How to Achieve Cinematic Look of Your Film

There has been  a lot of misunderstandings what film look really is. People are often confusing it with Using LUT. There is little bit more to that. In simple words there is no shortcuts. If you want your project look cinematic like top Hollywood movies, you going to have to work and do some research before hitting record button in camera. Think of Film Look as a cocktail blend. You miss one ingredient and your Manhattan won’t taste the same. Same principal could be applied to Film. Everyone now days chasing Film Lut’s. Magic easy solution to make shitty footage look incredible. Some love luts, some hate them. In this article I am going to break down everything in depth and provide “hopefully” easy steps for you how to get your project to the next level. As most of you, myself including, I always try to learn something new. Am going to cut the foreplay and go straight to business now.

Ingredients for Cinematic Look

Here is the recipe for achieving same look like you see in popular movies. (please note that every movie have something different) but I am going to try to cover as much as I can.

1. Every project starts with good story (script) – It’s amazing how many shitty movies are out there. I personally filmed many crappy movies myself which am not proud of. Point is, learn on your mistakes and grow as an artist. Good movie starts with good foundation. Good script is the key. If you are writer or potential Director or Director of Photography read the script. Think if it makes sense to you. How does it feel reading ? Can you imagine this movie on the big screen ? Are people going to be interested watching it ? I’ve seen some scripts that are so hideous, that I sometimes wonder if person who wrote it, read it himself, or they so in love with themselves that their turds made out of solid gold and diamonds. Film industry is full of shit to be brutally honest. There are tons of worthless talent out there that doing amazing job at making themselves look important and great. Make sure you won’t fall for that. If you write your own story, make it interesting. Cut all the detectives and zombies annoying genres. Be real with yourself. Write a good story. Develop the characters, give them some background. Make it interesting. Ask your friends or family that not in the business to read your script. Tell them to be honest with you. I see every single day fake comments on the Facebook and other social networks how amazing people films are, when in reality their movies are total garbage. Don’y be afraid to face the truth. It is only going to make YOU ! better as an artist or writer. If everyone going to be telling you how amazing you are, meanwhile you actually suck, you will never learn. You will be doing same crappy stuff thinking its good. So start your project with a good script !

2. Character Development (Actors) – Script and Actors are the engine room of the film. When writing a story develop a strong characters. Give them some nice background. If you doing film with somebody who is actor, talk to them, maybe you will be able to write character that fits your friend. Tarantino does it. He writes sometimes his movie characters with certain actors in mind. There is no particular way of doing it. Just make sure your actors are strong. Make sure they fit. Make sure those actors are actually going to do research and get in the role before the filming starts. I know ton’s of actors who will never admit that, but they never got in the character, they probably read their part night before watching some tv show. That’s what separates professional Hollywood actors from the amateurs. Look for example at Heath Ledger. Poor guy was locking himself in hotel room, doing his own research, wrote a diary, just to get into Joker character. From years of doing indie films, I noticed how boring most amateur actors are. Their performance is dry, no sparkle, nothing. No proper eye contact nothing. It feels like theater play. That is one of the killer factors of any films. You may have amazing story but if your actors can’t act, movie is ruined. Pay attention to casting. Even if you have low budget or no budget film. You can still get great actors.

3. Casting and Crew – Third most important aspect of successful film recipe. Find people that can do it and you actually seen their work. Be careful of recommendations. Do your own research. Ask around, see what people say versus what you see on people’s reel. Give amateurs a chance. You will be surprised how amazing some newbies can be. Film process is about having passion. Not everyone who is in the industry have that passion. You will achieve much better results by having passionate newbie in the crew vs someone who look like pro and doesn’t give a damn. Pick the right cast and crew, and most important ! keep it small ! Keep your crew as minimal as possible. Its faster and easier working in the smaller crews. You don’t need bunch of assistance’s running around. Get essential crew, make sure those people are solid and you gonna be golden. That recipe work’s not only for smaller or no budget films, but for some commercial work as well.

4. Pre-Production – Practically doesn’t exist in amateur film making. Absolutely essential part of successful films. Get it done. Have a meeting in the right place, don’t pick a bar when everyone gonna be drinking. Don’t schedule meetings just to schedule them. Do work ! I’ve gone to dozens of meetings at the coffee shops, bars even strip club once ( which I had no idea until I got there ) Be productive at those meetings. Figure out logistics of the shoot. Make sure everyone on the same boat. Talk over the script, don’t be afraid to make changes. Most important get rid of ego. Ego’s ruin projects. I see it all the times. Also don’t be blind and learn how to take suggestions in the right way. Make sure all technical aspects are covered. Frame rates, aspect ratio, lenses etc. Design a color palette with your Director of Photography. Figure out how you want your movie to look before shooting it. Very important, makes colorist job much easier at the end as well.

5. Location Scouting – Very important ! Its gonna be look of your film. Find locations that support your story. Look for cinematic places. Make sure Director and Director of Photography are with you. Find something that will make your film stand out. Try to be unique. Get rid of boring crappy cliches like Bedroom or Living. Its way overdone. If your story has it, decorate it in unique way. Don’t be afraid being creative. Don’t be afraid moving few pieces of furniture around. Filmmaking is about being creative.

6. Hierarchy – This one is pretty straight forward, but ! People always break it. If a gaffer in the back trying to whisper about how he thinks camera angle is bad, or sound guy trying to push his opinion out loud….sorry you got shitty crew. Those people need to do their job and keep their mouths shot. When that happens it follows like a domino effect. Next thing you know everyone start talking and give their opinions out loud. You instantly loose your credibility as director and most likely your movie gonna go down to shit from that point. Have a strict Hierarchy. If people talk and you overheard it, talk to them in private and make sure they won’t do that again. If they keep doing it. You gonna have to let them go. Its unprofessional and only ruins your film. You have people for a reason on the project. If someone trying to sabotage shooting, you have to do something about it. Its very common in the amateur film making.

7. Camera Work and Lights – Make sure your DP or you don’t shoot entire film on the tripod which happens all the times in the indie world. Give camera some life. Make sure camera motion supports the story. You don’t need expensive rigs or cranes. Simple shoulder rig will do miracle if you know how to use it, however any extra pieces of gear will only make it better. Also don’t over use it. If you get a crane for example, make sure you use it when it needs to be. Don’t try to make every shot a crane shot because you have it. Setup some lights if you have it. If not, you can get amazing shots without any extra lighting. You will be amazed how incredible some practical lights can look if you know what you are doing. Use some bounce boards to shape light. Make sure your subject has enough light to make him or her standout from the background. Use negative fills to create contrast. Utilize foreground and background to create depth. Fake foreground if you need to. Put some vase in front of the camera, it will immediately make it look more dimensional. Try not to film by the wall. You will loose dimension and most likely your shot gonna look like crap. Make sure only people involved in shooting is Director and Director of photography. Everyone else can keep their opinion to themselves. If you don’t know how to make next shot, take a second. Talk to your DP in private. Don’t announce entire film crew that you have no idea what to do next.

8. Lenses, Depth of the Field and Filters – One of the most common myth about achieving cinematic look comes down to shooting everything wide open. Total nonsense. Look at any movie. How often you see background totally washed out ? You making a movie here, not a corporate video. Expose your camera appropriately. Use light meter or third party camera monitors like SmallHD orAtomos. They have false colors and scopes that will help you to expose your image properly. Depth of the Field is very important to support your story, but don’t shoot everything wide open. Remember balance everything. Pick some nice prime lenses, if you don’t have them or can’t afford them, you can get away with one good zoom lens. Most focal lengths you going to be filming are between 18-50mm. Keep that in mind.

9. Sound recording and Foley – Sound is extremely important. Make sure its recorded good on set and you don’t have to do voice over. Because voice over requires really good skills as for the actors so as the recording specialist to match. Do Foley in your film. All Hollywood films are foley. There are tons of libraries online you can buy. We filmed Commercial for Forte Headphones and couldn’t record sound on location  because of static interference from the power lines. So I end up mixing everything together in post. You can take a look at the commercial HERE !

10. Shoot LOG and External Recorder – If you can or budget allows. Make sure to shoot your film in log. First of all log space will help to preserve more information when filming, as well as you gonna get 10bit video vs 8bit crappy h264 codec that ruins footage and on top of that it will burn rec709 colors to it. So if you want to come up with creative look of your film forget about it. There is a huge difference in color grading when it comes to 8bit and 10bit and log vs rec709.

11. Good Editing – As complicated as editing is for some, its pretty straight forward. Cut it so it has life to it. Don’t try to utilize all footage that been shot just because you feel like you need to use it. Make sure director sits next to the editor so all decisions are confirmed and final. Its always hard gong back after months and try to fix something later. Edit and Lock it.

12. Color Grading – Color grading is like a paint job for film. Its one of the most important components in achieving cinematic look. Colorists are like magicians. They can do some incredible stuff with the footage. As I mentioned before, film look should be determined in pre-production so all the colors are matching and compliment each other. For some reason, color grading is one of the most Under-looked processes in film making. I have seen some amazing amateur films that visually looked like crap because nobody bothered hiring real colorist. Editor did it himself. Color grading is the last piece of the puzzle before movie is going to be published. Get it done and get it done well.

 

 

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Aram K

Photographer, Cinematographer, DI Colorist at FILM LUT
Fashion, Portrait and Commercial Photographer.
DI Freelance Film Colorist.
San Diego - Los Angeles - WorldWide