Taking inspiration from cinema can lead to evocative images that also strike a nostalgic chord with movie lovers. Take full advantage of that power to create cinematic photographs that will charm viewers.
Few art forms are capable of entrancing viewers quite like the cinema. With budgets that can run into the hundreds of millions and huge teams of professionals, it’s no wonder that every aspect is crafted perfectly to manipulate emotion and create a sense of place. Taking inspiration from movies can give photographers additional tools to create striking, emotionally powerful images with a strong sense of narrative.
Cosplay photography is an ideal genre to make the most of this technique since the characters have their roots in movies, cartoons, TV shows, and comics. Rather than taking a traditional portrait, which carries with it the impression of a subject in costume, creating a cinematic portrait allows the subject to be in character and the viewer to connect with their previous experience of the character through movies, cartoons, etc.
If you’re interested in creating cinematically themed photographs, here are the main things to consider:
Before you begin, read the comics or books, watch the movies, find out as much as you reasonably can about the character. The more you know, the more believable the result will be, and your knowledge will influence how you approach the items I’ve outlined below. If you try to give Indiana Jones a bright, pastel color palette, you’ll create a mental disconnect between the character and what the viewer expects. While that might make for cool art, it misses the point of this kind of image. The bottom line is this: know the character, understand their world, pay attention to the style of the created work so that your final image is clearly influenced by what the fans have come to love in the first place.
For a cinematic image to speak to the viewer, it must have something to say. Narrative is arguably the most important aspect of creating such because the world of cinema is pure storytelling. To make a believable photo, you must build a storyline, and then design your shots around that story. It doesn’t have to be anything complex; something as simple as “running from the bad guys while trying to save the artifact” can work. Whether you choose to create a simple or complex narrative, that story will build how you design the shoot from makeup choices to props and lighting. Everything that comes next will be influenced by your narrative choices.
Location is one of the most important aspects of creating a cinematic portrait. For a cinematic image to be effective, it must do the same thing a movie does: cause the viewer to suspend disbelief. Location is a key part of this, because it places the character in a situation suitable to the narrative of the image. In the case of cosplay, it also ties into what the viewer of the image expects to see.
In this series shot for this article, the subject is cosplaying Indiana Jones, and the location needed to fit with who the character is as well as what the audience would expect of such a well-known canon.
When choosing a location for your cinematic portrait consider the character, the previous material available, and what kind of location makes narrative sense.
In the case of a cosplay shoot, this one is pretty self-explanatory, but there is no reason for a cinematic portrait to be the soul realm of cosplayers.
For the costume or wardrobe to work from a cinematic standpoint, it must fit the narrative of the image. Cinderella on her way to the ball is going to wear something very different from Cinderella crying on the fountain after her step sisters rip her dress apart. She will also be in a rather different location. Make certain that wardrobe choices fit the narrative, location, and character.
Falling very much in line with wardrobe, the makeup must be chosen to fit narrative. If I’d photographed an Indiana Jones cosplayer in a suit teaching in college for this tutorial, he’d be clean shaven and have very little in the way of “character” makeup. But Indiana Jones in a cave is going to be rather grubby and beat up. Don’t forget the little details, like dirt under the fingernails or scratched up knuckles, which give a sense of realism to the character that can’t be overstated. A good makeup artist will bring the character to life.
While doing research, pay very careful attention to the kind of light used in the source material, if it exists. The inspiration for lighting this particular shoot was every scene in an "Indiana Jones" movie where a torch was used for key light. The mood of the shot, which is decided by the narrative, drives the lighting choices. Something inspired by Rivendell in "The Lord of the Rings" might have a bright, luminous kind of light, and something inspired by old western movies might use hard, contrasty sunlight and dark shadows. This series of images needed something much more mysterious and low-key to fit the tomb raider narrative.
The light will also depend heavily on the mood of each particular scene, as the light in a very tense scene will be different from the light in a joyful scene, or a tearful one.
Don’t forget that the location lighting will also be key to selling the believability of the image. A bright, happy cave would be much less suitable to the direction of the image than one holding a bit of mystery in the shadows, so light your location as purposefully as you light your subject.
Color grading is a key technique in cinema that communicates with the viewer on an almost instinctual level. Think of any movie you’ve seen, then go back to look how the overall color of the movie — even the color of individual scenes — plays into the way the scene/movie should be interpreted. Consider a movie like "The Matrix" where the green cast lends into the otherworldly quality of the film. Westerns often tend to feature muted earth tones and be fairly washed out — in keeping with a bright western sun — while action movies are often full of punchy color.
For this shoot, the color grading stayed very much in line with the movies, resulting in earth tones and an overall brown cast. This worked for the mood of the shot, the wardrobe and the location, as well as creating a visual link to the source material. Nostalgia is a powerful tool.
The final thing to consider is less a thing in-and-of-itself, and more about the way individual aspects of the shoot relate to each other. Mood is a key visual aspect of the narrative and is achieved by the proper mixture of each of the items listed above. The result of the relationship between light, color, location, wardrobe, and makeup, is mood.
The correct mood — one the fits the intent of the image and the purpose of the narrative — will sell an image and communicate the correct emotion to the viewer. The wrong mood — a result of disharmony among the individual pieces — will fail to suspend disbelief, which is the hallmark of good cinema.
To truly dial in your cinematic eye, pay attention to these things as you research, plan, and work.
Line of Sight
Movie characters rarely look directly at the camera, as they’re involved in the story. Having a character in a cinematic portrait look directly at the camera will break the illusion. Don’t get hung up on making the photograph a “portrait.” Pay attention, instead, to telling the story.
Lens Choice and Framing
If you’re working from a movie as inspiration, paying attention to framing and lens choice — whether a filmmaker used wide-angle lenses and how they framed shots — will make subtle connections between your photograph and the source material.
Whether you’re shooting cosplay or simply want to create cinematic portraits, the steps listed above will provide a road map to use as you plan and execute your vision.
Do you use any tips like these when planning your shoot? How have they worked for you?
Videography by Kevin Davis of HiKoncept Image Branding.