The Five C’s of Cinematography

There are many great books on filmmaking. From those interviewing legendary directors about their craft to the ones sharing DIY tips and tricks all the way to the books covering complex technical aspects like grading or movement. I’ll write about my favorite books in a later post, but today I’d like to mention one particular book that keeps getting my attention and admiration: The Five C’s of Cinematography: Motion Picture Filming Techniques by Joseph V. Mascelli.

According to American Cinematographer the Five C’s is one of the three most important books on cinematic technique ever published. That should count for something!

So, what are the 5 C’s?

  1. Camera Angles: Objective, Subjective, Point-of-View, Subject Size, Subject Angle, Camera Height

Where is the camera positioned and why is it there? We as viewers are seeing what the camera sees. So the placement of the camera is key. In “The Godfather,” for the scene where Marlon Brando gets shot, director Francis Ford Coppola wanted a bird’s eye view. His director of photography, the legendary Gordon Willis, didn’t agree with that approach. Who’s perspective is that? A neighbor watching the shooting unfold, or perhaps God? The angle of the camera didn’t follow Willis’s minimalistic style. Coppola won the dispute in the end, but I find their conversation fascinating.

017 Image 1 - The Godfather - Don Corleone Shooting

 

  1. Continuity: Cinematic Time and Space, Filming Action, Master Scenes, Screen Direction, Transitional Devices

Many still photographers concentrate on the perfect single image, and only edit or sequence different images when putting a portfolio together or working on a long-term documentary project. In film we need to grab the viewers’ attention from beginning to end, without unnecessary distractions. The opening sequence of “Citizen Kane” is a fantastic example. Somehow we go from the mansion’s exterior (behind a gate) to the bedroom’s interior, without knowing how we got there.

  1. Cutting: Types of Editing, Cross-Cutting, Cutting on Action

Where do you start and where do you end a shot? And what’s next? A great example of this is the opening sequence in Reservoir Dogs, where the backs of the actors are used as transitions.

  1. Close-ups: Over-the-Shoulder, Cut-in, Cutaway

When shooting interviews I’ve missed plenty of good opportunities for great closeups: a man fixing his tie, or someone playing with their wedding ring or simply smiling sheepishly before the actual start of the interview. It is later, in the editing room, that I wish I had captured those little moments than can tell a much better story.

  1. Composition: Compositional Rules, Compositional Language, Types of Balance, Attracting or Switching the Center of Interest.

On our recent projects we’ve been paying more attention to “Hitchcock’s rule” of composition, which states that “the size of an object in the frame should be directly related to its importance in the story at that moment.” It does make a difference.

I recently watched Wong Kar-wai’s “The Grandmaster” and was deeply impressed by many of the compositional choices. Often, two thirds of the frame are completely dark. Some dialog scenes break all the rules in the book. And other shots are impossibly minimalist. Yet, they all work together to create a visual masterpiece.

An important lesson I’ve learned from this book isn’t actually taught by Mr. Mascelli; rather, it comes from his example. The book was first published in 1965 and I don’t think it has been updated much since then. Yet the concepts are so good, effective, and clear that the content has become timeless.

In a time when most of us are anxiously waiting for that new gadget to become available, it is a great reminder that tools are just tools, and mastery comes from the way that we used them. Constantly trying new tools and pushing our techniques are important practices to employ upon the path to better projects. Let’s take advantage of the many great resources we have at our disposal. A good place to start is by getting this book.

017 Image 2 - The 5Cs of Cinematography Cover

 


Eduardo Angel is an independent Technology Consultant, Educator, and Visual Storyteller based in Brooklyn, NY. He currently teaches at The School of Visual Arts and the International Center of Photography, and mentors the photography program at the Savannah College of Art and Design.

He is a co-founder of the idea production company The Digital Distillery, author of popular filmmaking courses on Lynda.com, and regularly shares his thoughts on technology, photography, and cinema on his website eduardoangel.com.

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