9.02.2009

What is Good Cinematography?






Now, I don't mean to sound like a snob or anything, but sometimes I wonder how people judge cinematography. This post was inspired after reading several blog reviews regarding Halloween 2. While most reviews have been negative towards the film as a whole, many have singled out the cinematography to be a highlight of the film (even in blogs that don't usually comment on technical elements very often). I found this interesting because I felt that this was one of the worst aspects of H2

The movie does indeed have a distinct look, but an edgy, frenetic visual design alone doesn't make good cinematography in my book. There are a couple of ways I judge cinematography--some ways are more objective than others. On the most basic level, cinematography is first and foremost about "getting the shot." That means the action needs to be photographed in such a way that what is intended to be seen can be experienced through proper framing and proper exposure. Artistic liberty aside, I think most people will agree that this is pretty fundamental. Next, lighting and composition are generally set up in such a way that it is aesthetically pleasing. This means using the rule of thirds, being mindful of screen direction, backlighting subjects, and avoiding flat lighting, but of course these are only general rules of thumb. 
I'm sure the acting is brilliant, but I can't really tell for sure...

Not every film must be beautiful. And Rob Zombie's films will probably never be filled with glamour shots. However, breaking basic cinematographic "rules" should be done for a reason. And that reason should always be story. Each film has its own story to tell and each scene within that film has a mini-story. The cinematography should always be finding ways to tell that story for each particular moment. Cinematography should punctuate emotions, get us into the character's head, and capture the message in the most effective way possible. 

What's the point of casting a giant if you hardly every shoot him in wides that emphasize his stature?


So does Halloween 2 do that? Well, it's always difficult to judge such a stylized film because it's honestly tough to tell what is a mistake and what is intentional. Zombie's inclination towards a raw, visceral, handheld approach is one piece of the puzzle and Director of Photography Brandon Trost's execution of it is another. In a rudimentary sort of way, not allowing artistic leeway, Halloween 2's cinematography is a complete failure. Tight framing and underexposure make it very difficult to perceive what is happening throughout much of the film. And of course, there are very few shots that are pleasing to the eye. 

Yes, this is the 21st century, and not all films need to be shot like Citizen Kane (and thankfully they are not). However, getting back to the essentials, does Halloween 2's cinematography actually tell the story with the most impact it could? I would say that it does not. One could argue that the film is so chaotic because Laurie's life has been turned upside down, which is completely valid. But, it's hard to justify that after watching Zombie's first Halloween. It's equally as shaky and unfocused, even when nothing was wrong in Laurie's life. For Zombie, there is no visual progression from a normal conversation to scenes of terror. Almost every scene is photographed the same way (aside from the visions), even when completely different stories are being told. 

What is happening in this picture? 
It's like watching the garage chase scene of the original Prom Night on VHS.

Style aside, I still think the majority of action should be framed and exposed so that I can see what is occurring onscreen. So many scenes in Halloween 2 could have been more effective.  If only Brad Douriff's face was lit so that I can see his brilliant performance, if only I could tell what Michael was doing during all that commotion in the strip club, and if only Laurie's emotions were showcased instead of random objects blocking the foreground. 


Cinematography is at the heart of filmmaking. It's a strange blend of technical ability and creative storytelling. I'm open to a wide range of cinematographic styles. From slow and stationary shots found in John Carpenter movies, the color-oriented wide shots of Argento's films, the hard contrast lighting of Hammer horror, to the fast-paced grittiness of recent French flicks, I am a lover of all the ways to photograph a film. Whatever the movie is, I just hope the director and cinematographer opted for a style that best fit the story and best suited each moment. I don't think that is the case with Halloween 1 or 2. To me, it’s just style over story.

Tell me what you guys think, especially if you did enjoy the cinematography of H2

11 comments:

  1. I can see what Zombie was doing when he took old film prints from halloween 2,4,5,6,2o, and resurrection put them in a dryer with a razor blade, glue, and a healthy amount of his dirty underwear and switched it to the heavy duty cycle. We aren't seeing stylization over story we are seeing a random alignment of shit and celluloid. Thats some abstract art. I guess this is more of a editing commentary but I think the turd stains in the underwear really darkened the film tho.

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  2. I am so easy to please when it comes to cinematography and horror films in general, but there are certain times when i just get annoyed. For instance, a lot of the murder scenes in H2. I would have liked to actually see those, not just split-second flashes of them or off-camera sounds.
    I also don't like when the camera is moving around so much that I can't tell what's going on. It's tolerable, but my eyes are trying so hard to focus on the picture that I just get frustrated when it isn't working, lol. I'm not sure if that specifically happened in H2 or not.

    Oh yeah, I love Laurie's "wake the duck up" sticker. She's so clever and bad ass :P

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  3. This looks like a great post and one I would love to comment on, but I fear H2 spoilers and I don't know what you have concerning them in this post. My wife and I plan to see it over the weekend so I have been avoiding all of my blogger friends reviews of H2 like the swine flu. I promise to come back to this one.

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  4. The first pic on this post looks like it should be from holy mountain.

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  5. I think the problem is that many people confuse a handful of memorable shots with "good cinematography". Zombie has some great, eye-popping applications of color and lighting in many of the set-ups in HALLOWEEN II, but I also fully agree with ya as to the choppiness and hard to follow, sloppily laid-out action sequences.

    "What's the point of casting a giant if you hardly every shoot him in wides that emphasize his stature?" - - - This is an excellent point that you raise, Becky, and something I've also felt but never managed to articulate for myself. It's just always been bubbling there under the surface... and after all the spinny close-ups & shit, Zombie out of nowhere seems to remember this as well, & hits you over the head with it on occasions like when Myers/Mane flips over a fucking car.

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  6. J,

    You're definitely right. A few striking images play a large part in our memory of the film as a whole. And Zombie does know how to shock us from time to time, with some great visual moments.

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  7. A perfect series to use to emphasize your point here Beck, though I havent seen H2, each of the elements you mentioned are the exact distractions that made Halloween (2007) a complete failure for me. I am hoping this new style fades quickly, and that Zombie learns a new trick..

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  8. Yeah, I don't have anything intelligent to contribute to this but I just wanted to say great write-up, Becky! :)

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  9. You summed up my feelings about Zombie's remake perfectly. Thanks.

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  10. Well I;m late on the draw here since I only saw H2 a few days ago and skipped reading your post the first time due to possible spoilers.

    But I have to agree this is not great cinematography. I noticed the mention of his size undermined in certain shots, because my wife would keep saying something to the fact of "oh yeah, I forgot how tall he was." So you're definitely on-point with that one imho.

    The lighting is another problem. I am not into things being bright and I appreciated different lens use and shadows. I really do. But the film was too dark in some scenes. I was too busy trying to see what was going on instead if enjoying what was going on.

    I hope Rob changes it up in his next project as well because I did not like H2 and I really, really wanted to.

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