digital film

SPARKED: Alan McIntyre Smith, Professor of Filmmaking

Mason Gross School artists discuss the elements that fuel their work


Some of my favorite photographers worked for the WPA (Works Progress Administration, which featured a federal government-instituted cultural program that employed photographers to document the lives of the underclass, among others) during the Great Depression, like Dorothea Lange’s humanist portrayals of refugee camps and Walker Evans’s weathered landscapesEdward Steichen was a towering figure at the turn-of-the-20th-century’s Pictorialist photo movement who helped change the public’s perception of photography as an art form rather than a mechanical process.


I also like to study Old Master paintings at The Metropolitan Museum of Art or more modern artists at the Museum of Modern Art. For many years I’ve had my cinematography students recreate classic paintings as a way of studying composition, lighting and color, and when I bump into former students those exercises are inevitably the ones that they recall and treasure as a breakthrough moment in understanding the image-making process.

Johannes Vermeer is the best painter to study for soft naturalistic daylight in interior settings.  He repeatedly poses subjects in everyday actions illuminated by a window on the left and directs the viewer’s eye to the appropriate part of the frame. The amount of narrative that he is able to convey in a single moment should be studied by all storytellers, regardless of medium. 

Caravaggio inspired an appreciation of shadow by insisting on a realistic depiction of figures molded with pockets of light in dark spaces, known as the chiaroscuro technique. Movie lighting draws on his techniques of stylized lighting in our current obsession with contemporary noir and high drama. He composed bold scenes of complex interweaving subjects that make visual sense because the lighting guides our eye to the right place.


Shooting a movie involves getting inside people’s heads as well as placing the viewers in a new and unfamiliar place. Experiencing different cultures and evaluating your own assumptions against theirs is an essential ingredient to analyzing your own country and people. 


Reading both fiction and nonfiction is important to me. The process of translating a script to screen involves your ability to visualize ideas and realize them as physical manifestations.

Posted April 2015

To learn more about Alan McIntyre Smith, click here.