How I learned to love Cinematography by watching The West Wing
Without a doubt, my all-time favourite TV show is Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing. Every time I re-watch the show, it reaffirms my belief, that for me, it is one of the best TV shows ever made. Of course, I understand that is a subjective opinion, and lots of people will undoubtedly disagree with that assessment. Aside from the story, the performance of the cast, and its optimistic viewpoint, what I most remember about my first time watching the series when it originally aired, was that it got me interested in cinematography for the first time.
More specifically, it made me realise the importance of cinematography as a storytelling tool. There were two episodes specifically that really stood out in my mind as being an “ah ha” moment for me. Both occur in the last two seasons during the presidential campaign arc.
Warning, if you haven’t seen the series, and intend to watch it, the following contains spoilers.
The first episode was in season 6, and it is in the early stages of the Santos primary campaign. The episode is entitled “King Corn”, and it showed the grind and exhaustion of the staff as they passed through Iowa on the campaign trail. What struck me most about this episode was the use of colour as a storytelling tool. This is a pretty standard device now, and it is something that I have used throughout my career, both in my television and film work and also in photography. However, watching this for the first time, when I was a lot younger and more naive, was when I had first realised just how impactful it could be.
The episode deals with the daily routine of each of three of the candidates, showing each of their individual timelines before the story comes together at the end. The parts of the episode that show Donna and Josh getting up in the early morning use a very cold, almost green neon light to showcase both the fatigue of the cast members and the harsh realities of the campaign. This contrasts starkly with the normally warm tones of the series. The use of the cool and harsh tones and lighting here work to convey the emotion and feeling of the scene, without having to explicitly tell it.
This to me, is a superb example of using the creative tools of cinematography, not just to enhance a story, but to actively tell it. I also think that this an important example of how the technicalities of cinematography and by extension photography, are just as crucial to storytelling as the more abstract aspects of creativity. Without the knowledge and technical know-how, the cinematographer, crew and director would not be able to tell the story as well. When I see people arguing on forums and in blogs, how technical skills aren’t important in photography (and cinematography) as the only thing that matters is telling a story, I’m reminded of this, and how a skilled artist uses his or her technical skills to tell the story.
The second episode that I want to talk about it the one in season 7 where Toby is identified as the leaker and is questioned by the Whitehouse council, played by the great Oliver Platt. The episode, entitled “Here Today”, has been made to be deliberately uncomfortable to watch. This is achieved by a combination of things from the direction to the cinematography, but it is aspects of the camera work, and framing that I found most interesting the first time I watched it.
I would go so far as to say that this episode is one of my all-time favourite episodes of any tv show when it comes to the cinematography, as it is so well done. Right from the very start, the camera position and framing puts you on edge. In many shots, the camera remains static, often in a wide shot, or otherwise unusual position. A lot of the characters speak their lines off camera, occasionally walking into and out of the frame. In one particular scene, a whole section of dialogue takes place with the character only visible in a tv screen reflection.
In another shot, the council staff are clearing out Toby’s office, and outside the office, a number of staff are looking at the proceedings while others are walking back and forth. It’s a busy scene, but between the glass doors and the reflections, you can see Toby sitting in the conference room awaiting his fate. It’s a great shot.
There is so much in this episode that I could go on and on, but I don’t want to bore you with my reverence for it. If you’re a West Wing fan, and you have the boxed set, re-watch this episode and pay particular attention to the cinematography. One of the other things that I like about this episode is that it shows how to break the rules, and it also demonstrates that to break those rules you need to know them in the first place. What do I mean by this?
The cinematography in this episode broke every rule in the box, but it wasn’t arbitrary, it was very very deliberate. Every rule of framing or composition that was broken was done so for a good reason or intended effect. There can be a misconception that "breaking rules" means just doing what you want and not worrying about it, but it's not the case. It requires knowing the rules in order to break them with intent. This is why I'm such a proponent of learning the technical side of photography, and it is my biggest pet peeve when people say that it's not important. Cinematography and photography are both artistic and technical crafts, and if you want to really master either discipline, you need to understand both sides of the medium.
I certainly don't claim to be a master of either. I am always trying to improve my skills, and I am my own worst critic. I would love to say that I’ve used the techniques that I learned from watching this episode in my own work, but I’m just not good enough. I wish I were, but if I'm honest, I’m not. I am trying though, and having just watched this episode again, it’s encouraged me to work even harder.
Has anything had a profound impact on the way you approach photography or cinematography? What is your biggest influence? Let us know in the comments below.
Cover image licensed via Getty Images. Screenshots ©NBC, used under Fair Use.
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