In honor of the late Michael Chapman, let's explore the high contrast and bright colors of the renowned cameraman behind Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.
Tragically, Michael Chapman passed away earlier this year. And in the days and weeks that followed, a flurry of mourners began to share the tremendous respect they showed for the famous online cameraman. However, there is a lot more to be said about Michael Chapman's cinematography than just a taxi driver GIF shared on Twitter.
Chapman was an eminently talented cinematographer and visionary cinematographer responsible for developing two of Martin Scorsese's most iconic images of the dark world – Taxi Driver and Raging Bull – as well as having been the driving force behind an entire decade of action thrillers and intelligent comedies big budget.
So, in addition to giving due respect to the tremendous cinematic achievement of the taxi driver and other famous examples, let's examine how Chapman was able to improve his craft, develop his style, and convey his genius to audiences around the world.
The importance of storyboarding
For anyone who thought we were diving into the rich tapestries of the neon lights of dingy New York – you are wrong. We start with the basics: storyboarding! And despite Chapman's quote (in the video above) about "despicable storyboards" in general, the fact that Scorsese was able to convince him to give due credit to this necessary building block of cinematic form is testament to the importance of the process.
If you talk specifically about taxi drivers and work with Scorsese (also in the video above), you can see the meticulously detailed storyboards that “Marty” created in collaboration with Chapman to detail the “energy and emotion” behind every action and camera movement any sequence.
You can also see that the whole process was a great learning opportunity for Chapman, who had only recently emerged as a talented cinematographer (who got his first notoriety for his work on Steven Spielberg's Jaws). Chapman was shown firsthand how the minds of great directors and cinematographers were supposed to portray an intricate mix of carefully planned and deeply emotional and explosive material.
By the way, if you want to improve your storyboarding, start with some of these helpful primers:
Cinematography as a service to history
The cinematography doesn't have to be beautiful, it has to match what your eye sees.
I promise we'll get to Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and the rest of the familiar features of Chapman next, but after storyboarding and intentionality, our next focus is on Chapman's mindfulness of how good cinematography – and his cinematography in particular – needs to be to service the story, trying to tell
For any cameraman or aspiring cameraman or director, this language is key as it reveals why you see such rich, shabby images of New York in one of Chapman's films, then stark, nude, black and white POV shots in the next. And even further if you dig into Chapman's work on music videos, comedies, and Looney Tunes crossovers.
Chapman has proven throughout his career that every shot and scene must reflect the story he is trying to tell. Not just how it is framed, but also how the lighting is poured, how the perspective is adjusted and how the gaze is examined, which it can be projected by one of its characters or interpreted directly by the audience.
High contrast and strong colors
OK, finally! Let's talk about Taxi Driver, the film that started the careers of Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, and the film that most people (for good reason) associate with Chapman's film work. Taxi Driver is considered to be one of the most cinematic and best-shot films, not just from its decade (the 1970s), but from all times.
However, if you look both forward and backward during Chapman's career, you can see that the styles he has worked on over the years come to full fruition in this beautiful image. Chapman has solid skills at working with high contrast and strong colors. In many of his films, Chapman uses these looks to highlight differences between characters and subjects.
In the cab driver in particular, he and Scorsese decided to paint the streets of New York City with perfectly chosen locations to capture the bright neon signs that pop up from the screen on the dark, gravelly streets lit at night. Chapman goes even further, as you can see in the cinematography montage above, by throwing De Niro's Travis Bickle in the same harsh lights as he helps Scorsese follow the character's descent into film notoriety.
Fast movements and improvisation
After the taxi driver's success, Chapman would again forge a famous partnership with Scorsese at Raging Bull – a film I would say is superior in terms of its cinematic accomplishments and as a sheer masterclass of the craft. In Raging Bull, Scorsese and Chapman could really go off the ropes (so to speak) and create a cinematic world that was full of style and raw innovation.
As you can see in the video overview below, there were many elements of storytelling that were unique and intriguing, but cinematographically, Chapman was able to fully adopt a fast moving style and often work on set without structure and with improvisation. This is most notable in the boxing scenes, where Chapman could physically strap the camera to the actors, with improvised rigs for creative shots and chaotic movements.
Coupled with the sheer contrast of black and white cinematography and the big ripples between silent and subtle scenes and explosive battle montages, Raging Bull catapulted both Chapman and Scorsese from emerging to some of the biggest names in the business. And it was really Chapman's DP work on this feature that allowed him to direct so many big blockbusters after that.
Action and Comedy and Beyond
From his beginnings in the 70s when he worked his way up from a camera job, Chapman was clearly a sought-after cameraman in the 80s and 90s, who thanks to his service could switch seamlessly between projects. focused approach. While Scorsese has worked with several different cinematographers over the years, Chapman was pretty content to continue delving into big budget genres – like action thrillers and comedies.
Notable features that Chapman shot include The Lost Boys, The Fugitive, Ghostbusters II, Kindergarten Cop, and a personal favorite of mine – Space Jam. But make no mistake, for each of these images you can see many of the same style choices and influences that Chapman has developed since his inception, and which still often use high contrast and innovative and technical camera movements.
While some of the films don't quite live on in the same Cinephile circles online and on Twitter, it is very inspiring to go back and see how Chapman was able to stay true to his roots and perfectly develop his craft as both an audience and audience Industry has changed over the years.
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Cover picture via MGM.