Watch: What Makes a 'Cinematic' Image? Cinematographers Try to Explain

Cinematographers attempt to define that X factor that makes an image 'cinematic.'

Filmmakers and audiences have struggled to define "cinematic" since the dawn of the movie camera. The umbrella term is used to describe everything under the Hollywood sun, but most often refers to the emotional, captivating quality of cinema that is unique to the medium. Perhaps "cinematic" is best described by its absence: a talking head news story is about as un-cinematic as it gets.

In a new video from Cooke Optics, dozens of cinematographers attempt to describe what makes an image cinematic. The answers range from vague ("It's something that’s not contrived, something that’s subtle, and something that’s thought through," says DP Michael Snyman) to incredibly specific stylistically ("A sculpted image that doesn't stick to reality at all, with deep blacks and high contrast, with a big gap between warm light and cool light," according to Romain Lacourbas) to technical (John Fauer, a camera operator, says a cinematic image "certainly comes from the lenses, and lighting is probably more important than almost anything else").

But amid all the disparities, one consensus can be reached: cinematic images are always rooted in—and motivated by—story. Of course, each story is film-specific. So, as Mathieu Poirot-Delpech says, "There are as many definitions for cinematic as there are directors." 

Are you like Ula Pontikos, who says, "I use it all the time, but I don't know what it means," or do you have your own definition of the term "cinematic"? Let us know in the comments.      

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Nice article ! Just a 2 cent.

I think some nailed it quite right :

''A sculpted image that doesn't stick to reality at all, with deep blacks and high contrast, with a big gap between warm light and cool light''

That's very true, it's a because it's a 'Code' per say, in the sense that cinema has a 'language' and codes that you can abide
by and makes it look 'cinematic' (cinema-ish/something you would see at a cinema theater - if we Never had seen that in a theater
then it would mean that 'what we 'think' as 'cinematic' is in fact something else...that's because it's our 'tradition' (Cinematic traditions)
and our 'code' we immediately recognize from viewing thousand of movies in our lifetimes). All these movies follow that code...

Truth is you can a make movie that is 'less cinematic' and it still be quite cinematic enough.

THere are cartoones (drawn in 2D) that are very cinematic because they follow the codes, such as having a cinematography that
is very 'real' (like a slow moving camera, dolly, zooms, up down know all that stuff with the camera is emulated
in 'drawing'...) - other 'same' cartoons - who don't follow these cinematographic codes - fail at creating the 'cinematic' effect.
What's more it's also following the old cinematic story acts : 1-2-3 (Start - Middle - End). So the story too is important
for the 'cinematic' effect because movies have a first -middle - end part/acts. So, people immediately 'know' it's 'cinematic'
for it tells the story in a very orderly fashion - a very 'cinematic language/code' fashion A-B-C.

Stil... you can even 'tell a full story' a TV movie or like a 'series'...but if you don't work on certain elements
it won't feel cinematic at all (like 'lacking cinematography' at the Largest Culprit why your film is not cinematic per say...

Real shot Film's (being cinematic) emulate what they call an altered reality or 'in the past' reality...what you want to show
is not 'in the moment'...that is if you shoot a film - with a cheap digital video camera running at 30-60 fps...people will
'know' immediately this was shot 'recently'..thus, you destroy the 'dream' effect
(dream sequence attained at 24 fps (frames per second)), the surreal effect of being capable
to see in 'between' frames is called 'dream-like effect' and makes our brain think 'it's in the Past/it happend already'
(like a dream we had long ago). While shooting in very high frames - kills the dream effect and creates the 'soap opera' effect.
Which is that it feels 'Live' as if someone is 'currently/as of this moment ...somewhere' shooting 'live' the film you see on screen.
This Live effect removes the dream effect because we know - in the Reality - it's also why we call it 'Reality TV', which means
Live TV ('in' Reality - TV)...same thing with films that have the 'Live' feel by going upwards to double fps. EX: The Lords of The Rings Hobbit film
was shot at 48fps (48 frames per second)...the first thing people complained about that film : 'soap opera' effect... the 'dreamy' effect
was we felt as if these 'elfs and orcs' in the film...were 'fighting' Right Now/Live... whereas the Lord of The Rings 1/2, these
films emplyed the old standard of 24 was huge difference, it felt far more 'dreamy-like' and just like the standard of all films are.
This 48fps litterally made the movie 'feel' like a live sitcom with elfves and dwarves... it destroyed the mood. In reverse, it did
make the film 'more live' you felt as if you were 'there' with them - right now...and it did not happen a 1000 years ago in some Middle-Earth..
it's Happening Now...and 'you're 'Living it/Experiencing it' 'LIVE'. A good thing and bad - i think it's a question of preference,
it's not necessarily 'more cinematic' at 24 fps - it can more cinematic at 48 fps : It's a Code/Language we are Used to...and 'we think'
that 24 fps is the 'cinematic' one..but really...when done long enough..people will think...''Well No. 24 fps looks awfull...give me
the 'Live 48fps'..that's Cinematic...''.'s all 'traditions/codes/languages' one or green means another culture/ or green
means something else...

I think the closest we get to 'cinematic' (in the 'traditional' code/sense that is to the Western world) is a combination of things :

- 24 frames per second.
- 2K resolution or higher (1920x1080 HD minimum), below that it can start to look 'low cheapcamcorder home video-look' rather than 'film-look/35mmm look', this
associated with amateurism and not with film (since film avoids 'visual' amateurism by going full-pin in resolution; the higher the resolution
the sharper your image and more contrast/vivid/coloring..we start To See Something (clearly)...that helps a lot, instead of seeing pixel garbage at low res).
- As some said, deep constrat is crucial to make those details come 'deep blacks' matter greatly (unless you want to crush your blacks
on purpose as a stylistic choice) because they reveal the 'details'/Constrats in the dark pixel areas which help to 'define' the shapes/silhouettes
of the actors/ creates a 'popping' effect; like the image 'pops' to your eyes 'In 3D'' (it's a 2D HD video image..but it feels
'3Dissh' by the 'depth' you get from the contrats/blacks and the 'DOF' (Depth-Of-Field') by your lens (the blurring of the background to
make objects be selectively in the 'foreground' or 'background'..the camera lens work exactly like a human eye len..what it sees closely
is sharp...the rest in the backgroudn is blurred out (Ex: put your finger very close to your eye and focus on will notice that the
background is blurred...if you focus at the background.. your close finger (to your eye) will become blurred (because you switched focus to the background).
This 'in=and=out' of focus / the DOF and creates this deep 'Depth 3Dish effect' that is greatly used in films, especially. It Helps
to make a more 'Visually Cinematic' image.
- Sound is Crucial, SFX sound effects, foley...extreme foley makes a film far more Cinematic.. same thing for Atmospheric Music..this
elevates dramatically the 'Cinematicness' of the film
- And then there's the whole 'moving' the camera thing that creates the 'Cinematography' you use your camera can make or break
the 'cinematic' effect (EX: in certain films like Avengers or Pixar movies, sometimes the camera does things that 'Abnormal' because
it's a virtual camera..though it does look cool and sort of' cbecomes a 'code' in itself/ a 'cinematic code' doesn't 'Gel' with
the 'OLD' code...of the traditional cinema code cinematography : Real Cameras (constraied by laws of physics in reality)
can't fit in a tin can nor can they fly a 1000 miles an hour...
like in some virtual camera shots in these films that employ VFX (myself I have to be careful since my film is enterily VFXCG and I don't
want people to think that the camera moves 'are fake'....Fake camera moves (or let's put an another way: 'non-traditional/non-traditional cinematic code' camera moves
destroy the film and make it 'Anti-cinematic/Fake/Cartoonish/amateur'.
- Lighting, also vvvvery important, lighting helps to tell the 'mood/visual atmosphere' and play on people's emotions (bounced lighting helps to 'bring out the details/3-point studio lighting (key/fill/rim)').
It's another element like sound that is needed
to boost 'cinematic effect'. Awful lighting makes a dull film or just 'flat' (Flat Lighting). The story - sadly - becomes stale('er)...when
I mean it could Be The Exact SAme Story but with Good or Bad ask yourself which story you's same story just 'visually'
presented in a more 'Likeable-way''s a visual stimulus to 'engage' in the story, when it's 'pretty' looking - it helps.
Still.. as I said : it's only a Code..we could make Very bad Lighting Films...people would 'Dig Them' and they would become 'Cinematic/Tradition'.
- Budget, if look like crap TV's hard to 'save it'..and 'make it look cinematic'. Cinematic Code rhymes with (more than less) Budget (traditionnaly).
- you can create the 'cinematic look' by adding elements in the picture - like emulating 35mm pellicule 'film' look, by adding '35mm noise' emulation overlapped in a 2D post-prod software,
you can add these 'imperfections' (noise, chroma bleeding, lens distortions, dust, hot spots, bokeh DOF, blur rack effect, black crushing or not, overexposed/underexposed look, using LUT files (special 3d color files that emulate 35mmfilm negatives in 2d software), Lens Flares, enhancing motion blur, blurring elements on purpose, softening the image harsh aliased pixels (anti-aliasing), of a celluloid negative pellicule, you simulate it so it 'looks' like 35mm even if it isn't. (That's exactly
what I'm doing with my cg film, it's all fake but if it 'looks like cinematic 35 mm' pellicule. who cares, that's 'Cinema Magic/Wizardy/Tricks'.
- The rest like 'emotions'...the feel you get it from the story, actors, etc...still All Of This you can See It in a TV series
and it could look VERY Non-cinematic...
I think the visual look, the auditive presentation, the traditional story linear fashion, the 2K-8K 35mm/HD look, the High budget, the cinematography, the 'dream-effect 24 fps', the contrast/deep blacks,
the DOF (lens depth of field), the lighting....this is the (western cinema tradition-constructed) 'Cinematic' Effect'.

Just a 2 cent.

May 4, 2017 at 3:02PM, Edited May 4, 3:02PM


I think a cinematic image is first and foremost intentionally designed: the framing, camera movement, lighting, production design, etc. are all chosen and designed to create an emotional effect.
There are some things that not every film has, but that I would call "cinematic":
•Wide screen format
•Controlled lighting - properly exposed, nothing clipped or crushed by accident
•Camera motion - most shots have moving camera, very intentionally, and usually extremely smooth; or if handheld, then just the right amount of life
•Wide vistas - giving a sense of great space, depth, perspective; shot with a crane or aerial platform
•Shallow depth of field - still says "cinematic" to me
•24fps - natural motion blur
•Slow motion - graceful
•Planned shots - keyframing from one shot to another (a tracking single shot of someone walking stops on a 2-shot for the start of a dialogue, for instance) - these have that elegant, intentional, designed blocking and camera movement that only occurs in cinema
•Framing - creating frames that look like works of art or exquisite photographs. Those don't happen by accident (usually) - they are meticulously crafted, and show real artistry. They may require months of planning with director, locations, story board artist, and DP.
•Stylized color - intentional and appropriate to the story, controlled color palette (including production design: sets, props, wardrobe) lighting, and color grade. Think how stylized, almost duotone films like The Matrix (green) or the Underworld series (blue) of films looks - or The Illusionist (yellow). Or Amelie vs. Days of Heaven. All precisely controlled color palettes.
Those all say "cinematic" to me. There's also the sound, etc., but I think we're talking about cinematography.

May 5, 2017 at 8:17AM, Edited May 5, 8:31AM

Sandy Chase

For me, a cinematic image is one that communicates an idea in visual terms. It isn't just passively recording actors going about their business. It communicates a concept/emotion/mood through framing, lens choice, movement and lighting which re-inforces, comments on or contradicts what is happening on screen.

May 5, 2017 at 1:32PM


Art Adams: Defining “The Cinematic Look”
I know what it is when I see it. Describing it is much harder…

October 11, 2017 at 12:49PM, Edited October 11, 12:49PM

Scott Simmons

Love you guys. What Dick Pope said almost at the end, that's it for me. It's searching always for the best. Of course this is relative, but that's what we have to go for. The best story, the best version of the script, the best position for the camera, the best of everything. And always answering the question: "why". Here where I am it's so hard to convince people to go for the magic. And always present, and now more than ever, Jean-Marc Selva's point: beautiful images is not what we're (necessarily) looking for, it's all about the story. In fact, we're so bored by beauty already that what we really want is truth. This doesn't mean a washed-out realistic image, it means emotional truth, psychological truth. European cinema tried to go for physical truth with realistic imagery and totally missed the point of story telling with the tools available to us (lighting, sound, motion, to create emotion).

September 20, 2019 at 6:33AM

Juan Pennisi