Achieving the Film “Look”

What really makes the difference in achieving the look of film in the digital age? A cinematographer proposes his answer.

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Traditionally, motion pictures shot on 35mm film have a certain “look.” Ostensibly, this “look” is achieved with digital cameras by shooting at 24 frames per second, with no more, or less, than two shutter exposures per frame, a shallow depth of field, with a field of view and dynamic range relatively similar to that of human vision. So, we can say 24 fps, 1/48 or 180º shutter, an exposure in the Super 35 or Academy 35 standards no more narrow than T5.6, and a lens length somewhere around 28mm in the previously mentioned standards.

But, anyone can do this.

The thing you see mentioned less is lighting for drama, interesting composition, motivated blocking, when to be subtle, when not to be subtle, etc.; all measured appropriately in the service of advancing the story. Production design, costume design, and other departments all align as part of a film’s visual language to advance the emotion of the story.

When done well, all are seamless and never thought of; never does a good movie scream out “look at me!” in terms of how well someone did their job with the design or build or performance. The audience is looking and committed to living briefly in the world projected before their eyes by commenting on how well they were transported there. Only afterward and on subsequent viewings should an audience be allowed to think, “gosh, those buildings are well designed.” Or, “I wonder how they got those cars to fly.” The suspension of disbelief is only as good as the subtlety of the work of the motion picture crew. Later, you can exclaim, “the person who designed those costumes should get an award.” The audience should not be imagining what lens was used, where the matte painting ends or what other movie they saw that actor in.

Therefore, I propose that suspension of disbelief created by a well-executed plan involving craftsmanship, artistry and storytelling, is as important to achieving “the film look” as any of the technical aspects. Remember, our role as filmmaker, particularly as a cinematographer, is a heady combination of science and art. Those are our tools more than any frame per second.

I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

By Jason R. Johnston

Jason is an award-winning cinematographer, and director of commercials, branding films, native content, music videos, documentaries, and narrative films. As a full-time freelancer, he can be hired to DP or direct almost any project you have in mind. He is based in Sparta, Tennessee, and ready to travel for any gig.

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