What does “Cinematic” Mean Anyway?

If you haven’t guessed by now, my last two posts were satirical looks at filmmakers’ desires to make their videos cinematic. The “tips” I suggested were tongue in cheek, but the truth is, many videographers and filmmakers do those things to make their videos feel like movies, i.e. “cinematic.” (Ahem, even a certain African-American blogging filmmaker who shall remain nameless has dabbled once or twice in those tips I gave two days ago. 😉 In truth, some of them really are not bad at all. They can be a fun way to present a video (and I’m sure in the wedding world, many couples request songs from their favorite movie scores).

But what does “cinematic” really mean anyway?

What truly makes something cinematic? The composition? The music? The lens? The frame rate? The format you shoot on? The aspect ratio? The camera you use? The ratio of the size of your rig vis-a-vis the camera? All those things? None of those things? I don’t think there’s a magic formula.

Let’s take a movie like “Once” that came out a few years ago. From best I could tell it was shot on Panny DVX100 (based on what I can see in the behind the scenes). The production values were, well, rather crappy. But I would see that movie a hundred times over “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” or even “Star Wars Episode I” for that matter. The video Edit:Transform that my friend Zack Arias made a couple of years ago for ScottKelby.com is way more compelling than a lot of stuff I see on Vimeo, and he shot that on a FlipMino for crying out loud. My friend and colleague Chris P. Jones (co-founder of the In[Focus] Event) is an award-winning wedding filmmaker named to the Event DV Top 25 list three years in a row, and much of his work is still 4×3 SD. (Gasp!) Do you see my point?

So, What’s the Moral?

Some people thought my series this week was a commentary on “cheesy” effects or gimmicks. It wasn’t. Nor was it meant to be a mean-spirited ding on an industry I deeply care for and respect (as I’ve pointed out, I too have done some of the “tips” I mentioned.) This was all about the eternal question I frequently hear, “How can I make my movies more cinematic?” Or “How can I get the movie look?”  When it comes down to it, in my humble opinion (and this is just my opinion), all that stuff doesn’t matter. If you tell a great story that keeps me engaged, you can put an animated singing tub of popcorn in front of your video for all I care.

I think we need to stop asking the question, what can I do to make my videos more “cinematic,” and start asking the question, “what can I do to make my videos more compelling to watch. Period.”

What do you think?

6 thoughts on “What does “Cinematic” Mean Anyway?

  1. I catch what you’re saying, and it makes sense that you’d want to focus more on the improving the core video. Don’t you also think there’s something to be said for branding and presentation as well though? For example, if we rolled out a wedding film that had cheap packaging, our clients would probably be ticked because they paid what was in their minds a lot of money for the video. I would think that aside from the core video, there would be other elements that you could add to improve the presentation of the video. A couple days ago when you posted, that was the question that came to my mind. “What can we do to improve the presentation of our end product?” Granted the things you mentioned before would be percieved as cheesy, but I’m thinking that there are some things that would add to a branding strategy. Thoughts?

    1. Excellent points TJ. I don’t want this article to be taken as the end all, be all. It’s just one data point really in the whole aspect of your business as a creative. Yes, all those things you mentioned are very important. And I would also add that creating a quality video is very important. There’s a reason I switched to HD DSLRs, it’s because the quality is amazing. So I don’t want to give the impression that it’s okay if your video looks crappy, as long as the story is good. But, you shouldn’t go into debt and hurt yourself financially just so you can have all the best toys either.

      I just think that there’s an overwhelming obsession on the other side of the pendulum. I’m just trying to bring some of us back to the center for better balance. With my admonition to start with story, regardless of what you have, you can succeed.

      Thanks for all your great comments by the way!

      1. “Switched to HD DSLRs, it’s because the quality is amazing.” Ron, I disagree with that general judgement. HD DSLR’s quality CAN BE amazing when produced correctly. The choice of one’s camera is not relative to creating catharsis within a storyline communicated through video. Having pretty imagery and directing the viewer’s attention to certain areas of the frame remains to me as mere circus tricks in film making. Capturing an “emotional cleansing” that is felt by your audience happens initially because the camera was rolling at the right time and the editor stitched those moments together in the right order so that “emotional cleansing” can be experienced over and over each time the video is watched. I agree with what you are saying, just currently in the industry I feel that there is too much chatter about “HD DLSR this and HD DLSR that”. I shoot with HD DLRS’s, as well, and I value their usefulness. However, it’s not the camera, it’s the camera operator and/or the director’s previsualization when captured that generates the egg not the chicken. Keep up the good work, Ron. Hope to run into you soon.

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