Cinematography is an art form, not just an aspect of a movie.
Cinematography affects the mood and tone of a movie as well as the viewers feelings while watching a movie.
In American Beauty this is demonstrated beautifully through camera techniques, lighting, and the framing of the shot. Camera techniques include aerial, deep focus, pan, shallow focus, slow motion, soft focus, and the tracking shot. Lighting is more than just shining a light on a character. The cinematographer must know how to manipulate the lighting to create the mood and the correct throw of the light. He must know when to use soft light and when to use hard light to create the lines and shadows desired. The framing of a shot also adds to a movie. Framing the shot is the placement of objects and people in a scene to create the mood or to direct the viewers focus. These are all elements to think about when watching a movie and they are all shown superbly in American Beauty.
American Beauty is narrated by Lester Burnham, the husband of Carolyn Burnham and father of Jane Burnham. He informs the audience that he has less than a year to live but in reality he is already dead; and the whole movie looks back at his life through his eyes. Lester Burnham is a 42-year-old who is unhappily married and is despised by his wife and daughter. Behind the red door of their home, the family is falling apart. The dinner table is a battleground, where the mother and father tear apart one another s unhappy lives and their daughter retreats into a balanced yet flawed reality she has no thought of being loved. Carolyn is only driven by success and Lester has just had enough. He makes friends with the cool, confident Ricky Fitts (who supplies him with drugs) and becomes a rebel, no longer even pretending to accept his family s criticisms. Meanwhile his wife has an affair with the real estate King, Buddy Kane, and even when Lester finds out he does not care. Lester develops an obsession with his daughter Jane s friend Angela and his only goal in life is seducing her because he believes she is the personification of beauty. Ricky likes to film things that are beautiful which includes Jane. At first this freaks her out, but in the end the two develop a relationship. Lester attains his chance with Angela but he discovers that he has been living a fantasy and she is nothing more than a scared little girl. In the end, Lester is killed by Colonel Fitts (Ricky s father).
The movie opens with an aerial shot of the street where the Burnhams live. The nameless, one of many streets in the city, provides a sense that the Burnhams are small and unimportant in the world. For the first part of the movie, Lester is shot from above and small in the shot, making him seem small and unimportant. However, as the film progresses and Lester becomes more powerful, shots of him tend to come from below, depicting his power. Also in the office the camera shoots a still deep focus shot, or a shot that keeps the entire image in sharp focus, of the cubicles in the office showing the ceiling. The shot of the ceiling with the lights glaring down makes the scene feel oppressive, like the office is more powerful than man. When the neighbors come to welcome the Fitts to the neighborhood, the camera shows Colonel Fitts opening the door and when the door; swings in front of the camera, it switches to a shot of the people at the door. Cutting the scene when the door swings by makes the scene appear seamless and smooth to the viewer. A swish pan, or a very fast panoramic camera movement, is used when Ricky is filming Jane through his window and his dad comes in yelling. Ricky turns fast to look causing the camera image to blur giving a sense of chaos to the scene. After Lester is shot, he talks about his life and remembers the good times. A left to right tracking shot is used for this scene, making all the memories flow together smoothly and the left to right movement of the camera imitates his life. These are just a few examples of the camera techniques used in American Beauty to help bring the movie to life.
Lighting also plays an important role in the audience s perceptions of characters while creating the mood for the scene. Lester has a dream where he walks down a hallway and finds Angela in a bathtub in a room filled with steam at the end of the hall. The entire scene is in soft light, light not directly from the source, to provide the impression of a dreamlike state. Also whenever Jane and Ricky are together, they are filmed in low soft light. The darkness and the soft light help add to the romantic mood and create a kind of calm feeling about the shot. Lester wants to get in shape for Angela so he goes down to the garage to find his old weights. He then undresses and looks at his reflection in the window. The shot of Lester looking at his reflection is lighted from above to make him seem overly chubby.
One of the best example of framing the shot are the shots of the Burnham family at the dinner table. Carolyn is seated at one end, Jane in the middle, and Lester at the other end of a long table. This long shot frame that includes all the people and some of the surrounding environment shows the distance between Carolyn and Lester and yields the impression that Jane is just caught in the middle. After an argument at the dinner table Lester talks to Jane in the kitchen. The camera shot from outside through the window shows the window pain splitting Lester and Jane as a sort of dividing line between them giving the impression of a wall. Another example of framing the shot is that of Carolyn driving home from the gun range and the camera shows her gun sitting on the seat next to investment books, suggesting that money kills.
Many people share the opinion that American Beauty is a great movie. Michael Wilmington and Jay Carr, two men that review movies, both agree. It's a picture with a great cool shiny surface, and it boasts superb actors, witty and iconoclastic writing, vigorous and imaginative direction and brilliantly stylized cinematography states Wilmington (Wilmington). Also, a millennial classic says Carr (Carr).
American Beauty received five, well deserved, Academy Awards-- one of them for cinematography. For cinematography to be good, the techniques used should not be apparent to the viewer: they should only add to the movie. Conrad Hall shows his style and mastery of the camera and lighting in American Beauty. The audience is not consciously aware of the techniques used but subconsciously they have a big impact on the viewers emotions. Truly, Conrad Hall is a master of the big screen.