Cinematography
A Feast for the Eye and the Ear - The Best Cinematographer's DVD Commentaries: Part I

Alexander Ballinger 18th October 2013

Do you love great cinematography? Want to learn how the people who created the images managed it? Alexander Ballinger is at hand to help, with his round-up of the finest DVD commentaries by cinematographers.

Cinematographers’ DVD commentaries come in all shapes and guises. They can be scholarly, impassioned, exotic or elegiac, and the very best offer a bounty of behind-the-camera technical insight, anecdote and wry humour.

Despite there being a number of intriguing short cinematographer commentaries out there – such as Conrad Hall discussing American Beauty’s storyboards with Sam Mendes or Wally Pfister talking about key sequences from Insomnia – my overview concentrates solely on full-length or more substantial commentaries.

So, sharpen your senses and make sure you have your wits about you before entering into the elusive and shadowy world of the cinematographer, that great unsung hero of the film-making process…

Part I - Six of the Best

1. Requiem for a Dream (2001)

Requiem For A Dream Seaside Frame

Commentary located on Director’s Cut DVD and Blu-ray. UK release: DVD and Blu-ray

Commentator: Matthew Libatique

Where to start with this gripping, sensitive and incredibly comprehensive commentary? Perhaps the unforgettable scene when Sara (Ellen Burstyn) pours her heart out to son (Jared Leto) and Libatique recalls, “I cried as I looked through the camera, so much so that I could barely see her.”

Libatique also does a great job explaining the film’s Pandora’s Box of technical tricks – from the split-screens and extreme wide-angle compositions to variable frame speeds (slow and fast motion) and shutter angles that blaze a trail through the highs and lows of Aronofsky’s cinematic roller coaster. Clearly emotional, Libatique closes with, “I know it was a rough ride and it was demanding, but I hope you enjoyed the film. I’m very proud of it.” His commentary isn’t half bad either.

2. Bright Lights, Big City (1988)

Bright Lights, Big City

Commentary located on Region 1 Special Edition. Film unavailable in UK

Commentator: Gordon Willis

“When I started in the business… I was dumber than dirt” ruminates Gordon Willis: it’s a typically disarming remark from this no-nonsense cinematographer.

With heads rolling on the Bright Lights production, Willis and director James Bridges were called in to save the film, having to work at breakneck speed. So, according to Willis there was “…no fat, no waste” during production. But what really counts, is Willis’ nuts-and-bolts advice for photographing and blocking actors (usually Michael J. Fox’s coke-addled malcontent), be it in New York neighbourhoods, nightclubs, subways or silhouetted on a rain-slicked street. It should be transcribed, published and become mandatory reading for aspiring directors and cinematographers. 

3. Dogville (2004)

Dogville

Commentary located only on 2-disc French edition. UK release: DVD

Commentators: Lars von Trier and Anthony Dod Mantle

Recorded after the film’s release, Dogville’s commentary is as fresh as it gets. Dod Mantle (playing interviewer and devil’s advocate) candidly discusses just over two hours of material with von Trier.

It’s a riveting picture of their highly unorthodox collaboration on a film about the suffering Grace (Nicole Kidman) undergoes in the town of Dogville. Dod Mantle continually attempts to establish von Trier’s film-making philosophy, while light-heartedly venting his frustration at not being permitted to light from the vast set floor and sharing operating duties with a director who chose to “point” at rather than traditionally “frame” the action. No wonder the cinematographer concludes, “I thought it was going to be easier than it was…”

4. Se7en (1995)

Seven

Commentary located on UK Blu-ray. Film also available on DVD

Commentators: David Fincher; production designer, Arthur Max; editor, Richard Francis-Bruce; cinematographer, Darius Khondji. Artfully compèred by Richard Dyer

Despite Khondji’s commentary being recorded independently from those of David Fincher, Arthur Max and Richard Francis-Bruce (at times it feels as if he’s having a chat round the kitchen table) his exotic-sounding asides are superbly integrated into one seriously rich commentary.

A modern-day film alchemist, Khondji delves into the magical world of film stocks, flashing (the negative, that is) and silver colour processes that conjure up the relentlessly grim world of serial killer John Doe (Kevin Spacey). His description of the celebrated chase scene between Doe and Mills (Brad Pitt) with its heady mix of hand-held, no-light camerawork and dingy back alley denouement is quite simply superb.

5. Get Carter (1971)

Get Carter

Commentary located on the UK DVD

Commentators: Mike Hodges; Michael Caine and Wolf Suschitzky

In what rates as one of the best commentaries committed to DVD, nonagenarian Suschitzky (see my previous blog) contributes barely 17 comments to Get Carter.

But his pithy, practical interjections, gathered from a lifetime of lighting, cut straight to the chase every time. The way in which he describes the best way to light a small room; how to film in overcast conditions; the dangers of too much backlighting and how to use a zoom are masterpieces of concision. As Suschitzky says at one point, “You’re given a problem and you solve it.” And boy, did he solve the on-location problems in Get Carter…

6. Sunrise (1927)

Sunrise

Commentary located on the UK DVD+Blu-ray

Commentator: John Bailey

As Charles Rosher and Karl Struss are sadly no longer with us, cinematographer and film historian John Bailey (The Big Chill; Mishima; Groundhog Day) provides the next best thing with his eloquent and erudite commentary on Murnau’s silent film classic.

Bailey has clearly done his homework (he first met Struss at the photographer’s 1977 LACMA retrospective); and his detailed description of George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor’s dramatic excursion through a frenzied city, with its crane moves, double exposures, superimpositions and miraculous matte work transports the listener straight onto a bustling Fox backlot. With Bailey as our informed guide, Sunrise is proof positive that silent cinema is the perfect vehicle for the DVD or Blu-ray commentary.

Read Part II, with a further five gems

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