Defining the Cinematic Look, Part 2 ~Sara Frances


    How do you separate the elements of a movie, and assign what parts are the main contributors to that quality we loosely call cinematic? Hard question, because final production value should add up to more than the sum of the parts. This is where artistic genius comes in; elements combined to create something extraordinary.

It’s really hard to objectively analyze or dissect art, because we lapse immediately into matters of taste, history, experience and personal preferences. But we do have language to discuss elements of skill, technique and execution. I think of the elements in the shape of a pyramid. The tip is the initial impact, and the ground level is the foundation of storytelling. These are the fuzzy parts that must be present for success, but are very slippery to talk about. Scheherezade bet her life on the impact of her storytelling, and changed the lives of others! In between the tip and the foundation of the pyramid are the building blocks that make the entire artistic construction whole and durable. Or not. I’m breaking down the extreme complexity of film making here, leaving aside acting, and the myriad other contributions to focus on the two major tracks toward the cinematic grail: in camera work and postproduction.


Four, Make that Five Elements

Angles and Lenses for Starters
In the camera, cinematic is all about angles, lighting, bokeh and sound. You may well argue for more, but I think these are the most important ones. Getting an exciting angle on a subject sounds axiomatic, almost a circular definition. What I mean is selecting camera placement and lenses to make clear both the point of view of the participant within the action and the comment of the storyteller behind the camera. The contribution of angle to cinematic look cannot be simplified or minimized. High angle looking down on the action, from below looking up, viewing the action through other objects like a frame in either a still or dolly shot. Wide angle lens to show environment or tele to zoom in on just a hand or eye. These are the silent creators of mood, emotion, tension, fear, hostility, joy.

Think you can’t use an unusual angle on an inexpensive wedding or commercial web shoot? Of course you can. Pre planning and location scouting are key. Multiple camera angles is practically a given, and here’s where the Canon 5D Mark II and Canon 7D really shine. Fusion cameras are your affordable ticket to augmenting capture from your primary film/video tool. With them you can take advantage of different lenses, their small footprint and versatility for details and points of view. Contemporary rigs and viewfinders from Zacuto and others simplify and make practical the challenging operation you’ve heard about. Dolly shots will bring your capture to another level. You can afford that too, with the just introduced Guerrilla Track product.

Just when I’ve touted creative use of lenses and angles, I’ve got to note that those angles have to have a logical reason for being. They have to make the viewers feel they are in the shoes of a character or are getting to overlook the entire scene with a foreshadowing perspective the character cannot share. Too many angles and we lose the threads of meaning. Storytelling must remain the foundation of your production; don’t tangle the viewer with too many cute elements, just because they were fun to do and you had the lenses shoot them. Here’s where the editor must keep the exuberance of the director of photography in check. And that’s why editor Walter Murch says he never wants to go on the set or hear about the takes. He doesn’t want his judgment clouded; he just wants to create impact and develop story with the actual footage at hand. Of course, if you don’t have a wealth of assets from the shoot, the editor will be hard pressed to make something cinematic out of nothing. Doing your own editing? You’ll learn master camera work quicker than anyone else!

As Karl Arndt (the other half) says,”get past the place where you have to light to where you want to light.” He stipulates there’s absolutely nothing wrong with existing light; it’s just that most of the time on location it exists in the wrong place or is coming from an uninteresting direction, like straight down outdoors at noon. Nothing inherently evocative or meaningful about black eye sockets and blown out hair. Creating rounding or dimension on faces and objects is an identifying mark of the cinematographer. So are color and intensity of light. Ross Lowell’s bible, Matters of Light and Depth, is my how-to guide to set the stage for atmosphere and style through illumination. Lowell Omni and Tota combo kits are durable, practical and affordable for any small production company. A great cinematic tip is to light the background – equally useful for talking heads or a mood-evoking art composition. Cookies on a budget can be a simple as a piece of peg board, or shapes cut into black foil and pinned to the barn doors. Suddenly three dimensions will come alive.

Cheer for the colorist! Cinematic means never having to say you’re sorry two cameras were not exactly color balanced. Just make it so! That’s basic good continuity for any type of production, and gets you out from behind the eight ball. Decisions about color style can be hard to make in camera; Karl always says that clean capture is best, then choose how you want to alter reality once you’ve had the chance to think and look over your assets. The best examples I know of creative color is the title for the TV shows Six Feet Under and True Blood. Cold, jerky and angularly harsh, the mood of the images makes me feel death creeping into my fingertips and earlobes.

Background Awareness
Speaking of backgrounds – that was the fifth element I almost forgot in my cinematic must have list. How many times have you seen a tree or light fixture coming out of someone’s head in a video? Draws our attention every time,  away from the meaning of a scene.The random environment can be full of potential visual discomfort. Sometimes you just have to move your sticks a few feet to avoid it. Still photographers are generally masters in arranging the subject in relation to elements in the background of the frame. Good composition definitely boosts impact.

Postproduction tools and tricks are often required to fix unruly backgrounds. Lighting and angle for impact dictated my position at a recent political press conference, but revealed a vacuum sweeper inadvertently left by maintenance in the background. No time to move or disguise it! That’s what we have Photoshop for! Darken the offending object or remove it all together, but never let this kind of fault see the light of day. A more difficult example of incursion in video was recently shown in an award-winning wedding short. A heavy set tourist, unattractively dressed, walked behind the bride and groom at a beach ceremony. I almost laughed out loud. (Award winning?) It spoiled the intimacy of the vows, and could have so easily been fixed with a simple cutaway. In this case cinematic means your client should never see this disruption of continuity of her story.

Bravo Bokeh
Selective focus creates depth and pinpoints meaning; it defines point of view and physically calls attention to what’s important. The eye’s focus flits from one object to another, so quickly we can barely believe that scientists have proved this is completely natural. So Bokeh just echos what humans do every moment of the day; it’s the flat everything-in-focus look that is unnatural. We go to great lengths with expensive lenses designed to create Bokeh to augment our storytelling. In actual fact focus is a function not only of lens choice, but also of ƒ/stop and relative distance. Another way Fusion still cameras, with their wealth of inexpensive lenses, can be harnessed to achieve cinematic Bokeh quickly and easily.

Ways to enhance the spirit of Bokeh in post are more tricky, and it takes time and resources you may not have in your budget. I’ve seen fast cuts from middle distance on a conversation scene to extreme closeup on a face. A valuable low-cost alternative. I like to categorize flash backs and flash forwards as a sister effect to Bokeh, because they momentarily wrench your focus in an entirely different direction. This effect is eminently and economically doable with stills. I was electrified at one Indie film, when the visual suddenly held still on an outraged expression of a listener for a second while the voice of argument went on.

Sound Rules
Think that films are just visual media? Think again. My experience says that bad sound will close the show every time. If you’re shooting a tutorial in a space that sounds tinny with lav mics, better take the time to set up a fish pole and shotgun – or the instruction will never reach the right audience that needs the message. Karl believes that voice inflection, speed and timbre of speech don’t get enough credit for creating mood and meaning. He further states that voice, and all sound tracks, can develop a bond with the viewer that becomes the main reason for working in cinema. Otherwise why not simply make a statement with a beautifully composed and detailed still?

Often called the editor’s nightmare, sound fixes are critical to the cinematic effect. How we love music over a scene! And how hard to juggle just the right amount of wild ambient, foley effects, voice and music. Sometimes all you need is a touch – like crowd noise during a party scene that is otherwise primarily a music video. Don’t confuse the tension of a thriller moment with an orchestral track. Let stealthy foot falls and a creaking door stand alone to heighten the fear factor. We were taught a good lesson recently, when a song-writing father  demanded we re-replace the beautifully recorded version of his composition with the original scratchy, feed-backy, interrupted presentation he sang at his daughter’s birthday party. Reality won out. And remember that music piracy is always a bad thing.

Looking back over this text, it seems to me that my definition of cinematic is a good deal of common sense and application of technical expertise to elaborate storytelling. And it’s true. Form following function. Details are the drivers. Mood equals magic. Meaning and emotion captivate the viewer. Whatever you camera and editing system, cinematic means not using them like a point-and-shoot. Cinematic is the power to take any subject and make people – all kinds of people – laugh and cry.


______________________________________________________________________________________ SaraKarlBio

Known as the Velcro Couple, Sara Frances and Karl Arndt's talents mesh gently, sometimes not so gently, when debating techniques or artistic principles. Fusion is their media, on the edge of contemporary technology. Their collaboration between still and cinematic imagery is sometimes refined and quiet, sometimes raucous and noisy. That's the sound of those pesky muses that flit back and forth between still and motion editing bays. Husband and wife yes, but also a marriage of art, idea and approach. "We're not satisfied if we don't learn something new every day. Our goal is to make what we do appear effortless and far more than the sum of the parts.”

"We are Foto Griots, tellers of tales of insight, culture and expression, through photographic or cinematic based imagery that is sometimes realistic, sometimes abstract. Starting out as documentarians, our style and ability have evolved far past photojournalism into what we call 'Storytelling from the Heart'."

To learn more about Sara Frances, M.Photog.CR. and Karl Arndt, please visit or email them at . You may also view their portfolio at

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