Is My Camera Cinematic?

Like any person crazy about telling stories with images and sounds, I often find myself digging around the blogs and forums regarding cameras, and, even worse, allllll the youtube channels. Now granted – there’s a number of youtubers who really do put out some quality stuff about the craft (Every Frame a Painting comes to mind, as well as Cooke Optics’ channel), but there’s always a lot of individual creators who are well-intentioned but keep using a phrase that I almost exclusively hear or see online. “cinematic”

Talking about a lens, or a camera setup: “the images are just so much more cinematic.”

“buy this lens, it’s so cinematic”

What does that mean?

What makes something cinematic? Shallow depth of field? I guess Orson Welles’ famously deep shots make his work “not cinematic.”

The funny thing is, this term “cinematic” almost never comes up in film school – I think I’ve encountered one discussion on the topic, and the answer came up moot. Everyone has a hard time defining it. And I think this makes perfect sense, because the discussion always seems to range around a particular IMAGE. Is the IMAGE cinematic.

I think it’s impossible for a lone image to be, or not be, cinematic, because cinema is, by its own definition, contextual. Cinema is NOT still images, though it can use them. It is the art of the moving image, combined with sound, over time.

Eisenstein’s oft-quoted theory of editing, that the human mind infers story from one image to the next, is the defining idea of film. It is the combination of elements over time that creates the immersion of an audience in a cinematic experience. I don’t say immersion in story because there are cinematic experiences that aren’t about story, or that keep you at arm’s length from the story, but are still complete cinematic experiences in and of themselves.

What the hell am I doing? Now I’m throwing around this term “cinematic” after I’ve called into question its definition.

I guess I’m trying to walk myself up to a definition. There’s a famous photographer, name I don’t remember, who makes famously “cinematic” images. He even shoots them like a film set, with a full crew and lights and performers. And yeah, it looks like you’re looking not at a still from a movie: it replicates the immersive feeling of watching a movie. It implies a before and after of the image, it is not merely about the image in and of itself but of the implied surrounding images.

A movie is a waking dream, it pulls us into an experience that is total, that turns off the rest of the world for a time. There is a flow of images that carries us along.

So why then, is shallow depth of field considered by some to be a “cinematic” quality? If I could hazard a guess, it is because it 1) abstracts the background and foreground and thus 2) points out what is important in the image. And if you point out what’s important, from shot to shot, that’s one way to achieve a cinematic flow.

Intent. Is it intended to induce the state of immersion that cinema can achieve? Is it intended to guide the audience’s experience on a visual and aural journey? And thus, any tool that helps us do this is a cinematic tool. I’m writing this because I’ve fallen into this trap, that of using the tool or considering it to be superior because it makes it look like I have intent. So yes, depth of field can be cinematic, but only if you are aiming at the audience’s experience, not what looks kind of like movies you’ve seen.

That’s the director’s job – not only to direct the cast and the crew, but to ultimately direct the audience. Look at this, now look at this, now we are here, now he is doing that, here’s something you can’t quite see – want to understand it? Keep watching. You can’t control how people are going to react to a movie, but you can control the way they experience it.

So. Is that lens more cinematic?

It can be.

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