For lots of people the research stage can be incredibly stressful, but it really doesn’t have to be. I know what you’re thinking, you’re thinking about days and days spent glued to a screen taking notes. You’re also thinking about how much rides on your research and you’re probably asking questions like “what happens if I don’t do enough research?” And “Where do I start?” Like I said at the start, it really doesn’t have to be as bad as you think, especially when you look for film inspiration outside of film. Read on to find out what I like to look at when I’m in the research and development stage of a project.
This may seem counter intuitive, but removing the images from your research could actually open up a whole world of possibilities for you. When you’re confining yourself to a certain type of image, it’s quite easy for you to get tunnel vision. Because there are often no images, books tend to have to be very descriptive in order to get their point across. You should be using this to your advantage!
Like I said, books don’t often have many pictures in, what they do have is words, and plenty of them. Pay attention to them, especially when they’re describing something, as your brain is most likely piecing together a picture for you. When you look at images, you can already see what’s there and you don’t have to use your imagination. Whilst this is great for the factual part of your work, it means that your pre-visualising might be a bit lacking. For me, I like that books force me to work things out for myself, it means that when I come to a project I can think about how I want it to look even before I do my visual research.
You may not be a big reader, and if you’re not then this could be a really difficult one for you to get into, but I think that trying out a new method of researching can be a really great thing.
Comic Books and Graphic Novels
I’m a nerd (shocker, right?) and so this is a subject that I have a pretty decent knowledge about. However, just because you might not be heavily into them, it doesn’t mean that they’re not a great resource for your research. Comic books are an art form, and a lot of them actually have a very cinematic approach to the way they’re illustrated. There seems to be this perception that they’re childish, but behind each frame is hours of work carried out by a dedicated and professional artist. They may not be renaissance paintings but I frequently take note of what’s happening inside them and use it in my work.
One of the main reasons that I like to use comics or a graphic novel is that they work in a similar way to film (at least in my head anyway.) I look at them like this; each panel on the page is an edit. They manage to tell a really effective story and give the impression of movement even though they are just a collection of images on a page with some dialogue. I’ve always thought that these pages have to be really well constructed to get the mood across and so I try to use this to motivate my work.
The other reason that I like to use them is that they tend to have a really strong style. A lot of the graphic novels that I use have distinctive visuals; in fact, many of them are defined by their visual style. I like to look at graphic novels and comic books to pick apart their lighting, in the same way that I would with a still from a film or video. They work really well if you’re a visual person like I am!
Some of my favourite source materials for this type of research are books like Watchmen, Elephantmen, Black Sad and the Punisher Max series. My style tends to fall towards the darker ends of the cinematography spectrum and these particular texts really speak to that. There are loads of ways to find sources for comic books, just do a quick search on Google, or better yet, find a local comic book store!
I was given some very good advice once; look at Rembrandt. If you don’t know what I mean then let me fill you in. Rembrandt was a painter who did a lot of portrait work and the reason that he is particularly interesting to people like us is the way that he used light. He was very detailed about the light that was used for his sittings, especially when it comes to shadow. The shadows in his paintings tell us a lot, and often give me something to emulate and work towards.
Although I’ve talked about Rembrandt here, the good thing about paintings is that the topic is very broad. You can find all kinds of paintings from different countries and different time periods that all have a different style. They have a lot to teach us about composition, lighting and colour and should be used for your research.
Whilst the broadness of the subject is one of the great things about paintings, it also makes them very hard to get into. It can be a daunting subject and I must admit that I use them less than I should because of this. My advice is to try them and see how you get on. If you’re looking for a way in then it might be a good idea to take a look at your local art gallery.
The reason that I left this one until last is that it’s probably the most obvious one. Chances are you’re probably using it, but if you’re not then don’t panic.
Lots of the best cinematographers are keen photographers as well; the two often seem to go hand in hand. I find the subject to be very different, however, and that’s why I include them separately from film and video. For me, photography is about capturing that one, tiny instance, rather than thinking about something as long as a video. Although that might not seem useful, photography is great way to get idea for your framing, lighting and colouring in a similar way to paintings. There are also a specific type of photos that might be useful to you; behind the scenes photos. If you ever wondered how a scene was lit, why not try and find the BTS photos from that movie? Even if you can’t find a photograph that relates directly to your chosen scene, you can probably work out the kind of feel that the cinematographer was going for by looking at his gear.
The point of this blog is to encourage you to be diverse with your research material. You don’t have to use all of these, you don’t have to use any of them for that matter, but I really would encourage you to look outside of film and video. Also, if you have something that inspires your research then I’d love to hear from you!