Films Every Photographer Should See

Lord of the Rings (2001-2003).

Everybody loves looking at pretty pictures and this is certainly true when it comes to film. In spite of a recent trend in the action and horror genre for shaky handheld style camerawork that requires a sea sick bag to accompany a screening, nothing beats a slow pan across a mountain-scape or a lingering long shot of a forest at daybreak.

When working outdoors with the elements timing can be everything but the rewards can also be great, as the following films will attest. Here we have a short list of the movies that go that extra mile when it comes to showing the beauty of the earth’s wild places.

Top: Gandalf (Ian Mckellen) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) ride to Minas Tirith in “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” (2003).
the lord of the rings, horses in water.
The Ring Wraiths flee Rivendell in “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” (2001).

The Lord of the Rings

Well, I suppose this is the obvious choice but my God you can’t blame me can you? Peter Jackson’s multi-award-winning “The Lord of the Rings” adaptation achieved so much and was successful in so many different capacities, but for me the film’s cinematography is its defining legacy. “The Lord of the Rings” created a movie industry in New Zealand which acted as a perfect substitute for the diverse geographies of Middle Earth. From the ethereal woodland realm of Lothlorien to the scorched plains of Gorgoroth and the pastoral cosiness of Hobbiton and the Shire, there wasn’t anything that the books could throw at New Zealand that Peter Jackson and his DP Andrew Lesnie couldn’t solve. There’s really too much beautiful landscape photography in this 9 hour odyssey (12 if you’re counting the extended DVD editions) to choose from, it’s nearly impossible to pick the highlights. But pick I shall: Gandalf (Ian Mckellen) and Pippin’s (Billy Boyd) ride to Minus Tirith over golden mountains and twilight forests and Arwen fleeing (Liv Tyler) to Rivendell from the ring wraiths, clutching a near-death Frodo in her arms.

Valhalla Rising-landscape scene.
One Eye (Mads Mikklesen) surveys his majestic Highland landscape in “Valhalla Rising” (2009).

Valhalla Rising

Before he went global superstar with his BFF Ryan Gosling in “Drive,” iconoclastic Danish auteur Nicolas Winding Refn made moody art piece “Valhalla Rising.” Joined by his original muse Mads Mikkelsen (who plays a mute crusading warrior in 1000 AD), Refn crafts a visually stunning film with a strong sense of colour and sparse dialogue. Shot in the Highlands of Scotland, Refn and his team make full use of this versatile and astonishing landscape. Under a doom-laden sky the colour of melted down lead, Mikkelsen and his merry band of Christian pilgrims search for the holy land in a harsh landscape: dark green glens dotted with mossy bogs and craggy mountain ranges reaching towards the sky. “Valhalla Rising” is a movie that’s defined by its setting—the landscape becomes a character in its own right. This is in no small thanks to the skill of DP Morten Søborg, a regular collaborator of Refn’s, who captures the raw power of the Highlands with the skill of an old master.

Lore 2011
The orphans of “Lore” (2012) make their way through a war torn landscape.


Australian director Cate Shortland made her long belated follow up to her acclaimed debut “Somersault” (2004), with this German language flick,”Lore.” Set in Germany during the final gasps of WWII, the movie focuses on a teenage girl named Lore (played by newcomer Saskia Rosenthal), left to fend for herself with her young siblings when her Nazi parents are forced to abandon them. This begins a trek across the German wilderness to the safety of their grandmother’s house in Hamburg. The road is long and treacherous, as the children try to navigate between the different zones occupied by the Russian, British and American forces. Lore and her siblings search for food and shelter in an environment akin to a dark fairy tale: vast pine forests with no end in sight, and abandoned farmland with the odd crumbling cottage. It’s beautiful and picturesque but in a heavy and depressing kind of way. Nature becomes both protector and aggressor. The green forests offer shelter from soldiers but contain their own set of rules and dangers as well.

Meek’s Cuttoff (2010).
Michelle Williams collects the firewood on the dangerous Oregon Trail in “Meek’s Cutoff” (2010).

Meek’s Cuttoff

The harshness of life on the Oregon Trail is captured in stunning cinematography in “Meek’s Cuttoff,” by Independent filmmaker Kelly Reirchart. The film puts a feminine slant on the Western genre, which has always traditionally been a male dominated arena, and this is reflected in the whole look of this motion picture. Instead of silent cowboys riding off into battle with Native Americans, we have quiet scenes of women hanging up the washing against the vast desert plains or collecting firewood in the cool evening sun. The colours of the surrounding landscape are beautifully rendered: extreme long shots of the wagons making their way across watery golden fields. These pioneers live and die by the environment in which they find themselves in, and it isn’t a pleasant one: the unscalable peaks and hot orange sun of the great journey out West. A masterpiece of landscape photography.

Photos © respective film studios
Christopher Smail

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Christopher is based in the UK, the former assistant editor of Scene360 magazine. Follow the author @ and view more articles.