We can all agree the word “cinematic” is thrown around a lot. Working as a cinematographer in many indie projects, more than once I had directors come up with a shot and ask “what can we do to make this more cinematic?”. The first few times I heard that question I’m sure they saw my thoughts rebooting behind my eyes. I probably looked puzzled and my mind raced with “what does that even mean?”. After a few hours of shooting I had a solid enough grasp on their style to understand what they wanted when asking for something “more cinematic”. Spoiler alert: it was always a different thing for each director.
I decided to write this short essay because I’m a camera nerd. At its core, “cinematic” means something that is MORE like cinema. It implies something LESS like real life, less banal, less mundane. Through one hundred years of spectacle we have grown used to the sense that films are larger than life. One of the pitfalls of shooting on a budget is your project can look like a home movie. A.k.a. the absolute opposite of cinema. To prove my point: when you read “home movie” in the sentence above, a series of images popped into your mind. You knew exactly what I was talking about, even though I haven’t shown any reference of what I’m calling “cinema” or “home movie”.
VHS is the epitome of home movie. Kicking off from there, digital camera manufacturers had a tremendous uphill battle to fight so their cameras were as far from the VHS look as they could. One of the first advances in that direction was to be able to shoot 24 frames per second. The initial 30fps looked too much like something out of a TV screen and not worthy of a theater screen. At that time, a camera that could shoot 24fps was defined as cinematic (the good old DVX-100b days).
After frame rate came the aspect ratio, from 4:3 to 16:9, then HD resolution, then depth of field adapters that allowed you to use 35mm SLR lenses on the tiny sensor of your handycam (this was a DIY revolution and strongly supported by Jag35, Letus35 and RedRockMicro), always chasing Hollywood looks.
After Canon changed the world with the 5D MkII, introducing video to DSLRs, things started to get dicey. We had a couple of years of “shallow-depth-of-field-above-anything-else”, with everything out of focus because of full frame sensors and wide-open apertures. I see this as a kickback from all those years of struggling to get anything out of focus.
The struggle now was with color and latitude. RAW formats. We saw the birth of the Technicolor Cinestyle profile for Canon, the rise of MagicLantern. There was the popularization of 3D LUTs (or even the term LUT). Stronger than those things, it was the rise of Sony and mirrorless cameras. Mirrorless allowed us to use any glass we desired. Sony still has a much-to-be-desired color science but they did a much better job than Canon in keeping up with what the market wanted. 4K, slow motion, adjustable crops, more latitude, insane ISO/noise ratio, all of that in a package that’s just under $2000.
Panasonic users, I know Panny has been listening to us and doing excellent work, but Sony still leads the market by a lot so I’m using Sony for the sake of an example.
We got to a point that we can stack footage from an Arri Alexa (over $80k) and a Panasonic GH5 (under $2K) side by side and have a hard time telling them apart, so the difference between making a home movie and something cinematic is not limited by the gear as it was twenty years ago. Now it comes to framing, lighting, blocking, movement. Those are all creative decisions.
Making something “more cinematic” encompasses a wide gamut of possibilities and none of them have objective reaons. You could make the light more contrasting, push for a longer or wider lens. Add some out-of-focus foreground element, throw in a lens flare or some anamorphic bokeh. Crop the top and bottom of your frame, rearrange your actors on the set and so on, forever.
After a lot of of trial and error I was able to crack the code. “How do we make this shot more cinematic?” tends to mean “how can we boost production value in this shot?”, and luckily for most of us, production value does not always have to do with actual money. There are different ways to shoot things that will make it look more expensive – and more expensive means more Hollywood.
Still a challenging question but now I feel we have a better idea of how to handle it. On a recent discussion about the meaning of “cinematic” a friend said that you are doing it right when “you can insert your footage into a reel of movie highlights and not stand out“. It’s a pretty tough statement, but ultimately I believe he’s right. If your budget-limited shots can blend with unlimited-budget footage, you are doing it right.
The recipe for it is to keep trying – over and over. I still shoot a lot of things that I am looking through the viewfinder and thinking “this could be better” but I don’t quite know how I could improve it. Sometimes I will fix it between takes (refine a light placement, find a better framing), other times I just move on and try to finesse the next shot. We still have to make it to the end of the day, right? A limited budget also means that you can’t spend too much time in each shot.
It is by working fast and working a lot, with a lot of people, that our library of tricks expands. From that experience we can source solutions to make things more and more cinematic even though the budget is biting our ankles. The tips below aim to improve your time and the look of the footage. After all, the more time you save in frivolous tasks, it’s more time you’ll have to refine those tricky shots.
Pick the time of the day you’re shooting each exterior. Go to the location ahead of the shooting days and check if the Sun is behaving as expected. Check if there’s no new buildings blocking your beautiful magic hour. Stop down your lens, even if that costs you a bit of noise. It’s easier to get a little extra noise out than to get a shot focused in post.
Exercise, be flexible. I do a lot of handheld and if I’m not comfortable in weird positions, I’ll be dead before the end of the day. Set up all of your gear the day before the shoot. Have your rig as ready-to-go as possible. Getting camera up and running first thing in the day helps the director immensely. There’s nothing more frustrating for the entire team than waiting on a camera glitch of missing piece.
Now go and be “cinematic”. Increase your production value. Add more to the film than what you’re charging as your rate and people will always come back to you.
Lastly, just to mix things up a bit: remember when we agreed “home movie” was to be avoided at all costs? Well, that is not entirely true. I wrote an article on diegetic cinematography that talks exactly about big budget films trying to simulate a spontaneous and careless style of shooting. Oddly enough, they are still pretty cinematic.