As independent filmmakers, we’re always chasing the elusive “cinematic look”. The ultimate goal is usually to increase production value and produce content that resembles higher end feature films, even when shooting on a tight budget. More often than not, filmmakers look to the technical facets of production (camera settings, recording formats, lighting science, etc.) as a means to achieve a more cinematic look and feel. But more often than not it’s the creative choices, not the technical ones, that make all the difference.
For the record, I am all for taking advantage of technical knowledge and tools to increase your production value. I’ve written many articles on how to achieve the cinematic look when shooting digitally, most of which deal with technical considerations – usually in the lighting, camera, or color departments. But in order for a film project to feel truly cinematic, it needs to offer the viewer more than just a cinematic “look”. It needs to evoke a certain mood or emotion for the audience on a subtextual level, that can only truly be crafted through careful creative decisions. The technical facets should simply there to elevate an existing creative intention.
With that in mind, below are some of the key creative considerations to take account account when working on your next film:
I’ve seen countless independent films that are shot beautifully, but are ultimately covered in a way that looks more like a 90’s era sitcom than a feature film. Unfortunately this type of generic approach can have a detrimental effect on the viewing experience, and can take away from the originality of the film as a whole.
Coverage of course refers to the way you choose to shoot your scene during production – including how many angles are covered, and how much of the scene is shot from each angle. Many film schools teach students a very standard type of coverage, where a master shot captures the whole scene, and then close ups on each of the actors capture their dialogue or reaction shots. This is a fairly basic approach that may work well sometimes, but in many instances won’t afford the filmmaker the ability to express their scene in the most interesting way possible. This can be a wasted opportunity as unique scene coverage is one of the most effective ways to make your film more captivating, and in turn more “cinematic”.
For instance – instead of shooting a scene at a dinner table with a wide master shot and closeup single shots on each actor, imagine shooting it all in a single take. The camera could roam from one character to another as they each speak, or it could just hold on one of the characters, leaving everyone else off screen. Both options would tell the audience something entirely different about that scene.
Using the same basic scene example from above, you could also opt shoot a ton of coverage for the scene, capturing loads of tiny detail shots – the cutlery, food being chewed, lightbulbs buzzing, etc. in addition to extreme closeups on the actors. This would give you the ability in the editing room to create a very frenetic tone.
There are literally endless options when it comes to covering your scene, so don’t always feel like you need to default to the same traditional wide-shot/close up coverage every single time. There are going to be scenarios where standard coverage may be the best choice… But more often than not you will be better served by really identifying the heart of your scene, and then building your coverage around it.
Locations & Art Department
It’s not uncommon for filmmakers to spend an inordinate amount of time on camera & lighting prep, while focusing very little time on locations, art direction, and set design. This type of lopsided approach can lead to productions that look pretty good from a technical side, but are visually uninspiring in other respects.
During pre-production, a finite amount of time is available and must be balanced between many elements – casting, crewing, location scouting, wardrobe, camera prep, script revisions, and so on. The more time that is spent on any one area, the less is left over for another. If you focus too heavily on one area (usually the camera department), you are going to miss out on opportunities to develop a unique visual style for your film in other ways – most commonly with your location/art department choices.
Personally, I would rather shoot on a DSLR in a gorgeous location with beautiful production design, than shoot on an Alexa in a location that is just not right for the film. Don’t fall into the trap that so many filmmakers do, of obsessing over your camera/lens package and not looking at the bigger picture. I’ve made this mistake before and have regretted it deeply!
Assuming you are the director of your project, you are responsible for the mood and tone being conveyed to the audience. The locations that you choose and the production design associated with those locations are absolutely crucial to the world you are creating. At the end of the day, these choices will add a tremendous amount of value to your production that simply can not be made up for in any other way, so always prioritize them – even if it means cutting budget from your camera department or other areas.
Creating A Visual Language
Great films are able to express a distinct visual language, identifiable motifs, or other aesthetic properties that make for an extremely unique viewing experience. These visual cues are most often derived from the theme or moral center of the story, and serve as a constant, subtle reminder to the viewer of the underlying message behind the film. Sometimes, rules are even set up before filming that might dictate how shots are framed, what focal lengths are used, and how camera movement is treated.
For instance, a dramatic film dealing with a character who feels isolated from society will have a very different visual language than a comedic film centered around an ensemble cast of a group of friends. In the former example, a director might decide to always shoot the isolated lead character in a single shot (no two shots or group shots), visually separating them from the other characters, who might be framed up together. The decision could also be made to frame certain shots with a lot of headroom or negative space to make the lead character feel very small.
These are just a couple of simple examples, and there are no hard and fast rules in terms of developing a visual style that might guide your film. You might choose to shoot everything on a single lens, or you might decide that all camera movement must be limited to dolly moves. Possibly you decide to light your protagonist in a different way than the rest of the cast, or you choose to shoot all of your closeups with wide angle lenses….
No matter what decisions you make, always make sure that they are in the best interest of the story’s moral center. Don’t simply make decisions because they may be convenient or help your movie look “better”. Instead, root them in your story’s thematic premise, allowing the viewer to connect with your film on a subtextual level.
Not all discussion of the cinematic look needs to refer to production. A lot can be done in the post suite to elevate the cinematic qualities of your film – and I’m not just referring to color grading. As an aside, color grading is an excellent way to further enhance the visual style of your film, but for the purpose of this post I want to focus on picture editing.
Assuming you are working on a film that has been shot with a reasonable amount of coverage, you have the ability to completely re-shape the tone of any given scene in the editing room. This is both a blessing and a curse. Many filmmakers feel the need to use as much of their footage as possible in the edit, simply because it was shot or because it looks good. In most cases though, a more restrained and purposeful approach to the edit will serve the film best.
Imagine you’re editing a scene where Character A enters a room to talk to Character B, who looks upset and is staring out a window. If you had shot a lot of coverage, you might choose to do the obvious in the editing room – start with the wide shot of Character A walking in, and then cut to closeups of Character A and B once their dialogue starts. This might work out okay… But what if you were to do the opposite? What if you start the scene on a closeup of Character B, and held there for a very long time. You might only break away to the wide shot halfway through the conversation between the two characters, during an intense moment. This would be a less traditional and less expected choice, and perhaps one that is more meaningful to the scene.
This is of course just a theoretical example, but the point is you should always be looking for ways to re-work your scene in the editing room. There are times when a more conventional approach to editing your scene might work best, but never feel like you need to use every single piece of coverage you have in the edit. Doing so may lead you to cut a scene in a more generic way that is far less powerful and not as specific to your story.
Creative Sound Design
While this post is all about the cinematic “look”, there is arguably no better way to enhance the visual perception of a film than by coupling it with powerful sound design.
Many filmmakers think of the sound design process as primarily technical, and in many respects it can be. That said, sound design (and music) will affect the mood of your viewer more than almost anything else, which is why it always needs to be taken into account very early on in the creative process. It should never be an afterthought.
Great sound design starts in pre-production. A director with a strong vision for his or her film will have a very solid idea of how they are going to approach sound in post very early on. Take a film like Whiplash as an obvious example. The film’s approach to sound was so strong that it earned the film an Oscar for sound editing, and much of it’s success in the sound department can be traced back to the script – where crucial sound design choices were literally written into the screenplay. An intense description of how the sound would be integrated into the film was present from development and pre-production onwards, and it ultimately it served to create an auditory experience that elevated the execution of the story tremendously.
Whiplash is of course a unique example in that it takes place in the world of music, so naturally a heavy emphasis was placed on sound. With that in mind though, we can all learn something from this level of attention to detail, and we should all be looking for ways to create original soundscapes that are relevant to our stories and themes, in order to heighten the viewing experience as a whole.
There are countless ways to make your film look and feel more “cinematic”. Many are technical, but just as many as creative, and it’s the harmonious marriage between both the creative intention and the technical execution that will make your project feel more filmic, or cinematic – whatever that may mean to you personally…
It’s always important to start your process with creative decisions, not technical ones. Your first step should be identifying the theme or moral center of your story. From there, ask yourself some important creative questions with regards to your visual, editorial, and sound choices that may further enhance or at the very least support your thematic premise. From there, you can move to the technical-side, and ensure that any technical decisions that are made are in full support of the creative choices already in place.