"Question Everything": Iris Ng on the Art of Cinematography - POV Magazine (2022)

“I don’t have a library of images or shots in my head,” said Iris Ng to a wave of chuckles at the first instalment of the DOC Institute’s Masters Series of the season. Ng, the great cinematographer of documentaries such as Stories We Tell, A Better Man, The Apology and Netflix’s Making a Murderer, joined NFB producer Lea Marin (Unarmed Verses) for an engaging conversation on the art of lensing documentaries. Despite drawing a ripple from the audience when noting that her brain doesn’t host a litany of ready-made shots, Ng essentially advised that there is no single formula for landing a documentary in the #OnePerfectShot meme. (I’m paraphrasing here.) Her reflections highlighted how shooting a doc is all about being with the subject in the moment and asking the right questions to interrogate the process of which a cinematographer is a part.

The theme of the evening was “question everything,” which Ng stressed unequivocally. Ng drew upon her early days studying art in high school at Earl Haig where her teachers always challenged students by asking questions about their work. By thinking critically about one’s art, Ng said, she learned from an early age how to interrogate and defend creative choices.

Ng explained that she pursued film at York because she liked the collaborative freedom of cinema, as opposed to the comparatively isolated craft of drawing or fine art. Collaboration at university, Ng added, taught the value in questioning form and technique by exposing the process of breaking everything down and reconsidering the technical components that are often taken for granted or standardized, such as frame rate, aspect ratio, and shutter speed. “I’d like to think that we can start from scratch with every project and find the right look that every film deserves,” she added.

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Being quizzical about convention helps avoid cliché, Ng observed and told Marin and the crowd that seeing Wong-Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love at the Ontario Cinematheque opened her eyes to the possibilities a film could have by defying convention. “I wish I had made a film like that,” she laughed before Marin veered the conversation towards some of the films within Ng’s body of work, including docs like Stories We Tell that arguably find their own language through the viewfinder much like In the Mood for Love did in the lensing by Christopher Doyle and Ping Bin Lee.

Ng wasn’t quick to cite Christopher Doyle as someone she tries to emulate in her work, though. She explained that experiences and environments influence her work rather than other directors and cinematographers. Ng drew upon her experience of growing up with her father, an architect, who showed her unexpected designs like buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright. Ng explained how buildings that could be experiences shaped through designs, lighting, and creative decisions moved her.

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The first of Ng’s films to receive a case study was last year’s hidden gem Robin & Mark & Richard III, a meta-theatrical backstage doc directed by Martha Burns and Susan Coyne. Ng dissected scenes of the doc, which chronicles the collaboration between veteran theatre director Robin Phillips and comedian Mark McKinney with actress Christine Horne for an interpretation of Shakespeare’s Richard III, to show how immediacy, proximity, close-ups, and shaky handheld camerawork combined to emphasize Phillips’ intimidating presence. By contrasting two scenes, one featuring close-ups in an interior setting and another stepping away for longer shots in exteriors, Ng illustrated how the process actors through which the actors hone their craft was honoured by the camerawork giving them distance. The use of space in the second sequence, which featured rehearsals and some improvised swordplay, avoided the cliché of screaming close-ups or tableaux shots that often serves as the default for filming theatrical performances.

“We should always be thinking about who the camera is,” explained Ng while demonstrating these shots that give the camera a third-person point of view. “Why is it there? The gaze should have some accountability,” she added, relating the camerawork back to the artistic choices she defended in high school while reminding the crowd that technology can get in the way of good storytelling. The scene exemplified the value in knowing when to step back and let the action speak for itself.

The benefit of distance echoed in the scene from A Better Man, directed by Attiya Khan and Lawrence Jackman, which was the second case study from Ng’s body of work. The film, which sees Khan confront her ex-boyfriend Steve about the domestic violence he inflicted on her during their relationship years before, was a three-year shoot that gave Ng a surprising range of toys to play with. However, she added that Jackman’s preference for handheld camerawork let the film breathe in its most intimate moments.

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“There is something very specific about intimacy and what it means for this film,” explained Ng. “Intimacy does not equal closeness.” For a film that tackles such difficult and emotional subject matter, Ng said the shoot required knowing when to give the subjects space to talk candidly and privately, which ultimately heightened the sense of intimacy.

Ng highlighted a scene from A Better Man in which Khan reunited with a friend from her high school days, Seth, who inspired her to leave an abusive relationship. The scene was a verité-style exchange in which Ng filmed the friends as they walked around Toronto and recalled Khan’s violent relationship with Steve. During the shoot, Khan told Seth that if he hadn’t stepped in, she would be dead. Ng elaborated upon her choice to hold on Khan following this admission and let the weight of her confession sink in, rather than go for the conventional reaction shot of Seth that many filmmakers might have pursued for an emotional punctuation mark. Ng explained that her team filmed this lengthy scene with only one camera, so the processed required tough on-the-spot decisions in lieu of a broad range of coverage that might help an editor. [Watch A Better Man here]

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This River, Erika MacPherson & Katherena Vermette, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

Other branches of the conversation touched upon Ng’s work with the Canadian Screen Award winning this river and the Emmy winning Making a Murderer. With this river, a short doc about a volunteer effort to comb the rivers for the bodies of missing Indigenous women, Ng presented a long take that illustrated the film’s languid pace. These drawn-out shots mirrored the dynamic with Indigenous subjects by listening respectfully at length. For Making a Murderer, which Ng came aboard several years into production, the cinematographer explained her process of finding establishing shots and additional material where the filmmakers forgot to fill in the details. Ng dove into the technical side of things by being conscious of the technology with which the previous cinematographer shot the material and avoiding lenses and techniques that didn’t exist during principal photography.

IIn a different vein was the discussion of Ng’s best work and arguably the strongest film of her career, Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell. This discussion highlighted what Ng and Marin dubbed “method cinematography,” which involves inhabiting the space of a character and using the camera to find objects and elements of space that inform the story and world of the subject. This role-playing was crucial to Polley’s poetic archival film, which used re-enactments and dramatizations to fill in the gaps of the Polley home movies and further the film’s meditation on storytelling with competing versions of the truth.

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Ng identified multiple cases of “method cinematography” in Stories We Tell where the camera served as an all-seeing eye from the point-of-view of an actor backstage, a child at home, or a friend at a party. She explained to Marin and the crowd that Stories We Tell required her to play Polley’s father, Michael, while wielding the camera. This process involved studying Michael Polley’s home movies to see his movements or the aspects of a scene that would typically catch his eye. Ng then mirrored Polley’s aesthetic for the re-enactments to lend fluidity to the archival elements. This form of method acting also required considering how the hypothetical cinematographers would be making these movies in 1970s. These cinematographers of the story wouldn’t know which of their friends would be the subject of Stories We Tell, so Ng had to integrate natural movement and focus with the action to draw attention to characters without being too on the nose.

The conversation circled back to collaboration as Ng elaborated upon the involved production of Stories We Tell, which included lengthy and interactive sessions where key creatives watched the mass of footage together and reflected upon the results. Nothing in Stories We Tell follows convention, and this insight into Polley’s masterpiece was the best example of questioning the norm in the service of art.

Visit the DOC Institute for more information on the Masters Series classes.

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FAQs

What are the 3 basic elements of cinematography? ›

So there you have it: exposure, lighting and camera placement and movement.

What are the main concepts of cinematography? ›

Cinematography comprises all on-screen visual elements, including lighting, framing, composition, camera motion, camera angles, film selection, lens choices, depth of field, zoom, focus, color, exposure, and filtration.

How important is cinematography in the art of film? ›

Why Is Cinematography Important to Filmmaking? Much of the impact of a film or television show is visual. Cinematography represents that visual aspect, whether through the camera and lens choice, angle width, aspect ratio, or other visual elements.

What is the most important part of cinematography? ›

Composition. One of the most important choices that a Cinematographer makes for every single shot is its composition—or what will be seen in it 3. Composition refers to how each shot is framed and all the elements within that frame.

What are the 5 C's in film? ›

The Five C's of Cinematography: Motion Picture Filming Techniques is very good at explaining how a story is told in the visual medium of motion pictures: camera angels, continuity, cutting, close-ups and composition.

What are the 4 elements of film? ›

the genre of a film: plot, setting, characters, and theme. These form.

What is the purpose of cinematography? ›

Cinematography is the art and craft of making motion pictures by capturing a story visually. Though, technically, cinematography is the art and the science of recording light either electronically onto an image sensor or chemically onto film.

Which is the most important element of film making? ›

But as filmmakers, our overriding concern should be movement. Movement also has a double meaning: 1) the physical movement of the camera or objects within the frame and 2) moving our audience emotionally.

How does cinematography create meaning? ›

Cinematography describes the process of making decisions about factors that communicate a meaning in your 3d animation/ film. The camera angle, action and direction, lens type, camera motion, and lighting all affect the meaning of your work. The use of color is also a key factor.

How do you analyze cinematography? ›

Now that we know the different effects of different angles used in films, let's see how we can analyse them!
  1. Identify the shot angle in the scene.
  2. Identify the general effect of the angle. Identify the atmosphere in the scene. ...
  3. Ground your findings in the context of the film. Identify the film's themes. ...
  4. Write a TEEL paragraph.

What skills does a cinematographer need? ›

Skills
  • An eye for detail and a mind for fast invention.
  • Thorough understanding of lighting techniques, light colour, shade and manipulation.
  • Strong technical knowledge of cameras and the film production process.
  • Strong communication skills.
  • Strong team management skills.
  • Excellent listening ability.
15 Jul 2022

How cinematography affects the visualization of the story? ›

Different types of camera angles are used to move about the scene, such as where to place the camera relative to the action in order to best capture detail and enhance mood. For example, a low angle can make someone appear larger than life, where a high angle makes them appear menial.

What is another name for a cinematographer? ›

A cinematographer is also called the "director of photography," or the DP.

What is the difference between filmmaking and cinematography? ›

The primary difference between cinematography and filmmaking is that cinematography is the application of camera techniques which determine the visual depiction of the film, while filmmaking is the overarching process of making the entire film itself.

Which element of a scene does the cinematographer most often control? ›

A cinematographer is a person who shoots and captures video footage for movies and is also being responsible for lighting, camera angles, and other technical aspects of film production. Most often they shoot from the focal point of a scene or act as director of photography on set.

How can I improve my cinematography? ›

Top 10 Cinematography Tips:
  1. So get out there are and start shooting. ...
  2. Get out and find your style. ...
  3. Start building relationships now. ...
  4. Be true to your inner voice. ...
  5. Work like mad to learn all the tech and then give yourself the freedom to forget it all. ...
  6. Understand your role and that you are there to serve the director.

What other cinematic techniques were used to tell the story? ›

Read our article to learn about visual storytelling and tricks to engage the audience in the film.
  • Bird's-eye shot. It's a filming technique that shows a wide area of land from a very high angle. ...
  • Long shot. ...
  • Medium shot. ...
  • Close-up shot. ...
  • Extreme close-up shot. ...
  • Crane shot. ...
  • Tracking shot. ...
  • Panning shot.
4 Mar 2022

How many types of camera angles are there? ›

There are three different types of basic camera shots which include: the close-up, medium shot, and the long shot.

What is cut in film editing? ›

In the post-production process of film editing and video editing, a cut is an abrupt, but usually trivial film transition from one sequence to another. It is synonymous with the term edit, though "edit" can imply any number of transitions or effects.

What is continuity in cinematography? ›

Defined simply, continuity editing is the process of editing together different but related shots to give viewers the experience of a consistent story in both time and space.

What are the 3 types of film? ›

Alan Williams distinguishes three main genre categories: narrative, avant-garde, and documentary. With the proliferation of particular genres, film subgenres can also emerge: the legal drama, for example, is a sub-genre of drama that includes courtroom- and trial-focused films.

What makes a powerful story on film? ›

One of the most important elements of great storytelling for film is how the story is told. Making choices about the timing of events can heighten their impact and leave your audience reeling. Great movies should throw curveballs that you don't see coming, and have a structure that isn't too confusing to follow.

What is a film language? ›

Film language is a method of narrative expression, which promotes the development of narrative and plot. Film languages are very important methods in filmmaking, when used properly they make a film successful.

What is cinematography and examples? ›

The definition of cinematography is the art and process of movie photography. An example of cinematography are the decisions made about lighting, camera filters and lenses when shooting a movie scene. noun. 3. The art, science, and work of photography in making films.

What is the difference between photography and cinematography? ›

The main difference between cinematography and photography is the movement of the pictures. Cinematography involves running pictures and making it look like a story through the formation of pictures while photography involves clicking pictures alone.

Who does the cinematographer work with? ›

Also called directors of photography, cinematographers work with directors and film crews to create important visual effects for film and TV. They read through screenplays and choose appropriate lighting, angles, framing, and filters to create the mood of the film.

What makes a film successful? ›

However, a few of the common factors that contribute to a successful film include: a compelling storyline; a well written script; great actors who have a reach to the audience; a visionary director alongside a director of photography and editor and….. the list just goes on and on.

What is the first element of film making? ›

Scene is the building block of the screenplay, the most basic unit of which has its own independent, whole existence. Everything that happens in one place in the film is a scene. The moment you change the position or location, jump time then you enter a new scene.

What are the 8 elements of film? ›

What are the key elements involved:
  • Film Type.
  • Shots.
  • Camera Angles.
  • Lighting.
  • Color.
  • Sound or Audio.
  • Editing.
  • Mise-en-Scene.
3 Mar 2021

What are the five aspects of camerawork? ›

5 C's of Cinematography
  • Camera Angles. The camera angle is vital to a stories narrative and the camera positioning helps to drive the story forward. ...
  • Continuity. To hold the viewer's attention throughout the film, continuity is extremely important. ...
  • Cutting. ...
  • Close-ups. ...
  • Composition.
26 May 2017

What are the 4 elements of film? ›

the genre of a film: plot, setting, characters, and theme. These form.

What is composition in cinematography? ›

Composition refers to the way elements of a scene are arranged in a camera frame. Shot composition refers to the arrangement of visual elements to convey an intended message.

What is the essence of cinematography? ›

Cinematography is an art. It focuses on storytelling through stills and visuals. The artistry in cinematography lies in controlling what the viewer sees and how that presentation is drafted. For this reason, the cinematographers are acknowledged as the Directors of Photography.

What are the four basic camera controls? ›

There are four basic camera controls: ISO speed/sensitivity, Shutter Speed, Aperture and White Balance. Most cameras, even the bottom end ones, allow you access to at least some of those. Film cameras don't have white balance (the color balance is locked in by the manufacturer), but they do have the other three.

Which is the most important element of film making? ›

But as filmmakers, our overriding concern should be movement. Movement also has a double meaning: 1) the physical movement of the camera or objects within the frame and 2) moving our audience emotionally.

What are the 3 types of film? ›

Alan Williams distinguishes three main genre categories: narrative, avant-garde, and documentary. With the proliferation of particular genres, film subgenres can also emerge: the legal drama, for example, is a sub-genre of drama that includes courtroom- and trial-focused films.

What makes a powerful story on film? ›

One of the most important elements of great storytelling for film is how the story is told. Making choices about the timing of events can heighten their impact and leave your audience reeling. Great movies should throw curveballs that you don't see coming, and have a structure that isn't too confusing to follow.

How do you analyze a film? ›

Film analysis goes beyond the analysis of the film as literature to include camera angles, lighting, set design, sound elements, costume choices, editing, etc.
...
Watching the film
  1. Give the clip your undivided attention at least once. ...
  2. Watch the clip a second time. ...
  3. Take notes while you watch for the second time.

How many types of film shots are there? ›

There are three different types of basic camera shots which include: the close-up, medium shot, and the long shot.

What is a 2 shot in film? ›

A two shot is basically when you see two characters in the frame. They're often a mid-shot because the two characters in shot are often talking or interacting in some way, or maybe we want to see the emotion of both characters face.

How cinematography affects the visualization of the story? ›

Different types of camera angles are used to move about the scene, such as where to place the camera relative to the action in order to best capture detail and enhance mood. For example, a low angle can make someone appear larger than life, where a high angle makes them appear menial.

What does the term cinematography literally mean? ›

Definition of cinematography

: the art or science of motion-picture photography.

What other cinematic techniques were used to tell the story? ›

Read our article to learn about visual storytelling and tricks to engage the audience in the film.
  • Bird's-eye shot. It's a filming technique that shows a wide area of land from a very high angle. ...
  • Long shot. ...
  • Medium shot. ...
  • Close-up shot. ...
  • Extreme close-up shot. ...
  • Crane shot. ...
  • Tracking shot. ...
  • Panning shot.
4 Mar 2022

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