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?

Book Review: “Motion Studies” by Rebecca Solnit

A modern animation created from photographs from Muybridge’s “Animal Locomotion”, 1887

This is a book that caught my eye following my recent photography project, Stasis. In that project I made some limited explorations of the relationship between time, space and light, so Motion Studies: Time, Space and Eadweard Muybridge, to give it its full title, seemed like it would be on my current wavelength.

Like me a few weeks ago, you might be vaguely aware of Muybridge as the man who first photographed a trotting horse sharply enough to prove that all four of its legs left the ground simultaneously. You may have heard him called “The Father of Cinema”, because he was the first person to shoot a rapid sequence of images of a moving body, and the first person to reanimate those images on a screen.

Born in Kingston-on-Thames in 1830, Muybridge emigrated to San Francisco in the 1850s where, following a stint as a book seller and a near-fatal accident in a runaway carriage, he took up landscape photography. He shot spectacular views of Yosemite National Park and huge panoramas of his adopted city. In 1872 he was commissioned by the railroad tycoon Leland Stanford to photograph his racehorse Occident in motion. This developed into a vast project for Muybridge over the next decade or so, ultimately encompassing over 100,000 photos of humans and other animals in motion.

Muybridge’s set-up for his early motion studies, 1881. The cameras are in the shed on the left.

Much of his early work was accomplished on mammoth wet plates, 2ft wide, that had to be coated with emulsion just before exposure and developed quickly afterwards, necessitating a travelling darkroom tent. To achieve the quick exposures he needed to show the limbs of a   trotting horse without motion blur, he had to develop new chemistry and – with John Isaacs – a new electromagnetic shutter. The results were so different to anything that had been photographed before, that they were initially met with disbelief in some quarters, particularly amongst painters, who were eventually forced to recognise that they had been incorrectly portraying horse’s legs. Artists still use Muybridge’s motion studies today as references for dynamic anatomy.

“Boys Playing Leapfrog”, 1887

To “track” with the animals in motion, Muybridge used a battery of regularly-spaced cameras, each triggered by the feet of the subject pulling on a wire or thread as they passed. Sometimes he would surround a subject with cameras and trigger them all simultaneously, to get multiple angles on the same moment in time. Does that sound familiar? Yes, Muybridge invented Bullet Time over a century before The Matrix.

Muybridge was not the first person to project images in rapid succession to create the illusion of movement, but he was the first person to display photographed (rather than drawn) images in a such a way, to deconstruct motion and reassemble it elsewhere like a Star Trek transporter. In 1888 Muybridge met with Thomas Edison and discussed collaborating on a system to combine motion pictures with wax cylinder audio recordings, but nothing came of this idea which was decades ahead of its time. The same year, French inventor Louis Le Prince shot Roundhay Garden Scene, the oldest known film. A few years later, Edison patented his movie camera, and the Lumière brothers screened their world-changing Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory. The age of cinema had begun.

From “Animal Locomotion”, 1887

Although Muybridge is the centre of Solnit’s book, there is a huge amount of context. The author’s thesis is that Muybridge represents a turning point, a divider between the world he was born into – a world in which people and information could only travel as fast as they or a horse could walk or run, a world where every town kept its own time, where communities were close-knit and relatively isolated – and the world which innovations like his helped to create – the world of speed, of illusions, of instantaneous global communication, where physical distance is no barrier. Solnit draws a direct line from Muybridge’s dissection of time and Stanford’s dissection of space to the global multimedia village we live in today. Because of all this context, the book feels a little slow to get going, but as the story continues and the threads draw together, the value of it becomes clear, elucidating the meaning and significance of Muybridge’s work.

“Muybridge and Athlete”, circa 1887

I can’t claim to have ever been especially interested in history, but I found the book a fascinating lesson on the American West of the late nineteenth century, as well as a thoughtful analysis of the impact photography and cinematography have had on human culture and society. As usual, I’m reviewing this book a little late (it was first published in 2003!), but I heartily recommend checking it out if you’re at all interested in experimental photography or the origins of cinema.

Book Review: “Motion Studies” by Rebecca Solnit