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Sunday, October 23, 2011

Creating the ‘Cinematic Look’ Process

Making something look cinematic requires more than simply shooting footage with a film camera, but it actually doesn’t require a huge amount of effort or money.

In fact, the cinematic look can be recreated relatively easily once you are aware of what something ‘cinematic’ actually is (See my previous posting “Inspirational Cinematic Photography” for more)!

The key elements to a ‘cinematic’ image are as follows:

  1. Shoot 24p using the 180° Shutter Rule
  2. Shot Framing
  3. Lighting
  4. Depth of Field
  5. Grading

Let’s look at each one a little closer.

1: Shoot 24p using 180° Shutter Rule: What the hell does this mean? Well, you should shoot at the speed that cinema films are shot at, which is 24 frames per second (actually 23.976 frames per second). ‘24p’ means 24 frames per second progressively. You should use this frame rate as opposed to ‘24i’, which means 24 frames per second interlaced. Interlacing means that the picture contains two fields, which doesn’t look nice and is synonymous with the ‘DV look’ (not nice). The simple point is that you should aim to shoot at 24p because that is what looks most cinematic.

The 180° Shutter rule is an even more complicated thing to explain and you can find lots useful resources on the web explaining it with diagrams and stuff. They describe how you should use a shutter speed of twice your frames per second.

For mere mortals like you and me (you are mortal, aren’t you?) this really means that when shooting footage at 24p you should set your shutter speed to 1/48 of a second – or as close as, which is normally 1/50 of a second on DSLR’s.

When shooting slow motion footage at 60 frames per second (FPS) on your DSLR you should use a shutter speed of 1/120th of a second.

If you have a camera that shoots at, say, 100 fps then you would shoot at 1/200th of a second. Just double your FPS speed to get your shutter speed.

So, shoot at 24fps and use a shutter speed of 1/48 of a second (or 1/50th is that is the closest setting you can get on your camera). It’s best to stick to this rule and not think too much about it. It works and that’s what matters.

2: Shot Framing: The single most important aspect of a cinematic image is how the shot is framed. If you want to make something that looks more like something you’d watch in a cinema you need to make sure that what appears in your frame doesn’t look like your granny’s holiday snaps from last year.

Try not to put your main point of interest in the centre of the frame. Use the rule of thirds and try to have your main point of interest located where any of the vertical and horizontal lines converge.

Only put your main point of interest dead centre by stylistic choice or for impact.

When composing your shot, make sure that the viewer’s eyes are not distracted by unimportant details. Aim for a clean frame where nothing gets in the way of the viewer understanding what’s going on in the shot, for instance if a background is too busy blur it out with a shallow depth of field (see ‘4: Depth of Field’ for more).

Vary your angles. Don’t shoot everything from the same viewpoint (unless this is a stylistic choice for impact). If you are filming a dog or a kid, get the camera down at their level. If you are filming a vast expanse of land, get the camera up high to get a vantage point.

(See my previous posting on “Where to Put the Camera” for a discussion on camera placement)

3: Lighting: A cinematic image looks lush and moody. To create this lush and moody look does not require a huge lighting set-up. Actually less is more. Filming a character lit by a single practical lamp while leaving the rest of the room in shadow instantly adds production value. Good lighting is less lighting. Shadows are your friends. Use lighting to direct attention to your main point of interest.

Use backlighting to create silhouettes.

Expose correctly. Leave some information in the shadows, avoid blown out highlights like the plague. And remember, the image you get in camera just needs to have an adequate range of exposure; you can do all sorts of tricks in grading to make your blacks really black or add tints and filters and make countless other adjustments.

4: Depth of Field: The depth of field defines the area of focus in your image. Being able to control what is or isn’t in focus has a huge impact on cinematic style and emotional connection to the subject matter/character.

A wide depth of field means that the vast majority of your image will be in focus. This is useful when trying to show a wide vista (a landscape or cityscape, for example) where you need to ensure that everything is in focus. F-stops of f.8 or more makes the camera lens’ iris smaller and ensures more of the image is in focus.

A shallow depth of field means that only a very selective area will be in focus while the rest of the image will be blurry. This is used to separate the foreground from the background for instance and is an essential tool when filming people during dialogue sequences so as to make sure that the viewer is focused on the actors and not distracted by something in the background. An F-stop of 5.6 or less allows this look.

The background takes on a blurry pattern that is called ‘Bokeh’. Different lens produce different types of Bokeh effects; some create more circular blobby patterns of light, while other’s make more hexagonal-style blobs.

Using a shallow depth of field is something craved for by independent low budget filmmakers for years in order to simulate the ‘cinematic look’. Before affordable digital SLR camera’s the shallow depth of field look was out of reach unless you were willing to splash out on a much more expensive camera.

But even if you only have access to a regular video camera you can still ‘cheat’ this shallow depth of field (or ‘blurry background’) look by zooming in as much as possible while positioning your camera further away from your subject. This makes the background more soft and is a way to get a less impressive, but still effective, shallow look.

5: Grading: No matter how well you light and expose your footage in production, when it comes time to assemble it all in the edit you will notice that, colour-wise, it wont look very impressive.

But don’t fret: this is where grading your images comes along to make everything look just like you imagined it should! Grading is basically adjusting the hue, saturation and contrast of your footage so that first it matches and then secondly it allows you to create a ‘look’ that defines your cinematic style.

A great way to practice grading is by opening a still picture in any basic image editor (IrfanView, for instance) and going to the menus and selecting ‘Image’, then scrolling down to ‘Enhance Colors’. This will give you options for adjusting brightness; the colour balance of the Red, Green and Blue channels separately; Contrast, Gamma Correction; and Saturation. A few subtle tweaks of the RGB values and the Contrast will have a massive impact on your image.

Increasing contrast, then increasing the Red and reducing the Blue values makes the image appear ‘warmer’.

Increasing the contrast, then reducing the Red value and increasing the Blue makes it ‘cooler.

Try it!

This is basically what you’d be doing in After Effects (or whatever editing/colour correction software you are using) in order to make your images come alive.

Stu Maschwitz’s book The DV Rebel’s Guide has a step-by-step process guide to colour correction that lays out in simple English how to go about turning an average looking shot into something truly cinematic.

Basically you need to firstly ensure that all your clips match. This means giving a general colour correction to your footage so that all the shots seem to be part of the same whole – and this is why it’s important to ensure when you are shooting footage that you get a good, clean exposure and not set out to complete a look in camera. The computer is where you should be fiddling with the look.

After making sure that all your clips match up well, you then move on to the creative stage: giving the footage ‘the look’. When you think of a Tony Scott movie you immediately think of over saturation and high contrast – this is his ‘look’. That’s just one example, go find yours.

When all these five elements are put together you are well on the way to getting the true cinematic look.

Of course none of this matters a bit if you have a crap script, awful sound and poor acting, but people judge things on first glance visually and ensuring that your film can compete in cinematic quality terms with the other films out there will prevent it looking amateurish and cheap.

These five points will instantly add production value to your work and without a huge deal of effort or stress. Ignoring them would be a futile waste considering how they require relatively little effort.

- Shane

(Images taken from All images copyright of respective owners)

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