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"Cinematic": your point of view on this word


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Hallo guys,


we all are here thanks to our passion for film making: the DSLR "revolution" started few years ago permitted us to shot in a way that 10 years ago was simply unimaginable.

We all (or at least, most of us) are after a "cinematic" look for our videos, but what does really looks  "cinematic"?

I ask you, because it seems that some point seems to be obvious for all, but at the end of the day a lot of different way to work are possible and I'd like to know your point of view and, the way to obtain that :)

For a while an extreme "shallow depth of field" was the most obvious cinematic sign, then after the 5D MkII and III fever ended, all people started to think that "extreme shallow" was too 2009's.

Just few years ago "Orange and teal" grading and crushed black were other signs, now it seems that "washed out" look and "milky black" are the right trend (how do you shot to achieve that great look???).


Some people complains about the sharpness, other about the softness of a camera and/or of a lens.
For one "steady" and "fluid" it is cinematic, for another it is "handheld".

In order to simplify I leave out scripting, dialogues, soundtrack etc... and I just ask you about images.


When I see a movie I can easily say "It's cinematic", but when I have to shot, it's always difficult to plan how to shot in order to have a real cinema-like result and that's why I ask your opinions.


I try to write down some of my point:


1) Shallow DOF

2) Dynamic Range

3) Composition (framing etc...)

4) Color Grading 

5) Montage 
6) Lighting (3 points, chiaroscuro, natural, practical...)
7) Analog, creamy - but still sharp - images
8) Camera movements 

9) Location / Set design / Costumes 
10) Aspect ratio (2,35:1, 2,66:1 etc...)
11) 24 fps or 25 fps? 
12) 180° shutter


Of course there are too many great movies with as many different looks, but each of them is clearly a "movie" for everyone. 
I know "rules" of classical framing and lighting, but more then often 3 points light scheme is not "cinematic" (I use it for interviews, but I prefer "chiaroscuro"), too many times the location is not perfect and frequently the images are not "sharpy-creamy", but just sharp, even if I shot flat with vintage lenses on my GH4.

So, what is "cinematic" for you and how do you achieve those film-like images? :)

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My belief is that if you have a great story that's well written with great performers and if your tech is good enough to do the trick and not distract or get in the way, then you have cinema (regardless of where it is playing - TV, internet, theater). If you do those things right people will get engrossed in the film and all the other things don't really matter. Of course, we all have our preferences of what cinema should look or feel like, but that is very subjective. I could give you mine, but would that really get us anywhere? Make your films look and feel the way you think they should. But don't forget story, script, performance, tech.... and in that order. My $.02.

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It's like the infamous explanation of pornography from a 20th century U.S. Supreme Court Judge, "(It's) hard to define, but I know it when I see it."


When it comes to good cinematography, I say it's an overall quality that is a sum of all it's parts.  It doesn't have to have DOF or great lighting, but if it artistically defines and supports the story, then it's happening.

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A lot of the time when I think "cinematic" I think muted colours and contrasty tones. I guess you could say Saving Private Ryan is my benchmark. But it's really all about context. There's a lot of aerial shots in LOTR that I find very cinematic. Yet the same type of shots in The Hobbit I find to be less so. I guess it's because the latter is a more silly movie and of course LOTR had more original orchestral music.


I'm not sure how much grading helps either. Things like changing the overall look to be more teal or orange is very cliche now. Sometimes grading does make a dramatic difference to how something is perceived. Such as 58 secs into this video the mushy artificially lit scene ends up getting a properly cinematic spy drama look. But most of the time it really is simply about composition and lighting. The Sony a7s can see in the dark, but it still can't save a poorly lit scene. If light isnt hitting your subject or background in the right way, then there's nothing to draw the viewers eyes into.


Probably the best way to get a cinematic image is to think in terms of caravaggio or chiaroscuro.

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I think what people are saying above is accurate, it's a word that gets used a lot, and the meanings of it change quite quickly within the videography community. I think it's constantly used as a kind of gold standard that video has to aspire to, but which is always out of reach (JJ Abrams said something along these lines when justifying his decision to use film to shoot Star Wars 7, rather than video like the prequels). In other words, it means "not video", but the question of what is "not video" shifts all the time as video changes.


One example: I remember in the days of the HV20, which was just before the DSLR video revolution broke, people were really hung up on shallow depth of field, in part I think because it was very expensive and cumbersome to achieve with a small-sensor camcorder. People would attach their HV20s, upside-down, to a "depth of field adaptor" with a focal plane that needed to vibrate in case a speck of dust landed on it, and get a razor thin DoF that was a nightmare to focus. 


Then, as soon as large sensor video became readily available with DSLRS and mirrorless, videographers got less fixated on shallow DoF. This is good, as "cinema" shouldn't be stereotyped by one aesthetic, as it covers an enormous number of styles and practices. Citizen Kane is frequently voted the best film of all time, and what is it famous for, cinematographically speaking? It's incredibly DEEP depth-of-field. So deep in fact, that some shots are actually trick shots made with back-projection:




Nowadays, Kane DP Toland could just use a GoPro...  :P

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My interpretation of "cinematic image" is that it means different things to different people.

All the things you listed could be considered a part of cinematic image for some.


My own take on it: Watch different films from all kinds of different styles. Try to analyze and find out what parts you like in different films: composition, lighting, color grading, camera movements etc. Then you can focus on the part of the image that is important to you yourself.


Myself - I love the different framing you can get at 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and the look of anamorphic lenses. I like color grades that are not too extreme. Having grown up with television being PAL at 25 fps, and seeing films at 24fps - I only have one association that springs to mind when I see 30 fps footage - and that is cheesy soap operas like The Bold and The Beautiful - so yeah, frame rate and shutter angle are important :) Other than that it's all composition that gets me going.

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well it can mean just about anything that doenst look like video shot at f16


While it might not be ALL there is I think it is a big part of it.


To me, (though I don't think I can shoot "cinematic" yet to save my life), it means ADEQUATE depth of field for the situation and ADEQUATE lighting and dynamic range.


As for colour grading, well that can be done in camera in many instances so not such an issue for a "cinematic" look.

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I'm gonna go with a more general statement because I think once you define something too clearly, you start to lose your creativity, but in general, I think a viewer's state of mind is what defines "cinematic": If you know you're being told a story and your mental state is that of understanding you are watching a facsimile of reality, then I think it could be considered cinematic.

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So do you think 25fps could be ok?

And how to achieve a "creamy" look in grading?

For your opinion is it a matter of exposing "for lights"?  
How would you grade highlights, midtones and shadows to have a look like "Dallas Buyers Club" (wich I adore) or a more colored one like "American Hustle"? :)


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