David Lean on “Selectivity”

The legendary British filmmaker David Lean (1908-1991) – known for his grand, wide-ranging epics Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, A Passage to India and The Bridge on the River Kwai – shares his thoughts on artistic selectivity (primarily in film, of course, but he also mentions painting). Excerpt from the book David Lean: Interviews:

Q. What other important principles can the amateur learn from watching films?

A. Of course there are many, but one of the most important is selectivity. Notice how the director uses his camera as a selective instrument to point up the really significant part of the scene. When a painter works on a painting, he is always selective, he only paints the things that are significant. The camera is not naturally selective. This is the importance of a good cameraman.

David Lean: The Interviews
David Lean: The Interviews edited by Stephen Organ (2009, University Press of Mississippi)

He must work with the director to get the shot that emphasizes the most important part and deemphasizes the rest. This is done through choosing the proper angle, lighting, and also focus…There is always a temptation among inexperienced film makers to be “greedy” and use a wide-angle lens to get everything. The trouble is that it isn’t concentrated. Instead of trying to get it all in one, it is much better to make two shots out of it. Shot number one should say, “This is the location.” It should orient the audience. Then the following shots should go in closer with a long-focus lens for the important details and “damn the scenery.” You can take two shots – one with a wide-angle lens and one with a long lens. By having your camera closer to the subject with the wide lens you can have the image the same size. Still, the shots with the long lens will have more intimacy and impact because the depth of focus is less. The more concentration I want in a scene the longer the lens I use. These lenses have a wonderful quality about them which is better on the screen than through the viewfinder.

More books on Lean’s life and work: David Lean: A Biography (1996) by Kevin Brownlow and Beyond the Epic: The Life and Films of David Lean (2006) by Gene D. Phillips.


Image Credit:

Featured: David Lean during the filming of Doctor Zhivago, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain