What Makes an Image Look Cinematic to You? Working Cinematographers Share Their Professional Opinions

A widescreen aspect? A certain kind of lighting? Maybe shallow depth of field? What do you think makes for a cinematic look? In this piece from CookeOpticsTV, a few professional cinematographers were asked this very question, and while their answers are not the same, they all provide some thoughtful perspective on the topic, and perhaps agree that it's not just one thing that makes for a cinematic look.

A few of the responses I felt that I most identified with included Philippe Ros, AFC, saying that it comes from a structure, including all of the parameters, starting with the lens. When I started to think about how story played into the look, John-Mark Selva, AFC, made a profound remark by noting that while the story is important, what also matters is how that story is told. The look of the image would seem to play a significant part in how an audience interprets a story, and he goes on to say: 

...what makes it cinematic is when the choices you make, click together with the story.

Another short but poignant statement for what makes a cinematic image came from Michael Snyman, where he said that it’s when a shot is "thought through". Think about that one for a moment. Not just placing a camera on a tripod at eye level and following action in natural light, filming with a wide angle lens, but considering all aspects of what's included in the frame. That could include from what perspective the viewer will see the image, where elements fall in the composition, how camera movement (or absence of it) adds to the mood or direction, the quality of light, color elements, performance, and even costume and set design.

So what do you think? I've seen a lot of videos on YouTube and other blogs talking about crafting a cinematic image through color tone and lighting alone, but I feel there's more to it than that. Share your thoughts below, and see if you can sum up what makes for a cinematic image.

[via nofilmschool]

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3 Comments

Farbod Green's picture

A long time ago I was reading a book about 10 unanswered question. one of them was "is 1+1 always = 2 ?"
the answer depends on how you try to solve the question, mathematically or philosophically. in math 1+1=2 but in the real world it might be different, 1 wolf + 1 rabbit = 1 wolf because the wolf will eat the rabbit. or 1 man + 1 woman = 3 because they will have a child!

so for this question, I think it all depends on how you try to solve it, in term of colors, lighting, aspect ratio and many other factors. personally, I feel the word "Cinematic" is becoming an excuse for people who are not satisfied with what they get. to me there is no such thing as cinematic look because it's not about how it looks visually, it should be cinematic in a way that tells a story, the meaning of an image which is combined with some techniques in color grading and lighting. but the true cinematic style must be represented by the story we tell through a single or multiple frames.

a portrait can not be cinematic unless there are story and environment involved. even in terms of color and lighting, they should match the story and serve it well, there is no rule to say this specific color or lighting makes your image cinematic. understanding how colors behave and how they affect our viewer's emotions is the key to selling the story.

conclusion: Cinematic is not a look, not a technique, not a genre, it's how we tell a story using the right moment and add the colors that will work for the story.

Ahmed Gadou's picture

- I love your comment, this is deep, but I got a deeper comment, lol! well, anyway, a while back I read something about the golden ratio and the way it is described as the most appealing and pleasing composition to look at.
- My input is that, we as human are pre-programmed to admire, like, or love a face that represent the golden ratio, same applies to photographs, drawings, buildings, objects, etc.,
- What I want to highlight is that we are somehow pre-programmed, and somebody managed to analyze it and translated it to what we know as golden ratio..
- Cinema in my opinion is close enough to the golden ratio, and it hits us in the pre-programmed area of how we see, receive, or concede colors and how it drives us towards a specific feeling..
- There is a lot of approaches and theories about colors and how they dramatically affect us, these approaches and theories are revealing secrets about the pre-programmed part of us.

Jon Wolding's picture

I think it depends on what movies you're watching.

But, to provide AN answer... I think "cinematic" mostly means using color/light/focus to subtly isolate your subject within a non-minimalist scene. Then you can add story, grading, grain, and whatever crop (at least 16:9) works best.