Camerimage – A conversation with Michael Chapman


I went to an incredibly interesting talk with Director of Photography Michael Chapman who shot Taxi Driver, Raging Bull as well a long list of various other classics. Chapman spoke about his ‘godfather’ of cinematography who has inspired and influenced the kind of filmmaker he is today: Gordon Willis. Willis, the DOP of The Godfather, taught him that cinematography doesn’t always need to be beautiful, that beauty is only necessary where appropriate. In order to suit the story and move it along rather than beauty for beauty’s sake. The same rules apply it comes to operating- why create an overly complicated shot when the same meaning can be conveyed in a more traditional simplistic movement. Over complex operating can really pull you away from a moment, It can become distracting as you no longer feel as though you are within the world of the characters.

This is a key phenomenon that really stood out to me, I think it is an easy mistake to make at film school, where suddenly we are allowed to use new and exciting equipment (such as the steadicam or the Peawee Dolly) to find ourselves overcomplicating it. I will deffinitly take this in to consideration when speaking the my DOPs.

Chapman said that operating is to lighting what drawing is to painting- that they come hand in hand. In the same way a sketch can define the contours, or what is to be done in a painting, operating helps craft the final image. It defines the area/ the subject and defines where the light should come from. in other works, drawings add the structure and paint/tone adds the feel.


The operators relationship with the actor

Chapman spoke a bit about the Godfather and working with Marlon Brando, he said that Brando would often play tricks on him and wouldn’t act in the way he said he would. Not hitting marks or not collapsing when he had said he would. (01:58) Chapman says the best way to ensure you can capture actors movements is by discussing a small signal that the operator could react to in order to know what drastic move is coming next.


Champan spoke a little about using the camera to convey emotions of the audience, in Taxi Driver there is a scene where Robert Dinero is on the phone to his girlfriend


The camera is used as an eye in this scene as it quite literally shies away from the phone call, embarrassed by his attempt to apologise for taking her to a porno for a date.


He also spoke about Raging Bull and his sue of simple action and simple camera movements. Occasionally these become much more complex but that is kept for the fights scenes to make them more impactful for the audience. He says: ‘we are composers of imagery.’


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