Good Cinematography is Good Storytelling

Mar 28, 2019 at 11:51 am by Benjamin Tuttle

As iClone rolls out with the new Iray plugin and everybody is experimenting with still images, I am currently in a collaboration with a render artist to produce a short teaser. While he is skilled at shading, scenery, and character design, I am more focused on direction. I prepared this article as a teaching tool when it comes to direction and how to properly assemble your film together. While preparing for this article, it reminded me of a certain incident.

A while back when Machinima (game-based movie making) was in its heyday, there was a competition in which a British director by name of Peter Greenaway was invited to. Greenaway himself was an established director who is most known for 'The Cook, the Thief, his Wife & her Lover.’ When he presented himself at the awards ceremony, he said along the lines that most of the films were visually illiterate or something like that. It ruffled some feathers and people were quite upset. Since machinima itself is mostly done either solo or close groups, it struck a nerve. Greenaway asked the filmmakers to seek for something in the realm of visual poetry. His comments made me think about how we tell visual stories in film


If you’re a film student, then you are quite familiar to the term. Mise-en-scène or in French ‘placing on stage’ put it simply, it is everything you see in the frame (Props, sets, actors, lighting, composition) You analyze and pick apart everything the director places in and why they would do it to tell their story.

A director wears many hats, but their main role is to transform the screenplay to the screen. So, this is where visual literacy, cinematic language, and mise-en-scene all come together. Machinima, virtual cinema, or real-time animation, whatever it may be: we are basically auteurs and in control of our work.

A scene from a Ben Tuttle animated film

Every single shot tells a story

Personally, one of the biggest traps people fall into is that they must think first and foremost that the shot needs to be pretty or it has to look good. Roger Deakins points out there is a difference between pretty cinematography and good cinematography. Good cinematography tells its story and is invisible. Your shot must tell a story first, then get into the details after. With proper framing and good lights, set design, etc… the looking good starts to fall in place.

People often mistake that moving the camera around wildly thinking movement is good. Not always. It can be distracting, and it ruins the story. A shot needs to be focused. It can't draw attention to itself. It's a lot more than moving the camera, it's everything in front of the lens. A close-up of somebody reacting connects your audience to the character or the right environment draws them. A change of lights draws them into a certain mood.

What your story is and how you are telling it determines what kind of lights you set, or the color of costumes, angles, and acting (animation and voice).

Know your characters and how they react… how they move… how confident are they are in a scene. Once you know, then determine where and why are they on a particular set and then what kind of lighting set suits their movement. Then depending on the circumstances, think of angles to choose.A good close-up at a moment of character revelation does wonders.

All those elements come together, and you have great visual storytelling.

Ben Tuttle is a Director, Writer, Animator and Visual Artist with a film school background and creative talent that adds an almost Hitchcock type of mystique to his work. Never one to limit himself, Ben creates 3D characters and props for use in animation while continually seeking ways to hone his storytelling technique.

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