Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography (United States, 1993)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Often, one of the most overlooked elements of a film is its cinematography. Paradoxically, it is also the most important, whether specifically noticed or not. Movies are a visual medium where the pictures shoulder the lion's share of the burden. A movie can have a good director, accomplished actors, and a riveting script, but if the photography is poor, the production is doomed.

Visions of Light will enthrall lovers of movies and photography buffs alike. For those that happen to fall into both categories, it's a rare treat. This documentary presents an insider's view of the cinematographer's role, interviewing dozens of today's most accomplished directors of photography, examining their work, and looking back on the great productions of the past. I defy anyone who sees this movie to emerge with an unchanged attitude towards cinematography. It's likely that in the next film you see, you'll be far more aware of camera's role in the creative process.

Visions of Light states that cinematography is the art of light -- blending it so it enhances the director's vision. Much time is spent discussing this subject as well as various other technical aspects of the craft (the role of close-ups, the importance of showing a performer from a particular angle, and the advantages and disadvantages of certain shots). If all this sounds dry, be assured that it isn't. There are clips from over a hundred movies to revel in -- everything from The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari to Goodfellas.

The film is divided into three sections. The first, and shortest, traces the early days of Hollywood and the importance of camerawork in silent films. Several of the interview subjects lament the introduction of sound into the movies so early, feeling that another decade of silence could have advanced their craft by leaps and bounds.

The second section deals with the black-and-white era after the introduction of sound. Covering roughly the years between 1930 and 1960, much attention is paid to the role of contrast and shadow (gray versus black, for example) in these movies. Citizen Kane is given a lengthy treatment with its many photographic innovations discussed at some length.

Finally, color movies are presented. From Gone with the Wind to films of the eighties, the various techniques used by color photographers to achieve moods and portray emotions are detailed. During this part, time is spent on movies such as Annie Hall, Jaws, Blue Velvet, and the aforementioned Goodfellas (including a discourse on the genesis of one of that film's most unusual shots).

Visions of Light is somewhat didactic and doesn't attempt any ground breaking documentary techniques. But its mixture of information and film clips maintains an effective pace. This film will add a dimension to the knowledge of those familiar with the work of cinematographers, and give an appreciation of a different facet of filmmaking to those who are not.

Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography (United States, 1993)

Director: Arnold Glassman, Todd McCarthy, and Stuart Samuels
Cast: n/a
Screenplay: Todd McCarthy
U.S. Distributor: Kino International
Run Time: 1:31
U.S. Release Date: 1993-04-23
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Nothing Objectionable)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: