inspiration from movies – a visual feast for photographers

inspiration from movies – a visual feast for photographers

It would be a rare photographer – in a fact a rare person – who isn’t fascinated by other forms of art, whether music, dance, various visual arts, architecture and everything we surround ourselves with. I just can’t imagine a photographer not finding inspiration specifically in other visual art forms, whether cartoons & graphic novels, all the way to the classic painters … and of course, movies.

Last night we watched Micmacs, another of the surreal hyper-kinetic movies by director Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Every frame of that movie is a beautifully composed. A work of art. Afterwards I felt that push again that I need to be more creative with my photography.

Micmacs was released in 2010, but before investigating that movie, I’d have to urge you to first watch Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s masterpiece – Amelie.

The screen-capture at the top is from Amelie. No words can quite describe what a joy ride of a movie it is. Emotionally over-powering. Exhilirating! With that, I’d also like to mention 10 other movies, all personal favorites, that are visual feasts for photographers …

Before we start, I didn’t want to list movies which are great CGI-enhanced spectacles. While a few of these movies mentioned here have obviously had a lot of  computer manipulation done to them, and effects added – I wanted to highlight a few favorite movies where the cinematography itself is just dazzling. So no mention of Inception or Lord of the Rings.

And no, Citizen Kane isn’t on my list. I could! just! never! get! past! the exclamatory! narration! It completely put me off a movie that is supposed to have influenced everything since. Well, I suppose I could watch it with the sound off, and some music on Pandora playing instead. Maybe another time.

I’m not going to give an actual review of each movie, or list details. IMDB, Amazon and a horde of other sites are good for that. (I like the reviews on DVD Talk.) So this is more of a nod towards the movies that fascinated me. And still do.

Amelie (2001)
director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
starring: Audrey Tatou

This movie is simply captivating. Amelie is a shy waitress in Paris, who secretly helps people around her … and in the process, discovers love. There are so many moments of dazzling brilliance, but a favorite for me (about 30 minutes into the movie), is where she helps a blind man across the street. She describes everything around then in an avalanche rush of words, matching the dizzying visuals: “a baby’s watching a dog that is watching chickens …”, and then she rushes off, leaving you breathless and exhilarated as well.

If you love Amelie, do check out Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s other movies as well, including Micmacs, and Delicatessen

Madmen (TV series)

When did television series become so good? Perhaps with the advent of layered non-formulaic story-telling such as The Sopranos. Right now however, the best that television programs have to offer is Madmen. Every frame is beautifully crafted, whether in set design, choreographing the movement of the actors, the subtle and sparse dialogue or the always awesome use of light and lighting on set. Madmen is as good as anything that cinema has ever produced over the years. Staggeringly impressive!  And if you like Madmen, also check out Breaking Bad. I’d rate it just as highly.

With both of these series, don’t randomly dip into them. Start with Season 1, disc 1. And then watch, enjoy and study.

The American (2010)
director: Anton Corbijn
starring: George Clooney

Anton Corbijn is the Dutch photographer, famous for his album cover photographs. He has shot musicians as diverse as U2, Depeche Mode, Joy Division, Bjork and Peter Hammill. He is also well-known for having directed music videos for both U2 and Depeche Mode. The American is his first a feature length film. In The American, George Clooney plays the role of an assassin on the run. Unfortunately, this movie was a victim of bad marketing. It was promoted as an action thriller … which it is in part, but it is also a stylishly crafted character study which unfolds at its own tempo. Too slow for audiences expecting Bourne Ultimatum style frenzied action and jump-cuts. The cinematography in The American is superb and a joy to take in.

Collateral (2004)
director: Michael Mann
featuring: Tom Cruise, Jamie Foxx

The director, Michael Mann, uses Los Angeles as a colorful, shifting backdrop to the events. It is fascinating to watch how the long shots are stacked, with multiple levels of color or activity. Just be aware that a grain effect was added to the movie for visual effect. Michael Mann is of is also known for the epic Heat, as well as the recent Public Enemies. Both movies also show tremendous skill in the cinematography and are well worth watching again just for that.

Moulin Rouge (2001)
director: Baz Luhrmann
featuring: Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor

Moulin Rouge is an over-the-top, extravagant Musical that will surely divide opinion. You will either love it or hate it. The visuals are over-poweringly busy and colorful, with some scenes as hectic as an acid trip. I’d recommend this movie to anyone, but could not promise that it would be enjoyed. Also check out Baz Luhrmann’s modernization of the Romeo + Juliet tale. Just as visually gorgeous.

Lost In Translation (2003)
director: Sofia Coppola
starring: Bill Murray, Scarlett Johannson

With a sparse plot – some may even argue it has none – Lost In Translation has to rely on the visuals, as well as the (unexpectedly) subtle acting from Billy Murray. Tokyo is the setting, and Bill Murray and Scarlett Johannson’s characters meet up by chance. Both of them feel increasingly alienated in the strange city, and this forms the basis of an impromptu friendship. Since so much is dependent on the milieu the characters find themselves in, Sofia Coppola had to create a visually arresting movie. Lost In Translation is one of those movies as well which will divide opinion. Regardless of that, I’d whole-heartedly suggest watching it. There is much to be enjoyed in the subtle unfolding of the movie.

Double Life of Veronique (1991)
director: Krzysztof Kieslowski
featuring: Irene Jacob

When I first saw Blue (one part of the Three Colors Trilogy), I was so blown away by the camera work, that Krzysztof Kieslowski instantly became one of my favorite movie directors. Blue has the best music score to any movie I have ever watched. As impressed as I was with Three Colors: Blue at the time, it was Double Life of Veronique that really lingered with me the most when I finally caught up with it. What is the plot about? I still have no clear idea. The movie has an elegiac feel to it. Mystical. Mysterious and confounding. And beautifully shot. You might love it, you might very well be left unimpressed … yet, I still feel that this is one movie that I want to push onto my friends that they *have* to watch.

Brazil (1985)
director: Terry Gilliam
featuring: Jonathan Pryce, Kim Greist, Robert De Niro, Michael Palin, Bob Hoskins

Terry Gilliam is a frustrating director. For all his moments of unparalleled brilliance (for example, Brazil and Twelve Monkeys), he can also come up with some stinkers. (eg, Baron Munchausen). Brazil for me was a complete mind-trip. I remember sitting in the movie house afterwards, with the house lights already on, thinking, “wtf just happened?” Brazil, for me, changed my perception of cinematic possibilities.  Again, the plot is beyond what a mere sentence or two can sum up. And then it still wouldn’t describe what Brazil is about … a state of mind. Apparently.

The Illusionist (2006)
director: Neil Burger
featuring Edward Norton, Jessica Biel, Paul Giamatti

I love the story – the romance, intrigue and adventure. Epic. I also love the look of the movie. The post-production they did on this is something that I’d love to be able to emulate in my photographs. The look of the movie is lush and sensual. Just gorgeous to watch.

Snatch (2000)
director: Guy Ritchie
featuring: Jason Statham, Brad Pitt, Benecio Del Toro

I love Guy Ritchie’s visual style. Energetic, with great angles, the cinematography is fascinating. If you liked Snatch, do check out RocknRolla too. Also, Layer Cake, a movie by a different director (Matthew Vaughn), has a similar visual appeal.

Angel-A (2005)
director: Luc Besson
starring: Ria Rasmussen, Jamel Debbouze

Luc Besson is well-known for his highly stylized Sci-Fi epic, The Fifth Element. In contrast, Angel-A is a simpler tale, told in sumptuous black and white tones. Jamel Debbouze plays a down-on-his-luck scam artist who learns to love himself with the help of the mysterious Angela. Angel-A is touching and evocative. And visually stunning.

Other movies that were also in the mix :
Dark City
Slumdog Millionaire / Sunshine
Elizabeth / Elizabeth, the Golden Age
Eastern Promises / History of Violence
Children of Men (make sure you watch the making-of supplemental material)

… there’s so much out there to be enjoyed, and studied and learnt from!


42 Comments, Add Your Own

  1. 3 says

    Great list, glad to see Children of Men mentioned if only briefly at the end. I would recommend The New World, also shot by Emmanuel Lubezki, which like Children Of Men is filmed mostly using natural light. The cinematography is of amazing beauty.

  2. 4 says

    Could it be that you – as I do – simply find Audrey Tatou to have such a wonderfully photogenic face? She has those eyes and classical French look that begs to be in front of a lens. Perhaps it is this latter quality that defines a true model from a ‘pretender’….

  3. 7amanda says

    great picks – some of my faves in there. no kubrick, though? :) Have you seen City of Lost Children (another carot/jeunet film)? more fantastical and far darker than Amélie.
    I re-watched Across the Universe (julie taymor) the other day. the plot was as crap as I remembered, but there is some great imagery in there. coen brothers movies have amazing stills in them, you can tell every scene is meticulously composed.
    yup, I love movies and definitely draw inspiration from them on a regular basis.

  4. 8 says

    Nope, no Kubrick. I don’t even have any of his movies on my shelf. Somehow there is an emotional disconnect for me with his movies. A major malfunction, if you will.

    Oh, I loved Across The Universe!

    As for the Coen Brothers … I had their movies on a piled on the floor when I was compiling this list, and I definitely had O Brother, Where Art Thou? on the pile that was going to get a mention here … but somehow, in editing this piece, and shuffling words around, it slipped through the cracks. Miller’s Crossing is another favorite movie.

    I love the Coen Brothers’ work. But I have to say I don’t love all their movies. Yet, this is what I admire about them – their unpredictability. You never know what they are going to come up with. And I’ll happily take that over formulaic work.

    Neil vN

  5. 9 says

    Hmm I wonder why you missed these films:

    Road to Perdition
    Saving Private Ryan
    The Professional

    Those are the visual ones that I like specially Road to Perdition’s engaging use of low key lighting and high key when needed.

  6. 10 says

    All super choices there!

    Saving Private Ryan was such a powerful movie. When I first saw it in the movie theaters, I was in tears from shock within the first few minutes. Incredibly overwhelming.

    Now, about Blade Runner – I love Ridley Scott’s movies. Black Hawk Down was going to be on my list. (If you ever get the chance to read the book, you should.) Ridley Scott really is one of the great movie directors.

    However, I have a reaction against Blade Runner. It truly is one of those ground-breaking movies that affected everything that came after it. I am a huge fan of Philip K Dick, and Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep is one of his very best. Yet, the scriptwriters for Blade Runner stripped the superficial narrative arc from Androids, and turned it into an action thriller, thereby rendering it impossible for anyone else to ever do justice to the greatness of Philip K Dick’s book. I was truly disappointed when I first saw the movie. And on top of that, it was the studio cut with the trivial happy ending. Ugh!

    So, Blade Runner? It should’ve been so much better. I can appreciate the cinematic art, but I don’t like the movie per se. (I do however, have blu-ray special edition on my shelf.)

    Neil vN

  7. 11Joseph Halliday says

    Great, great topic… I think about stuff like this all of the time! I would like to add two to the list:
    1. Baraka
    2. The House of Flying Daggers

    Baraka is absolutely amazing… check it out if you have the time. It is THE ultimate inspiration!

  8. 12JamesT says

    “Road to Perdition” i was going to add that one!
    guys… what about “The fall” and “The Cell” Tarsem Singh’s incredible vision
    and you know what else.. i have been noticing TV shows lately as well
    one example that comes to mind is Castle…. always a Rim light

  9. 14Trev says

    Purely on lighting, I loved ‘Road to Perdition’ brilliant, but also the whole movie per se.

    Now, JamesT mentioned TV show, Castle, that is brilliantly lit, but also, when it was on, there is the famous BBC interviewer, Michael Parkinson, and I was always amazed at the lighting on that show ‘Parkinsosn’, *superb*.

    Arnolds listing of ‘The Professional’ [the movie, not the rubbish 60-70s TV show] is great.


  10. 15 says

    As for your issue with Blade Runner, actually the Director’s Cut fixed all that and removed the ‘Marlowe’type narration as well and made it less of an action movie due to a plot twist :) I recommend that you see the Director’s Cut Neil if you haven’t. The problem with Blade Runner was it was rewritten by two people and there was much more stuff that was cut out that Ridley Scott wanted to put it. For pure visual movie with no special effects by Ridley Scott, I think that the film-noir Black Rain is up there.

    Its is nice that you also like PKD’s work since I like his short stories specially ‘The Last of the Masters and ‘Second Variety’. PKD is pretty much responsible for the sci-fi genre that we know today along with Authur C. Clarke and Issac Asimov.

    I also love WWII movies that is why I listed Saving Private Ryan but there haven’t been a well done one recently except ‘Dark Blue World’ (czech film). I also like the Russian thrillers ‘Night Watch’ and ‘Day Watch’ for their visuals.

    Amelie was an amazing film to watch visually and speaking of French films, I did also like Luc Besson’s District 13although not for visually but for use of parkour.

  11. 16Joe Leong says

    Besides being a painter and a designer, it was natural that photography was in my blood. As films go, there’s too many to mention. My favourite director – Ridley Scott

  12. 17 says

    Great choices. When I want lighting inspiration I watch Fritz Lang, or many of the wonderful film noir films from the 1940s – the more obscure the better. :)

  13. 18Jon Davila says

    For some reason when I think of inspiration for photography (especially black and whites) the movie “The Ninth Gate” starring Johnny Depp is always at the top of my list. Its only drawback is that it was directed by Polanski.

  14. 19 says

    Now that you mention Roman Polanski, his recent movie, Ghost Writer had such perfectly crafted angles to the camera work that it was fascinating to study how he positioned the actors and elements within the frame.

    Neil vN

  15. 20Jon Davila says

    Also second on my list is a movie called “Let The Right One In.” Mind you, not the americanized remake. But the original one in Swedish with the English sub titles.

  16. 21allan says

    Great list. I became fascinated by the visuals from Mad Men instantly. The low camera angles in particular are ridiculously good. How often do you get to see that much of the ceiling AND have the characters look great?

  17. 22Niklas says

    It’s eerie, how your list reflects my own favourites.

    And I would also second Hero, together with In the Mood for Love. Both were shot by Christopher Doyle who is also an excellent stills photographer.

  18. 24forkboy1965 says

    I too am surprised by the lack of any single Kubrick film, but that’s alright.

    And I must agree with The Double Life of Veronique – a visually rich film if I’ve ever seen one.

  19. 26Bogdan says

    Hero is a feast for the eyes, great story too (told about four times) !
    You guys don’t seem to be fans of the animated stuff at all… Chicken Run has great angles, a heart-warming story and painstaking attention to detail. WALL-E is also great (the dance/fly scene is pure poetry). How about Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence? The only animated feature to ever make it in the Cannes final selection…
    Also some oldies: The Maltese Falcon anyone?

  20. 27 says

    Well that’s CGI or Anime that doesnt count anymore I am surprised you didn’t say Akira :) There’s a whole host of wonderful CGI short films every year at SIGGRAPPH.

  21. 29Bogdan says

    Chicken Run is “claymation”. It was actually photographed bit by bit so over 100000 still frames are assembled to make the movie. The camera work in it is fantastic. (or so I think)
    Akira is not bad at all when you think anime but GITS 2 is quite different. Most anime fans don’t actually like it because missing anime-ness (big weapons, big effects, lotsa action) settling instead for an introspective, almost philosophical view of what separates us from machines. Watch it, it will surprise you. (again just my opinion)



  22. 31Chris Del Grande says

    Great topic Neil! I recently watched the 2009 Swedish film, “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” and was floored by the cinematography – i marveled at the lighting and composition of nearly every scene. Compelling lights and shadows abound. Highly recommended thriller. Curious, have you seen it?

  23. 34 says

    I ordered Hero (blu-ray) on Amazon, and it did arrive in the mail yesterday. So next week sometime when I have some time free, I’ll dive into it.

    Re: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has strong visuals, but what a grim story! Great movie, but not something I’d rewatch.

    I do know and love Chicken Run, and also Wallace & Gromit of course, also by Nick Park.

    King’s Speech .. still on my Netflix list.

    Leon, The Professional is one of my all-time favorite movies. That perfect combination of action and emotionally engaging drama. I am still holding out for a follow-up movie, continuing the story of Mathilda.

    The Fall was superb as well. Amazing!

    Neil vN

  24. 36 says

    I just realized I didn’t even include two of my favorite movies by the same director, Giuseppe Tornatore:
    Cinema Paradiso

    Both movies have great cinematography.

    Neil vN

  25. 37Rich says

    Here’s an article of my favorite show and probably at the top of Best show of all time list, “Breaking Bad”:

    The 4th season starts this Sunday. The Cinematography (of Settings) sucks most photographers in, especially after the first season.
    It’s won Best drama and Best Actor for all 3 of it’s seasons as well as Best Supporting Actor last season. I know, it’s astounding that anyone can beat Jon Hamm’s OUTSTANDING acting job on Mad Men.

    Here’s a 6 minute recap of the first 3 seasons:

    Get the DVD’s and we can catch up. Don’t watch them out of order and you’ll be rewarded.

    Oh Well, after typing all this, I just noticed that you are already a fan.

    Best regards,

  26. 38Vince says

    One of my favourite movie is “In Bruges”, written and directed by Martin McDonagh. It’s simple, darkly funny, great story line and amazing amazing cinematography. Easily one of the best films I’ve watched in the last few years :).

  27. 39anotherview says

    Neil: You may wish to consider adding the movie “Appaloosa” (2008)to your list. Wikipedia describes it thus: “American Western film based on the 2005 novel of the same name by crime writer Robert B. Parker.” I watched this movie while flying back from a vacation, with the sound off. The composition, lighting, framing, point-of-view, subtle moves, and spare acting together conveyed the story with their own compelling visual appeal. My silent watching of it reminded me of the old silent movies my dear father used to take me see downtown Los Angeles.

  28. 41 says

    I just looked for Double Life of Veronique, Blue, and Micmacs on Netflix but they aren’t available for Instant Download yet! My favorite on this list is probably Lost in Translation, but that’s only because I’d lived in Tokyo for 3 years just before I saw it. Having no idea it was about Tokyo, just knowing it starred Bill Murray, I walked into the theater and didn’t walk out until I’d seen it twice in a row.
    If you like French films, have you seen Mesrine, starring Vincent Cassel and directed by Jean-Francoise Richet? It’s a must.

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