the nominees for the 91st annual Academy Awards, to be given out during ABC’s televised ceremony on Sunday, February 24. The Oscars will cap off a months-long awards season featuring industry veterans, newcomers, and as always, endless debates about who deserves to go home with the golden statue.

New York Film Academy (NYFA) takes a closer look at this year’s Academy Award nominees for Best Achievement in Cinematography:

Cold War, Lukasz Zal

Polish director of photography Lukasz Zal was previously nominated by the Academy for Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida, which he co-shot with Ryszard Lenczewski. Both Ida and Cold War showcase Zal’s immense talent with black and white photography. He has shot mostly documentary shorts and a few short films, making the nominations for two of his only features that much more notable.

The Favourite, Robbie Ryan

This is the first Oscar nomination for Irish cinematographer Robbie Ryan. He has shot previously for director Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank, American Honey) and Stephen Frears (Philomena). In total, Ryan has been director of photography for over 80 features, shorts, commercials, and music videos, including the films Wuthering Heights, The Last Days on Mars, and Slow West.


Never Look Away, Caleb Deschanel

Caleb Deschanel is a veteran director of photography who has shot such Hollywood films as Being There, The Right Stuff, The Natural, National Treasure, The Passion of the Christ, and Jack Reacher. This is Deschanel’s sixth Oscar nomination for cinematography; among others, he was nominated for Fly Away Home and The Patriot. His next film will be Disney’s live action remake of The Lion King.

Roma, Alfonso Cuarón

In addition to writing and directing Best Picture nominee Roma, Alfonso Cuarón also shot the semi-autobiographical film, a rare distinction for Hollywood directors. Roma was filmed in black-and-white on an Arriflex Alexa 65 digital camera, giving it a stark, unique look that has been near-universally praised. Other cinematography credits for Cuarón include several short films in the 1980s, as well as the television series Hora Marcada. While typically Cuarón delegates the role to other talented directors of photography such as Academy Award-winner Emmanuel Lubezki, this is his first credit as a cinematographer in nearly three decades.

A Star Is Born, Matthew Libatique

Matthew Libatique is a Queens-born Filipino American cinematographer who has previously worked with directors such as Spike Lee, Jon Favreau, and Darren Aronofsky, and was previously nominated for an Oscar for shooting Aronofsky’s Black Swan. Libatique was director of photography for the first film of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Iron Man, and is currently working on the latest DCEU and Harley Quinn film, Birds of Prey. His other cinematography credits include Requiem for a Dream, Gothika, Everything Is Illuminated, Inside Man, Straight Outta Compton, and Venom, among many others.

 

Check out the New York Film Academy Blog after this year’s ceremony for a full list of the 2019 Oscar winners and losers!