One of the most asked questions that come from beginner filmmakers is, “how do I make my films look more cinematic?” Today, we’re going to go over five tips to help you make your next video look and feel more cinematic. We’re assuming that you’re not actually on a Hollywood set, so each of these points will include practical steps you can take to make your independent, DIY, or low-budget footage look super pro!
Part 1: What Does Cinematic Footage Mean?
There are a couple of things that need clarifying before we jump into this list. First, what does it mean when we say that we want our footage to look more cinematic? There are a couple of interchangeable terms we can use. Cinematic, professional, high-quality, sharp, etc. Essentially, the highest overall goal is to make your video look like what you see when you watch a feature film in a theater.
But that’s a high bar we set for ourselves. How do you actually accomplish it? The truth is that there’s no checklist of things to do to automatically make that happen. It’s a skill that you’ll acquire over the course of your editing life that you’ll get better at the more time and effort you put into it. But you’ve got to start somewhere, and the following tips with give you a solid head start.
Part 2: Tips to Make Cinematic Films & Videos
1. Create Depth
You might have heard that shooting with a shallow depth of field is an easy way to make your footage look more cinematic fast. That’s because it does! It really helps, and it’s mostly because it’s a very effective shortcut to giving your shot depth.
Creating depth basically means that you have one point of focus, and the rest is kind of out of focus, giving it a real 3D feeling. Take a still frame from any of your favorite movies. What you will most likely see is a shot that has a foreground, a midground, and a background. Somewhere in there, your attention is being drawn to a point of focus. It gives you a specific point to look at while still being engrossed in another world.
So how do you take this and apply it to your film? There are a few easy ways.
Drop Your F-Stop As Low As You Can
This will help you to center in on a very fine point of focus while creating more of a background out of anything that you have behind you. This also means you can worry a little less about whether or not your background is distracting because it’s really blurred out. Just be careful — the more wide open you shoot, the harder it is to keep the focus on the point that you want!
Unless you’re shooting against a flat wall, every shot you take technically has depth to it. You just don’t really notice it until there are other objects in the background.
Don’t have props? No worries! Do you know what really helps to fill out that depth? Smoke! Or, fake smoke or fog. This is a technique used all the time in Hollywood films, just in a variety of forms. It’s also one of the many reasons you see so many characters smoking in films. That smoke gives depth!
Put Something in the Way
Another subtle tip is to put something in front of your lens, just a little bit. This is one of the reasons an over-the-shoulder shot is a preferred method of coverage. Not only gives you context for where your character is, but it also creates a simple foreground to give your shot more depth.
You can achieve this same effect by putting anything else right near the lens. This could be a random object in your home, or it could be a tree branch if you’re shooting outdoors. As long as it’s not overly distracting, it likely won’t take much to give the illusion of depth.
Lastly, once you’ve put something in front of the lens, give your camera some motion. When you move your camera with a shot that has a lot of depth, what you’re going to get as a result is parallax. Parallax is when all the elements of your shot are moving around but at different speeds.
One of the best ways to take this to the max is a tip from Steven Spielberg himself. Use vertical lines in your shot. What is meant by vertical lines? Trees, buildings, street lamps, and literally anything else that has a vertical linear shape. This is because if you’re moving from side to side, vertical lines are the easiest way to display that you’re moving horizontally.
Combining these tips for depth will really sell your footage as being higher quality and bigger budget!
2. Get Your Light Right
Let’s stop for a second. Lighting is such a huge category that we can’t do it justice in just a quick overview. Instead, we’re going to offer some quick solutions that can help you out in a pinch to get better quality shots out of whatever camera you’re using.
Shoot in a Flat Profile
Shooting in a flat profile pretty much mutes everything in-camera, so that the sensor has a better chance of catching the best dynamic range of your scene.
Dynamic range can be thought of as the range between the minimum and maximum amount of luminance that your camera can pick up. Some cameras can handle a large amount at once, while others can only manage a small range at any given time. Take our word for it, dynamic range is a huge influence on how cinematic your shot looks, and there’s a reason higher budget cameras have a wider dynamic range.
There are lots of different flat profiles you might have access to, depending on your camera. S-Log, C-Log, Cinestyle, are a few that might sound familiar. But whatever you have access to, the end goal is to give you more flexibility in editing.
That’s really all you can do technically to influence your camera’s dynamic range. The rest involves changing your scene itself so that it’s optimized for the camera you’re shooting on. And a lot of that has to do with shaping and styling the light that you’re working with.
Use The Sun
For this tip, we’re encouraging you to take advantage of the best, brightest, and most desirable light you can get your hands on. And it’s free! It’s the sun.
Try and make sure that the exposure of your scene and the exposure of light on your subject’s face are somewhat comparable. If you don’t, you’ll either get a crazy silhouette or a blown-out background.
If you’re indoors, an easy solution is to have your characters facing an open window and use the incoming light to light their faces. If you’re shooting outdoors, you’ll likely run into a new problem — harsh, undesirable shadows. There are a few ways you can go about solving this, but your goal should be to make the light softer by diffusing it, which takes us to our next suggestion.
Reflectors will help you diffuse light. Using some sort of scrim or white sheet can be a great DIY option. If you own a 5-in-1 reflector, you’ve already got a great portable pop-out solution for softening the light on your talent. This makes a huge difference in how your actors will look on camera.
If you want a nice halo around your subject, a great way to go about doing that is to shoot with your subject’s back towards the sun and then bounce the light back into their face. You don’t need a fancy expensive reflector either — white paper, a white sheet, or anything that’s light and reflective can do the job.
This way, even if your camera’s dynamic range isn’t that impressive, you can have that awesome backlight without sacrificing seeing your subject’s expression. This simple trick to backlighting can infuse your scene with a crazy amount of production value with minimal effort or money.
Use Nature to Your Advantage
If you have absolutely no gear to control your light with, another option is to wait for the perfect time of day to let nature do its work for you. Wait for an overcast day so that the clouds make the natural sunlight soft and beautiful, or wait for the golden hour (right after sunrise, or right before sunset). This is the time of day where the light is more naturally spread out and distributed evenly over your scene. It has a beautiful golden glow to it!
Over the years, a few films have relied almost entirely on filming during the golden hour. It’s by far one of the least expensive ways (that even the pros still use) to get great-looking shots!
3. Aspect Ratio
This tip is much more of a quick cheat than any previous examples. Basically, you can trick your audience into seeing your footage as more cinematic by changing its aspect ratio.
Traditional DSLR footage is usually 16:9, which, when you bring it down to its lowest fraction, comes to 1:1.78. If you change it to something even just slightly different, like 1:1.85, or 1:2.35, your eyes immediately see the footage differently.
Think about what sort of feelings this kind of footage brings up. Vertical footage immediately tells you a lot about the shot (mostly that this kind of footage doesn’t belong on the big screen)! Even if you shot your DSLR footage in the same format as your vertical cell phone footage, you still get the same feeling that goes along with it, because of its shape.
Thankfully, you can easily get a cinematic aspect ratio (and the feeling that goes along with it) using a couple of different methods.
- Add a crop effect to the top and bottom of your footage
- Add an aspect ratio overlay on a layer above
- Shoot your footage in a more cinematic aspect ratio to begin with (this will be dependant on the camera you shoot with)
Whichever way you slice it, this simple tweak can actually make a perceivable difference to your shots, and therefore, to the overall cinematic feeling of your video.
4. Color Correction
You knew this one was coming. Color correction is a huge piece of this puzzle. This is where you take the image you captured and shape it into the final product in terms of light and color.
Here’s the tough part — color is a matter of subjective opinion. But we’ll point you in the right direction to start hitting the more accepted “traditional cinematic” look with your color correction. Keep in mind that every situation is different because each different film is trying to give a slightly different feel, tone, or emotion.
Generally, if you want to give your footage a more cinematic feel, you’re trying to achieve three things:
- Separate your points of interest (also known as “making it pop”)
- If you’re filming people, skin tones
Once you’ve started taking your shots in a flat color profile (as suggested above), there are a couple of things you can do to start bringing out that color.
Use Your Waveform Tool
The key is to try and bring as much contrast into the picture without losing information. A helpful tool to do this is the Waveform tool, which will highlight the brightest and darkest portions of your clip. Anything above 100 on your waveform will just be pure white and indistinguishable. The bottom, at 0, is pure black.
As you make changes to your clip, the waveform will spread out. The goal is to have it fill out the graph but not clip above the top or drop below 0. You can refer back to it after making changes to see how you’re doing with upping contrast but still keeping information!
Use the Lumetri Color Panel
One of the easiest ways to start color correcting in Premiere Pro is the Basics section of the Lumetri Color panel. To adjust the bright and dark portions of your clip, use exposure and contrast to make very basic changes. Don’t push it too much, because you can really fine-tune with your whites, highlights, shadows, and black sliders.
Each of these will control their respective sections of luminance, so if you want to separate the dark parts of your clip without influencing the brighter sections too much, adjusting shadows and blacks can give you that specificity.
Next, adding a bit of saturation can give life to your footage if you shot in a flat profile. Adjusting the white balance can provide more character and realism to your color. Finally, using the hue/saturation curve can give you control to enhance or pull back specific colors to give the particular look you want.
But, if you’re pushing your color too much, this is where skin tones can give you some problems. Few things can ruin your film look faster than making your human characters look non-human! Our suggestion would be to learn how to use the HSL Secondary section to isolate your skin tones and adjust them separately if you still want to push your color correction further.
It’s important to remember that the degree that you can push your footage in the edit depends entirely on how you shot it in the first place. The closer you can get your look in-camera, the happier you’ll be in the long run (and the less time you’ll have to spend editing)!
5. It’s All an Illusion
Movie-making is all a magic trick. Unless you’re watching a documentary, those characters aren’t real, the locations sometimes don’t even exist, and if you looked behind the scenes, you’d see lights and equipment everywhere, breaking the illusion.
Because that’s what a movie is — it’s a trick. So the last goal in all of this is to make sure you don’t remind your audience that they’re watching a movie.
This is a bit of a catch-all category. There are many technical points that could be included, such as:
- Shoot at 24fps and have your shutter speed double your frame rate (so that your audience sees your picture in a similar way they experience life through their own eyes).
Other points are pretty obvious, like:
- Don’t get a boom in the shot.
- Don’t get a behind-the-scenes sneeze on your audio.
- Keep your props relevant to the time period of the scene (looking at you Game of Thrones).
Some take a little more time and practice to get right:
- Make sure to get clean audio (otherwise, your audience will know right away the whole production is amateur).
- Edit in a way that comes across as professional (which would require an entire course just in and of itself).
But some other pieces that don’t often get recognized, like making sure that your audience will actually believe the story you’re telling. How many student films have you seen where the mob boss is played by a kid? It kind of breaks the illusion immediately. Even if you have amazing lighting, camera work, and acting, you’re still not going to get your audience to believe it.
So here are a few more practical tips for producing the most realistic movie.
Don’t Bite Off More Than You Can Chew
If you have a brutal fight scene where people are getting beaten up, make sure you have the capability to make the blood and makeup look realistic. If you want to put your characters in some kind of sci-fi world, make sure that you can build a world that actually makes your viewers believe you’re in the future!
Test Things Beforehand
If you’re not sure if you can pull it off, do some test shots and see what you’re capable of doing. If you don’t think you can make that shot look believable, scrap it, and rewrite the scene to make it something you can actually pull off. If you’ve got a main character who’s a millionaire, it’s way easier and cheaper to show them throwing around prop money than riding around in a private jet. Creativity is key here!
Write Smart and Start Simple
Make sure that whatever you choose to do is something that will actually produce a believable result. If you’re just starting out, the best suggestion would be to start simple — one location with a small number of people or characters. Over time, you can branch out and get more ambitious. In the end, whatever you choose to do, make sure you have the capability of making it look high-quality.
Movie-making is all about using creativity and innovation to share a story. Whether that story is real or fictional, writing, shooting, and editing something “cinematic” involves a certain amount of make-believe behind the scenes.
It’s all an illusion! Nobody needs to know how many or how few people were on your set or how much money you spent on it. Use that to your advantage! Make your audience believe it with every frame you show them. If you take advantage of these tips, you’ll be well on your way to making more cinematic videos and films.