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Characteristics of "The Cinematic"


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#1 Joey Bania

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Posted 31 May 2011 - 12:22 AM

Hi all. I'm a long time lurker, aspiring cinematographer and first time poster. Forgive me if this subject is a little off-topic.

Basically, I'm putting together a research project examining the popular perception that DSLRs a enable a low-budget "cinematic" aesthetic and would love some feedback on a couple of things.

First, I'd be interested to hear people's ideas about what exactly gives a film that "cinematic" quality. Is it largely characteristics of the cinematography? Soundtrack? Is it simply a matter of opening up the iris all the way for razor-thin DOF?

Second, I'd love to some leads to other writing and research (academic or otherwise) on this topic. Largely I'm looking for historical accounts of cinematic aesthetics but recent discussions that consider the role of DSLRs would be a bonus.

Any feedback would be much appreciated.

Cheers!

Joey
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#2 Chris Keth

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Posted 01 June 2011 - 08:50 PM

In my opinion, it's a combination of all the things you mention- and more- coming together seamlessly until you don't think about the film being cinematic, but rather you have no other choice but to let the story pull you along with it wherever it goes.
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#3 Marcus Joseph

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Posted 02 June 2011 - 01:36 AM

it's a combination of all those elements playing a factor, but specifically when watching it on the big screen, I feel a lot of things can look decent in lower resolution, but on the real cinematic screen it's another story. I also think as though editing also plays a very big role, you can feel the great rhythm in good editing.

Edited by Marcus Joseph, 02 June 2011 - 01:36 AM.

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#4 Brian Drysdale

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Posted 02 June 2011 - 01:38 AM

First, I'd be interested to hear people's ideas about what exactly gives a film that "cinematic" quality. Is it largely characteristics of the cinematography? Soundtrack? Is it simply a matter of opening up the iris all the way for razor-thin DOF?


A razor thin DOF is a fairly recent style. As mentioned, "cinematic" is the combination of visual techniques/style that compellingly blends with the story telling. The use of sound is another element.

You can have a very shallow DOF, but the production itself isn't cinematic, it's more than just the camera. You've also got to consider the art direction, the style of the acting, how the story is being told. This means that can have an extremely "cinematic" film shot on a 1/3" camcorder and a very "televisual" film shot on a DSLR.
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#5 Marcus Joseph

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Posted 02 June 2011 - 07:37 AM

A razor thin DOF is a fairly recent style. As mentioned, "cinematic" is the combination of visual techniques/style that compellingly blends with the story telling. The use of sound is another element.

You can have a very shallow DOF, but the production itself isn't cinematic, it's more than just the camera. You've also got to consider the art direction, the style of the acting, how the story is being told. This means that can have an extremely "cinematic" film shot on a 1/3" camcorder and a very "televisual" film shot on a DSLR.

But the problem will then be that the material will look very poor in quality and give a terrible look in a 1/3" camcorder from all of the issues that come with that. I'd be interested to see more deep focus stuff done on higher quality, large sensor mediums, which we now have access too. Back in the old days with lower film stock speeds and lenses, with floods of light everywhere, there was some fantastic work done with deep focus.

Michael Mann certainly prefers deep focus and I remember reading he tried to opt for smaller sensors rather than larger, but then we look at Public Enemies for example and it becomes very subjective to the audience who would probably not consider that a cinematic piece of work without any knowledge to what was going on technically behind the scenes.

I think one particular movie that sums up a very cinematic look is A New World, I think that's a good example.
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#6 Brian Drysdale

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Posted 02 June 2011 - 08:12 AM

But the problem will then be that the material will look very poor in quality and give a terrible look in a 1/3" camcorder from all of the issues that come with that.


I suspect you'd need to use the 1/3" camcorder for what it is rather than pretending it's something else, but using it in a cinematic manner which makes use of this particular meduim in a unique way, for all its flaws. You can have cinematic 8mm and it's got faults as well.
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#7 Marcus Joseph

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Posted 02 June 2011 - 08:33 AM

I suspect you'd need to use the 1/3" camcorder for what it is rather than pretending it's something else, but using it in a cinematic manner which makes use of this particular meduim in a unique way, for all its flaws. You can have cinematic 8mm and it's got faults as well.

That is true, but I suppose in a less subconcious way, what keeps an audience watching a movie is that they simply pay more attention to things like story, acting, what's going on in the frame, what the characters are actually doing, if it even interests them etc. rather than any of the professional factors.

I wouldn't consider a film like The Blair Witch Project to be cinematic, but it still puts in people in seats.
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#8 Adrian Sierkowski

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Posted 02 June 2011 - 10:10 AM

Iraq in Fragments was 1/3" DVX, and it's pretty cinematic IMHO. Truely "cinematic" experiences come when the film through all it's elements allows the audience to forget about the confines of the technolog to make the image, and the screen on which it is shown, and be taken into a story-- knowing it's a story-- yet still feeling the emotional attachment. It is based upon every element of a film working in unison; and requires, of course, choosing the right formats and styles to tell the story in the appropriate way. Whether that's done on 1/3" or IMAX, Mono or surround sound, deep Dof or shallow is irrelevant in anything but a case by case basis.
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#9 Joey Bania

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Posted 09 June 2011 - 12:37 AM

Some very interesting responses so far. It seems like the one thing everybody can agree on is that there's no formula for creating a cinematic aesthetic.

In my opinion, it's a combination of all the things you mention- and more- coming together seamlessly until you don't think about the film being cinematic, but rather you have no other choice but to let the story pull you along with it wherever it goes.


Do you think that a film which lacked all of the "hallmarks" that I noted would still be cinematic as long as the story is strong? Could a documentary shot on DV handicams but which hooks you and holds you for the duration qualify as cinematic?


it's a combination of all those elements playing a factor, but specifically when watching it on the big screen, I feel a lot of things can look decent in lower resolution, but on the real cinematic screen it's another story. I also think as though editing also plays a very big role, you can feel the great rhythm in good editing.


Are you saying that the idea of a cinematic aesthetic is location/context specific? Could something perceived as cinematic on an imax screen be perceived otherwise if viewed on an ipad? Would the Lord of the Rings films still be cinematic if you watched them on an iphone?

Also, it's interesting that you mention editing style. I tend to feel as if films that utilise fast, flashy cuts (ie. The Social Network) can just as easily be cinematic as those in full of long, slow, wide shots (ie. Stalker).

A razor thin DOF is a fairly recent style. As mentioned, "cinematic" is the combination of visual techniques/style that compellingly blends with the story telling. The use of sound is another element.

You can have a very shallow DOF, but the production itself isn't cinematic, it's more than just the camera. You've also got to consider the art direction, the style of the acting, how the story is being told. This means that can have an extremely "cinematic" film shot on a 1/3" camcorder and a very "televisual" film shot on a DSLR.


What aspects of sound would you consider to be cinematic?

Your point about art direction and acting raises questions about notions of cinematic documentary styles. Is there such a thing? Do DSLRs make cinematic documentaries achievable?


But the problem will then be that the material will look very poor in quality and give a terrible look in a 1/3" camcorder from all of the issues that come with that. I'd be interested to see more deep focus stuff done on higher quality, large sensor mediums, which we now have access too. Back in the old days with lower film stock speeds and lenses, with floods of light everywhere, there was some fantastic work done with deep focus.

Michael Mann certainly prefers deep focus and I remember reading he tried to opt for smaller sensors rather than larger, but then we look at Public Enemies for example and it becomes very subjective to the audience who would probably not consider that a cinematic piece of work without any knowledge to what was going on technically behind the scenes.

I think one particular movie that sums up a very cinematic look is A New World, I think that's a good example.


A lot of films which would surely be considered in some ways cinematic make extensive use of deep focus. The obvious example is Citizen Kane, which is epic in scope, story and technique. I find it interesting that deep focus AND shallow focus can both be distinctly cinematic in their own right. This tends to make me think that aesthetic considerations are less important than story and other elements in contributing to a cinematic style.

Iraq in Fragments was 1/3" DVX, and it's pretty cinematic IMHO. Truely "cinematic" experiences come when the film through all it's elements allows the audience to forget about the confines of the technolog to make the image, and the screen on which it is shown, and be taken into a story-- knowing it's a story-- yet still feeling the emotional attachment. It is based upon every element of a film working in unison; and requires, of course, choosing the right formats and styles to tell the story in the appropriate way. Whether that's done on 1/3" or IMAX, Mono or surround sound, deep Dof or shallow is irrelevant in anything but a case by case basis.


So going by this reasoning a cinematic documentary aesthetic is achievable?
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#10 Marcus Joseph

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Posted 11 June 2011 - 07:12 AM

I do not think the Lord of the Rings films can be perceived as cinematic when viewed on an iPhone or something that does not serve the pictures justice, and as to the sound on an iPhone, it's a travesty.

The biggest and most distinct difference with sound between cinematic and low-budget films, comes all the way straight to the sound design in post-production. This process that comes after the edit is incredibly crucial to even simply making or breaking a film's final presentation. A lot of low-budget and amateur films lack this very detailed follow up. Look into sound design, foley, ADR on youtube and you'll know what I mean.

And yes fast flashy cuts can be just as cinematic as long sweeping takes, it is all about the rhythm and purpose of the film, and if the editing does that in a way where it serves the story or the soundtrack, then it can indeed be considered by the viewer, cinematic.
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#11 Brian Drysdale

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Posted 11 June 2011 - 08:07 AM

Could a documentary shot on DV handicams but which hooks you and holds you for the duration qualify as cinematic?

What aspects of sound would you consider to be cinematic?

So going by this reasoning a cinematic documentary aesthetic is achievable?


It depends how you use the DV handicam on the documentary, you can have a series of talking heads or you could have visually stylish film.

Cinema has always used sound, even in the days of silent film they played music. It's part of the process, sound can give aural texture and mood to an otherwise bland looking shot. The sound and visuals are 50/50 in the story telling of many films.

Quite a few landmark TV documentaries are more cinematic than the TV dramas. Over the years, cinema has feed off the ideas and styles used in documentaries, perhaps more so than TV drama.
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