Some years back, I worked extremely hard on a short film. I wrote the script, got some actors, shot it and debuted it to my family. Nervously, I would wait for their reaction. My grandmother loved everything I did, my little sister told the truth, but one of my older sister’s had one response. “It didn’t look like a movie.” She could not even fully get into the story because she’s used to seeing films that “look” like movies. That’s what I was going for, but early on, I kept missing the mark. My buddy and I then set on a quest to start making our films “look” like movies, or as many would call it, cinematic. In our quest, we discovered many factors, but the main ones that stood out are the aspects of a shot, the camera settings and post-production.
Start with Composition
Let’s start off with a bang! Composition. This is huge. Where do you put that camera and what is in frame? Study this and study this hard. This is something you can control with even the lowest end of cameras. It’s the photographer or director’s eye. You can not turn this off. Have you ever wanted a stranger to capture a moment and take a picture of you and your friends with your phone? If they don’t have that eye, they just grab the camera and take the pic. You get the picture back and there’s too much headroom or nobody is centered, etc. But, hand that same cameraphone to a professional and you’ll immediately see the difference. They are bending down, searching for the perfect angle. They arrange your friends, closer this way, over that way. They tell you to stand in front of a different background. You see, it doesn’t matter the medium you shoot in, you can still get good composition. How?
With the right composition, colors, lighting, camera settings, VFX, color grading, music and sound, you can achieve that cinematic look.
Well, try to stay away from flat shots, unless super intentional. Give your shot some depth — foreground, middleground and background. We want to get that actor away from just sitting in front of a plain drywall, talking in profile. Physically move around the space, looking for the best and most attractive angles. Ask yourself, “Through what point of view are we looking at this subject?”
Consider the context of the shot. Are we sneaking around? Are we a shooting a teenage couple who have ran off and are sneaking back into the house? Well, maybe we should film between the bushes to give a sneaking feeling. Also ask yourself, if we want to make the figure powerful or weak. Use low or high angles to complement your answer.
“American Gangster,” is a great film for studying composition. One scene in particular, while our characters are at the cafe eating, demonstrates choosing a camera angle based off of point of view. Some angles start from the point of view of another customer. Later on in that scene, it’s revealed that the customer is actually security personnel.
You have to control the eye as well. One way to achieve this is to control depth of field. If everything is in focus, then everything becomes equally important. Be obvious with your focus. Tell the audience, “This is what I want you to look at!” In a commercial spot I did a couple of years ago for ESPN, the son reads an acceptance letter to college. I was worried how I would get this point across. I cheated the depth of field in post and made sure the word “Congratulations” was at optimal focus. Everyone that watches the commercial gets the message, even though there are other words on the paper. Our eyes are drawn to what’s in focus and when something is not, our eyes go back to what is.
It is not enough to shoot whatever colors you want and throw a grade on there. That is not how you achieve the cinematic look. Be particular on what colors you put into the scene. Study! There are no accidents. Watch a film you respect and notice how colors build relationships between the characters and other aspects of the scene. Do the colors make them blend in with the background or pop out? You’ll start to see a pattern of how the characters match the scene. In real life, we don’t always match our surroundings. But in cinema, something looks off when the colors of the character — including hair, eye color, skin tone and clothing — do not match the scene. Also, notice the colors as they relate to the mood of the character and scene.
Study the color wheel. What’s a complement? What’s a split-complement? What’s analogous? One movie that helped me tremendously when it came to studying colors was “Up in the Air.” You don’t even have to watch the whole film to study its use of color. Go to the film’s website and look at stills from the film. Watch the trailers and pause them. For the overall piece, have a color script and make sure your colors have an arc, just like the script. Once you perfect the colors going in, the color grading process goes a lot more smoothly and pushes your film over the top into the cinematic.
It’s always to your advantage to control the lighting as much as possible in order to get a truly cinematic look. Sometimes however, you may not be able to control the light as much as you would like. In the situation, you can still choose angles that use the light you do have to the best of your ability. In a Chevy commercial I directed, we were crunched for time and had to shoot in a barn. The first thing I did was look around at how the light was entering. You can’t fight it; you have to use it to your advantage. In the scene, a man makes a wedding proposal. With this big barn door open and all this light spilling in, we shot the scene in silhouette. I pushed the contrast a little more in post so the classic guy on one knee pose stood out.
In order to be good at any job, you must also be a nerd. Now, some of you may love the camera settings and are already great DPs. That’s awesome. Some of you may love storytelling, but the technical aspects — not so much. But I have news for you. If you love storytelling, you have to find a way to love or at least like the tech stuff. Even if you’re not at the point where you can do it yourself, you still must learn the language so that you are able to communicate it with your team. Do experiments with your camera, learning the different f-stops and ISO settings. Look up your camera and other cameras online. Understand what settings on your camera may give you noise. Know what dynamic range your camera has.
There’s a big difference between the end result and how the image started out. Don’t always go for that perfect look right out of the gate. Give yourself latitude. One way to do this is to shoot flat. Shooting flat protects a lot of information in the color space. That way, you have room when you tweak the colors in post.
What Needs to be Done In Post
When people hear visual effects or VFX, they generally think of major obvious VFX projects like “Transformers” or “Superman,” but one of the hidden gems are invisible effects. These are the effects that when done right, no one will notice. This is also why every frame in a well done Hollywood film appears to be absolutely perfect! That beautiful sunset you see — no, the crew didn’t wait around for it to happen; it’s most likely CGI. CGI is more practical. Think about it. What if it rains that night? What if it’s cloudy? What if it’s just not how you want it? Also, aesthetically, you can get exactly what you are going for. The VFX team replaces the sky with the perfect sunset — whichever one they want — on the computer. VFX also solve issues that may be caused by the camera equipment. Oh, there’s a dolly in the shot? But the dolly was needed to get the angle we wanted. Well, a good VFX team can paint that dolly out in post, or remove a stray boom mic. If you are unable to do some of these effects, start small and build up your skill set. If you can, team up with someone who is great at VFX.
What’s Your Grade
You put the perfect colors into your film as we mentioned before, now, in the color grading software, you can really get it to work. Start with a primary color correction, but don’t just be satisfied with putting a tint over the entire piece. Be specific. Enhance the color script from before. Vignettes are used to control the eye, but they get more intricate than the general circle vignette over the entire frame. If something on the right is drawing the eye away from the subject we want the eye to focus on, strategically place a slight vignette or matte and apply appropriate secondary color corrections. You can also sharpen or defocus to direct the viewers’ eye. Color grading gets as detailed as soloing out and whitening an actors teeth. Again, that is why the images in Hollywood look so perfect.
The Sound and Music
We focused more on the visual side in this piece, but I do want to touch on the all-important sound. Music should be a bonus. Don’t rely on the music to push the story. The story should be strong and come across that way even if the film was on mute. Just because the music is sad, does not mean the audience will feel sad if the visuals don’t go along with it. But when done right, music is the icing on the cake. Hollywood scores its films. A composer arranges the music to the edit. There are a lot of libraries out there with scores, and if done right, these can work, but, these can also be extremely hard to time up to your actions and often times you are editing for the score instead of scoring to the edit. The music has to be just right for the mood. That’s why I suggest finding someone to score your piece. It doesn’t have to be a big orchestra, but if you’re able to create the music while watching the film, the results are amazing.
Sound effects help direct our focus as well, just like the depth of field. If we need to focus on a conversation in a crowded restaurant, then the levels of the background may dim. If there is a slow dance that is getting intimate, again, maybe the background dims and the music builds up. If someone is trying to break-in, maybe the sound of the lock being picked is heightened. Use your everyday life as an example. Pay attention to how you hear sounds and emphasize that in your production.
Putting It All Together
There is a feeling to cinema, and when drawing people into that world, you must capture that feeling. Challenge yourself. Watch movies that fit the genre you are going for and compare your movie side-by-side. Don’t use any excuses. Yes, the blockbuster films may have a lot more money, but the audience doesn’t want to hear that your piece looks amateur because it doesn’t have a big enough budget. All they know is that it doesn’t look like a movie. With the right composition, colors, lighting, camera settings, VFX, color grading, music and sound, you can achieve that cinematic look.
There are some great resources out there that can help you create that cinematic look you are going for. For compositions and camera movements, I recommend Hollywood Camera Works, and for sound effects, http://www.prosoundeffects.com/. A must see for behind the scenes is the “Lord of the Rings” – Blu-Ray special features. For VFX, check out fxguide.com.
JR Strickland is an award-winning director, filmmaker and musician. He specializes in strong, narrative storytelling.