Ten Movies Every Photographer Should See
By: Greg Stott
Lists are often arbitrary and this one is no different. It springs from my tastes and my opinions and I won't be surprised if some visitors to this website feel strongly that I have overlooked movies they think should be included. In that regard, I welcome your suggestions but let's set some guidelines.
For me, the movies that populate my list are not those that contain extraordinary special effects or extended dolly or crane shots. Nor are they films that necessarily contain great acting though the blend of great visuals and admirable acting often do seem to go hand in hand. There have been many great movies over the years, of course, but only a small number I think are able to visually inspire a still photographer. In my opinion, the qualities of such movies include quality of light, first and foremost, but also fetching composition and, sometimes, camera effects. The most inspirational movies for still photographers often possess powerful and memorable scenes that make you wish you were there with a camera to capture some of the magic moments. Indeed, if I watch a movie and am left with an urge to go take pictures, it's one of the factors that make it a contender for my list of movies worth recommending. By the way, as my list suggests (lots of foreign movies), I'm not bothered by subtitles.
Most of the films listed below are available on DVD but some are admittedly hard to find. The Conformist, for example, cannot be found in my experience except through rare copies offered at high prices on Amazon.com. Likewise, Raise the Red Lantern can be hard to locate although the owner of my local video store got one in a week through a Hong Kong contact. The quality is excellent. Many of these films mentioned here are not available through your average video store. In bigger cities, you can usually find a specialty outlet that caters to more art-house tastes through rentals or sales. Of course, there is always Google and the chance to undertake some Internet sleuthing to locate a copy of your own.
Here then is my alphabetical list of Ten Movies Every Photographer Should See soon to be followed by a list of Honourable Mentions. If you wish to add a recommendation or comment, you can e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Baraka (1992) - In a review written several years ago, the author declared that this was his choice of a film for a desert island. If he had just one movie to take along to an isolated refuge away from the human race, this would be it. Certainly it would be one of my candidates as well. The movie has no plot but it's anchored by a riveting stream of images shot over 14 months in 6 continents and 24 countries. A three-person crew, led by director and cinematographer Ron Fricke, employed a $4 million (U.S.) budget to capture scenes of beauty, mystery and destruction in the expensive TODD-AQ 70mm format. Throw in a hypnotic soundtrack and you've got a 93-minute feast for the eyes and ears.
Baraka contains at least several dozen scenes any photographer would love to have captured digitally or on film. One minute you're mesmerized by images of the very human-like faces of Macaque monkeys immersed in hot springs in snowy Japanese mountains and sometime later you're watching burning-of-the-dead ceremonies on the Ganges River or Whirling Dirvishes spin in what I believe is a Syrian temple. It's all very captivating although the film is probably best viewed in two or three viewings because there is almost too much to absorb in a single viewing.
For movie-goers who insist on a beginning, middle and an end, Baraka might be a little bewildering because there is no narration or explanation and there is often little context except, for example, that the viewer might know intuitively that certain scenes were shot in, say, Asia or Australia.
While nature and exotic location photography anchor this movie, Fricke employed a computer-controlled camera to record some wonderful time-lapse shots in congested locations such as Manhattan at rush hour or Tokyo on the crowded subway platforms. These are scenes that illustrate motion but they are also reminders that still photographers can capture motion through the use of time-lapse exposures as well.
It's no surprise that this film was supplemented by a nicely-printed and handsome coffee-table book. It compliments the movie and photographer Mark Magidson describes the move-making process and shows the people and equipment that made the film along with a variety of images in both black and white and colour.
If the film seems a little derivative to some, it's probably because it bears a resemblance to Koyaanisqatsi, a 1983 movie that was the first film of the type to dish up a well-constructed sequence of music-laced world scenes. Not coincidentally, Koyaanisqatsi was filmed and edited by Ron Fricke.
Baraka is an ancient Sufi word which can be translated, in part, as "a blessing". The film is just that, a gift to anyone who appreciates visual artistry. Prepare to be inspired.
Barry Lyndon (1975) - Okay, who out there has an f 0.7 lens? Well, among still photographers no one I know has such a treasure and even in the richly financed movie industry, such an extraordinary piece of glass is very rare, possibly limited to just one - the one director Stanley Kubrick used to film the lingering candlelit scenes in Barry Lyndon. For these moments, Kubrick had a 50mm lens built for NASA by the Carl Zeiss Company modified with a Kollmorgen adaptor used in still cameras. No artificial lighting was used with all the illumination coming from the candles. The warm light generated by the candles creates a compelling painterly look that is reminiscent of Thomas Gainsborough and other artists of the era in which this movie is set.
The movie focuses on the exploits of a scheming Irish rogue who wins the heart (and fortune) of a rich widow and makes a sideways entrance into 18th century aristocracy. There are some powerful battle and dueling scenes but it is the candlelit scenes and meticulous composition that hold visual sway for photographers. The frame is often held and the action allowed to develop within it. Often landscapes rather than people dominate the screen.
Barry Lyndon is played by Ryan O'Neal who was never a great actor in my view but who, nevertheless, manages to capture the rakish failings of a man who doesn't have the moral compass to match his lofty ambitions. Barry Lyndon won several awards including Academy Awards for Best Cinematography (the late John Alcott) and Best Art Direction & Set Direction and The Best Cinematography Award by the British Society of Cinematographers. The film runs 184 minutes. In those three hours and a bit, I counted at least 22 scenes I would like to have recorded with a still camera. It is impossible not to watch this movie and not want to indulge in some portraiture of your own employing candles, perhaps employing a few reflectors to spread the light.
The Conformist (1970) - I saw this movie three times before I was able to fully digest the complicated - some would say disjointed - plot that revolves around the story of an ambitious professor in Italy in the late 1930s and early 1940s. It's a time when Mussolini has risen to power and the professor conveniently declares himself a fascist. His commitment gets tested later, however, when he gets involved with the secret police and is given as assignment to murder one of his former university teachers who leads an anti-fascist resistance group. Disturbing psychological themes and sexual undertones abound. Freud almost deserves a credit on this film.
While director Bernardo Bertolucci didn't cater to viewers with a traditional beginning, middle and an end (the movie jumps around, as I said), what makes the movie irresistible is the inspired and daring cinematography of Vittorio Storaro and the vision of Bertolucci. The movie features some of the most dramatic use of light and shadow I've seen. Often, unusual shooting angles or the use of filters to tint colours heighten the visual tension. Many scenes from the movie stay with me still such as the windshield wipers of a car sweeping across a window or sunlight streaming through a forest or the daunting interior scenes of Mussolini's art-deco headquarters. Some of these scenes manage to be both beautiful and creepy and they are always powerful and often surreal. Still today, 35 years after it was released, this film is capable of inspiring a still photographer to think outside the box - to create compositions that defy convention.
The movie is arguably Bertolucci's most intriguingly photographed film although some viewers might feel another Bertolucci movie, The Last Emperor (also on my list), is a more elegant contender for that honour.
Days of Heaven
Days of Heaven (1978) - Still Photographers are often reminded that the best times to shoot are the "magic hours", the time around dawn and dusk. These are the times when the light is warm, low and flattering to its subject. Movie directors enjoy the magic hours too but they have significant constraints such as budget and plot and onerous schedules. It would cost a fortune to have highly-paid actors and crew waiting around just to shoot their scenes for one or two hours a day when it might not advance the plot.
Nevertheless, back in 1978, shooting a film almost exclusively in the "magic hours" is just what director Terence Malick did in a remarkable film called Days of Heaven. Telling a story about a love triangle in the early 20th century, Malick employed the talents of two of the greatest cinematographers at the time, Nestor Almendros and, to a lesser extent, Haskell Wexler. For much of the film, the decision was made to only shoot during the "magic hours" and it paid off: Days of Heaven and Almendros won Best Cinematography at the 1978 Academy Awards.
While the movie opens in a Chicago steel mill, the heart of the film ostensibly takes place in Texas farm country when three of the main characters in the movie, including a young Richard Gere and Brooke Adams, join a wave of itinerant workers following the farm season. In reality, the sweeping farm scenes were shot in the rolling plains of southern Alberta which has never looked more evocative. Fields of wheat ripple sensuously in golden light, a grand farm house often anchors simple, elegant compositions and trains packed with workers cut ribbons through a dreamy agricultural landscape.
The beauty comes under siege though when swarms of locusts descend on the landscape and fires started to control the plague get out of control. Almendros, who started as a still photographer, builds visual tension with close-ups of the grasshoppers intercut with tight shots of torches and he makes the scenes go from warm and romantic to hot and dangerous. Tension is also heightened by the plot which has Richard Gere's character getting trapped in a deception of his own making when he pretends to be the brother of Brooke Adams rather than her lover. Adams moves in and gets cozy with the terminally-ill owner of the vast farm where they find employment and while it starts out as a way for Gere and Adams to inherit the farm, things don't go as planned. In all, the movie presents some low-key quirky acting but it's really the visuals that reward the viewer. A bonus is the soundtrack of Ennio Morricone, one of my favourite composers.
Here are a couple of relevant quotes from Nestor Almendros given not long after the Days of Heaven was completed:
Terence Malick told me it would be a very visual movie, the story would be told through visuals. Very few people really want to give that priority to image. Usually the director gives priority to the actors and the story but here the story was told through images. In this period there was no electricity, It was before electricity was invented and consequently there was less light. Period movies should have less light. In a period movie the light should come from the windows because that is how people lived.
"Magic hour is a euphemism, because it's not an hour but around 25 minutes at the most. It is the moment when the sun sets and after the sun sets and before it is night, the sky has light but there is no actual sun. The light is very soft and there is something magic about it. It limited us to around twenty minutes a day but it did pay on the screen. It gave some kind of magic look, a beauty and romanticism."
Dreams (1990) - It's a challenge to pick one film by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa that ranks as my visual favourite. He was very prolific in his lifetime and he displayed a knack for potent cinematography but, without a doubt, Dreams remains the most haunting of his films for me. In fact, Dreams is eight short films, some quite melancholy and all born from his actual dreams and memories. The surreal, ethereal visuals in each of them is quite breathtaking.
The mystical tone of the film is set in the first vignette when a boy witnesses an eerie procession of fox spirits in a wedding procession. It's visual poetry. Another vignette involves a party of mountain climbers struggling through a fierce blizzard. Another section includes a man, a former military leader, who encounters the ghosts of Japanese soldiers he once commanded in a lonely tunnel. It's chilling to the bone. The same man is seen in the next vignette as he wanders through a Van Gogh painting and encounters the famous artist (played by Martin Scorsese).
What this movie offers still photographers is imagination. I am guilty, as many photographers are, of sometimes failing to wring the most out of my creative instincts. Going beyond the tried and true is always a challenge. Commercial and editorial mandates don't always allow a photographer to blend illusion or fantasy or artistic licence into an image but it's my belief that we should always try to pursue at least some personal work that displays creative flourish and imagination. We need more images that mirror, more or less, what is conceived in the mind's eye. Kurosawa did this with a far-ranging colour palette that swings from the bland to the bold. He did it with purpose and the discretion of a master but several of his films - this one especially - illustrate the joys of constructive whimsy. For me, Dreams tells me to play in the photographic sandbox a little more.
The Last Emperor
The Last Emperor (1987) - Bernardo Bertolucci faced an enormous challenge when he decided to tackle the true story of Pu Yi, the last ruler of the 300 year old Chinese Ching Dynasty. Spanning the years 1908 to 1967, Bertolucci was successful in turning the story of Pu Yi into a compelling (and tragic) historical epic.
One of the very effective cinematic tools in the movie is the use of colour. Bertolucci and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro employed very specific colour palettes to symbolically reinforce and illustrate moods. Indeed, it's been said the real star of the film Storaro's cinematography and certainly such deliberate and brilliant use of colour is one of the reasons the movie won many Academy Awards including Best Cinematography. The film also serves to remind any visual artist of the power of colour to influence the response of the viewer.
Scenes from Pu Yi's childhood, when his life was vibrant and literally colourful, for example, are enhanced by bright warm colours such as orange and yellow. Indeed, Pu Yi, wrote in his autobiography that as a boy he believed everything was yellow because he saw so much of it. Scenes set in chilly Manchuria incorporate lots of cool indigo while scenes of the emperor's imprisonment and "re-education" during the sterile Maoist era are almost devoid of colour. When his English tutor arrives (played by Peter O'Toole), we see green for the first time. It's the colour of knowledge. Scenes of Pu Yi in his latter years have a more balanced spectrum of colours which reflect his life at the time as well as the political and cultural climate. The first time red is seen in the film is when blood fills a sink in a suicide scene.
The topic of colour in the film was the subject of an essay in the book, Bertolucci's The Last Emperor: Multiple Takes (1998) in which Storaro explains how he exercised the psychology of colour. In the DVD, Vision of Light (which is reviewed below), Storaro also comments briefly on his use of colour in the movie. Photographers can benefit from this movie by being reminded that colour is rarely incidental in an image. It may be subtle or it may be bold but it can engage the viewer (and photographer) in ways that often appeal to the sub-conscious. An additional benefit for those of us who have had the opportunity to visit or photograph The Forbidden City in Beijing is the way in which the movie recreates part of the past of the venerable and hallowed structure. For those with stamina, there is a director's cut of The Last Emperor available on DVD. It runs 219 minutes but I have heard at least once that the picture quality is less than ideal in places.
Raise the Red Lantern
Raise the Red Lantern (1991) - Like The Last Emperor reviewed above, Raise the Red Lantern provides insight into China's not-so-distant history. The difference is that The Last Emperor was directed by an outsider, Italian Bernardo Bertolucci, with the cooperation and approval of the Chinese government, while Raise the Red Lantern was directed by Zhang Yimou and never sanctioned by the Chinese Government. Implicit in its story is a couched allegory about obsolete old men and the harmful traditions governing China and it is a condemnation of the feudal attitudes that still linger today. It's no surprise that the film was financed by a Taiwanese distributor through a Hong Kong subsidiary.
What the two films, The Last Emperor and Raise the Red Lantern, have in common is the eye-popping use of colour. When I first saw Raise the Red Lantern, it was the first Chinese movie that impressed me with its astonishing beauty. The plot, which focuses on the experiences of a reluctant young concubine in the house of a nobleman in the China of the 1920s, is a grim account of sexual or gender politics. As the fourth wife, Songlian, the main character, must figure out how to get along with the imperious master and husband and survive prickly relationships with his other wives. Tensions are often thin as rice paper as the hazards of polygamy are charted.
While the tale is psychologically grim, the vividness of the many colours used in the film is stunning and heightens the emotional content of the story. The most potent colour is red because wherever the master chooses to spend the night is ritualistically lit up with opulent red lanterns (hence the title). The film was shot in the classic three-strip Technicolor process which allows a richness of reds and yellow that are no longer seen in American films. The vivid colours give the movie a sensuous, vibrant quality, particularly in the use of fabrics.
I like the film because, like The Last Emperor, it is a riveting movie made better by the abundant but careful use of colour. Until this film, I always avoided brilliant reds in my work because they seemed, well, coarse and over the top. Raise the Red Lantern changed my mind and influenced my willingness to occasionally search out or use more potent colours for maximum effect. With Photoshop and digital photography, we have the option more than ever to enhance colours where the enhancements enhance the image.
The Third Man
The Third Man (1949) - After writing elsewhere on this page about the glorious use of colour in some films, it's comforting to be reminded that old-fashioned black and white has just as much magic - it's just different magic. No film better illustrates this in my view than The Third Man, a thriller which, in addition to a great story, offers moody cinematography that won the film its only Academy Award (though it was nominated for three).
I saw his movie recently for the fourth time, after not seeing it for many years, and was pleased to discover that this classic hasn't lost an ounce of appeal. If it's not my favourite black-and-white film, it's certainly a contender. (I'm not alone: The British Film Institute voted it the number one British Film of the 20the century.) It was the first movie I ever saw that had canted camera angles so that unsettling tilted compositions heighten the suspense of some scenes. Wide-angle distortions and shallow depth of field also contribute to an unrelenting tension and suspense but nothing grabs the viewer's attention more than the long shadows and the striking use of light and shade that give the film its compelling visuals and slightly nightmarish intrigue.
Almost all of the movie was shot on location in post-war Vienna and it's based on a story by British screenwriter and author, Graham Greene. Fellow Brit Carol Reed was the producer and director and Robert Krasker the cinematographer. The main character is American pulp-fiction writer Holly Martins played by Joseph Cotten. Another lead character, even long before he makes his entrance, is Harry Lime, played by Orson Welles. His presence - or lack of it in the first half of the movie - is an inspired absence. Now some cinema buffs will note that both Welles and Cotton, the former especially, anchored Citizen Kane, another great and ominous black and white movie and they'll be wondering why I didn't include it in my top ten. Well, as great as it is, it doesn't possess the visual intrigue of The Third Man.
Greene's story tosses the naive but principled Holly Martins character into Vienna at a time when it's under the schizoid control of four Allied forces including the British, French, French and Russians. The morality in the city is ambiguous and there's all kind of illegal black-market activity and wheeling and dealing. Martins has come to visit his old and favoured friend Harry Lime but Lime doesn't show up to greet his arrival and so the mystery begins. The climax of the film occurs in the Vienna's sewer system, a murky labyrinth of rushing water and mysterious tunnels, and it's here that the film-noir cinematography and lighting underline the strength of black and white. Criterion has done a superb job of restoring this film and though the DVD is expensive, it's well worth it. Watch it and you'll feel the urge to get to work on some black-and-white images.
Visions of Light
Visions of Light (1992) - Okay, technically this isn't a movie. It's a documentary about movies, covering the history of cinematography and some of the movies mentioned on this page are illustrated or discussed. And yes, there are lots of talking heads but almost all of them engage the viewer/listener and offer genuine insight, the kind that makes you exclaim "Oh, wow!". We meet such fascinating individuals as Nestor Almendros, the lead cinematographer of Days of Heaven (see above), who was interviewed shortly before his untimely death in 1992. Vittorio Storaro, the award-winning cinematographer who won awards for The last Emperor (see above) and Apocalypse Now, is another of the many wise men of the camera presented in Visions of Light.
In some instances, cinematographers acknowledge the vision and influence of certain directors such as Roman Polanski. His role in determining the composition of a scene in Rosemary's Baby is one of the many interview clips worth waiting for. It reveals how an unlikely move just a few inches in one direction made all the difference. The cinematographer on McCabe and Mrs. Miller discusses how colours were altered and muted in the film to instill the feeling of the late 1800s. Anyone who works with Photoshop and has had to create the look of another era will enjoy this section.
Another worthwhile interview is with Conrad Hall who photographed the chilling In Cold Blood back in 1967. Hall recounts how they were setting up a key prison scene where a murderer played by Robert Blake is about to be hanged. Rain was splashing the window outside and Hall noticed that if the lighting outside was placed at just the right angle, it projected the shadows of the raindrops on Blake's face, giving the appearance of tears as he discusses his bleak childhood with a Chaplin. Rarely has there been a more heartbreaking scene in a movie.
Inevitably, the strength of the movie though are the hundreds of film clips it presents . After its 92 minutes are up, you can't but help come away deeply impressed by the talents of the great magicians behind the cameras. Indeed, any still photographer with a heartbeat will be inspired by their vision and ability to render magic results with light and technique. What the many film clips in Vision of Light do is help train our visual instincts and ability to recognize and respond to and perhaps even create the kind of light that makes for an unforgettable picture, still or otherwise.
The documentary is divided into three sections and right from the get-go, with excerpts from the early silent films, we are surprised by the quality of picture making. Even back in the early days, there was genius. The second section of the film deals with the black and white era after the introduction of sound (an "evolution" that is lamented by some because sound handicapped the mobility of camera operators). The third section of the film focuses on colour movies and explores how the use of colour can influence viewer response. We are made aware of great composition as well as depth of field and, of course, the power of light and shadow to capture and hold our attention.
Winged Migration (2001) - I'm a sucker for a good wildlife film and they don't come any better than this breathtaking effort by French director Jacques Perrin. He gives the viewer a strong sense of what it must be like to fly and soar in the skies. Indeed, the inspired cinematography is one of the reasons why I recently returned to wildlife photography after focusing on other subject matter for Masterfile, the stock photo agency that has represented me for many years. This might seem a tad naive. After all, Perrin had millions of dollars as a budget and a crew of over 450 people who used gliders, balloons and small planes equipped with ingeniously-designed cameras to film migrating flocks up, close and personal and from all angles. He also followed bird migrations through all kinds of weather and perilous situations through 40 countries and seven continents over four years.
Such advantages don't dissuade me since there's also great magic in a single still shot of a bird or mammal. It's just a different vehicle for reminding people that there are millions of creatures the deserve our consideration. Millions upon millions of dollars are spent annually on special effects in movies and often with dazzling effect such as with The Lord of the Rings. In my opinion, however, it is the natural wonders of nature that trump just about all the special effects and wizardry humans can concoct.
Capturing wildlife doing what it does naturally isn't easy (I speak from personal experience), however, some clever and persistent wildlife photographers such as Franz Lanting and Jim Brandenburg, to name a couple, have managed to achieve this. The potential of a film like Winged Migration is to inspire both documentary cinematographers and still photographers to find fresh ways to capture the magnificence of nature or just to persist in the quest to share nature's wonders through pictures. Just so beginners don't get discouraged with early results, it's worth mentioning that for every 225 feet of exposed film shot for Winged Migration, only one foot made it into the movie.
The DVD offers a 50-minute behind-the-scenes documentary that shows how the amazing photography was achieved in Winged Migration. It also reveals that some of the birds were trained from birth and even exposed to the sounds of airplanes and film cameras while still in their shells. For what it's worth, one of the consequences of the film is that it also motivated me to develop a means of shooting waterfowl with my formidable Canon 500mm f4 lens from one of my kayaks.
Greg Stott is a Toronto photographer and video & documentary producer and director. His clients include corporations, editorial publications and public service agencies. His stock photography is represented by the Masterfile agency and affiliates. He specializes in travel and nature but tackles almost any subject except food and fashion. He has been shooting digitally for three years. He occasionally conducts photo workshops and seminars and exhibits his photography in galleries. He wrote Ten Movies Every Photographer Should See while recovering from a bone marrow transplant intended to cure him of a rare cancer. His website is www.stottshot.com and he can be reached at email@example.com.