These are the “cheat codes” to make any video cinematic

Jun 8, 2023

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

These are the “cheat codes” to make any video cinematic

Jun 8, 2023

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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The term “cinematic” means lots of different things to different people. There are a lot of people out there who believe it’s anything shot on full-frame with a shallow depth of field. Some think it’s anything shot with a super-wide 2.35:1 aspect ratio. These ideas are all a bit simplistic, though. They’re also usually wrong.

Sure, they might be contributing factors to the final piece, but simply using a shallow depth of field or a wide crop alone isn’t going to do the job. In this video, YouTuber and filmmaker Vuhlandes walks us through his process for creating cinematic footage with some easy “cheat codes”. And they work even with an old-school 4:3 aspect ratio.

Three cinematic “cheat codes”

One of the things I find quite interesting about Vuhlandes is that he often uses the older 4:3 aspect ratio for his videos. Yet, in today’s sea of 16:9 and 2.35:1 visual content, they still manage to work. In this video, there’s a mix of 16:9 and 4:3 footage. The main example he shows to pull everything together – the simple act of making breakfast – is in 4:3. This is because his “cheat codes” don’t depend on gimmicks like shallow depth of field or an ultra-wide aspect ratio. Just simple cinematic principles that have been around forever.

He posits that pretty much any activity we do in our daily lives can be made “cinematic”. And he’s not wrong. Almost everything we do as people has been shown off in movies and TV shows over the years from the mundane to the exciting. How do they do it? Well, Vuhlandes thinks he’s figured it out, and it boils down to three basic principles (and a couple of sidetracks).

Lighting

Lighting is first up. Lighting is the key to getting a “cinematic” look. If you watch a lot of movies or TV shows and think about the ones that reach out to you and pull you in, the lighting is always on point. Vuhlandes always tries to create what he calls a “cinematic triangle” with light, which he’s spoken about in more depth here. It relates to the position of himself, the subject and the light source to give him a pleasing and consistent look from shot to shot and throughout his work.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re using the available light in your environment or adding artificial light, the principles are the same. And there’s no one lighting setup that’s going to work for all shots in all situations. You’re going to need to switch things up a bit depending on the mood of your shot and how you want your viewer to feel when they see it. A backlit silhouette is going to have a very different vibe to a subject blasted with light from the front.

Composition

Composition is naturally the second part of the equation. Composition is something that we’re all forced to learn as photographers or filmmakers, with all kinds of rules. We’ve got the rule of thirds, the golden ratio, leading lines, diagonals, frames within frames, etc. But unless you understand them and know why those “rules” sometimes work, you don’t really know how to implement them well. There are a lot of unusual compositions that don’t really follow any of the established “rules” but work excellently for their intended purpose. Mr Robot is a perfect example of this.

Following on from composition is a brief mention of camera movement. How we move the camera is vitally important to keeping our subject’s focus on the screen without being knocked out of suspension of disbelief. There are at least two compositions to consider here. There’s the one we start from and the one we end with. But there’s also how our camera will transition from one to the other and what it will contain in between.

Sound Design

The final key ingredient isn’t about how it’s shot at all. It’s sound design. Our audible senses are just as important as our visual ones if we truly want to feel like we’re immersed in the world we’re seeing on-screen. Vuhlandes shows an example clip with the original sound recorded in-camera and once sound design is applied to enhance what we’re seeing. Sound design makes all of the difference in the world as sounds can make us feel in different ways an dreally draw us into what we’re watching.

Sound design is something I’ve been working on developing myself lately. It’s a lot easier if you’re able to record your own sounds for your work. It lets you get complete control over the sounds you want to add to your footage. All you need is a field recorder and a microphone. I use the Zoom H8 (buy here) along with either the Sennheiser K6/ME66 (buy here), Rode NTG5 (buy here) or Synco Mic-D2 (buy here).

What do you struggle with when going for “cinematic” videos?

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John Aldred

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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