The following article was originally published in 1992, in the CSC Magazine.
A trade publication of the Canadian Society of Cinematographers

The Cinematographer as a Creative Artist

by Brian R. R. Hebb c.s.c.

      I have often been asked what Directors of Photography/Cinematographers are, and what they do. As with most cinematographers, I've wondered about the oddness and innocent ignorance of this question. People would never ask a painter or a portrait photographer what they do, they already know. Then why would they ask a Cinematographer ?

It was even more astonishing when such questions would come from industry insiders. Film executives, other industry professionals, even many directors don't know exactly what cinematographers do. 

 Most people who see a film or who watch television never notice what is on the screen in front of their eyes, the photography, and if a film is properly created they shouldn't. The fine art of photography should be as invisible as the writers words, the composers music or the editors cut. The work of all the 'film makers' should blend together, no one craft should stand out, all must contribute to the whole.


Many people think they know what a director does and if asked they usually say "everything". This myth stems from the  'Auteur theory', originating with a handful of film makers who, while working on a limited budget, actually performed all the crafts in constructing a film. They wrote the screenplay, obtained financing, painted the sets, directed, photographed the images, edited the film and sometimes composed the music. The film of a true 'Auteur' bore an indelible style and signature of the single personality behind it.

The title 'Auteur' was later given to great film makers like Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, David Lean and Steven Spielberg, who gave a personal stamp and style to many of their projects. But those directors also drew upon the creative input of many fine crafts people and artists who worked with them, often from film to film. Together their many styles contributed to the overall productions.

Few film makers actually work alone. Even those who stamp an individual style on a film, have top artists working alongside contributing their own style and creatively supporting the director.

The notion that the director does everything and is the single film maker, or the only story teller behind a project, is usually totally false. This myth, perpetuated by an ignorant media and endorsed by narrow-minded film critics, forgets the major contribution of individual artists and crafts people of the motion picture and television industries who usually get left behind in the publicity shuffle. Some critics who remain ignorant of the cinematographers art, lable them as "technicians" the lap dogs of the director who don't create a thing. Burly guys and gals who place big lights and carry big cameras. Unfortunately this attitude is perpetuated and encouraged buy a few directors who get a major share of the productions publicity. Most directors publicly promote the artistic accomplishments of their fellow creative artists and recognizing them as contributing film makers.

Directors are as different as their individual personalities and each directs in different ways. I have worked with many styles, from the hard edged dictator to the novice, first timer and every-kind in-between. Ninety five percent of directors are collaborators, they value the input of creative team players who do their jobs well and allow the director time to focus on telling the story and sharpening performances with the actors.

The director is a leader, a captain of a ship steering a course through a metamorphosis and channeling all creative ideas toward one unique end result, an achievement of many.


The director of photography/cinematographer is a creative artist who works hand-in-hand with the director and the other members of the team (creative producer, production designer, actor, editor, sound mixer, composer etc.). Together they tell the story by constructing an environment, a mood, an atmosphere and an emotion in front of the camera by interpreting and enhancing the work of the writer and bringing to life a believable group of events.

As William Shakespeare said,  "The play's the thing" and for the creative team the story is the blue print from which to build, to strengthen the dramatics, add the soul, excite, entertain, kindle passions, bring tears and lure the audience on a journey of discovery through a fictitious world. Thus the cinematographer is a major contributing force to the architecture, dynamics and emotion of a production.


Style is the cinematographers specific method of communication. All photographers develop it, as do all creative artists. Personal style exhibits the individuality, the personality and the passion of the mind behind the creation of images. It unveils an expression of oneself, a sense of taste, an awareness of subject matter, a sensitivity to genre´, an intelligence of drama, a control and a philosophy of one's medium. It is a characteristic of the way of presentation and artistic expression.

Style is developed through many processes and periods. The great artist Picasso had many styles but they all boiled down to just one, they came from the same developing personality. Individual cinematographers convey aspects of their own developing personality through the unique expression of their photography. Cinematographic style grows, like a seed, under the surface through an intellectual selection of choices and personal interpretation.

It thrives through the manipulation of light, colour, angles, movement, props, performers and the camera, and is manifested through a continuity of images within the creation of a completed production.


When I sign on to a project, I approach it as though it were totally my own. It becomes my personal passion to make this film the best dramatically photographed piece of work I can accomplish within the genre´ and the production time allotted. That doesn't necessarily mean creating beautiful pictures, rather telling the story through images in the most effective and dramatic way. I read the script and make notes about how I see the story unfolding visually. I study the characters and their idiosyncrasies, their world and it's environment. Then I meet with the director and search for a vision or a direction as to how he/she visualizes the project as a whole. After making some initial suggestions about the project, in terms of photographic images and visual dynamics, I may suggest some locations which could work dramatically (locations are an integral aspect to cinematography). We talk movies, genre' and styles, and after further meetings with other departments I see the film start to unfold photographically.  

Keeping in close contact with the production designers and their related departments is also an integral part of the process. They have usually been assigned to the project before me and have started to establish their 'LOOK' without the director of photography's input. My sorting-out process with them involves; studying location dynamics, evolving studio sets, asking for windows to be in certain places with particular dressings; adding or subtracting colours and practical lamps; and viewing the main characters wardrobe. I try to give input, which in turn will give me time to be my most thoughtful and creative.

After absorbing as many of the rudiments as possible, I like to screen a few films of a similar genre´, sometimes with the director. For me, getting into the mind of the director is very important to creating a good working relationship and results in better images. Knowing just where he/she stands on certain points helps me to hone the 'LOOK' of the overall production.

From a recent project, 'Oh What a Night' I wrote the following notes for the unit publicist;

 "When I was first approached to become part of the production team of 'Oh What a Night', I began my research with the film 'Summer of 42'.  I felt the script of 'Oh What a  Night'      resembled loosely, a Canadian version of that great American film from the early 70's, about growing up in the 40's. The photography of Summer of 42'  was not quite as rich as I was      looking for so I turned to some other period films set earlier than the 50's. I found the rich colours of the recent Bertolucci film 'The Sheltering Sky' and the vast, farm landscapes in   Roman Polanski's 'Tess of the Dubervilles',  then it was time for me to be creative.

On the many productions where I have set the visual style of story telling, I have been able to create a special design dedicated to the particular film. With 'Oh What a Night'' I started by partitioning the film into times of day (sunrise, early morning, mid morning, early afternoon, late afternoon, evening, sunset, twilight and night). The story then became totally defined with colour and shades; the warmth of the summer sun, the rich coolness of the night moon and the orange/yellow tones of sunrise and sunset.

On key scenes such as a high drama love scene set in a barn at night I was literally 'painting with light'. I had a large, powerful light (12k HMI) lifted high up on a crane outside the back of a barn, to shine down like the silvery moon through the slats and holes in the barn wood, I then added layers of smoke to create a series of light beams aiming down and back lighting our teenage character Eric who was tasting his first sexual encounter with the neighbors wife.

In other another scene I used the warm filtered sunlight to catch the natural ripples on the dark pond where the character Vera was sensually bathing nude before young Eric's imagination.

For the audience this film should be nostalgic in conveying the mood of the 50's while exciting a sensual passion with the memories of first love".


Ask an actor, "What makes a good cinematographer ?"  and the answer will almost always be "The way the stars look on screen." This is the portrait aspect of cinematography and for most cinematographers it is the key to good lighting and photography.

The first cinematographer I worked with, Ernie Kirkpatrick csc, said "You can light the perfect portrait, but in motion pictures the actor gets up and moves around. Then where are you ?"  A director once advised me, "You can do what ever you want to make it look good, just make sure I can see their eyes." The eyes are the window to the soul and for a performer they are the connection between the audience and their character.

Each cinematographer approaches lighting in an individual way. For me, lighting varies with the mood I am trying to create within the scene. The big question is, "How do you place the environment around the character ?"

I watch and study a rehearsal then we block the actors and camera. I often set the 'LOOK' and the style of the scene first, in terms of atmosphere. The actors perform within the lighting set ups and camera angles until either they walk into close-up, we dolly the camera into a close-up or the director wants to cut to a close up.  Keeping within the mood of the scene I then change to portrait lighting. I may add an extra eye light to sparkle the eyes while bringing more life to the character.

Sometimes a director will play a whole scene on tight close-up shots so the surroundings are purely incidental to the emotion of the characters. This is atmospheric portraiture, creating moods with the characters. I concentrate on the intended mood, the continuity of light (where the light is supposed to be coming from, like practical lamps or windows) and I mold the lighting around the shape of the actors face.

The cinematographer studies faces, each is different and all are unique in the way they catch light. With leading male actors I sometimes use side lighting which suggests a rugged, strong character. For leading females a softer approach is usually appropriate to flatter the beauty of the feminine face. I sometimes use nets, gauses or filters to light older women. Soft light on the face and a hard back light, can make an actress look very glamorous.

Believability not reality, the difference is critically important to lighting and photography. The audience thinks it's real and that's all that matters. Making it real behind the camera would severely impede and diminish the process and the overall effect. In cinematography and film making in general, nothing is real, it's all put together and manufactured so an audience can believe what is happening on the screen. The film makers create a sort of heightened reality or believability, an illusion of reality.


Some cinematographers place emphasis on the technical wizardry of the medium, the tools at hand. And in this profession there are many new and exciting innovations in equipment. But a tool is only a tool, it depends how it is used. A camera and a lighting fixture are like a typewriter or a paintbrush, tools, used to create great artistry or total mediocrity. Likewise the technical aspect of cinematography is pure schooling, training, research, practise and trial and error (hopefully not to much error).

Anybody can study photography, schools preach it, tech books teach it. As with all education, we learn the principals, the techniques and the mechanics: an actor learns the technique of performance; a painter, the technique of mixing colours; a writer, grammar, punctuation, spelling and typing.

Every crafts-person must learn the rules, the laws and practise until they have mastered them. They then store these techniques in the back of their minds and apply themselves to their particular art, to grow and develop, eventually providing a foundation from which new and different initiatives surface. Finally they rely on a finely tuned individual sense and intuition, to totally devote themselves to creation and style. Some say "it's in breaking the rules that the artist excels." This may be true but every great artist had to learn the rules first, to break them and bend them creatively. Remember it is not the camera that takes the picture, it is the heart, mind and soul of the visionary behind it.


When ordering equipment, Arri cameras and Zeiss high speed lenses are my favorite but I can work with almost anything depending on the particular demands of the project. An image is an image and it can be achieved on any medium (70mm, 35mm, 16mm, video tape, HDTV, still photography, canvas), but each have their own peculiar idiosyncrasies.

As long as cinematographers are prepared in their own minds to create a certain mood, the appropriate equipment can be refined to achieve it.

The lighting package should have enough diversity to help the cinematographer 'roll with the punches' and be flexible enough to rise above the 'slings and arrows' that the day to day process involves. The lighting truck should also carry a complement of lights which will give certain visual effects when needed. I usually ask the set decorators and props people to carry an assortment of practical table and standard lamps because I like to make the night interior lighting appear as if it's coming from real sources, and most of the time it is. Planning the shooting in advance and ordering the lights to help me achieve the 'LOOK' in a particular location is a must.

The 'LOOK' is also affected by other variables; the way an actor glances or moves, or the intricate details of a camera set up or a dolly movement within a location. I like to work out the compositions, the angles and the movements closely with the director and the actors, in this way I can help protect the integrity of whatever dramatic mood and lighting we are all seeking. Like all film makers, the cinematographer must be ready to change, on an evolutionary basis, the technical devices to accommodate the actors or the 'LOOK'.

Most locations are quite different from each other, each impose their own characteristics on the cinematographer, each take a great deal of thought to get them to look right. The name of the game is control. A fully maintained control of all the technicalities and all of the variables will insure consistency and permit creativity.


Colour is also a tool, to enhance mood, create changes of atmosphere and cause tension. I try for an emotional response within the audience by using certain colours and patterns. If I want to create a sense of happiness and contentment, warm, muted pastel colours such as orange and yellow can suggest happy, warm feelings.  Primary colours like blue and red can indicate danger, tension or sadness. Most of my work incorporates all tones but on certain occasions I break the rules to create subliminal visual tension. A slight fog filter or a low contrast filter will soften the edges and slightly mute the tones. The use of effect filters supports and reinforces the dramatics. But one must not over use them, they are only effects for specific emotions.


The processing laboratory and the film to tape transfer house should be the cinematographer's best friends. All films differ and each enjoys a unique approach to the photography. The lab assists in ensuring the finest possible photography reaches the audience by adding the polish that makes the production shine. A constant dialogue with the lab promotes understanding and can help ensure the cinematographers subtleties and nuances are not lost. If a colour timer or colourist at a transfer house inadvertently alters a lighting effect by brightening, darkening or changing the colour of a scene from that intended, the whole mood and emotion can be lost.

Depending on my availability, I like to supervise the answer print timing and the film-to-tape or tape-to-tape transfers. I can usually ensure that my initial intention is maintained. Sometimes I can even enhance the production by adding extra subtleties to the final transfer.


Over the course of my career I have had the good fortune to photograph a wealth of different films in many locations, feature films, movies for television, television series and documentaries, all are different in concept and all are as diverse as the individuals who make up the industry.

Once I have set the 'LOOK' of the film in my head, my biggest job is actually rallying the troops, inspiring and enticing crew members to make my job easier. The cinematographer's work is very precise and very demanding, his/her mind must always be on the scene being shot or the next set up, there is a very limited amount of time in which to do the job. Bringing the crew alongside and giving them a push for the best and most creative they can be, within the tight time limitations, is a most gratifying task. Sometimes it can be tough working with un-motivated people but cinematographers must always remember, it is people who make our world what it is, a lively, interesting, diverse and compelling place to be in. And it is the individuals who make this business what it is. In motivating our fellow crew members we must always treat them with dignity and respect.


Sometimes I stumble over an attitude that because a project is produced for television it demands less work or less passion from it's creators. Ratings prove that popular television programming includes movies, motion pictures, movies for television and TV drama of various kinds. All the audiences sees is the end result and they expect the best quality no matter what they're watching. The viewer doesn't know or care if it took seventeen days to shoot a movie for television or a year to shoot a feature film appearing on the same channel moments later. For the craftsman with limited time to see a project through, personal style, quality and integrity must be maintained irrespective of the time available to achieve a result.

Knowing how to achieve a goal in the shortest time imaginable means being totally prepared; rallying the troops; setting the style; adding the mood, flair and dynamics; shooting the setup and moving on.  With limitations one has to quickly rely on creative and effective aesthetic potentials and design them to interpret the script within the context of the genre´. The trick is in distinguishing between scenes you can aim for the ultimate in looks and style and  ones to accept slightly less. Here the study of drama and the effects of photography in the motion picture and television mediums will assist. The cinematographer can never relax, once a production has been photographed it has an infinite life, "it's up there forever" and it will come back to haunt him/her if the job hasn't been a personal best.


My advice to new cinematographers and to anyone considering the field is to study all aspects of the creative film making process, writing, acting, directing, editing and music. Study art and it's various styles. Understand photography and find it's hidden meanings. Study drama and the nuance within a story. Learn about esthetics and good taste. Watch lots of good movies and theatre.

Every crafts person goes through an apprenticeship programme to learn the nuance of a their profession from seasoned professionals.

I apprenticed at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation under the leadership of many cinematographers but one man in particular became my mentor, Norman C. Allin c.s.c. I will always value his guidance and his encouragement. He taught me the ropes and helped me to grow and gain confidence. In turn, those years contributed to a great deal of my professional success. 

Aim as many questions at as many industry professionals as possible. Open your mind and let ideas flow in as well as out. Be an explorer, bring home an untold wealth of treasures in the form of new ideas.

Discover new worlds and new technologies, use your imagination and express yourself. Take a chance and aim for the highest, become the best. Follow the great ones, the masters, and learn from them. In all aspects of life, the great ones have set the standards, they are the leaders we follow and want to be like. Composers strive to create wonderful compositions that would come up to the standards of the great ones like Beethoven or Mozart. We want to be great artists like Rembrant or Michaelangelo. Great cinematographers like Greg Toland, James Wong Howe, Freddy Young, Vittorio Storaro or Gordon Willis. Watch, learn and strive to be like them and reach for your own stars in the hopes that you may one day become as individual an artist as they, or better.

Be a pioneer, don't follow the masses, try new approaches and dare to be different. Don't wait for the director to direct you, use imaginative powers to initiate. By communicating and working closely with the director you can create something far better together. Try a fresh angle with the camera and work the light. Remember, seeing comes before words and cinema is a visual medium. Photography, as in all the crafts of film making, is a personal philosophy and a passion, not just pretty pictures.


Cinematographers inherit a very honorable and distinct profession, art and craft, an integral part of the great story telling industry. They must do everything they can to promote recognition and respect for the creative art itself. We all must continue to learn, we all must teach and we all must put our ego's aside to promote compassion for a profession that has given us all a great deal of pleasure. The late Ed Long csc said, "Brian it's better than working for a living", and Ed was right. If you love what you do and can approach each day and each moment with a renewed sense of challenge then you will have achieved your personal 'bliss' and the art and craft of film making and cinematography will continue to reach untold heights of professional quality.

Many books have been written about cinematography but most stress the technical side, like most CSC meetings. In this essay I have only scratched the surface, but the creative side of cinematography is far reaching and cannot be covered within a few paragraphs. From the CSC, creative cinematography is restless and waiting in the wings for the curtain to be opened. Lets open our society and hear from the many photographic artists who make up our membership and who can tell us about their own creative agendas.


Copyright©1992 Brian R. R. Hebb c.s.c.

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