Visions of Light (1992) Poster

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A Great Documentary For Movie Buffs
ccthemovieman-118 September 2006
People who surf this particular website, generally-speaking, should love this documentary as it deals with the movies, and how they are photographed and how the cameramen and we, the viewer, see them. That may sound a bit dry, but this documentary is anything but that. They never stay more than a few minutes on any topic, personality or movie.

I appreciated this DVD more and more as I became more familiar with films. The more of a fan you are of both movies and cinematography, the higher you will rate this documentary. From silent movies to modern-day, the producers on this did a fine job showing examples of films from every decade up to 1990. (It would be fun to see an updated edition of this to include films from the past 15 years.)

This video gave me a new appreciation for black-and-white films. Some of the photography was magnificent and many cinematographers think that is the medium in which they could really show off their talents.

Regarding color, this documentary is where I first heard about the fabulously- filmed movie, "Days Of Heaven" (1978), which has become one of my all-time favorites. In all, there are about 125 films mentioned, so you may discover some gems you weren't aware of, as I did.

Whether you know most of these films or just a few, you should find a number of things in here interesting.
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You'll never look at a film the same way after seeing this!!!
twltzone22 October 1999
This is a great, I repeat great, documentary on the history of cinematography. No film student should be without it!! It covers all the changes in technology and techniques and its impact on film.

It brilliantly shows the freedom of camera movement during the silent period and how things became more restricted when sound was added later and the transition from B/W to Color. But most importantly, clearly depicts how Directors of Photography over came these limitations and created new techniques which changed film history forever. Brilliant!!!! You'll never look at a film the same way after seeing this.

Covers many different aspects of "the Hollywood look" and the different "Studio looks" throughout time. Also uncovers the secrets of many DP's and how they made their "Stars" look so incredible!!

I especially like the section on Film Noir and the plethora of absolutely breath taking film clips!!! Included in this gem of a documentary are great clips from classics like the 1947 version of "Oliver Twist" and examples from some of the greatest DP's of all time!!! Arthur Miller...etc...

Very entertaining!! Even for non-film buffs!!! I've showed this documentary to friends and relatives and they all seem to watch with amazement!!!

I liked it so much I just had to buy it!
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The best documentary on film-making out there
boris-2619 November 2001
The magical glow Marlene Dietrich gave off in her vintage exotic films, the almost news-coverage like grit of DOG DAY AFTERNOON, the realistic look of JAWS- all the secrets of how to make a film look it's best possible are here in this excellent American Film Institute produced documentary. VISIONS OF LIGHT traces the history of cinematography in simple, everyman terms (No, we don't have cameramen using jargon like "f stops, ground glass, neutral density.") The film clips from such beautifully lensed films as SUNRISE, GRAPES OF WRATH, REBECCA, T-MEN, PICNIC, IN COLD BLOOD, TAXI DRIVER and BLADERUNNER) perfectly highlight the film. A true must see.
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karen-1286 February 2006
Yes, it ignores most of Europe and the rest of the worlds contributions, but for what it is, it's just lovely.

It's an introduction to the art of cinematography in American movies, with clips and comments from the greats about American film from birth till 1990 or so, when it was made. Some of the cinematographers are humble and self-effacing, some clearly have large egos, but they all obviously love and care deeply about film and film making.

This is a terrific film to show your children, a behind the scenes that is informative rather than salacious or snarky.

Highly recommended.
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A great introduction to cinematography
TiffinyKaye6 September 2005
I was a film student in college, but my primary interest was in the story/writing end. While I wasn't totally into the directing and cinematography aspects, I did have a lot of exposure to it, being that the University of Utah film program forces you to have a well-rounded background in all the basics of film-making.

I was also a teacher's assistant in college to a great film professor, who made it a habit of showing this documentary to his classes to introduce them to the field they were getting into. After the three times I was "forced" to watch this piece, I can truly say I gained a treasured respect and appreciation for the mechanics of film. Yes it's story..yes it's acting...but really, the story is conveyed through images--and best conveyed through images captured by those who know what they're doing. There is so much thought that goes into being a good DP--being aware of your surroundings, lighting, being innovative enough to solve problems (because they come up a lot), and how to make an actor look good or how to get the best shot of something.

Rather than explaining like a text book "how to be a good DP," the film is composed of a series of documentary type interviews and clips from influential films over the years--films like "Sunrise" from the silent era, to modern films like "Days of Heaven," "Raging Bull," and "The Godfather." They give a good summary of the best examples of DP work, as well as highlighting why a particular cinematographer was viewed as a master in his field.

This is a well put -together piece, and I'd definitely recommend it.
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Entertaining and informative documentary on cinematography.
shawnserdar26 August 2004
This is a great documentary, of interest to any student of film or anyone who wants to deepen their appreciation of movies. The film showcases some great cinematographers (Caleb Deschanel, Conrad Hall, Gregg Toland, etc.) chronologically, giving a brief history of film at the same time -- it interviews the cinematographers at it shows countless clips from all sorts of film.

My only complaint is that, despite the work from several foreign cinematographers, the films are mostly American (this doc was made after all by the AFI), and so it skips out some great legendary international films (from Kurosawa, Bergman, etc.) that deserve equal attention.
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Kevin_Maness25 July 2000
Simply, this is one of the best documentaries I've seen on the art and science of making movies. This one is from the cinematographer's point of view and uses many excellent interviews along with miles of illustrative movie clips. I recommend this to anyone who has an interest in the creative process of filmmaking.
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"Visions of Light" is kind of lightweight
El Cine16 December 2006
In movie documentaries, and in the public's awareness of movies, cinematography rarely gets much attention, however important it may be. Indeed, the public would probably never hear about the craft if not for the academic cover it provides for the Oscars ceremony; putting it in the award lineup gives those silly prizes some more serious technical credibility, as do editing and art direction. Thus when I heard about this obscure documentary, I was impressed that somebody would focus on this topic, and expected a viewing experience that would educate me (an interested film buff who isn't aspiring to be a filmmaker) more about this aspect of film-making. Unfortunately the documentary turns out to be more superficial. I thought "Visions of Light" would be more "illuminating" (pun not intended) and "enlightening" (pun intended).

The visual presentation mainly consists of a glut of shots from films over the years parading by in breathless fashion, and amounts to little more than celebratory name-dropping. These shots could've showed up in the context of some other documentary -- about directors, actors, or "great American films", for instance -- and it would've been much the same. Sometimes the montage is pointless. Why look at Quinlan strangle a guy in "Touch of Evil"? Is the cinematography more interesting for this particular shot? And what *did* the cinematographer or "DP" for "Do the Right Thing" do to convey the hottest day of the year through his photography? The documentary never makes this clear, and the clips from the movie become the random scenes of a promotional featurette.

What the documentary cares to teach us is not technical enough; the show reiterates that DPs employ light and shadow to construct a shot. Okay, well, I knew that already. We glimpse many DPs chatting with the interviewer about their craft, but often their talking is just anecdotes or "Oh, what an eye-catching scene that old master made!" I wished to learn: What kind of process goes into shooting a scene? What kind of buttons and dials does the cameraman manipulate? Could we have seen some videos or animations of cameras, lights, and other devices in action? Likewise, there is no narrator to flesh out the history and technique of cinematography; we mainly hear the DPs reminiscing.

There is only scattered discussion of a few techniques used on a few films. It was intriguing to hear Michael Chapman mention how Paul Schrader's script for "Taxi Driver" was very visual and helpful for guiding his work. I would've liked to hear more about how the DP collaborates with the screenwriter, director, and other filmmakers, not just that Orson Welles was impressed by Gregg Toland, for instance.

A few humorous moments include (1) Chapman observing how both he and Martin Scorsese talk rapidly, which made discussing films with each other easier; (2) Gordon Willis making a pompous fool of himself by casually comparing himself to Rembrandt.
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The importance of Cinematography
arnemyklestad9 April 2007
Taking a stand for cinema's populist underdog, Visions of light reinstates the basic elements of importance in film in an age where the artistic merit is credited the director and the actors. Or maybe it merely tells an audience what every filmmaker knows so well; that the art of film would be nothing without light and the craft of capturing and animating it. Since the origin of film-making, cinematography has maintained its reputation of being a craft, long after the role of the director was given creative control. And with such a responsibility in management of physical and optical parameters, the creative expression of the director of photography is purely based on experiment through immense control. From Charles Lang being instructed to "put his shadows wherever he wanted, but not on the actors face" to David Lynch and Frederick Elmes discussing "how dark is dark", the art of cinematography is just as much about being an illusionist as just a mediator between production and aspection. In commentary to his "sketching of things in the dark" to the point of monochromism, John Alton summed up the spirit of cinematography in reminding us that it is not as much about the lights you turn on as the one's you don't.
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tedg16 July 2002
Warning: Spoilers
Spoilers herein.

I was disappointed in this -- not so much because it was bad, but because we get so few chances at this sort of thing. When we do, we should take advantage of it.

My own feeling about films is that the actor is the last person to trust to understand the project. An actor has his own concerns, and some of those conflict with those of the filmmaker. It is the filmmaker's job to create the vision. So too with cinematographers. Whenever one of them wrests control of a film, the film is lessened from what it might have been.

That's because film is a uniquely multidimensional experience. Take film music. This is is an art all to itself. Hearing film composers chat about their work is interesting, and that is the level of what we get here. But hearing a talented critic of film music talk about many composers and techniques and effects is a real treat. We missed that here, even before we get into some incredible examples that were overlooked, because because of politics, perhaps because they were too sophisticated for target TeeVee audience, perhaps because the requisite talking head was unavailable.

But on beyond that, how wonderful would it have been to have someone intelligent use even these same examples and speak from the perspective of filmmaker. That guide would let us know the negatives of the craft (sorry, couldn't resist), how effects can be composed across skills (art design, editing, acting, writing). It would be worthwhile. To listen to these guys, a film starts with a story, everyone supports the story as best they can, and of these the photographer brings it to life, perhaps artfully. A low point is when we are told about `green is for intelligence' concerning `The Last Emperor.'

What a scandal. What a missed opportunity.

Ted's rating: 2 of 4 -- Has some redeeming feature.
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Entertaining history lesson...
moonspinner5513 November 2005
Documentary on the art of cinematography, with a handful of revered directors of photography reflecting on their heroes and mentors, on films which inspired them and (selected) projects they've worked on. Despite a lot of smart talk and amusing anecdotes, this project is colorful and entertaining without being especially enlightening (for instance, only Gordon Willis cites a regret--a sequence from "The Godfather Part II"). Some incredible (and Oscar-winning) DP's like Geoffrey Unsworth, Harry Stradling and Peter Bizou are not even invited to the fore, which is disappointing, and the film clips are certainly on the lean side (hardly anything from the 1950s), but what is here is enjoyable, if not intriguing. Financed by the American Film Institute for PBS and Japanese equivalent NHK. **1/2 from ****
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Inspirational And First Rate Documentary On The History Of Cinematography
ShootingShark2 May 2013
Warning: Spoilers
A documentary about the history and influence of movie photography, featuring many of the most acclaimed and successful cinematographers of the 1960's, 70's and 80's.

If you're interested in how a movie is photographed - and all true cinephiles should be - this excellent documentary is a great way to learn, contains a slew of captivating shots from a hundred years of cinema, and captures the comments of some of the very best directors of photography ever to strike a light. It's also a little bit of a time capsule; made just prior to the advent of digital photography and projection it's a glorious celebration of good old soupy celluloid and just what cameras are capable of. It starts at the birth of cinema and moves through the silent era, the restrictions of sound, the experimentation of film noir, the move to colour, the influence of European new wave and the amalgamation of all these elements into modern cinematography. Every single one of the interviewees is intelligent and articulate, but also surprisingly different. They talk about technical effects like diffusion and how to light actors, they talk about symbolism through use of colour and shade, they talk about relationships with directors and with their subject matter, and what they all share is a burning obsession to make whatever they're shooting come alive. Movies, irrespective of their style or genre, should first and foremost be passionate, and cinematography is the key to this. I particularly like Hall's philosophy, whereby accidents and mistakes may have just as much value as the most elegantly composed traditional shot, and there are plenty of humorous anecdotes, such as Fraker's vignette about the telephone in Rosemary's Baby. Movies contain many key elements - music and editing are just as important - but without photography they simply wouldn't exist. It is the most important and integral aspect of any film and the power of great imagery is extraordinary, universal and beautiful. A co-production of the American Film Institute and Japanese broadcaster NHK, this was shown at the 1992 Cannes Film Festival. Director McCarthy was Variety magazine's senior film critic for thirty years from 1979 - 2010, and also made another excellent feature documentary in 1990 called Hollywood Mavericks. This is hard to find (my copy is from an old home videotape from a BBC TV screening) but is available in Europe through the BFI and is well worth tracking down.
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Worthwhile documentary, albeit one for specialized interests
gridoon201917 June 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Cinematography is an important but often underappreciated aspect of moviemaking (and moviegoing), and - as far as I know - "Visions Of Light" was the first documentary attempt to shed some, uh, light to this art and give a voice to the behind-the-cameras experts who practice it. It's a good documentary and contains many (appropriately) beautiful clips. But, in comparison to the doc I saw yesterday, "The Celluloid Closet", its focus on a technical and not a thematic aspect of the movies means it will probably appeal to a more niche, hardcore audience than that film. My favorite moment: the story about everyone in a theater titlting their heads during a particular scene in "Rosemary's Baby". And at least one omission I noticed: "The Ten Commandments" (1956) - one of the most expressive color films ever. *** out of 4.
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Seeing the Light...
poe42610 June 2014
Warning: Spoilers
Early on in my movie-going, I came to appreciate a beautifully-shot film, even if there were other aspects (like the story, or the performances, etc.) that weren't up to par- a movie like STREETS OF FIRE, for instance. The LOOK of such a movie outshone its multitude of sins. (Nor is it alone: I simply reference it because it was the first to spring to mind.) While VISIONS OF LIGHT doesn't touch on the career of Ted Tetzlaff (who directed THE WINDOW, a truly outstanding film noir) or a lot of other cinematographers worthy of note, we DO get an appreciation for the works of people like Gordon Willis. To do justice to the craft would take a maxi-series (as opposed to a "mini" series), but, until then, we can make do with VISIONS OF LIGHT.
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It is easy to be grateful for Visions Of Light, the first feature-length documentary on the art and craft of cinematography.
khanbaliq28 December 2009
Warning: Spoilers
Visions Of Light will cause everyone who sees it to look at films a little differently in the future. The film covers the art of cinematography since the conception of cinema at the turn of the 20th century. Many filmmakers and cinematographers present their views and discuss why the art of cinematography is important within the craft of film-making.

Visions Of Light is a lyrical hymn to the art of cinematography, too often overlooked by casual filmgoers, but given its rightful pride of place here. A must for anyone remotely interested in the effect and beauty of film, and the capacity of visual images to move hearts and minds. Many of the truly unforgettable moments in American film history are here in all their brilliance and glory.
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Illustrated history of cinematography
Elliot-1016 November 1998
This documentary is a history of cinematography, illustrating major advances and highlighting the work of major cinematographic innovators. Although there are snippets of on-screen interviews, the bulk of the film consists of (glorious) film clips illustrating many of the high points in the history of cinematography.
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Visions of Light (1992)
MartinTeller12 January 2012
I often praise the visuals of a film, but I generally do it in very vague terms without being able to express why I think the photography looks great. I just know what looks good or interesting or striking to me. So I had hopes that this documentary would shed some light (ho ho!) on the art and craft of cinematography. Unfortunately, I didn't get much out of it. It's mostly very basic, surface stuff, more of an exercise in Appreciation 101 than detailed technical analysis. I also wished for a few more esoteric examples. Most of the films discussed are the really obvious ones, especially as the discussion gets closer and closer to contemporary times. The first half of the film is the best part, getting into some of the history, and I particularly enjoyed the look at John Alton and film noir. As a whole, it's a nice compendium and there are a few interesting insights, but it really lacks the depth I was hoping for. I also found it odd that a movie about cinematography would occasionally show clips in the wrong aspect ratio.
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great docu, just ...
georg-wachberger11 July 2007
... how can you make such documentary, interview sven nyquist, yet show no frame of his work? i am sure that many people find many people missing, yet sven is really admired as one of the very best ever and i have immediately tons of frames of his work in mind, more than from any other DOP ...

nevertheless it is a great piece and does not become unnecessary detailed in technical issues. i am not entirely sure about the selection of material they presented. but this is necessarily highly subjective. yet i would have wished to see more of Japanese and European cinema.

the more i think about it the more i feel that i find it great that they produced this tribute to cinematographers, but i am more and more unhappy by the way they did it. leaves with the taste of a too clean feature film. too little risk. so i change my vote from initially 9 to 6.
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the film you'll watch in any given film 1 class
Quinoa198431 August 2006
No reason really to give the film a typical rating as its not really a typical movie. It's compilation of many, many film clips that illustrate the power of cinema, as corny as it might sound, over the past century or so. It gives almost all of the key times of- at least American- film, and it gives the main players in as much director-wise and cinematography as can be. The big editing techniques are established as well, stretching across from the early silents to modern times (as far as 1992 anyway). As an introductory lesson you could do a lot worse I'm sure, though it pales in comparison to, for example, the Scorsese documentaries on American and Italian cinema. It runs through the basics pretty clearly, gives some very excellent clips (one or two perhaps unexpected, and maybe a few never seen), and then leaves in its relatively short running time. For film professors (the one I had the first time at any rate), this is a keeper as one of the films to show, I suppose. It gives the students and other casual film viewers its due, though it could've been more.
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Very general introduction with good time divisions
gagewyn11 December 2000
I watched this to hopefully get some ideas on what movies would be interesting to watch. From this point of view I was disappointed.

The movies used as illustration are fairly mainstream. I had heard of almost all of them even though I hadn't seen them all.

One thing that I very much have a problem with is that I think that the frame speed was accelerated on some of the silent film clips. The alternative would have been to repeat some frames so that events would play at the intended speed, but would have a slight skipping irregular pace. (24 frames per second was not a standard film speed during the silent period, so many films were done in 16, 18 or even occasionally 12 frames per second) I believe that the latter solution to the frames problem is preferable to comically fast pacing.

Also the silent period was some what gypped in that it got the same amount of time and focus as each subsequent decade. It should have gotten twice as much time as a decade, because it includes 1910's and 1920's and all prior movie history. Other than this minor disparity, the amount of time spent on each decade is about equal. This is good because the documentary isn't skewed toward any era.

Even bias is a prerequisite for a film documentary, and this documentary has it.

Keep in mind that this documentary is very general. It would be impossible to go into a great deal of depth in only 1 1/2 hours. It is not for an extreme film buff. The film is not going to be a revelation, but if you are looking for a very general introduction to cinema this is a good documentary to watch.
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Good and Insightful
Vladislav6 January 2000
I enjoyed watching this documentary on Cinematography, and yet it still pales in comparison to A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies. I was spoiled, I think, with Marty Scorsese's documentary, as in its three cassettes it is the truly definitive documentary on film. Visions of Light is worth a purchase, though it was not as complete and definitive as I would have liked it to be.
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