"Cinematic" might be one of the most overused, yet completely misunderstood words in the filmmaking canon.
For some, saying something is cinematic could just be reference to shallow depth of field. For others, it has to do with framing and composition.
For others still, cinematic might refer to lighting, camera movement, or the way a film is graded. Essentially, "cinematic" has become a catch-all term for various aspects of films that we find aesthetically-pleasing.
However, there's a definition of the word that might actually help us understand how we can make our own films more cinematic.
Of, relating to, suggestive of, or suitable for motion pictures or the filming of motion pictures.
Boiled down, "cinematic" simply means making your films look like other films. It follows, therefore, that if you want your film to look cinematic, you need to emulate the aesthetic characteristics of films that have successfully done what you're trying to do.
That might seem like a daunting proposition. If you're trying to emulate the aesthetics of a Michael Bay film, you're in for a tough ride unless you've got steadfast source of funding and a world class VFX team.
However, if you're more interested in making small scale films and telling honest human stories, getting a cinematic look doesn't have to be expensive or complicated.
In a recent video from Simon Cade — who is hands down one of my favorite educational voices in the filmmaking sphere these days — he breaks down the ways in which we can achieve cinematic video with nothing more than an inexpensive camera and a video mic.
No artificial lights. No fancy lenses. No wild camera movements. Just the fundamentals of capturing images with character. Check it out.
In the end, Simon's video boils down to this:
What you put in front of the camera is far more important than any piece of gear that you use.
The vast majority of the emotion in a film comes from the story and the characters. This, of course, means that if you don't start with a compelling script, you're doomed from the start.
However, once the story, characters, and emotions are in good working order, crafty filmmakers use every last visual and auditory element at their disposal to try and enhance those emotions.
For starters, it's essential that you find locations that support what you're trying to say. Then you can focus in on the details, capturing them in ways that enhance the mood and tone you're conveying.
Here's the video Simon created where he puts that principle into practice.
This is where all of those wayward definitions of cinematic come back into play.
When you can manipulate depth of field to strengthen the emotionality of a moment, you enhance the audience's experience. The same goes for production design, composition, camera movement, lighting, sound design, music, and color.
If there's one takeaway here, it's that you shouldn't chase cinematic video just for the sake of having cinematic video. Great looking images are fine, but when you tie them to your story, characters, and the subsequent emotions, you win at the game of filmmaking.
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