There is a scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where Indy discovers a clue in the library in Venice. As he figures out the mystery and identifies where the clue is, he climbs up the spiral stairs and the moment he announces that the clue is etched on the floor of the library, the camera goes over his shoulder and reveals the floor. Even without a sweeping score, it's an exhilarating sequence.
It is a rare joy when our films utilize the full powers of audiovisual techniques that cinema provides. Often when we speak of "beautiful" or "good" cinematography we refer to shots that look aesthetically pleasing. These are shots that are well-framed and usually drenched in the soft light of the golden hours. Malayalam Cinema appears to have staked its claim on this particular style of cinematography in recent years. But there's so much more that can be done.
In any medium, good storytelling involves the art of strategically revealing information. Imagine how boring the scene from The Last Crusade would have been if it was just Indiana Jones telling Elsa Schneider about the clue while the camera simply cut between the two of them. Spielberg doesn't simply have Indiana Jones tell his companions with a cut to a shot looking down on the library floor. Instead, he takes us up the stairs in Indy's footsteps, and when the camera goes over his shoulder to show us the floor, it's as if we're leaning over the railing to look at what he's showing us. We're in the library — we're a part of the adventure.
A good screenplay that is competently shot can make a good movie, but it's when the camera enthusiastically takes part in the telling of the story that it comes alive. To be clear, this isn't simply about complex camera moves or measuring who has the longest takes. 12 Angry Men does more with its simple cuts and increasingly tight frames than the most elaborate long takes or fancy scene transitions.
Take a scene where the protagonist eavesdrops on a conversation between the villain and another character where she learns a piece of crucial information. The obvious choice would be showing the character cowering behind the door, listening in. In Kannezhuthi Pottum Thottu (1999), director T.K. Rajeev Kumar and cinematographer Ravi K. Chandran set the scene at night in the villain's bedroom. The villain, played by Thilakan, is intimidating the local police officer. As the conversation reaches the crucial stage, we see the room from the outside; the two characters are framed by the door. Dark shadows hide the walls. The light shifts outside, revealing Bhadra (Manju Warrier) in the shadows, burning anger in her eyes. No complex camera work or editing — simply a thoughtful use of light and shadow.
What about a scene where two characters try to figure out who's behind a recent string of murders? The complexity of the mission and the idea of the killer hiding in a sprawling city bears down on them. In Anjaam Pathiraa, Dr. Anwar Hussain (Kuchacko Boban) says, "In this city, there's a brilliant criminal playing hide and seek with us". He and ACP Anil Madhavan (Jinu Joseph) are standing on a plain field with a few drab buildings in the background. The scene tells us the job is hard, but it misses the opportunity to show it. Hindsight is twenty-twenty and filmmaking is difficult as is, but I can't help but wonder how the scene would have played out had it been set at night, with the city as the backdrop — a hundred thousand lights spread across that vast darkness, full of potential victims, and a killer who could be prowling those streets, as the heroes appear insignificant against the dark metropolis. There is no one way to do it right, and it's easy to look back on a film and pick it apart than to make these decisions while working on the film. But then, we don't give restaurant food a pass just because of how difficult it is to work in a busy kitchen.
One of the best examples of visually telling a story by simply framing the subject against a thematically significant backdrop comes from Star Wars. The iconic shot of Luke Skywalker looking over the horizon at the binary sunset tells us more about his longing for adventure than all the monologues in the world. It's great precisely because of its simplicity.
Animation is another great place where visual storytelling often comes to the forefront. In Beauty and the Beast (1991) when Belle sings "I want adventure in the great wide somewhere…" she isn't in some dingy apartment or the library — no, she runs up a hill as the "camera" sweeps around, showing us the "great wide somewhere" for which she yearns.
Closer home, when Baahubali lifts the Shiva lingam, we don't just get a few reaction shots of people looking shocked. Rajamouli repeatedly shows us characters looking awestruck, and as the camera pulls back, one or two more rise up or step forward from outside the frame, eyes wide in amazement, implying there are even more people outside the frame looking on at Baahubali's feat. Nobody hypes up the hero better than Rajamouli in the Baahubali duology.
"In many of the films now being made, there is very little cinema: they are mostly what I call 'photographs of people talking'. When we tell a story in cinema, we should resort to dialogue only when it's impossible to do otherwise. I always try to tell a story in the cinematic way, through a succession of shots and bits of film in between". That's Alfred Hitchcock, so this isn't a recent problem with movies. Although, I don't think this is a "problem" to be fixed at all. It's perfectly fine to make a movie that relies entirely on the strength of its script — good writing and great performances can go a long way. But it's the final flourish that intentional camerawork — whether it's a thoughtful movement of the camera or placement of the subjects — can bring to the narrative, which is lost when filmmakers resort to "photographs of people talking".
So here's to good cinematography that goes beyond soft lighting and long takes. Here's to filmmakers that take care to consider the telling of the story just as much as the story itself.