European vs American Cinematography: What Are The Major Differences?

Hollywood is the dominant movie-making force worldwide, not just in terms of its impact on the art of movie-making but also with regards to the way that it spreads American culture to far-flung parts of the world.

Most movie goers and lovers will see a clear distinct difference between American films and their European counterparts in a number of ways, from the kinds of stories that are told to the size of the budgets that are available to directors. But when it comes to the cinematography of movies made on opposite sides of the Atlantic, there are three primary differences.

Idealism vs Realism

It is worth noting that there are no unbreakable boundaries between American and European cinematography; like all global art forms, influences from one are apparent in the other and vice versa.

However, in general terms there is definitely a difference in the way that Hollywood portrays life onscreen compared with the stalwarts of European film-making.

From the early age of Hollywood’s ascent, to the modern era of CGI-fueled blockbusters, much of the cinematographic style of American films has relied on artificial lighting to give the onscreen image a kind of idealized, hyper-real quality.

Conversely the more naturalistic associated with many European movies comes from the choice, whether artistic or budgetary, to use ambient lighting from natural sources. Imagine the difference between a physical casino or Las Vegas atmosphere and an online casino – that’s where you’ll have an idea of how this difference reveals itself. Bright vivid environment v/s functional elements. In other words Idealism v/s Realism.

  • Idealism: a conception of things as they should be, or as one would wish them to be, with a tendency to be imaginary or visionary.
  • Realism: a conception of things as they are, regardless of how one wants them to be, with a tendency to be practical and pragmatic.

That is not to say that Hollywood is without movies which are more European in their approach; the likes of The Revenant and The Witch are high profile examples of this. However, the vast majority of American movie output will look notably different because of lighting choices made by cinematographers.

Saturation vs Accuracy

An offshoot of the differences in lighting arises from the approaches European and American cinematographers take to color.

In the case of big budget movies, there is a sense in recent years that color palettes in Hollywood have converged on a single agreed-upon standard. The trend for orange and teal to dominate, as a result of digital color grading emerging as a post production tool of choice, is derided by some and outright denied as a reality by others.

Shooting films digitally is of course commonplace in Europe as well, but it is the choices made after the cameras have stopped rolling that still strike a divide, especially outside of tent pole titles designed for wide audiences.

Of course there is a degree to which the work of cinematographers across all continents can now be superseded by directors or executives during post-production because of this shift towards digital. It seems that this is less prevalent as an issue in Europe than the US.

Enormous Scale vs Focusing On Details

For much of the history of Hollywood, the American landscape has been one of the main stars in many films across different genres. From the towering spires of Monument Valley in a hundred different westerns, to the frozen landscapes of films like Fargo and Wind River, the North American continent has arguably compelled the creation of specific cinematographic formats to help capture it in all of its enormity.

From the early days of widescreen achieved with CinemaScope to the modern reign of IMAX as the format of choice for directors and cinematographers who want to wow audiences, scale has been integral to the clout that Hollywood packs.

European cinema has its big-impact moments, of course, but tends to be more interested in the minutiae of life, rather than always opting for the bigger picture.

Thankfully anyone who is interested in exploring these differences can easily access thousands of American and European movies online and see for themselves.

Jonathan Roel

Jonathan Roel is a graphic designer for PI Media, a marketing agency in Dallas, TX. In his spare time, he is also a videographer and photographer.