What Does "Cinematic" Mean Anymore?

'Tree of Life'Credit: Fox Searchlight
What is a movie supposed to look like? 

Our relationship with cinema has been in flux since the Lumiere brothers pointed a camera at a train and let the film roll. Across the 20th and into the 21st centuries, human beings have come to define life moments and explain complex concepts through the power of the moving image. Movies tell us about love, life, happiness, social justice, and morality the same way novels and books informed those who came before them. 

But as technology raced alongside cinema, we saw the concepts in film translate to television, streaming, YouTube, video games, and every other visual medium we've created. This changed and possibly distorted what it means to be "cinematic."

Check out this video essay from Patrick (H) Willems and let's talk after the jump. 

What Does "Cinematic" Mean Anymore? 

When we're talking about movies (and cinematic TV), we're talking about a visual medium. Unlike plays or novels, the cinema can take you somewhere and show you something.

It does not have to rely on dialogue, it can use different shots or camera angles to inform the viewer. It can play with aspect ratios and freeze frames to communicate emotions and plot points. This is all cinematic language

"Cinematic" Definition 

Strictly speaking, Merriam Webster says cinematic means "relating to, suggestive of, or suitable for motion pictures or the filming of motion pictures cinematic principles and techniques cinematic special effects."

To be cinematic, there has to be a deliberate hand guiding the visuals. And another level of artistry that is planned and scripted. 

Cinematic Movies 

In the video above, we learned that in most cases, the word "cinematic" refers to the way we feel about something we're watching. Does this feel like the movies? It could be something happening to us in our lives or something happening while we stream a movie at home, but cinematic language is so pervasive in our brains that it creates a thought process, allowing us to judge every moment of our lives against the things we have seen on screen. 

Are all movies cinematic? Probably not. Some films are shot just for television and done with coverage that makes it look static, play-like, and not fit for the big screen. Not every movie made has the visual language and complexity to be called cinematic. 

But in turn, not only movies have the power to be cinematic.  

Has the concept of "cinematic" evolved? 

As I said in the opening, we've had over 100 years of cinematic experiences. It's hard to put exactly into words, but you know something is cinematic when you feel it. As Scorsese wrote in the New York Times, cinema takes risks and locks you into something you've never seen before. That definition has changed in only a few decades, and now can be applied to some television as well. 

As professor and scholar, Deborah Jaramillo wrote in chapter 4 of Television Aesthetics and Style:

"'Cinematic’ should be a contentious word in the field of television studies. It should raise the eyebrows of anyone who thinks and writes about television; instead, it has become commonplace for scholars and popular critics to use the term as shorthand when discussing the complex visual and aural style in scripted series such as The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad. ‘Cinematic’ connotes artistry mixed with a sense of grandeur. A cinematic movie is one that requires a theatrical viewing in order to extract every ounce of visual and aural depth from it. The term is reserved for films that reveal the exploitation of filmmaking technologies in the service of skill and creative vision. It is an inherently positive, even boastful word that many people rally around and ascribe to the best of the best on TV. The use of the term ‘cinematic’ to describe sophistication and beauty on television."

This sophistication is taking over television. While there are still multicam shows that thrive on shooting and building in the edit, many television dramas are now working toward being more cinematic. They have larger budgets, clear intent behind camera moves, and instead of thriving on coverage, they're testing particular angles and theories, bridging the gap between a director and writer medium to find a cohesive vision. 

As critics  and  wrote in Vulture, "It’s a matter of judgment and discernment, of having a vision as well as a plan, making particular choices for particular reasons, and letting those choices guide how a scene is shot. Who is the scene about? What is the scene about? And how can the direction (and editing and music and cinematography) reinforce this, overtly or subtly, in ways that go beyond simply pointing lots of cameras at a room full of actors and cutting among them as they talk?"

Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=108&v=g0p_n_a__qA&feature=emb_title

Summing Up the Meaning of "Cinematic"

As you can see, the definition of "cinematic" has changed over the years. As we continue to revolutionize the way we consume stories, more nuance will be brought within the word itself. As video games, web series, and other forms of content begin to conform to aspect ratios, edits, and angles, we're going to see an unprecedented era where cinematic language takes over every screen we use day-to-day. Even our smartphones present content in widescreen format now. 

I look forward to seeing where this definition can go and encourage you to post your own theories in the comments. 

Where do you think cinematic works will take us in the future?      

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4 Comments

For me, cinematic means whatever looks like a blockbuster movie: wide shots, usually anamorphic but not always, great kodak film color AND texture/acutance (which usually means extra softness with grain). Also, a respectable amount of shallow depth of field, but NOT an extreme amount (as it's usual these days on HBO dramas).

Unfortunately, on youtube, anyone using slow motion dubs their video "cinematic". It's not. It's just slo-mo.

Interestingly, the image on this article, from Tree of Life, is not very cinematic to me. In general, Malick's newest movies don't look cinematic to me. They're way too wide and without a shallow depth of field, and when he pans the camera with that ultra wide lens, he gives me a headache. Terminator 2, Indiana Jones, The Matrix feel truly cinematic to me instead.

September 10, 2021 at 8:48AM

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Eugenia Loli
Filmmaker, illustrator, collage artist
724

Cinematic used to be black bars on a 4:3 video. Then it was 35mm DOF, teal and orange grading, film grain, 11+ stops of dynamic range, 4K, gimbals, drones, anamorphic lenses and at the moment it is haliation. Whatever the next thing is, people will misuse it in a desperate attempt to make their video stand out and look more "professional". Even golden hour shoots, slow motion and colored lights has been used to such an extent that it has become a cliché. To me cinematic is whatever pulls the audience in with great storytelling. Ooh -- and good sound! Always good sound.

September 11, 2021 at 1:13AM

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STORY!

September 12, 2021 at 1:49AM

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Jerry Roe
Indie filmmaker
1570

For me, it's a letter box and a good ND filter.

September 12, 2021 at 8:25AM, Edited September 12, 8:25AM

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Sketkh Williams
StoryArtist
229