The Art of Cinematography: 8 Essential Documentaries

Orson Welles and Gregg Toland's camera operator, Bert Shipman, filming Citizen Kane (1941)



The film equivalent of a stroll through the Louvre, the documentary Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography collects interviews with many of modern-day Hollywood’s finest directors of photography and is illustrated by examples of their best work as well as scenes from the pictures which most influenced them. A who’s-who of cinematographers—Nestor Almendros, John Bailey, Conrad Hall, Laszlo Kovacs, Sven Nykvist, Vittorio Storaro, Haskell Wexler, Gordon Willis, Vilmos Zsigmond and others—discuss their craft with rare perception and insight, paying homage to pioneers like Gregg Toland, Billy Bitzer and John Alton and explaining the origins behind many of the most indelible images in movie history; from Citizen Kane to The Godfather and from Sunrise to Night of the Hunter, many of the truly unforgettable moments in American film history are here in all their brilliance and glory. —Jason Ankeny, Rovi



The world’s top cinematographers discuss the art of how and why films look the way they do. Cinematographer Style is about the art and craft of cinematography. It is about how everything, from life experiences to technology, influences and shapes an individual’s visual style. Because of the powerful impact that the visual style of a movie can have, this documentary may offer contemporaries valuable insights into the dramatic choices cinematographers make. And, it is expected that the material will have significant historic value as well. The DVD of the documentary is available at Amazon. Needless to say, absolutely our highest recommendation.


Writing with Light: Vittorio Storaro (1992)—a marvelous documentary about legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, one of history’s ten most influential cinematographers (Apocalypse Now, The Last Emperor, Reds, Il Confimista, 1900). Vittorio Storaro talks about his work, along with collaborators like Warren Beatty and Bernardo Bertolucci and peers like Nestor Almendros. On-set footage from Dick Tracy and The Sheltering Sky. Storaro explains his zany theories about light and colour, and gives a potted history of lighting in the cinema. As far as we know, this documentary is not available on DVD.



James Wong Howe: Cinematographer. This film about legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe (1899–1976) was produced by the University Film and Video Foundation in 1990. In 2010, the UFVF Board of Trustees voted to release this film to the public on the Internet free of charge. As a Trustee of the Foundation, I am happy to do so so that we can honor such a magnificent artist. —Simon Tarr



In The Mood for Doyle (2007). Christopher Doyle is one of the best known and most acclaimed directors of photography in world cinema. Born in Australia, he sees himself as an Asian citizen rather than a Westerner. His artistic contribution to the films of Wong Kar-wai, Zhang Jimou and Fruit Chan films, among others, is indisputable. Filmed in DV and Super8, this documentary is a kind of wild and stylized road movie—from Bangkok to Hong Kong, via New York. The camera follows this eccentric and outrageous artist as he gives us his thoughts on his past and present work. From the recent sets of Invisible Waves by Thailand’s Pen ek Ratanaruang, and M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water, to the locations in Hong Kong where he shot some of his most famous pictures, such as In The Mood for Love and Dumplings, Chris Doyle talks about his cinematic fascination for Asian culture. —Mi-Jeong Lee

This documentary has not been officially released on DVD.



Cinéma Cinémas, 1984—legendary cinematographer Stanley Cortez on shooting The Night of the Hunter and working with Charles Laughton.



In this fascinating documentary, Jack Cardiff describes his superb career as one of the ultimate Technicolor cinematographers of the twentieth century, who worked on 86 films. Beginning work in 1918, he continued up until 2007, dying in 2009. Telling fascinating stories of the film production, films, directors, and actors that he worked with, Jack shows a keen sense of humor. Scorsese also offers commentary throughout. Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff is available on DVD, Blu-ray, Download & VoD.



A marvelous documentary directed by Greg Carson about the work of legendary cinematographer Sven Nykvist. In 2003, Nykvist was judged one of history’s ten most influential cinematographers in a survey conducted by the International Cinematographers Guild. There is another interesting documentary about Sven Nykvist called Light Keeps Me Company (2001), directed by his son.



A moving and multi-layered portrait of veteran Swedish cinematographer Sven Nykvist, Light Keeps Me Company is essential viewing for film buffs—and anyone interested in the making of quality movies. The many interviews with actors and directors he has worked with should ensure the film a wider audience than usual for such fare, and pic should be a natural for major fests with documentary sections. —Gunnar Rehlin

Alistair Moffatt looks at the career of Oscar winning cameraman Chris Menges. Filmed on location of Comfort and Joy. Chris Menges discusses his early career in television and film. Featuring interviews with Bill Forsyth, Bill Paterson, Ken Loach, Neil Jordan, Jeremy Isaacs.

Who knew that only 2% of cinematographers on the largest budget American films were women? And what will the world of film be like when the vision of women informs it in a fuller way? This made-by-women-for-women documentary, based upon Krasilovsky’s book of the same name, connects globally, exploring the lives of camerawomen in Canada, China, France, Germany, India, India, Iran, Mexico, Russia, Senegal, and other countries in a way never seen before. —Women Behind the Camera

What is great filmmaking, legendary Cinematographers share their personal perspectives on what they do and what it means to them.

Masters of Light.

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