How To Make Your Footage Look More Cinematic


I think one of the most asked questions from beginning filmmakers is, “how do I make my footage look more cinematic.”  Well, today we're gonna answer that question!

This text has been transcribed from the video above for the optimal reading experience

There’s a couple things that I want to clarify before we jump into this list.  First, what do we mean when we say that we want our footage to look more cinematic?  We can use a couple of different terms to mean something similar.  Cinematic, professional, high quality, delicious looking, etc.  But basically 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 just set for ourselves. How do we actually accomplish that?  The truth is that there’s not just a checklist of things that you do to automatically make that happen. It’s a skill that you’ll acquire over the course of your life that you’ll get better and better at the more time and effort you put in.  But we’ve gotta start somewhere, so today, we’re going to go over 5 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 actual practical steps you can take to make your independent, DIY, low budget footage look better.  So let’s start out with:

Create Depth

You might have heard before that shooting with a shallow depth of field is an easy way to make your footage look more cinematic fast.  And that’s because it does, it really helps.  But it’s not just because it’s a magical box you tick to make your footage look better.  It’s actually mostly because it’s a really effective shortcut to giving your shot depth.

Take a still frame from any of your favourite movies and chances are you’re going to see a shot that’s not filmed at a crazy low f-stop of 1.5.  What you will likely see through is a shot that feels similar because it has a foreground, a midground, and a background.  And somewhere in there you’re attention is being drawn to a point of focus. It gives you a point to look at while still being engrossed in another world.  

So how do you take this and apply it to your film.  There’s a couple easy ways.  Like mentioned at the start, you can drop your f-stop down 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 helps you to need to worry a little less about whether or not your background is distracting because it’s really blurred out.  But just be careful as the more wide open you shoot the harder it is to keep the focus on the point that you want.  

Unless your shooting against a flat wall, every shot you take technically has depth to it, you just can’t distinguish it until there are objects or things there in the scene.  You know what really helps to fill out that depth? Smoke! Or in our case, 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.

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 really a preferred method of coverage, because is not only gives you context for where your character is, but it also creates a really simple foreground to give your shot more depth.  But you can also achieve this same effect by putting anything else right near the lens.  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.

And 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.  We’ve got two lenses here that are stationary, and when we move the camera around, we see that they move at different speeds based on their distance from the camera.   And 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 do I mean 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.   

Putting combinations of these tips for depth together will really sell your footage as being more high quality and high budget.

Get Your Light Right

Let’s just stop for a second.  Lighting is such a huge category that we don’t think for a second that we can do it justice in just a quick overview.  So we’re just 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.

And step 1 is to shoot in a flat profile.  What this does is pretty much mutes everything in camera so that the sensor has a better chance of catching a better dynamic range of your scene.   

Dynamic Range can broadly be thought of as the range between maximum and minimum amount of luminance able to be picked up by your camera. Some cameras can handle a wide amount at once while others can only manage a smaller range at any given time.

Take our word for it, Dynamic Range is a HUGE influence to how cinematic your shot looks, and there’s a reason higher budgeted cameras have a wider dynamic range (show examples of cameras and prices)

There’s lots of different flat profiles you might have access to depending on your camera. S-Log, C-Log, Cinestyle.  But whatever you have access to, the end goal is to give you more flexibility in editing.

But that’s really all you can do technically to influence your camera’s dynamic range.  So the rest of what you have to do is influencing 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.  

For this we’re going 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 subjects 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 face.   If you’re shooting outdoors, you’ll likely run into a new problem, harsh undesirable shadows.  

There’s a couple ways you can go about solving this, but in general your goal is to make the light softer by diffusing it.  Using some sort of scrim or white sheet can be a really great DIY option.  And If you own one of these 5-in-1 reflectors, you’ve already got a great portable pop out solution for softening light on your talent.  This makes a huge difference how your actors will look on camera.

Speaking of Reflectors, if you want that 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 help bounce sunlight back into your subject’s face.   

This way even if your camera’s dynamic range isn’t crazy impressive, you can have that awesome back light without sacrificing seeing your subject’s expression. This simple trick to backlighting can infuse your scene with a crazy amount of production value with very little effort or money.

But if you have absolutely no gear to control your light with, another option is to you can 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 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.  And it has this beautiful golden glow to it.  

There’s been a few films over the years that have relied almost entirely on filming during golden hour.  It’s by far one of the least expensive ways to great looking shots that even the Pros still use.  

Aspect Ratio

This one is much more of a quick cheat than any of our 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.  But if you change it to something even just a little different, like 1:1.85, or 1:2.35 your eyes immediately see your footage as different.  

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, all because of its shape.  

Thankfully you can easily get a cinematic aspect ratio, and the feeling that goes along with it, a couple different ways.  You ca n add a crop effect to the top and bottom of your footage, add an aspect ratio overlay on a layer above, or actually shoot your footage in a more cinematic aspect ratio to begin with.  That last one will be dependant on the camera you shoot with.    

Whatever way you slice it, that simple addition can actually make a perceivable difference to your shot.

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 capture and shape it into the final product in terms of light and color.  Here’s the tough part. This is all a matter of subjective opinion.  But I’ll point you in the direction to start taking your color correction in a more “traditional cinematic” direction.

Every situation is different because each different film is trying to give a slightly different feel, tone, emotion, etc.

I’m not a colorist, and this is just a basic overview of my own experience, but generally, if you want to give your footage a more cinematic feel, you’re trying to give it 3 things: give it contrast, separate your points of interest (also known as making it pop), and if you’re filming people, skin tones.

To get started here, we have a sample clip that we want to make look more cinematic.  This shot was taken in a flat color profile so that it can capture as much as dynamic range as possible.  And there’s a couple things you can do to bring that out.  

Try and bring as much contrast into the picture without losing information.  A helpful tool to do this is the your waveform tool which will help you to see the brightest and darkest portions of your clip.  The top here shows 100,  which anything above that will just be pure white and indistinguishable.  At the bottom is pure black at 0.  So the goal is to separate out portions of your clip so that it fills out this graph but also doesn’t clip above the top, or drop below 0. As much as possible anyways.

At the beginning of the video you saw this clip go through a series of changes.  But if we look at those changes with the waveform monitor, we can see that as the changes take place, our graph becomes more spread out, and it fills up more of the empty space.

One of the easiest ways to get started with correcting in Premiere 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 section of luminance, so if you want to separate your dark sections 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 help to give more character and realism to your color, and finally, using the hue/saturation curve can give you control to enhance or pull back specific colors to give the particular look you want.  We used this to give our sky and ocean a more fantasy blue / teal color.  

But this is where skin tones can give you some problems if you’re pushing your color too much.  Few things can ruin your film look faster than making your human characters look not-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.  Thankfully we have a video where we went over this tool, specifically to achieve a classic teal / orange color grade, and that link to that is in the description below.

Its important to remember though, 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.

But wait, Color correction is usually the last step in the process, so what else did we miss.  Well this last one isn’t quite a traditional point you see on these sorts of lists.  Number 5 is that

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.  We could offhandedly include a lot of different points like, 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.  While some take a little more time to get right, like don’t neglect getting clean audio, because otherwise you’re audience will know right away the whole production is ammateur.  Or even editing it in a way that comes across as professional, which would require an entire course just in and of itself.

But there’s some other pieces 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 had amazing lighting, camera work, and the whole 9 yards, you’re still not going to get your audience to believe it.

So how do we break down this last section into a practical application.  Here’s just a couple of tips.  Don’t bite off more than you can chew.  If you have a brutal fight scene where people are getting beaten up like something out of fight club, make sure that 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 actually build a world that actually makes me believe you’re in the future.

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 write yourself a solution to make it something you can actually pull off.  If you’ve got 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 here is key.

This last point is all about writing smart, and making sure that whatever you choose to do is something that will actually produce a believable result.   If you’re just starting out, my suggestion would be to start simple.  1 location with a small amount of people or characters and, over time, branch out and get more bold.  

In the end whatever you choose to do, make sure you have the capability of making it look high quality.

The one last thing I’ll leave you with is an interesting situation I got to see play out recently.   A while back my wife and I shot a short film and released it on YouTube.  Nothing crazy.  But one year later, we had the pleasure of showing that same film to an audience in a movie theater.  What happened was...I was blown away by how much more professional it felt just being in that awesome setting, and assuming that it was able to be shown on a big screen.  It’s all an illusion.  No one needs to know how many or how few people there were on your set or how much money you spent on it.  If any.  So use that to your advantage.  Make your audience believe it with every frame you show them.

We hope you found this video helpful.  If you did, we’ve got lots of other tutorials for Premiere Pro, After Effects, and filmmaking in general!

You can also check out these great website presentation presets, many of which feature the effect we just went over:

Thank you so much for watching and we hope to see you in the next video!

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