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Allow me to step inside your head for a moment.
When looking back on the short films and media you’ve made, and looking forward to those you wish to make, among all the various challenges surrounding story and script, budget and logistics, there is one burning question:
How do I make my work look more cinematic?
Did I guess right?
Don’t worry, you’re not unique in this question. Low-budget indie filmmakers the world over have all mulled and pondered this conundrum, and, lucky for you, we’ll talk about some cheap ways to take your work from Main Street to Hollywood Blvd… visually speaking.
Now the obvious thing is to use lighting to create a cinematic look. But since this is such a huge topic, it needs a series of separate articles, and will not be included in this.
If you’re interested in learning more about cinematic lighting, I suggest you start with this How To Use Low-Key Lighting For Dramatic Effect.
With that, let’s get into ten tips to make your work more cinematic.
1. Shoot at 24 Frames Per Second
The mainstay of filmmaking for as long as filmmaking has existed, setting your camera to shoot in 24 frames per second goes a long way toward achieving that ‘film’ look.
The not-quite smooth yet not-quite choppy appearance of 24 frames is what our eye has been trained to see when going to the theater. This, along with many of the other tips I will list below, has been dictated to us by technology itself. We associate 24 frames per second with cinema because cinema has mostly always been shot in 24 fps.
Cranking the frames up to 30 or higher to “smooth out” your image will lose that inherently filmic feel, so stick with 24 unless you’re running slow-motion video, or are changing up the frames as an artistic choice.
2. Keep a Shutter Angle of 180 Degrees (a.k.a. Set Your Framerate To Double That Of Your Framerate)
To most closely imitate the way the human eye processes motion, the general rule of thumb is to shoot with a shutter speed double that of your framerate.
So, if shooting at 24 frames per second as stated above, then you should set your shutter speed to 1/48th, or as close to that as possible if your camera doesn’t have that as a setting.
If you’re working on a cinema camera or a smaller DSLR or mirrorless camera, which allows you to work with shutter angle instead of shutter speeds, you should set the shutter angle to 180 degrees. A 180 degrees shutter angle corresponds to a shutter speed, which is double the frame rate.
Shutter angle refers to the relationship between your frame rate and shutter speed. Its origins come from the way the shutter works in the traditional film cameras.
If you want to learn more about the difference between shutter angle and shutter speed, I would recommend you read our article: How to Choose the Right Camera Settings for Video Production, which explains this in more detail.
A shutter angle of 180 degrees or shutter speed of double the frame rate will keep the footage pleasing to the eye by using just the right amount of motion blur viewers are used to seeing. Too low of a shutter speed and we’ve got too much blur, too high and the footage will look too crisp and jerky.
So, where did these arbitrary numbers come from? From the same place as 24 frames per second.
People have become accustomed to film looking a certain way, and though we are in the digital age, we mimic the way celluloid was shot and projected decades ago. Had 50 frames per second and a 75-degree shutter angle been the norm when film started, we’d be associating those numbers with a more cinematic look today instead.
So, remember: set your shutter speed to double that of your framerate or your shutter angle to 180 degrees for a more cinematic look.
3. Use a Cinematic Aspect Ratio
This one deals with those coveted black bars on the top and bottom of the screen that go a long way in making footage seem more filmic. There are two main aspect ratios that films today use: 2.39:1 and 1.85:1.
2.39 is that classic widescreen look, used in adventure films, thrillers, sweeping outdoor epics, etc. It creates a sense of scale and wonder, and is, therefore, best suited to films with grand stories. Think Lord of the Rings, or Avengers: Endgame.
1.85 is for films on a smaller scale. Very close to the 16:9 widescreen, this look works for comedies, dramas, anything that wouldn’t need those long shots of scenery with hundreds of extras.
Both of these looks are preferable to 16:9 when shooting short or feature film, so decide which fits your story and go for it.
4. Use a Shallow Depth of Field
Have you ever looked at a shot in a movie where the actor’s face is perfectly in focus, but the background is softly blurred out in a wonderful mix of colors and lights, and thought, “Gosh that’s gorgeous”? That’s using a shallow depth of field.
Basically, depth of field (or DOF) is the range of your shot that is in focus. This can be manipulated by using lenses with different focal lengths or by changing the f-stop of a lens. Shallow depth of field is a very short focal distance, meaning that a very small amount will be in focus, while the majority of the shot will be blurred out.
This shallow look greatly enhances the visual quality of a film and is very pleasing to the eye to boot.
It’s not just for looking pretty, though. Directing the viewers’ attention to specific points in the frame are the bread and butter of visual storytelling. Shallow depth of field is the main technique in doing this since it literally makes everything around your subject blurry. It’s the clearest indication of where you want your audience to focus their eyes in that shot.
5. Shoot RAW
When shooting with any camera, it usually has a default compression container to deliver footage in, such as MOV, MP4, WMV, etc. Allowing your camera to automatically compress shot footage into deliverable containers such as this will inevitably lose you some pixel information right off the bat.
This most often translates into a loss of quality in the deep blacks or bright whites of your image.
Rather than let the camera dictate your compression settings, you can set it to shoot RAW.
What this means is the camera will be recording raw pixel information in an uncompressed, or lossless, format, guaranteeing you the highest image quality your camera can produce.
This will saddle you with some enormous file sizes, but having access to the full image and quality range of your camera is worth it, and you can decide how to compress it yourself later in post-production.
6. Use Prime Lenses
Many kit lenses and cheap lenses on the market today are what we call zoom lenses. They have changeable focal lengths, and you can zoom them in and out flexibly when shooting. The downside to this is that it will never be as crisp and clear when in focus as a prime lens.
Prime lenses are lenses designed for only one focal length, and therefore when in focus, they offer unparalleled clarity and crispness to the image. To really shoot some breathtaking images, try and shoot exclusively with prime lenses.
This is the priciest option on our list so far, as prime lenses can often be priced in the thousands of dollars, but it is possible to find some affordable prime lenses in the couple hundreds, such as the Canon 50mm 1.8.
Think of it this way: A zoom lens is a jack of all trades, but a master of none, whereas a prime lens is a master of its trade. Which one would you trust?
7. Be Aware of Frame Composition
When shooting your scene, do you place your subject right in the center of the frame like a YouTube vlogger? If you answered yes, this needs to change if you want your shots to be more cinematic.
A quick fix is to follow the Rule of Thirds for frame composition. The Rule of Thirds is just a fancy way to describe dividing the frame by two vertical and two horizontal lines. Most cameras have a setting you can turn on to bisect the monitor with these lines, making it even easier to improve the balance of your image.
The idea behind the Rule of Thirds is that the most important elements of your image should fall into the area where the horizontal and vertical lines bisect each other, placing them off-center in your frame. This creates a more “natural” image that is pleasing to the eye and forces you to creatively work with the negative space surrounding your subject.
Frame composition is a big factor that separates decent footage from great footage, and it goes a long way in making a visually pleasing image that your viewers will actually enjoy watching.
8. Shoot with an HDR Camera
HDR stands for High Dynamic Range. This is essentially just a camera that can capture very high-quality images in both low-light and bright, highly exposed situations.
HDR cameras will give you those deep blacks and sharply detailed whites that would look murky or blown out on lesser cameras.
To give your image the largest range of color and contrast, an HDR camera is a big help without the use of post-production.
Now, up until a few years ago, getting your hands on an HDR camera was difficult and pricey, but today you can reliably rent or buy HDR cameras for very affordable rates that work within indie budgets.
9. Use LUTs for Color Grading
Color grading is an important part of stylizing your footage and emphasizing a specific tone. It also gives your footage a professional look and feel. Color grading is also a fairly difficult process involving color wheels, histograms, RGB curves, and a host of other sliders that can take a long time to figure out if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Since this isn’t a grading tutorial, we won’t go into that. Instead, let’s talk about LUTs.
LUTs are preset grades, kind of like templates, that can be bought or downloaded for free in some cases. They quickly grade your image with a predesigned aesthetic and can save you tons of time by instantly giving you the color scheme you’re looking for.
If you want to learn more about LUTs, I recommend you read our guide: Look, LOG, LUT, White Balance, Picture Profile & RAW.
Look for some LUT packages online, download them and start experimenting with a few and see how they change your footage. Most LUTs can also be tweaked and changed to exactly pinpoint the appearance you’re looking for.
Using LUTs, you can quickly and easily stylize your film in a professional and visually appealing way.
10. Film Grain Effect
This last one is just icing on the cake and subject to personal preference. I personally like a little grain with my image, simulating that “shot on film” effect. I think it adds texture and grit to my footage, and that’s nothing if not cinematic.
The film grain effect is present in most editing software and does just what its name suggests: adds grain to your footage. This can be color grain or greyscale grain. It can be large and dense grain or small and sparse grain. In short, it simulates that old pre-2000s celluloid look that all films were working with before the advent of digital cameras.
You can also use the ‘Dust and Scratches’ effect that simulates all the little minute damages and imperfections that film reels inevitably suffer when handled. Taken together, you can convincingly simulate your footage being shot on film.
Go check out The Matrix for one of the more modern examples of films actually shot on film if you want to look for these effects occurring naturally.
Toy around with this one and give your footage a little throwback to the good old days.
Pick and Choose or Go All In
Feel free to use the ten tips above in any combination you wish, but, like a Chicago-style hot dog, your footage will work best with “everything on it”.
Taken together, these tips provide easy ways to make your footage look more professional, more visually attractive and more, well… like a movie. These tips are what separate a short video from a short film, and will give your footage the legitimacy of appearance that you are looking for.
Do you have any other tips to quickly boost the cinematic feel of short films or content? Please share with the rest of us and drop a comment below!
About the author
Nikola Stojković is a writer and filmmaker based out of Chicago. His short films have screened at festivals across the USA. When not shooting, he enjoys writing film reviews and playing his accordion, Fortunata.