by ROUBEN MAMOULIAN
As Told to William Stull, A.S.C.
THE MOST important tool at the motion picture director’s command is the camera. Understandingly used, it can be the true star of every production; unwisely used, it can be the “heavy,” as well. Which part it is to play depends entirely upon the camera-wisdom of the director and cinematographer, and upon the degree of mutual understanding that obtains between them. Each must know the other’s plans and dramatic conceptions, and the two must be able to work in complete harmony, with such unity of thought and purpose that they are almost like one man. I do not mean by his that either should ruthlessly dominate the other, but that each should so completely understand the other’s artistic and dramatic ideas and methods that instead of being two individuals working to attain the same ends by different methods, they should coordinate their activities and work together like parts of a perfect machine.
The first step toward this is, of course, agreement, based on mutual understanding, as to what is to be the keynote of the picture, the sequence and the individual scene. Is the basic dramatic conception idealistic or realistic? Is the story to be told through delicate touches or bold, virile contrasts? Is the telling to stress the story itself or the manner of its recital? These, and a thousand other questions arising from them, should be completely settled in the minds of director and cinematographer before the actual shooting commences, so that, from the first rehearsal, the two can work as one, completely coordinating their efforts, and making the picture a complete, coherent unity from start to finish.
For this reason, I advocate giving the cinematographer more ample time for preparation than he is at present given before starting production, in order that he and the director may reach this state of mutual understanding beforehand, rather than after several days of work, during which, since neither completely understands the other’s intentions, much time and effort must be wasted upon imperfect results. In order to attain this perfect understanding, each must be able to see beyond the immediate confines of his work: the cinematographer must in fact be a good director as well as a good photographer, and the director must likewise be a good cinematographer. Not that either should by this knowledge feel qualified to supplant the other, but that each should be able to see in its true perspective the relation of his work to the whole.
Of the two, I believe that it is most important for the director to learn cinematography, for most cinematographers are men of many years’ experience, and have worked with so many directors that they can hardly help knowing the basic principles of direction, while many directors, coming, like myself, from other fields—such as the legitimate stage—are inclined to overlook the vital bearing that cinematography has upon the dramatic values of a motion picture, and to feel that a knowledge of stagecraft is sufficient. But stagecraft alone is insufficient: to direct a motion picture without a knowledge of the dramatic uses of the camera is like attempting to write in a foreign language when knowing only the grammar, but not the colloquial idiom. The actual results of attempting to make a motion picture without this knowledge will be one of two extremes: either conservative and “stagey,” or an unrestrained orgy of unjustified angle-shots and camera-movements. Either is bad, but I regard the latter as worse, for in the first case, if story and dramatics are sound, they will probably gloss over the technical omissions; while in the latter case, the cinematics being definitely bad, such is the power of the camera that this technical fault will overshadow the good points of story and staging. Therefore, the director must know how to use his camera: when to use unusual angles—and why; when to move his camera—and why.
Originally, the camera was merely a machine that recorded the action played before it, much as the eye of a spectator in a theatre observes the action on the stage, without changing its position or making any attempt toward selectiveness. All the action was played in long-shots. It was D. W. Griffith, I believe, who first conceived the idea of visually guiding the audience’s attention by means of the close-up, and, later, of making the audience participate in the physical movement of the scenes through the follow-shot. Years later, various German directors rediscovered this, and added to it the powerful auxiliary of angle-shots. Most recently, the Russian directors have added “montage,” which is really nothing more nor less than the dramatic use of cutting, dressed up with a French name. Director and cinematographer must both be masters of all of these, knowing how and when to use each—and above all, the psychological reasons for each.
Important as it is to know when to use these technical tricks, it is even more important to know when not to use them, for the best scene ever conceived can be ruined by the intrusion of factors that have no real bearing upon its meaning. In some scenes the camera is all-important, in some, the acting, in some, the dialogue, and in some even, the set. In my work previous to entering pictures, as a director of stage-plays, I found this truth applied in a more or less elementary way. Therefore, I made it a practice to study each scene through preparation and rehearsals until I thought that I knew its real dramatic value. Then I would seat myself in the auditorium and study the scene as the actors played it: study it with my eyes closed, to assure myself that the players were getting the maximum value from their lines; and again with my ears closed, to make certain that action, pantomime, and grouping were perfect. If all of these were satisfactory, the scene itself must be; if at any moment I could not get a clear understanding of the scene through either eyes or ears unaided, something must be wrong with the direction. I would stop the action, and study until I had found and remedied the fault.
I find that I can apply the same method, on a larger scale, to motion picture direction. After the players are well rehearsed, I study the action through the camera’s viewfinder, or through the recorder’s earphones, according to the requirements of the scene. Most frequently, I study it through the camera, for the visual must predominate in a motion picture. It is not only the action that is important, but the way in which the camera sees that action. The cinematographer must light the action to exactly match the mood in which it is played, and must have his camera at exactly the right position matching the dramatic perspective of the scene.
This is the salient point about camera-angles: they must be used to match the dramatic angle of the scene, never for their own sake. A simple close-up may be an attractive piece of photography, and vastly flattering to the star—but if it is cut into a sequence in which it has no dramatic place, it is essentially bad; bad direction, bad photography, and bad cinematics. Similarly, if a close-up is needed, and not used, it is equally bad. Either the director or the cinematographer—if not both of them—should know enough about his business to see that such a shot was necessary, and to see to it that one was made and used.
The same rules apply to the more intricate angle shots. If they aid the dramatic progress of the picture, they are good, and must be used; if they hinder it, they must not be used. For instance: Let us suppose that we have a scene of a group to photograph it from the angle that gives a visual perspective of people sitting at a table, discussing something. The natural way to photograph the scene would be from the normal eyelevel. On the other hand, a shot of the group taken from directly above might be enormously effective intrinsically: yet it would be entirely out of place unless there was a legitimate dramatic reason for it. If, for instance, one of our characters is a spy, or a criminal, hiding in an upper floor of that house, and eavesdropping upon this conference through a hole in the ceiling, such an angle-shot would be vitally necessary, for it would give the audience his reaction to the situation in a way that nothing else could. Similarly, if he were hidden under some piece of furniture in the room, a shot of the group at the table from an unusually low angle would be equally desirable, for the same reason.
But the use of camera-angles extends beyond this. It definitely enters the realm of the psychological. It can convey the underlying significance of a scene as nothing else can. Take, for instance, a sequence from “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Dr. Jekyll has suddenly found himself transformed, involuntarily, to Hyde, with no way of returning to his laboratory to secure the chemicals necessary to return him to his real self. In his extremity, he is forced to call upon his friend, Dr. Lanyon, who brings the necessary potions to his own house, where Hyde is forced to use them to restore himself, changing back to Jekyll before Lanyon’s horrified eyes. In the scenes which follow, Jekyll, physically and emotionally exhausted, pleads with his friend for forgiveness. Double strength was given to these scenes by the camera angles used. Jekyll is crumpled up in a low chair, pleading piteously with his friend; Lanyon sits behind his desk, which is on a dais, as one on the Throne of Supreme Judgment. The angles from which each is photographed subtly heighten this contrast: Jekyll is always photographed from above, looking up into the camera—an abject suppliant. Lanyon is always photographed from below, looking down at the camera—a stern and uncompromising judge. To enhance these visual contrasts, I placed Jekyll in the lowest chair in the studio, and Lanyon (already on a raised platform), on the highest, severest chair in the studio, to which I added three-inch lifts under the legs.
The same ideas must apply to camera movement, as well. The idea that camera-movement will give cinematic movement to an otherwise static scene or study, so prevalent among directors and executives, is basically false. Camera movements, used where there is no dramatic necessity for such movement, injures rather than aids a picture. It focuses the attention of the audience on the mechanical rather than upon the story, and confuses instead of clarifies the issue. Unjustified movement is a sign of directorial weakness, rather than strength.
Once camera movement is decided upon as dramatically necessary, however, director and cinematographer must cooperate closely in realizing it with the utmost of technical and artistic perfection, for a badly-executed move is worse than none at all. Many factors must be considered: speed, direction, angle, and above all, rhythm. The preceding action will inevitably have established a definite dramatic (and often physical) tempo or rhythm: the moving-camera scene must follow out the same rhythm, or, in some rare instances, increase it.
These moving shots must, of course, be perfectly conceived and rehearsed. Rehearsal is vital, for if they are not well rehearsed, the mechanical element is likely to intrude, and tear down all the atmosphere that you have been at such great pains to build up. These scenes, too, demonstrate the necessity for photographic-mindedness in the director; otherwise, he may impose upon his camera crew scenes that are photographically impossible. Similarly, the cinematographer must be sufficiently a director to know when such scenes are dramatically necessary, and when more conventional methods would be preferable.
Another point where cinematographer and director must be perfectly agreed is the mood of the photography which best suits the picture. Too many directors are satisfied to take whatever the cinematographer chooses to give them in this respect; too many cinematographers are willing to treat everything conventionally, overlooking the dramatic value of a scene in an effort to make it prettily pictorial. But some stories demand one type of photography, others demand a different type. Some, like, for instance, “Smilin’ Through,” demand photography that stresses the romantic elements — soft, delicate, pictorialism. Others, like “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” demand virile, realistic, almost brutal treatment. Of course, realism does not connote any abandonment of the principles of composition or lighting, but it does signify an abrupt departure from mere conventional prettiness. To my mind, “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” gained force from the fact that both Karl Struss and I were early agreed that realistic, harsh photography was best suited to it. Karl’s treatment of it at once heightened the realism of the central characters, and threw the character of Mr. Hyde into sharp contrast by ruthlessly exposing its unreality. Let me also pay Mr. Struss a richly-deserved tribute for this achievement, for the complete bouleversement of his usual artistic style revealed him to be an artist of the highest calibre.
Motion pictures are bound to progress mightily as cinematographers and directors alike learn more and more of the dramatic uses of the camera, and as they learn to cooperate more closely and understandingly. Artistically speaking, the Art of the Cinema is yet young, though its technique is well developed. It is a fascinating field of effort, for we are still pioneers: upon us, the directors and cinematographers of today, depends the artistic future of this new medium. Out of our mutual understanding and cooperation today will come the artistic developments of tomorrow. The full development of this new medium, the speaking cinema, rests with us, to establish its conventions, and to make it the powerful medium that it can be.