Five Movies That Changed the Look of Cinema

Guest writer Jeremy Osbern comments:

As a director and cinematographer, I often find myself looking for new ways to tell stories visually. From computer-enhanced graphics to motion controlled movements, we continue to develop new technologies that stretch the limits of our imagination, but we have to be mindful that a lot of what we put on screen has been done before in one way or another. One way to stay cognizant of all of the ways visual stories can be told is to look back through the rich hundred plus year history of film and see how the art and technology have evolved. Here, we’ll look at five films that had resounding impacts on the look of cinema.

BECKY SHARPBecky Sharp (1935) – While color had been used in varying degrees since the advent of cinema (hand colored frames or tinting the film sepia), it wasn’t until Technicolor invented a new three-strip color process that films started to have a more believable palette. Walt Disney employed the Technicolor process on Flowers and Trees in 1932 and a few movies used it in a scene or two, but the first feature film to be entirely shot and projected in Technicolor was Becky Sharp. After its release, production of color films ramped up and with the release of both The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind in 1939, color in film became the new normal.

MBDCIKA EC019Citizen Kane (1941) – Orson Welles was a first time film director given unheard of creative control and final cut over what would go down as one of the greatest films of all time, Citizen Kane. Welles, along with cinematographer Gregg Toland would usher in a wide array of first or near firsts with the film. The most often talked about first was the use of deep focus. Previously, a filmmaker would have to choose which object or person should be in focus, letting the rest of the image go somewhat (or a lot) out of focus. Camera and film technology had advanced just enough to let Toland use enough light to be able to expose to a stop to have everything within the scene in focus. Previously, the filmmaker would use focus to dictate where the viewer’s eye would fall, but with deep focus, filmmakers could now add complex movement and composition (also called mise-en-scene) to dictate what the audience should look at and when. Citizen Kane was also the first to show ceilings in a lot of shots. This may seem like a little thing now, but think of all of the television shows that you still watch to this day that are shot entirely on sound stages in which you never see the ceiling. Using low angles (some so low, they dug holes in the ground to get to floor level), Toland and Welles were some of the first to establish ceilings in rooms and add another layer of believability to the world in which they told their story.

ROBE, THE 2The Robe (1953) – By the early 1950s, with the growing popularity of television, ticket sales for movies were drying up and the industry was looking for a way to get people back into theaters. At the time, movies were projected in a 1.37 to 1 aspect ratio (very similar to a television screen) and in an attempt to differentiate movies from television, 20th Century Fox became the first studio to shoot and project a feature film using anamorphic widescreen technology. That movie, The Robe, became a spectacle, an event, and helped to ensure audiences came to the movies. The widescreen format it pioneered was used in countless movies to follow and is still widely used today.

GODFATHER, PART II, THEThe Godfather, Part II (1974) – In the first installment of the Godfather trilogy, cinematographer Gordon Willis embraced shadow and famously lit Marlon Brando’s face so starkly that in some shots his eyes weren’t visible. The lighting choices Willis made famously resulted in the studio wanting to fire him from the project, but Francis Ford Coppola insisted he stay on. In shooting Part II, Willis earned the nickname “Prince of Darkness” and embraced underexposing, strong chiaroscuro, and playing out entire scenes in silhouette. His approach to the look of the film broke a number of established rules and paved the way for filmmakers to embrace the dark. The look of films like Seven (1995) and The Dark Knight (2008) owe a great deal to The Godfather: Part II.

BLAIR WITCH PROJECTThe Blair Witch Project (1999) – The first major financial success shot on a consumer-grade camcorder, The Blair Witch Project made $250 million at the box office and ushered in a new acceptance of movies that looked like video. It paved the way for movies like November (2004), which starred Courtney Cox and was shot on standard definition video, and Paranormal Activity (2007), a movie shot on handicams that spawned a billion dollar franchise. Established filmmakers like Michael Mann have embraced the aesthetic with bigger budgets, first in using the video look in his 2004 film Collateral, and even implementing the style in his 2009 period piece, Public Enemies. Today we find ourselves at a crossroads in filmmaking, where digital cameras have long surpassed their early home-video looking beginnings and have become the new norm in big budget movie production. As we continue to embrace the newest and next big thing, it’s good to take a moment to look to the past to see why we make movies today the way we do, and why we make them look the way they do.

Jeremy Osbern is a filmmaker and writer. His work has been viewed by over a hundred million people. You can view some of it at: