How to Match Cinematography to Movie Genre

The "look" of a film is dependent on effective cinematography, and that look is vital in conveying movie genre. Establishing genre quickly helps an audience know what to expect in a film. A couple elements of cinematography that come into play to indicate genre are:

  •      Lighting
  •      Composition
  •      Camera movement
  •      Lenses

Step 1: Light the Shot

Lighting is an obvious key in several genres, but perhaps it's easier to recognize in particular ones. In musicals, the lighting is generally bright, sometimes called "high-key" lighting. This results in a bright mood, which is not unusual for most classic musicals. Conversely, darkness and shadows are typical in horror and suspense films. Film noir uses this technique to an extreme, implying that things are happening in the shadows. For drama, it depends on the mood of the particular piece, but it's typically naturalistic.

Step 2: Compose the Shot

Composition deals with how you place things before the lens. Where things go in the frame makes a difference. In musicals, it's wide shots that play big. They're open and uncluttered. In horror or suspense films, every detail is important. They use a lot of close ups, because close-up's can show importance and heighten emotion. For film noir, there's things that are close, and there are things that are distant; that is, there's a great deal of depth of field. To accomplish this, most filmmakers use shorter lenses that keep both foreground and background in focus at the same time. Drama uses lots of cuts; rather than having lots in the frame to show everything important, filmmakers just cut to whatever is important.

Step 3: Move the Camera

Since the motion is motivated by music, musicals utilize carefully choreographed camera moves to go with the carefully choreographed dances. There's a fluid nature to the genre, and filmmakers work hard to make it look easy. In suspense films and film noir, movement is minimal, as it adds to the suspense. Sometimes audiences feel uncomfortable because they want the camera to move, or they're aware of something going on just outside the frame.

Drama uses camera movements typically in three ways: horizontally, vertically or in combination. For horizontal movement, filmmakers use a simple pan or dolly tracks. Dolly tracks are useful in moving in or out, too. For vertical movement, it is typically a tilt up or down. To combine vertical and horizontal movement, usually a crane or a jib-boom is used, that allows the camera to move left, right, up, down or diagonally.

Step 4: Use Lens and Focus Creatively

For bright musicals, (most of the time) the shots will be sharply focused. For suspense, much of the time the camera will have a soft focus, but there's another popular technique used: the rack focus. A rack focus can have something important in the foreground in focus, then it may "rack" (or shift the focus) to someone in the distant background who may be the suspect-or the next victim. Dramas often use zoom-ins and zoom-outs.

Although these are typical ways cinematography helps convey genre, in recent years some of these conventions have been turned around. Generally, though, these techniques are a short-hand way to help establish genre quickly and effectively.