Capturing images on the screen is where the entire concept of movies begins. What we really respond to in watching a film is simply light, nothing more. The skill required to manipulate light and objects to create images that will impact an audience is tremendous, and often overlooked in the industry. Great cameramen are artists, at least as much as great directors, and accomplished technicians as well.
The year 1915 encouraged the growth of this art form, even as the increasing popularity feature-length movies raised the narrative level of the medium. In “Young Romance,” cameraman Walter Stradling combined striking exteriors with highly deliberate interior shots that show a sense of mise-en-scène rarely seen in American cinema to this time. By contrast, in “The Italian” Joseph H. August creates a stark vision of an urban world of tenements and gangsters, although the opening sequence in the old country also shows a nostalgic romanticism. Russian cinematographer Boris Zavlev, with “Daydreams,” once again merits recognition for his “free” camera which isn’t afraid to move both with and counter to actors in order to place the audience more convincingly inside their world, rather than looking at it from a distance. Back in the USA, Alvin Wyckoff gives us both intimate views of the emotional world of the characters in “The Cheat” and considerable use of contrast and shadows to define the darkening world they inhabit. No doubt this night film style will be picked up and used again in the future. The artistic use of light and shadow is also strong in the crime picture by Maurice Tourneur, “Alias Jimmy Valentine,” which includes some very original angles and unusual images indeed.
The nominees for Best Cinematography for 1915 are
And the winner is…Boris Zavlev for “Daydreams!”
This year we did see American cinematographers start to break out of the confines of earlier years of production, but the Russians still surpassed them. “Daydreams” feels like a movie from the 20s, not the mid-teens, and a lot of that is due to Zavlev’s freely mobile camera. While last year’s winner, “Silent Witnesses” almost won by default, this year “Daydreams” had tough competition but still managed to pull ahead of the pack. The use of a complex tracking shot to show a character’s change of decision and the effective filming of a stage performance that includes the audience without making them into performers themselves are two great examples of what made Russian cinema the artistic leader it was at the time.