The 10 greatest cinematographers who changed the landscape of cinema
“Photography is truth. The cinema is truth twenty-four times per second.” – Jean-Luc Godard
Photography, when put to its bare-bones, is essentially capturing light. The entire process is pretty simple: when the shutter is clicked, the aperture opens up, and light is allowed to rush in. Upon the closing of the shutter, no more light is let inside. Whatever light is captured makes the photograph. The photograph, conversely, is nothing but rushes of light. When we see the picture, we experience an abundance of different emotions. It communicates with us on different visceral and subconscious levels. We laugh, we cry, sometimes it makes us sad, and sometimes plain angry. Whatever it makes us feel, we feel because we see the truth.
What about cinema then? Well, just like the French New Wave filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard said: “Cinema is nothing but the truth, twenty-four times per second.”
In controlling mise-en-scene during filming, the filmmaker stages an event to be filmed — but what happens in front of the camera isn’t the whole story. That event has to be captured, on a strip of film or in a digital format. The recording process opens up a new area of choice and control: cinematography. The director has the vision for a film in their head and it’s the cinematographer’s job to try and make that vision a reality.
What we actually see on the screen is due in a large part to the cinematographer, and it can make or break a film, no matter how good the script or director.
We looked at some of the best cinematographers of all time, from the early days of film to the modern era, and tried to list the ten greatest cinematographers, who with their art, changed the look of the cinema forever.
The 10 greatest cinematographers:
10. Vittorio Storaro
There are only a handful of cinematographers in the world whom we could even place in the same sentence as Vittorio Storaro. The legendary Italian director of photography is one of the most respected artists in his line of work: a three-time Academy Award winner (Apocalypse Now, Reds, The Last Emperor), Bernardo Bertolucci’s close collaborator (Last Tango in Paris, The Conformist, 1900, Luna, Little Buddha), the receiver of ASC’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and a man who continues to work and transfer his knowledge to the next generation.
Storaro describes his own life as an equilibrium between the passion of red and the reason of blue, and therefore he is certain that the cinematographer should write with light and darkness; white and black; the sun and the moon. The opposing elements he talks about can be observed overall in his photography. The conflict between natural and artificial energy sources, the use of opposing colours and its correspondence to emotions of the characters create a subtle contrast that reveals the differences―and similarities―between reality and film.
9. Sven Nykvist
Swedish cinematographer Sven Nykvist is mostly known for his collaboration with the directorial great Ingmar Bergman, which lasted twenty-five years. He pioneered the use of natural light in films, and is heavily acclaimed for his ability to give it a naturalistic look; and as well for his close-up shots that emphasised the psychological movements of the characters, to which Bergman gave priority.
They worked together in some of his masterpieces, such as the Faith Trilogy―Through a Glass Darkly, The Silence and Winter Light―Persona, Cries and Whispers and Fanny and Alexander. When Bergman stopped directing theatrical full-length movies, Sven went to the United States. There he worked with Woody Allen―an assumed Bergman fan―in Another Woman, Crimes and Misdemeanors and in his hilarious segment from New York Stories.
Generally noted for the naturalism and simplicity found in his works, Sven also worked with Roman Polanski and Andrei Tarkovsky too. He died in 2006 after devoting half a century of his life to making films and having won uncountable prizes, including two Academy Awards (for Cries and Whispers and Fanny and Alexander).
8. Emmanuel Lubezki
There is no other filmmaker that better embodies the possibilities and potential of filmmaking today than Emmanuel Lubezki. Working with Terrence Malick, Lubezki elevated the naturalism of modern filmmaking into a new poetic language. With Alfonso Cuarón and their Gravity, he pioneered (and simultaneously mastered) creating cinema in a virtual workspace. With Alejandro González Iñárritu, he has tapped an exciting immersive side of using new tools.
Lubezki is known for groundbreaking uses of natural lighting and continuous uninterrupted shots in cinematography, often utilising a Steadicam, a 3-axis gimbal, or hand-held camera to orchestrate fluid, uninterrupted camera movements during particularly significant scenes. His work has been praised by audiences and critics alike, which earned him multiple awards, including eight Academy Award nominations for Best Cinematography. He won in this category three times, becoming the first person to do so in three consecutive years, for Gravity, Birdman, and The Revenant.
7. Raoul Coutard
Raoul Coutard is perhaps the most famous cinematographer of the French Nouvelle Vague. Best known for his collaborations with Jean-Luc Godard, he has also shot films for New Wave director François Truffaut as well as Jacques Demy, a contemporary frequently associated with the movement.
Coutard photographed nearly all of Godard’s work in the Nouvelle Vague era, except for Masculin Féminin; their last work during this period was Week-end, which marked the end of Godard’s work as a ‘mainstream’ filmmaker. The two did not work together again until Passion; their final collaboration was Godard’s next feature, Prénom Carmen.
He also had a shorter but significant partnership with François Truffaut, which resulted in memorable films like Jules and Jim and The Bride Wore Black―their last work together.
6. Freddie Young
Freddie Young was the first British cinematographer to shoot in CinemaScope―anamorphic lenses spreadly used in the fifties and sixties to create a widescreen image.
His career as a cinematographer started in the late twenties and lasted until the eighties. During these sixty years, he worked in more than a hundred pictures and therefore achieved a huge recognition in the film area.
Young’s most remarkable films are the ones he worked with director David Lean: Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago and Ryan’s Daughter, all three of which guaranteed him Academy Awards. He was also responsible for the cinematography of Lord Jim―an outstanding adaptation from Joseph Conrad’s books―and Nicholas and Alexandra.
5. Gordon Willis
Best known for his photographic work on seven Woody Allen films (including Annie Hall and Manhattan), six Alan J. Pakula films (including All the President’s Men), four James Bridges films, and all three films from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather series, Gordon Willis is regarded as one of the most influential cinematographers of all-time. Fellow cinematographer William A. Fraker called Willis’s work a “milestone in visual storytelling”, while one critic suggested that Willis “defined the cinematic look of the 1970s: sophisticated compositions in which bolts of light and black put the decade’s moral ambiguities into stark relief.”
Willis’s work became celebrated for his ability to use shadow and underexposed film with a “subtlety and expressiveness previously unknown on colour film stock,” but Willis himself preferred to talk in terms of “visual relativity”, saying: “I like going from light to dark, dark to light, big to small, small to big.”
Discussing The Godfather, he said: “You can decide this movie has got a dark palette. But you can’t spend two hours on a dark palette… So you’ve got this high-key, Kodachrome wedding going on. Now you go back inside and it’s dark again. You can’t, in my mind, put both feet into a bucket of cement and leave them there for the whole movie. It doesn’t work. You must have this relativity.”
4. Christopher Doyle
Mostly inebriated, the genius extraordinaire Christopher Doyle has redefined the art of cinematography in ways more than one. He says he became a cinematographer by accident. Born in Sydney, he tells that he was “conceived in the back of a station wagon on Bondai beach,” but who knows? At 18, he joined the merchant navy then country-hopped for years, studied Chinese in Taiwan, did some oil-drilling, cow-herding and photography, then in 1983 was asked to work on Edward Yang’s That Day, on the Beach. Awards followed and he’s been a cinematographer since, hurtling through more than 60 films.
Mostly acclaimed and noteworthy for his partnership with Wong Kar-Wai, which lasted fifteen years, Doyle was responsible for the fascinating colours and framings achieved in the director’s most remarkable films, such as Days of Being Wild, Ashes of Time, Chungking Express, Fallen Angels, In the Mood for Love, and 2046.
In the last decade, some of the important films he was stood behind the lens for include Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park and Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control. With an average of four movies a year, Doyle is steadily tracing his path to become one of the most important figures in film history.
3. Roger Deakins
Roger Deakins is considered as one of the most influential cinematographers ever, with credits including The Shawshank Redemption, Fargo, A Beautiful Mind, Skyfall, Sicario, Blade Runner 2049, and 1917, the last two of which earned him the Academy Awards. He is known for his affection for realistic and simple aesthetics. He once said that “there is nothing worse than an ostentatious shot”, and his rather tasteful modesty has made him one of the most appreciated cinematographers among film lovers.
In his adolescence, Deakins wanted to be a painter. He studied graphic design in the Bath School of Art and Design, where he discovered his passion for photography. His ability for composing fascinating shots perhaps comes from this primordial interest, showing how related cinematography is to paintings.
Considered to be among the most respected and sought-after cinematographers in the film business, his involvement in a film could secure the casting of established stars—a distinction usually reserved for auteur directors. He landed the role of director of photography in The Shawshank Redemption at the insistence of Tim Robbins, who had previously worked with him on the Coen brothers film The Hudsucker Proxy. Josh Brolin agreed to join the cast of Sicario only after hearing of Deakins’s involvement. When Ryan Gosling accepted his role in Blade Runner 2049, he cited the involvement of Deakins as a factor for his decision.
2. Kazuo Miyagawa
The most influential cinematographer of postwar Japanese cinema, Kazuo Miyagawa worked intimately with Yasujirô Ozu, Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Kon Ichikawa on some of their most important films. It was Miyagawa who, in his astonishing versatility, helped perfect Ozu’s exquisitely frame tatami-level compositions in Floating Weeds; the long choreographed tracking sequences of Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu; the multiple perspectives and jump cuts of Kurosawa’s Rashomon and Yojimbo; and the innovative use of cameras from different vantage points in Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad.
Among many others, Miyagawa is credited with having invented the colour technology, the “bleach bypass,” on Ichikawa’s Her Brother, a process by which he gained greater control over saturation and tonality. The effect is to cast a silvery sheen over the colour image, a look that has been used in countless films since then, from cinematographer Roger Deakins’s work on Michael Radford’s 1984 to Janusz Kamínski’s work on Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.
The striking pictorial effects and specific colour tones in the film showed the cinematographer’s talented mind and his technical abilities. Miyagawa died in 1999 at the age of ninety-one and will always be remembered among the pioneers of Japanese films’ aesthetics who brought international recognition the country’s productions.
1. John Alcott
John Alcott’s partnership with Stanley Kubrick was one of the greatest gifts for cinema lovers. Having studied lighting and its naturalistic possibilities, he first got the director’s attention while shooting 2001: A Space Odyssey and was then promoted to lighting cameraman. They would later be responsible for the development of innovative techniques that would transform filmmaking.
Alcott’s first feature film as a DP was in A Clockwork Orange. Four years later, he would work with Kubrick again in the audacious Barry Lyndon, which might have been, from an aesthetic perspective, the highest point of his career. Along with his Academy Award for Barry Lyndon, the film is considered to be one of the greatest and most beautiful movies made in terms of its visuals. Three films Alcott worked on were ranked between 1950–1997 in the top 20 of “Best Shot”, voted by the American Society of Cinematographers. During its three hundred days of shooting, there was almost no use of electric light―what was even harder than due to technical limitations―and therefore a special lens (F/0.7) was designed and produced by NASA exclusively for the film.
Five years later, John Alcott’s use of the Steadicam in The Shining would innovate camera movements and perpetuate his deserved recognition among the greatest cinematographers.