(Credit: Wim Wenders)

10 essential documentaries on the art of cinematography

We are writing stories with light and darkness, motion and colours.” – Vittorio Storaro

Cinema is undoubtedly a visual medium, and cinematography is the language through which films manifest their incomparable beauty. The cinematographer is the one responsible for creating an interface between the literary and the visual narrative of the film, framing and composing each and every shot in order to make sure that what we see makes us feel something as well.

In an interview, acclaimed cinematographer Vittorio Storaro said, “I discovered at one point in my life, after studying for nine years in cinematography school, that I was very knowledgeable in technology but I didn’t know anything about the art. And when I discovered that, I thought to myself, ‘My God, I only have one leg.’ So I started to do whatever I could—read, listen, watch—to gain an awareness of the past and other art forms, because cinema constantly nourishes itself from other arts. And I was ignorant.”

Storaro added: “So I said to myself: ‘I think I need to write down my research.’ It’s not about myself, but about what I learned from the philosophers. So I started to write and take still photographs, because in the end, I’m a writer with images, not with words. But mainly I was putting together the thoughts of many philosophers.”

If you are interested in learning more about the art and the artists behind the camera, we recommend these ten brilliant documentaries on the subject of cinematography.

See the full list, below.

10 of the greatest cinematography documentaries:

Visions of Light (Arnold Glassman, Todd McCarthy – 1992)

The film, which features interviews from the likes of Haskell Wexler, Conrad Hall, Laszlo Kovacs, Sven Nykvist, John Bailey, Vittorio Storaro and Nestor Almendros among others, covers the art of cinematography and traces its origins from the start of the 20th century.

Visions of Light dissects iconic works of cinema, from Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane to Martin Scorsese film Raging Bull as a tribute to pioneers of cinematography like Gregg Toland, Billy Bitzer and John Alton. The documentary provides brilliant insights into the history of the craft and how it developed with time.

Cinematographer Style (Jon Fauer – 2006)

Jon Fauer interviews around 110 top cinematographers from all around the world for his 2006 documentary on cinematography, a project which was the first major English-language work on the subject since Visions of Light. Featuring artists like Roger Deakins and Gordon Willis, Fauer tries to draw attention to the role of cinematography in cinema.

Leading figures of the art form explain how it has evolved with technology and what influenced them when they started their careers. Cinematographer Style does a great job at highlighting how the visual artistic choices can impact the narrative of the story more than other manipulations.

No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo & Vilmos (James Chressanthis – 2008)

A biographical work which also offers an expansive view on cinematography, this 2008 documentary focuses on the lives of Hungarian expatriates Laszlo Kovacs and Vilmos Zsigmond who had to leave the country after the Soviet Invasion of 1956. They managed to become two of the most well-known cinematographers in Hollywood and remained friends for almost the entirety of their lives.

No Subtitles Necessary features testimonials from the likes of Peter Bogdanovich and Dennis Hopper, tracing their trajectory from working in B-grade films to establishing themselves as pioneers of the New Hollywood movement. Director James Chressanthis was a student of both Kovacs and Zsigmond, the former urged him to make the documentary.

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff (Craig McCall – 2010)

A documentary about one of the most distinguished cinematographers of all time, Cameraman evaluates Jack Cardiff’s monumental legacy and how he became one of the pioneers of Technicolor. It takes a look back at the times when Cardiff worked with Hollywood legends like Alfred Hitchcock and also features interviews from the masters of cinema like Martin Scorsese.

McCall said, “I first met Jack Cardiff when I was making music videos in the early nineties. We were at the EMI offices in London, and Jack was called in to do a video of a performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. He was in his eighties then. 

“At that time, I didn’t know much about him—the only film of his I would have felt confident talking about was A Matter of Life and Death, which had a big impact on me as a kid. I only became aware of The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus when I was older.”

Writing with Light: Vittorio Storaro (David M. Thompson – 1992)

A documentary about the legendary cinematographer who worked on masterpieces like Apocalypse Now and The Last Emperor, this 1992 film gives Storaro a platform to present his theories on visual narrative. Featuring the likes of Warren Beatty and Bernardo Bertolucci, Writing with Light explores Storaro’s magnificent work and his ideas of visual elements like light and colour in cinema.

Storaro said, “Light is energy, and I think that we not only originate from this energy but it is also our reality. The essence of light has this spiritual quality, whether we know it or not. Even if we don’t understand, even if we don’t believe, even if we refuse, even if we don’t know, it has to be.”

He added, “I think each movie is a part of your life, even if you don’t want it to be, because while you’re living you’re working and through your work you’re expressing yourself. And step by step as you express yourself, you grow as a human being, and likewise the more you grow as a human being the more you express yourself.”

Cameraperson (Kirsten Johnson – 2016)

Kirsten Johnson’s autobiographical memoir on her journey as a cinematographer is a brilliant piece of cinematic reflection, featuring a collection of beautiful images filmed in different countries which define her artistic sensibilities. It received critical acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival and received numerous accolades.

“I’m interested in both the subject having space as well as the audience,” Johnson explained. “That’s what fascinates me when people watch it multiple times because there’s enough space in it and enough things going on that there are new relationships that form when you watch it again. It’s the function of a piece of music more than a film in some ways because it really depends upon the space that you are in when you see it, [as] to what it does to you.”

Tell Them Who You Are (Mark Wexler – 2004)

A personal piece on the life of legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler by his son, Tell Them Who You Are is Mark’s attempt to evaluate his father’s influence on his own work while simultaneously establishing his own unique identity as a filmmaker. The documentary features interviews from acclaimed filmmakers like Milos Forman and George Lucas as well as artists like Jane Fonda and Michal Douglas.

“My dad cast a big shadow. It was always challenging being his son on many levels,” Mark said. “The process of making this film was a great experience. My dad is a very busy person, and I got to spend a lot of time around him—much more than I would if we were just seeing each other socially.

“I think that being behind the camera has given me a clearer picture of who he is as a person, because I was talking to his friends and observing him. Then, of course, there was the process of spending hours and hours examining him under the microscope, looking at footage while we were editing.”

Light Keeps Me Company (Carl-Gustav Nykvist – 2000)

A nuanced and insightful look at cinematographer Sven Nykvist’s cinematic legacy, Carl-Gustav Nykvist attempts to paint a complete picture of his father’s life and illustrious career. It doesn’t try to analyse or deconstruct Nykvist’s works, choosing to present an intimate look at the kind of person he was instead.

The documentary features interviews from certified legends ranging from Ingmar Bergman and Woody Allen to Susan Sarandon and Gena Rowlands. Nykvist’s esteemed colleagues like Laslo Kovacs and Vittorio Storraro explain his invaluable contribution to the world of cinema and cinematography.

In The Mood For Doyle (Yves Montmayeur – 2007)

The cinematographer who became a global icon for his collaboration with Hong Kong New Wave filmmakers like Wong Kar-wai and Fruit Chan, this 2007 documentary is a kind of road film which follows Doyle’s journey from Bangkok to Hong Kong, via New York. Doyle reflects on his own works, shares his thoughts about his contemporaries and explains his fascination for Asian culture.

“My first film, I made when I was 32 years old,” Doyle recalled. “I left home, my family, when I was 15, and then I left Australia when I was 19. Then I travelled and travelled and travelled and travelled and went through all sorts of things, including what you just asked about. I worked in a kibbutz as a cowboy; in India, we dug wells for irrigation; in Thailand, I was selling quack medicine…I think life experiences inform your view of the world.”

Light and Shadow (Steve Weiss – 2013)

Featuring big names like Roger Deakins and Vittorio Storaro, Light and Shadow focuses on the under-appreciated art of cinematography and tries to figure out how these brilliant artists function. A year and a half in the making, this 2013 documentary shows how cinematographers use their innate sense of lighting and visual narrative to push the boundaries of art.

“This was definitely a passion project me. We started interviewing Cinematographers 18 months ago. We decided not to ask the obvious questions, but more to try to find the passion and inspiration we all have for film, cinematography and creativity itself,” Weiss said.

Adding, “This is not an educational film, although you can learn a lot if listen. It’s more of an inspirational piece that I hope will motivate people to get out and shoot, improve their craft and see how others before them made it to the top of their field.”

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