What Does “Cinematic” Mean?

Earlier this year I undertook a personal photography project called Stasis. I deliberately set out to do something different to my cinematography work, shooting in portrait, taking the paintings of Dutch seventeenth century masters as my inspiration, and eschewing traditional lighting fixtures in favour of practical sources. I was therefore a little disappointed when I began showing the images to people and they described them as “cinematic”.

An image from “Stasis”

This experience made me wonder just what people mean by that word, “cinematic”. It’s a term I’ve heard – and used myself – many times during my career. We all seem to have some vague idea of what it means, but few of us are able to define it. 

Dictionaries are not much help either, with the Oxford English Dictionary defining it simply as “relating to the cinema” or “having qualities characteristic of films”. But what exactly are those qualities?

Shallow depth of field is certainly a quality that has been widely described as cinematic. Until the late noughties, shallow focus was the preserve of “proper” movies. The size of a 35mm frame (or of the digital cinema sensors which were then emerging) meant that backgrounds could be thrown way out of focus while the subject remained crisp and sharp. The formats which lower-budget productions had thereto been shot on – 2/3” CCDs and Super-16 film – could not achieve such an effect. 

Then the DSLR revolution happened, putting sensors as big as – or bigger than – those of Hollywood movies into the hands of anyone with a few hundred pounds to spare. Suddenly everyone could get that “cinematic” depth of field. 

My first time utilising the shallow depth of field of a DSLR, on a never-completed feature back in 2011.

Before long, of course, ultra-shallow depth of field became more indicative of a low-budget production trying desperately to look bigger than of something truly cinematic. Gradually young cinematographers started to realise that their idols chose depth of field for storytelling reasons, rather than simply using it because they could. Douglas Slocombe, OBE, BSC, ASC, cinematographer of the original Indiana Jones trilogy, was renowned for his deep depth of field, typically shooting at around T5.6, while Janusz Kaminski, ASC, when shooting Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, stopped down as far as T11.

There was also a time when progressive scan – the recording of discrete frames rather than alternately odd and even horizontal lines to make an interlaced image – was considered cinematic. Now it is standard in most types of production, although deviations from the norm of 24 or 25 frames per second, such as the high frame rate of The Hobbit, still make audiences think of reality TV or news, rejecting it as “uncinematic”.

Other distinctions in shooting style between TV/low-budget film and big-budget film have slipped away too. The grip equipment that enables “cinematic” camera movement – cranes, Steadicams and other stabilisers – is accessible now in some form to most productions. Meanwhile the multi-camera shooting which was once the preserve of TV, looked down upon by filmmakers, has spread into movie production.

A direct comparison may help us drill to the core of what is “cinematic”. Star Trek: Generations, the seventh instalment in the sci-fi film franchise, went into production in spring 1994, immediately after the final TV season of Star Trek: The Next Generation wrapped. The movie shot on the same sets, with the same cast and even the same acquisition format (35mm film) as the TV series. It was directed by David Carson, who had helmed several episodes of the TV series, and whose CV contained no features at that point.

Yet despite all these constants, Star Trek: Generations is more cinematic than the TV series which spawned it. The difference lies with the cinematographer, John A. Alonzo, ASC, one of the few major crew members who had not worked on the TV show, and whose experience was predominantly in features. I suspect he was hired specifically to ensure that Generations looked like a movie, not like TV.

The main thing that stands out to me when comparing the film and the series is the level of contrast in the images. The movie is clearly darker and moodier than the TV show. In fact I can remember my schoolfriend Chris remarking on this at the time – something along the lines of, “Now it’s a movie, they’re in space but they can only afford one 40W bulb to light the ship.” 

The bridge of the Enterprise D as seen on TV (top) and in the “Generations” movie (bottom).

It was a distinction borne of technical limitations. Cathode ray tube TVs could only handle a dynamic range of a few stops, requiring lighting with low contrast ratios, while a projected 35mm print could reproduce much more subtlety. 

Today, film and TV is shot on the same equipment, and both are viewed on a range of devices which are all good at dealing with contrast (at least compared with CRTs). The result is that, with contrast as with depth of field, camera movement and progressive scan, the distinction between the cinematic and the uncinematic has reduced. 

The cinematography of “Better Call Saul” owes much to film noir.

In fact, I’d argue that it’s flipped around. To my eye, many of today’s TV series – and admittedly I’m thinking of high-end ones like The Crown, Better Call Saul or The Man in the High Castle, not Eastenders – look more cinematic than modern movies. 

As my friend Chris had realised, the flat, high-key look of Star Trek: The Next Generation was actually far more realistic than that of its cinema counterpart. And now movies seem to have moved towards realism in the lighting, which is less showy and not so much moody for the sake of being moody, while TV has become more daring and stylised.

A typically moody and contrasty shot from “The Crown”

The Crown, for examples, blasts a 50KW Soft Sun through the window in almost every scene, bathing the monarchy in divine light to match its supposed divine right, while Better Call Saul paints huge swathes of rich, impenetrable black across the screen to represent the rotten soul of its antihero. 

Film lighting today seems to strive for naturalism in the most part. Top DPs like recent Oscar-winner Roger Deakins, CBE, ASC, BSC,  talk about relying heavily on practicals and using fewer movie fixtures, and fellow nominee Rachel Morrison, ASC, despite using a lot of movie fixtures, goes to great lengths to make the result look unlit. Could it be that film DPs feel they can be more subtle in the controlled darkness of a cinema, while TV DPs choose extremes to make their vision clear no matter what device it’s viewed on or how much ambient light contaminates it?

“Mudbound”, shot by Rachel Morrison, ASC

Whatever the reason, contrast does seem to be the key to a cinematic look. Even though that look may no longer be exclusive to movies released in cinemas, the perception of high contrast being linked to production value persists. The high contrast of the practically-lit scenes in my Stasis project is – as best I can tell – what makes people describe it as cinematic.

What does all of this mean for a filmmaker? Simply pumping up the contrast in the grade is not the answer. Contrast should be built into the lighting, and used to reveal and enhance form and depth. The importance of good production design, or at least good locations, should not be overlooked; shooting in a friend’s white-walled flat will kill your contrast and your cinematic look stone dead. 

A shot of mine from “Forever Alone”, a short film where I was struggling to get a cinematic look out of the white-walled location.

Above all, remember that story – and telling that story in the most visually appropriate way – is the essence of cinema. In the end, that is what makes a film truly cinematic.

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What Does “Cinematic” Mean?

The Science of Smoke

Smoke, haze, atmos, whatever you want to call it, anyone who knows me knows that I’m a big fan. But how does it work and what is the purpose of smoking up a set?

 

Aerial perspective

At the most basic level, smoke simulates a natural phenomenon called aerial perspective. If you look at – for example – a range of mountains receding into the distance, the further mountains will appear bluer, lighter, less contrasty and less colour-saturated than the nearer mountains.

An example of aerial perspective

This effect is due to light being scattered by particles naturally suspended in the air, and by molecules of the air itself. It is described by the scary-looking Rayleigh Equation:

We don’t need to get into what all the variables stand for, but there are a few things worth noting:

  • The symbol on the far right represents the angle between the incident light and the scattered light. In practice this means that the more you shoot into the sun – the more the air you’re photographing is backlit – the more scattering there will be. Place the sun behind your camera and scattering will be minimal.
  • is the distance from the particle that’s doing the scattering, so you can see that scattering increases with distance as per the Inverse Square Law.
  • Lamda (the sort of upside-down y next to the x) is the wavelength of the light, so the shorter the wavelength, the more scattering. This is why things look bluer with distance: blue light has a shorter wavelength and so is scattered more. It’s also why shooting through an ultraviolet filter reduces the appearance of aerial perspective/atmospheric haze.

 

How smoke works

An Artem smoke gun

Foggers, hazers and smoke machines simulate aerial perspective by adding suspended particles to the air. These particles start off as smoke fluid (a.k.a. “fog juice”) which is made of mineral oil, or of a combination of water and glycol/glycerin.

In a smoke machine or gas-powered smoke gun (like the Artem), smoke fluid is pushed into a heat exchanger which vaporises it. When the vapour makes contact with the colder air, it condenses to form fog.

A hazer uses compression rather than heat to vaporise the fluid, meaning you don’t have to wait for the machine to heat up. The particles are smaller, making for a more subtle and longer-lasting effect.

As a general rule, you should use only hazers for interior cinematography, unless there is a story reason for smoke to be present in the scene. Outdoors, however, hazers are ineffective. An Artem or two will work well for smaller exterior scenes; for larger ones, a Tube of Death is the best solution. This is a long, plastic inflatable tube with regularly-spaced holes, with a fan and a smoke machine (usually electric) at the end. It ensures that smoke is distributed fairly evenly over a large area.

A Tube of Death in action on the set of “The Little Mermaid”

 

The effects of smoke

Just like aerial perspective, smoke/haze separates the background from the foreground, as the background has more smoke between it and the camera. The background becomes brighter, less contrasty, less saturated and (depending on the type of smoke) bluer, making the foreground stand out against it.

Since smoke also obeys the Rayleigh Equation, it shows up best when it’s backlit, a bit when it’s side-lit and barely at all when front-lit.

Here are some of the other things that smoke achieves:

  • It diffuses the image, particularly things further away from camera.
  • It lowers contrast.
  • It brightens the image.
  • It lifts the shadows by scattering light into them.
  • If it’s sufficiently thick, and particularly if it’s smoke rather than haze, it adds movement and texture to the image, which helps to make sets look less fake.
  • It volumises the light, showing up clear shafts of hard light and diffuse pools of soft light. (For more on this, read 5 Tips for Perfect Shafts of Light.)
  • Backlit smoke in front of a person or an object will obscure them, concealing identity.
Heavy smoke (from an Artem) pops Lyanna (Dita Tantang) out of the background in “Ren: The Girl with the Mark” (dir. Kate Madison).
Backlit smoke through a roof of branches creates magical shafts of light in “Ren: The Girl with the Mark”.
The final day/sunset look. From each side an orange-gelled and a pink-gelled par can light the backdrop. A 2K tungsten fresnel provides backlight, while a 650W fresnel with a cucoloris provides dappled light on the tree and tarsier. An LED panel off right supplies fill, and a second panel is inside the cave with a turquoise gel.
The colour-washed infinity cove in the background of this music promo for Lewis Watson’s “Droplets” (dir. Tom Walsh) is softened and disguised by smoke.
Haze gives the LED panels their glowing appearance in this video for “X, Y & Z Rays” (dir. Tom Walsh) by Revenge of Calculon.
This torch beam in “Above the Clouds” (dir. Leon Chambers) shows up so well because the set is heavily fogged.
Smoke backlit by an HMI creates the blue background glow against which the heroes of “The First Musketeer” (dir. Harriet Sams) stand out.
Haze creates the shafts of light from HMIs outside the windows, and adds to the gothic feel of “Heretiks” (dir. Paul Hyett).
The Science of Smoke