What’s the Difference Between Filmmaking and Cinematography?

As a video producer, I often get asked what’s the difference between filmmaking and cinematography. Although both are movie related roles, there’s still a distinct difference.

Simply put, filmmaking or film production is the art of storytelling via film. Cinematography on the other hand is a part of the filmmaking process and entails the capturing of motion pictures through the skillful use of visual aids, e.g., lighting, and sophisticated camera equipment. 

A filmmaker is often an auteur and focuses most of his or her time writing and directing. They have a world in their head that they intend to share to the world via cinema. A great example is Woody Allen.

Here are his credits from IMDB:

As you can see, Woody Allen spent most of time writing, directing and even acting in his own movies. He built the world by which his movies and stories are based on.

Now take a look at the IMDB credits of Roger Deakins, the famed cinematographer:

Deakins focused mostly on cinematography and everything related to the camera. His main role on a film set is to bring the story to life through the lens of a movie camera. He doesn’t even have any writing or directing credit. His whole career was spent behind the camera.

A cinematographer essentially breathes life to the ideas of the filmmaker or director, elevating a vision and turning it into an enchanting reality.

Now, let’s delve deeper into the art of filmmaking and the art of cinematography. 

The Art of Filmmaking

Pre Production – Prepping for Rolling the Cameras

Pre production is the first step of filmmaking, and it is important because it enables the filmmaker to stay within budget, organize content comprehensively to avoid returning to filming during editing, and keep the schedule. 

There’s a saying in the industry that “Production is pre-production,” meaning it’s of utmost importance. And as Sun Tzu puts it —

Anything done in the build-up to shooting a film is considered pre production.

A good movie comes from a good script and an idea kick starts pre production.

It’s the general rule of thumb that the process begins with screenwriting and a polished screenplay serving as an outlined canvas that crew need only retrace and paint, so to speak, to realize a workable shooting script.

Next up is storyboarding, i.e. representing the screenplay in a visual format as a guide for the cinematographer and director, kind of like a comic book format.

It unwraps video scenes, shot by shot and unless you’re Alfred Hitchcock, filmmakers usually hire artists for this part.

After that, it’s time to assemble the crew. A storyboard artist and a writer are typically the first names on the project recruitment list, and it’s prudent that the entire staff is assembled before getting deep into pre production.

Shooting locations should also be figured out early because you may need to prepare the setting in line with the storyboard or tweak the storyboard as per the location.

This task is again usually left to outside help, namely a professional location scout.  At this point, the budget should be in completion, factoring in locations and the kind of equipment you’d like to use.

Renting gear follows and then comes the paperwork involving insurance and shooting permits, and generally clearing the red tape.

With everything falling in place, casting is the next stage, involving auditions and finding the perfect performers for the roles.

The filmmaker can ease this burden by hiring a casting agent.

The filmmaker or auteur has his or hands full in pre production. The script comes from the filmmaker. The world building comes from the filmmaker.

Even the art and style of the whole movie will be influenced by the filmmaker’s vision.

Actual Filming – Managing the Film Production

The filmmaker often plays the role of director/producer. He/she dictates the art direction, the costumes and tells the actors how to approach any scene. At times, the filmmaker might even act in the movie, like Woody Allen and Quentin Tarantino in their many films.

When you watch a particular movie, you often say to yourself —

💭 This movie is so Wes Anderson. Or the dialogue is so QT.

Every film has a distinct style of flavor because the filmmaker has a heavy influence on how the movie plays on screen.

As an example, here’s a video essay on Wes Anderson’s style:

The film production stage, i.e. the step at which actual filming takes place, is referred to as principal photography in some professional circles.

The film is at this stage when the cameras are rolling, the actors are, well, acting and the rubber hits the road. Writers and directors are usually on set for this part, and the crew can swell up into hundreds.

It is typically the busiest and most challenging part of filmmaking but, ironically, the shortest.

Strong communication is vital during this part, and it’s the director’s job to oversee that.

The director wears many hats, entailing script interpretation and setting the film tone, and ensuring the day-to-day shooting falls in line.

He works with department heads, has a say in bringing in talent, and, during filming, directs the camera and actors, before consulting with editors during post-production.

It is also the director’s responsibility to bring together and co-coordinate the crew daily for seamless filming. Editors are also usually present for principal photography and not just the post-production phase only.

That enables him to get an idea of what he has to work with later on and his ideas and recommendations are also taken into consideration by the script supervisor during shooting days.

Right above the director in the hierarchy is the producer, who can be thought of as the employer with the director as one of the employees.

The producer oversees the shooting of the film and has very little to do during the principal photography stage, aside from of course ensuring everything runs smoothly, within the set time and budget.

He is most active in the pre production stage as the producer is at the center of film development and planning.

Post-production- editing the movie to a polished production

Post-production starts immediately where the first scene ends. It is the final stage of the filmmaking process that fully transforms the bits and pieces from a script into a seamless masterpiece.

Alfred Hitchcock’s 60-year-old horror sensation Psycho is excellent proof of the necessity of post production. 

In the infamous murder shower scene, the shrieking violins were added in the post production stage although initially, Producer Hitchcock wanted no music in the scene.

The tunes created that tense, spine-chilling mood and the scene was way better off with it. It’s not uncommon for filming to continue into this phase and scenes to be revised, added, or deleted.

And that highlights an important element of post-production: sound editing.

Before that, picture editing comes first. The editor assembles raw footage, shaping and chopping off the excess like a sculpture, to create a story that flows without scenes extending for too long into discomfort or being too short and confusing.

Visual effects are also added at this stage if the film requires them. Sound editing follows entailing the addition of sound effects, audio tracks, and the subtraction of noise, in addition to cutting dialogue tracks.

Where voice overs are needed, it’s added at this stage as well. The licenses for the music used are sought, and in the case of a composer, the copyright.

Before any editing happens though, all the data is typically backed up on a secondary source, and the multiple footages labeled, usually a RAID.

Once the movie is deemed ready for viewing, promotional marketing is done building up to a release date.

The Art of Cinematography

While filmmaking focuses on originating a story to tell, cinematography focuses on how the story is told.

Cinematography is a combination of all on-screen visual aspects, namely filtration, exposure, color, focus, zoom, depth of field, selection of lenses, choice of film, camera angles, and lighting, to name a few.

It is an important element of filmmaking and gives the film its mood and feel, in line with the theme the producer has in mind. 

The term cinematography is often used reciprocally with mise en scene which is French for setting the stage, referring to everything in front of the camera.

However, the former is a broader term that covers mise en scene and more.

Here is a video on Robert D. Yeoman’s (Wes Anderson’s primary cinematographer) approach to mise en scene:

Choosing the lighting and mood

A lens doesn’t see light the way the human eye does, making cinematic lighting an important yet complex part of cinematography.

Lighting enables filmmakers to direct audience attention, create a certain atmosphere, reveal character psychology, and enrich the depth of scenes.

Cinematic lighting covers a variety of techniques including tweaking color temperatures, light diffusion, and bouncing light, to name a few.

The most basic lighting strategy is the 3-point lighting setup, typically side, back, and front, that makes the subject stand apart from the background, although there are many other techniques.

The color of light is often used to bring out various emotions across different scenes. Blue gels, for example, intensify feelings of depression or sorrow while warmer variations set up a joyful atmosphere.

The direction of lighting, meanwhile, can be manipulated to scary effect, especially in the horror genre. 

In Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Harvey Dent, one of the antagonists of the film, gets half his face burnt off, and the lighting of the character’s face changes thereafter to keep his burnt side mostly in the dark.

Shadows on the face create the feeling of a character that we can no longer trust in addition to making him more threatening. 

In another hit sci-fi flick, the 1979 horror Alien the audience is introduced to a mysterious creature constantly in the shadows.

Lighting, or rather the absence of it, fuels the imagination. Viewers tend to be more scared of what they can’t see than what they can.

Here’s an excellent video analysis of how Alien masters horror:

The Visual Style – Working with the Camera

The camera is a critical tool of cinematography and the standard film/sensor type in the filmmaking industry has always been the super 35 mm although the format can vary depending on the kind of movie.

Fast action sequences are pulled off by smaller sensors to reduce the jello effect as opposed to larger sensors that do the opposite.

A global sensor camera can also execute such scenes commendably.

In addition to the types of cameras and lenses to use from scene-to-scene, camera angles go a long way in setting the desired mood, theme, or visual illusion. Lens choice, for instance, and focal length, in particular, can single-handedly make or break a scene.

It can pull the audience into the virtual world until they’re immersed in it or come off distant and always distracting back to a third-person perspective.

The cinematographer’s role is to combine the use of different lenses, often referred to as the “eyes of the audience,” to make each scene as vivid and engrossing as possible.

Now’s let’s take a look at an example from Gladiator. Here is the John Mathieson’s take on filming this great movie:

Gladiator’s introductory fight scene is a great example of the difference lens and angle choices can make.

Long lenses were implored to paint a much bigger crowd than there actually were people on stage.

If wide-angle alternatives had shot the scene, the empty spaces would be glaring.

Talented cinematographer John Mathieson worked the lens and angle to his advantage, positioning the camera such that it took focus away from the background and enlarged the characters, consequently saving the production money by reducing extras. 

Moreover, camera angles, such as tilting from toe to head, can be used to simulate a towering figure while a downward tilting overhead shot can portray short characters.

Additionally, the cinematographer can use dutch angles (diagonal tilts) to effect dizziness or agitation.

The choice of lens can also ease out imperfections around the set and on the actors’ skins.

Working with talent on blocking for composition

What’s the last great movie or TV show you watched and what do you most remember it for?

Your answer is probably along the lines of incredible action sequences and lines of dialogue that got stuck on repeat in your mind.

Blocking and composition is a part of cinematography that often goes unnoticed by the ordinary audience, although they are unknowingly affected by it, but much appreciated by technical viewers and filmmakers.

Composition refers to the arrangement of elements within the frame to stimulate mood and authority, among other things, sometimes also achieved by blocking. 

A great example of this is in the series finale of the hit series “Breaking Bad,” where a dolly shot reveals the on-the-run protagonist somewhere the audience least expected him to be — 

— hidden behind a pillar with the initial pan shot of the room revealing only the protagonist’s wife on the phone.

Blocking for composition can amplify the power of storytelling, moving both objects/characters and viewers.

Blocking doesn’t necessarily mean to hide characters in a frame like in the above example but to move actors or objects, even the camera itself, in a specific way to create a certain effect.

Some people have likened composition and blocking to the film version of dance choreography. 

Again, let’s turn back to Wes Anderson and his director of photography, Robert Yeoman.

Throughout his many movies, Anderson and Yeoman use a symmetry in their shots.

It’s one of many signature, visual styles employed in Anderson’s films.

Here’s a montage of the play on symmetry used in Anderson’s films:

Which is better – filmmaking or cinematography?

Finally, we get to another common question asked of film students or interns on our film productions.

🤔 Filmmaking or cinematography? 🤔

It really comes down to what you prefer. Do you love making stories and world building? Do you want to impose your style from pre production to post production? Are you great at managing crew and talent?

If you say yes to all of these things, then becoming a filmmaker is the right choice.

Then do yourself a favor and check out Part I of our series on “how to make a movie.”

Do you love working with the camera? Does the technical aspects of framing and perfecting the shot excite you? Then you should focus more on cinematography and the art of being behind the movie camera.

One way to build up your skills as a cinematographer is finding work as wedding videographer. The techniques in capturing the magic day of a couple is applicable to how you’d shoot any film.

To get started, check out our personal journey and learn about being a wedding videographer.

Although cinematography and videography have clear distinct differences, they are both involved in one common thing —

🎥 Making movie magic! 🎥

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