The Use of Colour as a Function of the Cinematographer, The Sleeping-Mat Ballad

 

Author: Philip Cowan
Format: Cinematography
Duration: 4″
Published: February 2016

Honourable Mention, British Association of Film, Television and Screen Studies Practice Research Award 2016.


Research Statement

The Research is in two parts;

(a) The film, The Sleeping Mat Ballad (Constantas, 2015), on which I was the cinematographer, and specifically concerns the exploration of colour as a means of narrative communication.

(b) Published article on my authorial contribution to the project, specifically highlighting my use of colour in the film.

Article available: http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/rjmp20/16/2

This specific example is representative of the wider debate on authorship within film, and my own research into the authorial contribution of the cinematographer.

Research Questions
The evolution of the technical reproduction of colour in film has been categorized and studied in great detail. The aesthetic use of expressive colour has not had as much attention historical. Vacche’s and Price’s Color, The Film Reader (2006) seemed to spark a critical interest in this area, which peaked with a volume of new writing, Colour and the Moving Image (Brown, Street and Watkins, 2013).

On the film The Sleeping-Mat Ballard (Constantas, 2014), a project commissioned by the Welsh National Opera (WNO) and The Space, I acted as cinematographer, and used colour to express meaning within the images. However traditional film criticism would not attribute this authorial act to a cinematographer. The prevailing assumption of most film criticism is that the director has sole authorial responsibility (Polan, 2001).

Film authorship has been attributed to directors since the 1940s. The auteur theory typifies a practice of crediting directors with all meaningful, creative responsibility for the films that they direct. The literary notion of single authorship dominates analysis of an art form that is collaborative in its process of making.

These two persistent, yet anachronistic assumptions undermine any nuanced understanding of authorship in film. My research questions the notion of single authorship, and explores a model of collaborative authorship in film, which is inclusive of producers, scriptwriters, actors, designers, cinematographers, editors and composers (Cowan, 2012a).

As a practicing cinematographer it came as a great shock when I discovered that in academia all my own creative work (and consequently that of all cinematographers) was being routinely attributed to directors (without question). The cinematographer’s role is more often discussed only in terms of technology or style, rarely in terms of authorship of their images. Even in a recent collection of essays on Cinematography (Keating et al., 2014) the majority of authors default to talking about directors when discussing the creation of meaning within a film image.

In writing about my own work (Cowan, 2015), and that of other Cinematographers, historical and contemporary (Cowan, 2012b) it is my intention to address this injustice. The generally accepted, simplified notion of single authorship in film actually undermines our understanding of both how films are made, and the authorial attribution of them. It is my belief that a more nuanced approach to authorship and film is long over-due.

A further expansion of this contextual argument is available in my article, Underexposed: The neglected art of the cinematographer (Cowan, 2012a, pp. 75-96) at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1386/jmpr.13.1.75_1

Context
As stated, the evolution of the technical reproduction of colour in film has been categorized and studied in great detail (Salt 2009; Higgins 2007). The aesthetic use of expressive colour has only recently begun to get attention (Vacche and Price 2006; Coates 2010; Peacock 2010; Brown, Street and Watkins 2012). Colour as a function of the cinematographer has had even less attention with Storaro’s writing on his own work being a rare exception (2002).

The reasons for this historical neglect are typified in Russell (1981) on her study of cinematography. She makes a conscious decision not to include colour as an attribute of light, outlining three specific reasons for doing so. Its diverse cultural connotations, its lack of existence in the first fifty years or so of film production, and her belief that colour is not controlled by the cinematographer (Russell 1981: 47). All these objections can quite easily be overcome if, firstly, the context of culture is considered. Secondly, it is acknowledged that colour has been a fundamental component in film production for more than the last fifty years. And finally, if the notion of collaborative film making is accepted. Cinematographers can control colour, especially that of the light, but also in terms of art direction, and set design. In my own example, The Sleeping-Mat Ballad, I had significant control over the colour, not just the colour of the light, but the colour of the sets and their decor (Cowan, 2015).

Issues of authorship in film have stagnated recently. On his return to the authorship debate in 2007, following his very influential reader published in 1981, Caughie observed a more cautious approach to the issues of authorship. “Generations of students have learned not to be auteurist (‘I’m not being auteurist, but…’)” (2007: 410). Caughie believes that it is difficult to engage with issues of creativity and art, without reference to authorship. He calls for continued research into the area of authorship, and suggests that a more nuanced approach combining textual analysis and theoretical scrutiny. This has been my approach.

My own professional background is that of a practicing cinematographer. I have shot a number of films, mostly short films, that is films under an hour in length. The majority of these have been fiction, narrative films, but I have shot a range of projects from documentary to moving images for art instillations. Having considered myself a creative collaborator for most of my filmmaking career, I was absolutely dumb-struck by the theoretical attitude I encountered when I entered academia, and was intrigued to find out how it originated and why it still persists.

The creative contribution that cinematographers make to the films that they shoot has rarely been categorised, classified or collectively identified, Nilsen (1937) and Russell (1981) are rare exceptions in that they attempt to theorise the function of the cinematographer. The majority of writing on cinematography almost exclusively concentrates on the technical aspects of the role. In his introduction to Cinematography (2014) Keating identifies three main questions that persist in the study of cinematography. They are technology, authorship and classicism (p. 2).

The technology question includes not just the chronological study of the invention and introduction of new technologies into the filmmaking process, but how these introductions either lead stylistic change, or were lead by cinematographers’ creative needs. To an extent the technology/stylistic debate is the most commonly held in critical, analytical works on cinematography, for example explicitly in Salt (1983), Bordwell (1997), and Higgins (2007), but the subject is often implicitly the focus of studies of cinematographers’ work. The few volumes dedicated to interviews with cinematographers, Ettedgui (1998), Schaefer and Salvato (1984), Ballinger (2004), Fauer (2008 and 2009), Goodridge and Grierson (2012), van Oosterhout et al. (2012) often predominantly talk about technology.

Methods
I am firmly placed in traditional, industrial film and television work, although some of my work may be considered non-mainstream, it is still narrative-based. Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson (1985) describe Hollywood cinema between 1917 and 1960 as ‘classical’. Keating defines classicism not as a time period, but as a consistent emphasis on “storytelling” (Keating, 2014: 7). I would use Keating’s definition of classicism to categorise the area of filmmaking that I am considering. Classicism implies narrative integration, and a certain approach to film language that values conveying narrative meaning to an audience, in predominantly a continuity style. This is the dominant form of what is considered the commercial film industry.

Traditional auteur theory suggests studying the body of work of a single director (Wollen, 1969). It is my contention that this methodology can be applied to any creative contributor to a film, for example, a screenwriter, producer, cinematographer, or editor. It is conceivable that a cross-pattern of inter-weaving influences may be detected, and not every creative element be traced through the body of work of a single director. I believe that the over-whelming number of volumes written on directors has substantially distorted this analytical approach. The under-laying assumption of the director as single-author approach has seriously compromised any objective attribution of authorship, and seriously compromised our understanding of how films are made. 

Outcomes
The particular focus of my research is that the contribution of the cinematographer should be recognised beyond the purely technical, and that those cinematographers whose work demonstrates it, should be given the full co-authorship status that they deserve.

This argument should be understood within the context of my wider proposal for a model of authorship that recognises collaborative filmmaking, which includes writers, directors, editors, actors, producers, etc. (Cowan, 2012a).

In the last two decades or so the notion of human agency in the creation of a film has been discussed as an alternative to the deified, literary author. A human agency that is a real author, whose gender, sexuality, nationality, physicality, socio-historical context informs their work. The act of filmmaking is now viewed as a communication between the maker and the viewer, involving intentional acts, non-intentional acts and interpretation (Grodal, et al., 2004).

The focus of my research has been the role and contribution of the cinematographer. To some degree this serves as a representative example for other collaborators, a ‘test case’ for collaborative theory. Having established a precedent for collaborative authorship specifically for cinematographers, other practitioners from other disciplines need to be studied in more depth.

What is required is a fundamental revision of our understanding of authorship in film, only then may many other filmic authors be (re)discovered, revealed, and finally given the credit they deserve.

Dissemination
The initial project The Sleeping Mat Ballad (Constantas, 2014) was commissioned by the Welsh National Opera, and The Space, as part of a portfolio five films entitled “Occupation: Five Songs that Shock the World”.

Five different composers from five diverse musical genres created new songs in response to contemporary acts of protest, or current news, as they happened across the world during November 2014 – January 2015.

The composers were given a two-week window to respond to a chosen theme or news story and then a video is made of each song. Exploiting the immediacy of digital media, these were published online on occupation.org.uk and shared through social media platforms.

I published an article on my contribution to the film in Journal of Media Practice 16:2, July 2015: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14682753.2015.1041806 Full citation: Cowan (2015) The democracy of colour, Journal of Media Practice, 16:2, pp. 139-154, DOI: 10.1080/14682753.2015.1041806. The article specifically looks at the cinematographers’ use of colour in two films; The Sleeping Mat Ballad (Constanats, 2015), available to view at: https://vimeo.com/113044904 and, The Separation (Morgan, 2003), available to view at: https://vimeo.com/67885225.

Impact
My articles on authorship and the Cinematographer have already been cited twice. As a result I was invited to an international conference on cinematography held in France, and I was invited to write a review on Cinematography (Keating, 2014) to be published in Projections: The Journal for Movies and Mind 9:2, Winter 2015: http://journals.berghahnbooks.com/proj/

Citations:
Documentary Films in India (Sharma, 2015), Chapter 7
Film Theory: Creating a Cinematic Grammar (Colman, 2014), Chapter 2

Conference:
2013, Invited Contributor to Round Table Presentation, Image Aesthetics at the Time of Digital Cinema, at 36th Henri Langlois International Film Schools Festival, Poitiers, France.

Bibliography
D. Vacche, and Price, B. (2006) Color: The Film Reader, Abingdon: Routledge.
Ballinger, A. (2004) New Cinematographers. London: Laurence King Publishing.
Bordwell, D., Staiger, J. and Thompson K. (1985) The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960. London: Routledge.
Bordwell, D. (1997) On The History of Film Style. USA: Harvard University Press.
Brown, S., Street, S., and Watkins, L. (2012) Color and the Moving Image: History, Theory, Aesthetics, Archive. London: Routledge.
Caughie, J. (1981) Theories of Authorship. London: Routledge.
Caughie, J. (2007) “Authors and Auteurs: The Uses of Theory” in The Sage Handbook of Film Studies, J. Donald, and M. Renov (eds.), pp. 408-423. London: Sage.
Coates, P. (2010) Cinema and Colour: The Saturated Image. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Cowan, P. 2015, The Democracy of Colour, Journal Media Practice 16:2, pp. 139-154, ISSN: 1468-2753
Cowan, P. 2012a, Underexposed: The Neglected Art of the Cinematographer, Journal Media Practice 13:1, pp. 75-96, ISSN: 1468-2753.
Cowan, P. 2012b, Authorship and the Director of Photography: A Case Study of Gregg Tolland and Citizen Kane, Networking Knowledge 5:1, pp. 231-245, ISSN: 1755-9944.
Ettedgui, P. (1998) Screencraft: Cinematography. Crans-Pres-Céligny: RotoVision SA.
Fauer, J. (2008) Cinematographer Style: The Complete Interviews, Volume 1. Hollywood: The American Society of Cinematographers.
Fauer, J. (2009) Cinematographer Style: The Complete Interviews, Volume 2. Hollywood: The American Society of Cinematographers.
Goodridge, M. and Grierson, T. (2012) FilmCraft: Cinematography. Lewes: Ilex Press Ltd.
Grodal, T., Larsen, B., Laursen, I. T. (2004) Visual Authorship: Creativity and Intentionality, Copenhagen: University of Copenhagen.
Higgins, S. (2007) Harnessing the Technicolor Rainbow: Color Design in the 1930s. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Keating, P. (2014) Cinematography, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press
Nilsen, V. (1937) The Cinema as a Graphic Art. Translation by S. Garry. London: Newnes Ltd
Peacock, S. (2010) Colour. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
van Oosterhout, R., van Rossem, M., Verstraten, P. (2012) Shooting Time: Cinematographers on Cinematography. Rotterdam: Post Editions.
Polan, D. (2001) “Auteur Desire”: Screening the Past 12. [Online] [Accessed 22 July 2014] http://www.latrobe.edu.au/www/screeningthepast/firstrelease/fr0301/dpfr12a.html
Russell, S. A. (1981) Semiotics and Lighting: A Study of Six Modern French Cameramen. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press.
Salt, B. (1983) Film Style and Technology. Third Edition (2009). London: Starword.
Schaefer, D., and Salvato, L. (1994) Masters of Light: Conversations with Contemporary Cinematographers. Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Storaro, V. (2002) Writing with Light: 2. Colors. Translation by S. A. White and F. Lutz. Rome: Electra.
Wollen, P. (1969) Signs and Meaning in the Cinema. Revised edition (1972). Secker & Warburg.


Peer Reviews

The peer reviews that follow were part of the BAFTSS Practice Research Awards shortlisting process as this volume is published in association with the British Association of Film, Television and Screen Studies.

Review 1: Shortlist for BAFTSS Practice Research Award
The submitter’s summary of research questions usefully sets out the aims of the project, and its disciplinary location, very well:

The evolution of the technical reproduction of colour in film has been categorized and studied in great detail. The aesthetic use of expressive colour has not had as much attention historical. Vacche’s and Price’s Color, The Film Reader (2006) seemed to spark a critical interest in this area, which peaked with a volume of new writing, Colour and the Moving Image (Brown, Street and Watkins, 2013).

On the film The Sleeping-Mat Ballard (Constantas, 2014), a project commissioned by the Welsh National Opera (WNO) and The Space, I acted as cinematographer, and used colour to express meaning within the images. However traditional film criticism would not attribute this authorial act to a cinematographer. The prevailing assumption of most film criticism is that the director has sole authorial responsibility (Polan, 2001).

Film authorship has been attributed to directors since the 1940s. The auteur theory typifies a practice of crediting directors with all meaningful, creative responsibility for the films that they direct. The literary notion of single authorship dominates analysis of an art form that is collaborative in its process of making.

These two persistent, yet anachronistic assumptions undermine any nuanced understanding of authorship in film. My research questions the notion of single authorship, and explores a model of collaborative authorship in film, which is inclusive of producers, scriptwriters, actors, designers, cinematographers, editors and composers (Cowan, 2012a).

As a practicing cinematographer it came as a great shock when I discovered that in academia all my own creative work (and consequently that of all cinematographers) was being routinely attributed to directors (without question). The cinematographer’s role is more often discussed only in terms of technology or style, rarely in terms of authorship of their images. Even in a recent collection of essays on Cinematography (Keating et al., 2014) the majority of authors default to talking about directors when discussing the creation of meaning within a film image.

In writing about my own work (Cowan, 2015), and that of other Cinematographers, historical and contemporary (Cowan, 2012b) it is my intention to address this injustice. The generally accepted, simplified notion of single authorship in film actually undermines our understanding of both how films are made, and the authorial attribution of them. It is my belief that a more nuanced approach to authorship and film is long over-due.

The cinematographic practice apparent from the finished version of the four minutes and fourteen seconds long short film The Sleeping Mat Ballad is excellent, and its compelling qualities, along with its academic contextualisation, are eloquent indicators of the high quality of this work as academic practice research. So, while the submitter rather over-eggs the inadequacy of “traditional film theory” in his above characterisation of his work, rather unnecessarily turning the former into a straw-man for the purposes of staking out the originality of his own approach, this is a compelling project in almost all respects. In my view, therefore, it merits shortlisting in this year’s BAFTSS awards.

To expand on the matter of somewhat fallacious argumentation in the submission and the associated written research article, there are a couple of scholarly works missing from Cowan’s otherwise very scrupulous contextual scholarship in the above fields which set out a rather different picture of that scholarship from the one he attempts to construct. In the field of “film colour theory,” for example, one very important and theoretically very sophisticated reference not included missed was Richard Misek’s book Chromatic Cinema (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), which explores the uses and meanings of colour in cinema, from hand painting in early films to recent trends in digital colour grading, and is very attentive to questions of filmmaking roles and contributions. Perhaps even more significantly, in relation to debates about and theories of collaborative film authorship, the submission and research articles were missing any reference to the work of film historian and theorist Robert L. Carringer. Carringer has long argued in favour of a collaborative model for film authorship, with his detailed accounts of director-cinematographer collaborations (e.g. in his book The Making of “Citizen Kane” [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985); in his much-cited article, “Collaboration and Concepts of Authorship”, PMLA 1 16 (2), 370-379; and also in his study “Orson Welles and Gregg Toland: Their Collaboration on Citizen Kane,Critical Inquiry, Vol. 8, No. 4 [Summer, 1982], pp. 651-674. I found this a little unfortunate since, like Carringer, in his bio, Cowan says he has worked on Gregg Toland.

I mostly mention the foregoing as I think that it modulates somewhat the claims made for the original scope and contribution of the work, as set out in the submission as well as in the contextualizing research article. But Cowan’s work is hardly alone in using film authorship theory in this self-justifying way, and his practice research work more than compensates for this as it is compelling, for our discipline, in more standalone ways as well.

In summary, I thought that the submission as a whole was very well put together indeed and was particularly well thought through in relation to the context of this specific award. I believe it easily merits shortlisting.

Review 2: Shortlist for BAFTSS Practice Research Award
Collectively, the screenwork and supporting statement work well as a joint interrogation of the role of colour in filmmaking and cinematography (they are jointly reliant on one another in their communication of the key arguments).

The screenwork is exceptionally well produced, has high production values, and successfully communications an interrogation of the use and application of colour.

Within the supporting statement, the author foregrounds their intended explorations of challenging dominant auteur director led theory as a key argument of the piece, however, for me, this works as a secondary strand of argument (in subordination to the interrogation of colour – which should have perhaps remained the statements’ main focus). Particularly because the statement ignores the growing body of work in the emergent field of production studies, and those working to address the invisibility of the different roles of production (e.g. Dai Vaughan, Portrait of an Invisible Man: The Working Life of Stewart McAllister, Film Editor (London: BFI, 1983) and the lack of representation of gender in many production roles (e.g. Melanie Williams, Sue Harper, Vicky Ball and Melanie Bell). Additional points of reference would be Alan Lovell and Sergi Gianluca, Making Films in Contemporary Hollywood (London: Hodder Education, 2005); John Thornton Caldwell, Production Culture: Industrial Reflexivity and Critical Practice in Film and Television (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008); and Timothy Corrigan and Patricia White, The Film Experience: An Introduction (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012).

That said, this piece is worthy of shortlisting. However, I would suggest a shift in the focus of the written statement to one which focuses primarily on colour and makes clearer linkages between the screenwork and the arguments in the statement.

Review 3: Shortlist for BAFTSS Practice Research Award
The particular focus of the research behind this screenwork is that ‘the contribution of the cinematographer should be recognised beyond the purely technical, and that those cinematographers whose work demonstrates it, should be given the full co-authorship status that they deserve.’ The researcher claims to have been shocked by the lack of regard given to the cinematographer in academic film studies and points to a great problem with traditional auteur theory in this regard. I did find this a little hard to take as although there is without doubt plenty of room for greater exploration of the work of countless cinematographers, it has been acknowledged for some time that auteur theory should go beyond a direct connection between the director and creative control and of it being a much more complex concept that involves a wide range of people and practices, including the spectator. (I’m thinking in particular of the MUP series co-edited by Nuria Triana-Toribio for example).

Nevertheless, the cinematography in the short film/screenwork The Sleeping-Mat Ballard (2014), a project commissioned by the Welsh National Opera (WNO) and The Space, demonstrates excellent use of colour to express meaning within the images, through control of lighting, post-production, on-set colour (set design, props, costume, etc.) and the choices around film stock etc.

I would be happy for this submission to be shortlisted for this award.

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