The paradox of the various departments of film production, whether it’s design, music, photography or others, is that when they’re executed with the highest level of skill they stand out, but they’re not really meant to. Most agree that a movie’s score, for instance, is operating at its best when it is affecting the audience’s response to and understanding of a particular scene or moment in a film but on a completely unconscious level. It’s only afterward, perhaps on repeat viewings, that we notice how beautifully composed the music was throughout, and in particular segments of the movie. If it stands out too much, it can be overbearing, and overly noticeable, and actually distract from the story that we’re supposed to be engaging in.
I don’t completely buy this perspective, but I certainly understand and sympathize with it. Story is important, and for those whose intention it is to make story the primary component to their movie, as is most often the case, then anything that upstages the story is to its detriment. On the other hand, one of the most important aspects of cinematic storytelling is defining the mood or voice of the story, and this is achieved most effectively and simply through establishing a distinct look and feel to the film’s imagery. It’s a delicate balance, and the best cinematographers are the ones who can maintain that balance while delighting our eyes.
Here are 10 figures who stand out as among the very best cinematographers in the movie business.
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