Ever since video went digital, there has been an elusive search for the filmic look. What are the elements of a cinematic image? Many people think it’s just a matter of getting the latest and greatest camera and shooting at 24 frames per second, and BAM!, instant film look. Nothing could be further from the truth
Many elements go into making an image look cinematic, the least of which is the camera. That’s where “The LLC of Filmmaking” comes in.
The first element in getting a film like or cinematic look is lighting. It doesn’t need to be overly complicated either. It can simply be a matter of choosing what time of day and what direction to shoot, if you are shooting outside. “Magic hour” refers to the time of day when the natural sunlight is at its most flattering. There is roughly an hour before sunset and an hour after sunrise where the sun is at the best angle and has a flattering color temperature to shoot beautiful images. It varies based on geographic location and some places can have magic hour, literally, all day. Magic hour occurs when the sun is lower in the sky, close to the horizon. The sun rays have to go through more atmosphere when it’s at an angle, as opposed to mid day when it is overhead. The thicker atmosphere acts as diffusion which softens the light making it more flattering for portraits and landscapes. The color temperature of the light takes on a warmer look as well.
When shooting interior scenes that are scripted and staged, taking time to set lighting is an often overlooked element of achieving a cinematic look. That look has changed over the years but what has stayed the same is to light a scene with intent. Cinematography differs from videography in that the cinematographer strives to create the image, rather than simply documenting an event that happens. Hours of setup time go into shots that sometimes are over in less than an hour.
The second “L” in The LLC of Filmmaking is choosing a great lens. How it reproduces the image and the qualities of the image projected onto the sensor or film plane is what can make the difference in an average image versus a cinematic image. Those small differences come at a price though. All lenses have their own characteristics, just as film stocks and image sensors do. Finding the qualities of a lens that appeals to you is a personal process and comes with experience. Certain brands have an aura of mystique about them such as the “Cooke look” associated with Cooke lenses. It’s a mixture of how the lenses render skin tones, contrast and color, as well as focus sharpness and background bokeh. The sharpest lens is not always the best choice for a cinematic look. In fact, overly sharp lenses can look sterile or clinical. All lenses tend to have their own way of handling sharpness, contrast, color, and bokeh. Now that DSLRs give one the ability to shoot with a large sensor and fast, interchangeable lenses, it’s easy to achieve very shallow depth of field motion pictures at a price that is no longer prohibitive to all but studios and large production companies. That look is one element that has become associated with a cinematic look. Bokeh is the out of focus area in the foreground and background of the image. Many budding filmmakers mistakenly think that using the fastest lens with the lowest T-stop to get the shallowest depth of field, will automatically give them a cinematic image. They tend to over use it. In some ways, it has become the scarlet letter of a novice.
Another element of a cinematic look is the use of prime lenses over zoom lenses. Most of the lenses I use are prime, or fixed focal length, lenses. I have a couple of zooms but they are manual zooms and I tend to use them as basically an “adjustable prime”. I was recently on a feature film shoot as a B and C camera operator. The camera I used had a Angenieux Optimo 24-290mm T2.8 Zoom. That’s an INCREDIBLE range and the technical engineering and precision involved in producing a lens of that calibre is what makes just the lens alone cost $87,000. The DP of the film instructed me not to worry about capturing any zooms, they wouldn’t be used, just get to the focal length I wanted and shoot it.
Achieving a cinematic image also relies heavily on composition. There are numerous rules and guidelines for proper composition that make an image more pleasing to our eyes (read, brain) and there is composition associated with cinematography that has become part of the language of cinema. Usually the two are connected with each other, but not always. Sometimes composition of an image is used to intentionally make the viewer uncomfortable or to give a perspective that is not normally associated with everyday videography or portraiture.
Lens selection has a huge effect on how an image is composed. It’s quite easy to opt for a long focal length, tight close up, shallow depth of field shot, make sure the talent is facing the correct direction and skip detailed art direction. But a widely used focal length in cinema production is 28mm. Not too common in every day portraiture, narrow enough to get mediums and good two shots, but wide enough that deliberate art direction, lighting and composition are important. Also, considering that the most common aperture range is between T4 and T8, the image is going to have a pretty deep depth of field with everything in focus. How the shot is composed is what’s most important to directing the viewer’s eye to the focal point of the shot.
Color grading is also crucial to getting a cinematic image, but, the acronym that came to me when writing this piece only had one “C”. Ha!
It’s been said that “Cameras are for Christmas…lenses are for a lifetime”. The technology behind state of the art digital film production is always changing, and it’s fascinating to keep up with. I love it. I’m a gear head and camera nerd. It’s always fun to try the newest cameras at trade shows or work on films with budgets large enough to afford them. But the physics and science behind optics and light refraction doesn’t change. Implementing those physics and the science into a lens is expensive, but the investment is worth it in the long haul.