Sunday, October 19, 2014


Cinematic depiction of Pluto abducting Persephone to his underworld kingdom.

In video or film shooting we use the term cinematic to express resemblance to shooting and editing techniques used in feature films. Traditionally we consider a shot being "cinematic" when:

1. It is shot at 24 frames per second (fps). Traditional feature titles shot in film have had this frame rate, whereas traditional video uses 25fps (PAL) and 30fps (NTSC). This is kind of weird though. Does all of a sudden shooting or cutting a scene at 24fps make it... cinematic??!!! Anyways...
2. The shot is stylised, graded or colorised. All these are synonyms of the same editing process whereby shots are undergoing a series of digital color transformations to create a sense of 'sphere' conform the movie's storytelling.
3. Bokeh. The effect of shallow depth of field. Larger digital capture sensors combined with the right lenses, and set at widest possible apertures, create the necessary cinematic shallow depth of field, a.k.a. the bokeh effect. Bokeh is a term first appeared in Japanese. This effect is considered highly cinematic. Furthermore, the effect of changing focus from a near point to a further point is also considered highly cinematic and is known as focus-racking. If there is excessive ambient light that makes it hard to maintain large aperture settings at the common shutter speeds used (ie shutter speeds of 1/50th or 1/60th of a sec), often cinematographers and camera operators use Neutral Density a.k.a. ND filters, practically diminishing by a number of stops the quantity of light entering the lens all the way to the sensor. All this happening in the service of bokeh and implied cinematic affect. This is actually the main reason that all of a sudden shooting video with traditional DSLRs, the so called VDSLRs (V for video), became so fashionable and even employed professionally by Hollywood and Indie filmmakers around the world.
4. Camera movements. Using cranes, dollies, sliders, tracking, droning, panning, and handheld shooting techniques, as well as time-lapse shots and sophisticated motion control, makes scenes even more cinematic. Of course, the far more expensive and complex CGI techniques used in large multi-million dollar productions can not be afforded by low budget filmmakers and play far above the league of most professional and/or amateur filmmakers. Camera movements are indeed among the most powerful tools in cinematography to render scenes and shots cinematic.
5. Soundtrack used. The role of background sound and music in providing cinematic experience is beyond any conceivable doubt. Sound is the invisible fourth dimension (the three other being the spatial dimensions we live in) in making a scene sequence 'feel' like a movie.

But is that it? If I do shoot some scenes and edit them together following the cinematic rules per the points above (there maybe more, but those 5 points I found to be the most important mentioned in the literature of the film industry), can I then claim my work is cinematic? Short answer: probably not. For amateur video shooters without film-school education, even most probably not. "It's not the vestment that renders someone a priest", claims a Greek proverb. In other words, it's not because you shoot 'cinematically' that your shots become cinematic. Point 1 above, about 24fps, is the living proof of this argument. I bet you, you may shoot a scene at 24 fps and the same scene over again at 60fps... you ain't gonna see the difference. I don't anyway. If someone does, please tell me and teach me to do the same. I doubt there are many around who can tell the difference, despite the far too many that claim they can.

If that's the way it is, then, what do you need to become cinematic? Short answer as well. You need a story. In fact, cinematic is by definition everything that is related to (visual) story-telling. All of the techniques used in the five points above and many more so (new being invented as we speak in shoots of new feature films around the world), are used to serve storytelling. In the same sense, a simple novel, a short story, and a still picture or a sculpture can also be cinematic. Anything that tells a reader or viewer a story that engages him/her, and makes her/him experience it with some degree of human emotion is "cinematic". Literature in all its styles and forms is mostly cinematic, scientific papers and books are mostly not. 

In all arts in general, the human emotions triggered by the artwork largely depend on a subject's past experiences, as claimed by the philosophers Gadammer and (his infamous mentor/teacher) Heidegger in the first half of the 20th century. For this reason, among other, emotions triggered by artworks are rarely identical among experiencing subjects. I mentioned 'among other' because emotions also depend on a subject's general culture, genetic material, his/her upbringing, and spoken language. Presumably, all works of art do trigger emotions among their target subjects. Joy, sorrow, awe, disgust, laughter, tears, and more. Do artists need to trigger emotion in order to pass their underlying message to targets more efficiently? The stronger the emotion, the deeper the understanding and future recollection of the message; this is a scientifically proven fact. Subsequently, could we thus claim that all art is cinematic too? I don't think so. Genuine art most certainly creates human emotion among its target subjects, but it doesn't necessarily have to have a story to tell. 

Good filmmakers know that every scene counts and every scene needs to advance the story narrative and create the intended emotions among their viewer community. Every object used on stage and appearing in the film's frames is put there for a reason. Nothing is accidental in good filmmaking. Therefore, there's a lot of planning going on before even shooting begins. The film Director, the story Author, the Scriptwriter, the DP and the Film Editor continuously exchange opinions about the raison-d'-ĂȘtre of each and every shot and scene in the final cut. The visual and/or technical quality of a given shot, or the masterly interpretation of a character role by an actor are not simply adequate to make it acceptable for inclusion into the final cut, unless they do 'advance' the story properly. In that respect, the role of film editors is extremely important. Among the series of takes and coverage shots available to them to cut a scene, they have a critical responsibility to select those shots, and  cut them in ways most suitable to the actual script. In the filmmaking trade's literature, there are countless examples, about the same scene being cut in a number of distinct edits, based on the same available shot coverage, and, not amazingly, the results actually appearing to advance the visual story in more than one ways. The positioning and sequence of cuts in the scene, their viewing angles, focal lengths and camera movement applied, each one of them cause viewer emotions with distinct, stereotypical characteristics. It's like emotions are transmitted to human subjects during projection following a visual code language that viewers come to learn over time by watching movies in theaters or on TV. There are literally dozens of books written about the subject. Unfortunately, most of those who write such reference material are not professional experts in psychology! They are mostly film practitioners, theoretical and/or empirical. 

I am often amazed by the ability of professional cinematographers and editors to creep into their Director's mind and understand his/her intents and express them clearly in the final product. The team members must have mutually compatible chemistries. This is why, some great directors often stick to their winning teams and make films with the same crews as well as casts of actors. It's often even so that some outstanding actors are only used by certain Directors in their movies and are rarely seen in other productions. Some Directors even go that far to provide their own cinematography and editing too, if they don't sufficiently trust others (Cohen brothers, Steven Soderbergh, etc.). Each frame, to use Darren Aronofsky's claim in a recent interview, when at a given moment he has been talking about his film 'Fountain', has been carefully planned beforehand to the level of (his own) obsession and with so much passion, in order to best serve his narrative and the film's message the way he personally intended. No doubt why with only six films (masterpieces indeed) in his portfolio he is recognised as a real Master of the craft. The other critical element that I admired in Aronofsky was his ability to articulate the basic message of his each and every film in very simple terms. If you come to think of it, in filmmaking most often it all starts with the central theme and message of the film. What is the film to be all about? What are we left with when all is said and done? What has mostly impacted us when we exit the theater or power off the TV? Did we really get the message? To make sure this happens, Aronofsky mentioned that great Film Directors (he referred to Fellini and Kurosawa in particular) were able to convey their message in each and every scene of their movies. As an example, he referred to Marcello's dilemma about choosing between 'getting a life' or continue 'chasing hot chics' in Fellini's 8 1/2.

Unbelievable but true... the more someone enters the domain of filmmaking the greater respect one develops for filmmakers and videographers alike. 

No comments: