Wednesday, November 06, 2019

Tonight's Movie: Image Makers: The Adventures of America's Pioneer Cinematographers (2019)

One of the aspects of filmmaking which interests me most is cinematography. This interest is reflected in my reviews, which always mention the name of the cinematographer. I'm fascinated by cinematographers' varied styles and their ability to create the artistic images we all enjoy on screen.

I was thus deeply interested in a brand-new documentary from Turner Classic Movies, IMAGE MAKERS: THE ADVENTURES OF AMERICA'S PIONEER CINEMATOGRAPHERS (2019). It will debut on TCM this evening as part of the network's centennial tribute to the American Society of Cinematographers.

The documentary focuses on the work of some of the earliest cinematographers and how they literally created an art form with recently invented equipment; indeed, they sometimes invented the equipment themselves!

The cinematographers highlighted in this documentary are Billy Bitzer, Rollie Totheroh, Charles Rosher, William Daniels, Karl Struss, James Wong Howe, and Gregg Toland. Daniels is seen at the right filming Greta Garbo and Gavin Gordon in Clarence Brown's ROMANCE (1930).

Men such as Bitzer and Totheroh came to the movies without experience -- indeed, there was little experience to be had, as movie-making was a brand-new industry. They teamed with filmmakers such as D.W. Griffith (Bitzer) and Charlie Chaplin (Totheroh), learning and creating as they went.

The documentary creates a real sense of wonder contemplating these men who started their work from scratch over a century ago, simultaneously creating art and developing an industry. The film also explores how integral cinematographers were to the creation of great films; that's one of the elements which has always interested me, that a film can have a great director, writer, or actor, but the one thing it must absolutely have to exist at all is someone to capture it on film.

Historians Kevin Brownlow and Leonard Maltin are among those interviewed for the film. (How was I previously unaware of Maltin's 1978 book THE ART OF THE CINEMATOGRAPHER?! Just ordered it.) Brownlow's enthusiasm, in particular, is delightfully contagious. I love the joy he expresses discussing movies; it may sound funny to call a documentary a "feel good film," but the description is apt thanks to Brownlow.

Maltin also has a great moment when he describes how the coming of sound wiped out the art form which had just peaked with SUNRISE (1927); in some ways it's as though cinematography went back to square one, dealing with static cameras -- or even cameras being boxed! -- to deal with sound equipment, though thankfully the industry quickly progressed onward.

Within a span of years cinematographers had to adapt not only to sound but to Technicolor, while also coming up with innovations such as camera movement and deep focus photography; later on, the '50s would bring widescreen and 3D filming. The American Society of Cinematographers provided a place for photographers to discuss their craft with fellow professionals as they brainstormed new ideas.

IMAGE MAKERS is a top-notch documentary which I enjoyed immensely. It's both interesting and educational. Highly recommended.

IMAGE MAKERS is 91 minutes long and is narrated by Michael McKean. The documentary was written by film critic and historian Michael Sragow, whose work includes a biography of director Victor Fleming.

IMAGE MAKERS was directed by Daniel Raim, the documentary filmmaker whose work also includes HAROLD AND LILLIAN: A HOLLYWOOD LOVE STORY (2015) and IN SEARCH OF OZU (2018).

A short trailer is here:



Sincere thanks to Turner Classic Movies for providing an online screener of this film for review.

1 Comments:

Blogger Margot Shelby said...

Thanks for the recommendation. I'll definitively check this out.

7:00 AM  

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