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Persistence of vision: film authorship and the role of the cinematographer (with a case study of Gregg Toland)

Cowan, Philip (2016) Persistence of vision: film authorship and the role of the cinematographer (with a case study of Gregg Toland). Doctoral thesis (PhD), Manchester Metropolitan University.


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Film authorship has been attributed to directors since the 1940s. The auteur theory typifies a practice of crediting directors with all meaningful, creative responsibility for the films that they direct. The literary notion of single authorship dominates analysis of an art form that is collaborative in its process of making. These two persistent, yet anachronistic assumptions undermine any nuanced understanding of authorship in film. This thesis refutes the notion of single authorship, and establishes a model of collaborative authorship in film, which is inclusive of producers, scriptwriters, actors, designers, cinematographers, editors and composers. Analysing the contribution of all potential co-authors is too great a task for one thesis, therefore the thesis takes the cinematographer to examine in detail, as a prima facie example of a co-author. The cinematographer’s role is often discussed in terms of technology or style, rarely in terms of authorship of their images. The thesis asks if the authorial contribution of the individual cinematographer to classical, narrative-based film, can be identified and attributed. The thesis presents an analytical toolkit for studying the filmic image, and the cinematographer’s creative contribution to the films they shoot. These tools are applied in the thesis to analyse the work of Gregg Toland. Toland’s case typifies the historical neglect of many cinematographers. He is invariably only discussed in terms of his technical contribution, and his authorial contribution to the films he shot is invariably credited to the auteur directors with whom he worked, for example, Welles, Hawks, and Ford. By the use of close textual and image analysis, Toland’s authorial status is established, satisfying all historical and contemporary definitions of a filmic author. The thesis advocates the notion of multiple co-authorship in film and, within this context, provides a methodology for the analysis of one of those co-authors, the cinematographer.

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