Ten Movies Every Photographer Should See

By: Greg Stott http://www.luminous-landscape.com/essays/tenmovies.shtml

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

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. Here then is my alphabetical list of Ten Movies Every Photographer Should See soon to be followed by a list of Honourable Mentions. mystery and destruction in the expensive TODD-AQ 70mm format. led by director and cinematographer Ron Fricke. the author declared that this was his choice of a film for a desert island. you can e-mail me at stottshot@rogers. It's all very captivating although the . Of course.com. 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. If he had just one movie to take along to an isolated refuge away from the human race. Baraka contains at least several dozen scenes any photographer would love to have captured digitally or on film. ______________________________________ Baraka Baraka (1992) . employed a $4 million (U. there is always Google and the chance to undertake some Internet sleuthing to locate a copy of your own.) budget to capture scenes of beauty. Certainly it would be one of my candidates as well. If you wish to add a recommendation or comment.that caters to more art-house tastes through rentals or sales. this would be it. Throw in a hypnotic soundtrack and you've got a 93-minute feast for the eyes and ears. A three-person crew.S.In a review written several years ago.

such an extraordinary piece of glass is very rare. ______________________________________ Barry Lyndon Barry Lyndon (1975) . Asia or Australia. It's no surprise that this film was supplemented by a nicely-printed and handsome coffee-table book. who out there has an f 0. a 1983 movie that was the first film of the type to dish up a well-constructed sequence of music-laced world scenes. a gift to anyone who appreciates visual artistry. among still photographers no one I know has such a treasure and even in the richly financed movie industry. 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 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. in part.film is probably best viewed in two or three viewings because there is almost too much to absorb in a single viewing. While nature and exotic location photography anchor this movie. The film is just that. as "a blessing". middle and an end. Baraka is an ancient Sufi word which can be translated. Fricke employed a computer-controlled camera to record some wonderful timelapse shots in congested locations such as Manhattan at rush hour or Tokyo on the crowded subway platforms. Baraka might be a little bewildering because there is no narration or explanation and there is often little context except. For movie-goers who insist on a beginning. If the film seems a little derivative to some. Koyaanisqatsi was filmed and edited by Ron Fricke. Prepare to be inspired. that the viewer might know intuitively that certain scenes were shot in. it's probably because it bears a resemblance to Koyaanisqatsi.7 lens? Well. say. . Not coincidentally. for example.Okay.

some would say disjointed . It is impossible not to watch this movie and not want to indulge in some portraiture of your own employing candles. Barry Lyndon is played by Ryan O'Neal who was never a great actor in my view but who. In those three hours and a bit. nevertheless. 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. Kubrick had a 50mm lens built for NASA by the Carl Zeiss Company modified with a Kollmorgen adaptor used in still cameras. perhaps employing a few reflectors to spread the light. 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.I saw this movie three times before I was able to fully digest the complicated . There are some powerful battle and dueling scenes but it is the candlelit scenes and meticulous composition that hold visual sway for photographers. manages to capture the rakish failings of a man who doesn't have the moral compass to match his lofty ambitions. Often landscapes rather than people dominate the screen.plot that revolves .possibly limited to just one . No artificial lighting was used with all the illumination coming from the candles. 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 Conformist The Conformist (1970) . The frame is often held and the action allowed to develop within it. For these moments. The film runs 184 minutes.the one director Stanley Kubrick used to film the lingering candlelit scenes in Barry Lyndon. I counted at least 22 scenes I would like to have recorded with a still camera.

These are the times when the light is warm. Often.around the story of an ambitious professor in Italy in the late 1930s and early 1940s. While director Bernardo Bertolucci didn't cater to viewers with a traditional beginning. It's a time when Mussolini has risen to power and the professor conveniently declares himself a fascist. 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. as I said). His commitment gets tested later. 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. middle and an end (the movie jumps around. unusual shooting angles or the use of filters to tint colours heighten the visual tension. this film is capable of inspiring a still photographer to think outside the box . Movie directors enjoy the magic hours too but they have significant constraints such as budget and plot and onerous schedules. The Last Emperor (also on my list). Disturbing psychological themes and sexual undertones abound. however.to create compositions that defy convention. is a more elegant contender for that honour. . 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. 35 years after it was released. the time around dawn and dusk. ______________________________________ Days of Heaven Days of Heaven (1978) . The movie is arguably Bertolucci's most intriguingly photographed film although some viewers might feel another Bertolucci movie. low and flattering to its subject.Still Photographers are often reminded that the best times to shoot are the "magic hours". Still today. 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. Freud almost deserves a credit on this film. Some of these scenes manage to be both beautiful and creepy and they are always powerful and often surreal.

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. Haskell Wexler. It is the moment when the sun sets and after the sun sets and before it is night. It was before electricity was invented and consequently there was less light. to a lesser extent. the sky has light but there is no actual sun. In a period movie the light should come from the windows because that is how people lived. 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. 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. shooting a film almost exclusively in the "magic hours" is just what director Terence Malick did in a remarkable film called Days of Heaven. Almendros. Nestor Almendros and. 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. "Magic hour is a euphemism. In all. including a young Richard Gere and Brooke Adams. one of my favourite composers. In this period there was no electricity. Malick employed the talents of two of the greatest cinematographers at the time.Nevertheless. elegant compositions and trains packed with workers cut ribbons through a dreamy agricultural landscape. the sweeping farm scenes were shot in the rolling plains of southern Alberta which has never looked more evocative. who started as a still photographer. The light is very . Telling a story about a love triangle in the early 20th century. While the movie opens in a Chicago steel mill. 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. 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. Fields of wheat ripple sensuously in golden light. the story would be told through visuals. 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. Period movies should have less light. because it's not an hour but around 25 minutes at the most. a grand farm house often anchors simple. the heart of the film ostensibly takes place in Texas farm country when three of the main characters in the movie. join a wave of itinerant workers following the farm season. the movie presents some low-key quirky acting but it's really the visuals that reward the viewer. things don't go as planned. For much of the film. back in 1978. A bonus is the soundtrack of Ennio Morricone. In reality.

ethereal visuals in each of them is quite breathtaking. what is conceived in the mind's eye. a beauty and romanticism. It's visual poetry. who encounters the ghosts of Japanese soldiers he once commanded in a lonely tunnel. I am guilty. of sometimes failing to wring the most out of my creative instincts.this one especially . Kurosawa did this with a farranging colour palette that swings from the bland to the bold. ______________________________________ ." ______________________________________ Dreams Dreams (1990) . a former military leader. For me. 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. Dreams tells me to play in the photographic sandbox a little more. The surreal.soft and there is something magic about it. Another section includes a man. 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). We need more images that mirror. It gave some kind of magic look.It's a challenge to pick one film by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa that ranks as my visual favourite. Another vignette involves a party of mountain climbers struggling through a fierce blizzard. as many photographers are. It's chilling to the bone. In fact. more or less. 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. without a doubt.illustrate the joys of constructive whimsy. It limited us to around twenty minutes a day but it did pay on the screen. Going beyond the tried and true is always a challenge. He was very prolific in his lifetime and he displayed a knack for potent cinematography but. Dreams remains the most haunting of his films for me. What this movie offers still photographers is imagination. Dreams is eight short films. He did it with purpose and the discretion of a master but several of his films . some quite melancholy and all born from his actual dreams and memories.

Bertolucci and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro employed very specific colour palettes to symbolically reinforce and illustrate moods. Indeed. The film also serves to remind any visual artist of the power of colour to influence the response of the viewer. One of the very effective cinematic tools in the movie is the use of colour. we see green for the first time.The Last Emperor The Last Emperor (1987) . when his life was vibrant and literally colourful. Storaro also comments briefly on his use of colour in the movie. Vision of Light (which is reviewed below). the last ruler of the 300 year old Chinese Ching Dynasty. When his English tutor arrives (played by Peter O'Toole). It's the colour of knowledge. 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. 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. 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 topic of colour in the film was the subject of an essay in the book. are enhanced by bright warm colours such as orange and yellow. 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 . Pu Yi. The first time red is seen in the film is when blood fills a sink in a suicide scene. wrote in his autobiography that as a boy he believed everything was yellow because he saw so much of it. 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. Bertolucci's The Last Emperor: Multiple Takes (1998) in which Storaro explains how he exercised the psychology of colour. Spanning the years 1908 to 1967. Bertolucci was successful in turning the story of Pu Yi into a compelling (and tragic) historical epic.Bernardo Bertolucci faced an enormous challenge when he decided to tackle the true story of Pu Yi. Scenes from Pu Yi's childhood. for example. Photographers can benefit from this movie by being reminded that colour is rarely incidental in an image. In the DVD. Indeed.

The plot. must figure out how to get along with the imperious master and husband and survive prickly relationships with his other wives. which focuses on the experiences of a reluctant young concubine in the house of a nobleman in the China of the 1920s. 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. have in common is the eye-popping use of colour. When I first saw Raise the Red Lantern. ______________________________________ Raise the Red Lantern Raise the Red Lantern (1991) . For those with stamina. is a grim account of sexual or gender politics. The Last Emperor and Raise the Red Lantern. While the tale is psychologically grim. while Raise the Red Lantern was directed by Zhang Yimou and never sanctioned by the Chinese Government. Raise the Red Lantern provides insight into China's not-so-distant history. What the two films. Songlian. Italian Bernardo Bertolucci. The difference is that The Last Emperor was directed by an outsider.Like The Last Emperor reviewed above. The film was shot in the classic three-strip Technicolor process which allows a . 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). with the cooperation and approval of the Chinese government. As the fourth wife. there is a director's cut of The Last Emperor available on DVD.hallowed structure. the main character. It's no surprise that the film was financed by a Taiwanese distributor through a Hong Kong subsidiary. it was the first Chinese movie that impressed me with its astonishing beauty. It runs 219 minutes but I have heard at least once that the picture quality is less than ideal in places. the vividness of the many colours used in the film is stunning and heightens the emotional content of the story. Tensions are often thin as rice paper as the hazards of polygamy are charted.

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. well.After writing elsewhere on this page about the glorious use of colour in some films. The main character is American pulp-fiction writer Holly Martins played by Joseph Cotten. Raise the Red Lantern changed my mind and influenced my willingness to occasionally search out or use more potent colours for maximum effect. offers moody cinematography that won the film its only Academy Award (though it was nominated for three).richness of reds and yellow that are no longer seen in American films. Graham Greene. like The Last Emperor. it's certainly a contender. Another lead character. it is a riveting movie made better by the abundant but careful use of colour. I saw his movie recently for the fourth time. after not seeing it for many years. vibrant quality. particularly in the use of fabrics. Until this film. we have the option more than ever to enhance colours where the enhancements enhance the image. coarse and over the top. The vivid colours give the movie a sensuous. (I'm not alone: The British Film Institute voted it the number one British Film of the 20the century. If it's not my favourite black-and-white film. a thriller which. With Photoshop and digital photography. ______________________________________ The Third Man The Third Man (1949) . even long before . and was pleased to discover that this classic hasn't lost an ounce of appeal. Fellow Brit Carol Reed was the producer and director and Robert Krasker the cinematographer. 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. in addition to a great story. I always avoided brilliant reds in my work because they seemed.) It was the first movie I ever saw that had canted camera angles so that unsettling tilted compositions heighten the suspense of some scenes. No film better illustrates this in my view than The Third Man.it's just different magic. it's comforting to be reminded that oldfashioned black and white has just as much magic . I like the film because.

French. Criterion has done a superb job of restoring this film and though the DVD is expensive. The climax of the film occurs in the Vienna's sewer system. is another of the many wise men of the camera presented in Visions of Light. and it's here that the film-noir cinematography and lighting underline the strength of black and white. 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. there are lots of talking heads but almost all of them engage the viewer/listener and offer genuine insight. cinematographers acknowledge the vision and influence of certain directors such as Roman Polanski. the award-winning cinematographer who won awards for The last Emperor (see above) and Apocalypse Now. anchored Citizen Kane.is an inspired absence. Vittorio Storaro. French and Russians.Okay. 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. played by Orson Welles. wow!". In some instances. a murky labyrinth of rushing water and mysterious tunnels. who was interviewed shortly before his untimely death in 1992. is Harry Lime. Well. another great and ominous black and white movie and they'll be wondering why I didn't include it in my top ten. Now some cinema buffs will note that both Welles and Cotton. covering the history of cinematography and some of the movies mentioned on this page are illustrated or discussed. the lead cinematographer of Days of Heaven (see above). it's well worth it. It's a documentary about movies. His role in determining the . the kind that makes you exclaim "Oh. _____________________________________ Visions of Light Visions of Light (1992) .or lack of it in the first half of the movie . His presence . We meet such fascinating individuals as Nestor Almendros. technically this isn't a movie.he makes his entrance. Watch it and you'll feel the urge to get to work on some black-and-white images. as great as it is. it doesn't possess the visual intrigue of The Third Man. The morality in the city is ambiguous and there's all kind of illegal black-market activity and wheeling and dealing. And yes. the former especially.

Even back in the early days. giving the appearance of tears as he discusses his bleak childhood with a Chaplin. you can't but help come away deeply impressed by the talents of the great magicians behind the cameras. _____________________________________ Winged Migration . Miller discusses how colours were altered and muted in the film to instill the feeling of the late 1800s. still or otherwise. there was genius. with excerpts from the early silent films. Hall recounts how they were setting up a key prison scene where a murderer played by Robert Blake is about to be hanged.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. After its 92 minutes are up. the strength of the movie though are the hundreds of film clips it presents . We are made aware of great composition as well as depth of field and. we are surprised by the quality of picture making. of course. The documentary is divided into three sections and right from the get-go. it projected the shadows of the raindrops on Blake's face. 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. 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. The cinematographer on McCabe and Mrs. Anyone who works with Photoshop and has had to create the look of another era will enjoy this section. Rarely has there been a more heartbreaking scene in a movie. Indeed. Another worthwhile interview is with Conrad Hall who photographed the chilling In Cold Blood back in 1967. Rain was splashing the window outside and Hall noticed that if the lighting outside was placed at just the right angle. Inevitably. any still photographer with a heartbeat will be inspired by their vision and ability to render magic results with light and technique. the power of light and shadow to capture and hold our attention.

it is the natural wonders of nature that trump just about all the special effects and wizardry humans can concoct. it's worth mentioning that for every 225 feet of exposed film shot for Winged Migration. His clients include corporations. have managed to achieve this. This might seem a tad naive. however. 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. 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.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. The DVD offers a 50-minute behind-the-scenes documentary that shows how the amazing photography was achieved in Winged Migration. some clever and persistent wildlife photographers such as Franz Lanting and Jim Brandenburg.Winged Migration (2001) . the inspired cinematography is one of the reasons why I recently returned to wildlife photography after focusing on other subject matter for Masterfile. to name a couple. He gives the viewer a strong sense of what it must be like to fly and soar in the skies. close and personal and from all angles. Indeed. After all. only one foot made it into the movie. Just so beginners don't get discouraged with early results. balloons and small planes equipped with ingeniously-designed cameras to film migrating flocks up. editorial publications and public service agencies. Such advantages don't dissuade me since there's also great magic in a single still shot of a bird or mammal. 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. He specializes in travel and nature but tackles almost . It's just a different vehicle for reminding people that there are millions of creatures the deserve our consideration. In my opinion. Capturing wildlife doing what it does naturally isn't easy (I speak from personal experience). 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. Perrin had millions of dollars as a budget and a crew of over 450 people who used gliders. however. He also followed bird migrations through all kinds of weather and perilous situations through 40 countries and seven continents over four years. For what it's worth. _____________________________________ Greg Stott is a Toronto photographer and video & documentary producer and director. His stock photography is represented by the Masterfile agency and affiliates. the stock photo agency that has represented me for many years.

stottshot.any subject except food and fashion. He occasionally conducts photo workshops and seminars and exhibits his photography in galleries. His website is www. He has been shooting digitally for three years.com and he can be reached . He wrote Ten Movies Every Photographer Should See while recovering from a bone marrow transplant intended to cure him of a rare cancer.

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