What makes a film look like a film // the art of cinematography

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Nicholai Vogel, Reporter

Why is it that when you see a screenshot from a film you’ve never seen or heard of, you still know it’s a film? We as a society have been unknowingly conditioned to the standard of the “film look” and we have been spoiled, to say the least. Most people would write off the differences between the visuals in big budget films and the visuals in a student film to be down to the camera alone. Films like Interstellar, Skyfall, Arrival, and Blade Runner 2049 treat audiences to visuals unparalleled by lesser developed films and lower budget productions alike. It would be easy to say that they look better simply because of the camera used to shoot them, and that’s what most people would say. But it’s nowhere near that simple. The reality is that out of the films I’ve selected, one of them was shot on 35mm film, and the rest were shot on the Arri Alexa series of cameras. But believe it or not, lenses matter more than cameras in most cases. For example, Interstellar (shot on 35mm film) was shot on Panavision C series anamorphic lenses. This gave the film it’s widescreen format and distorted imagery. Anamorphic lenses squeeze your image horizontally and (in editing) the images captured are stretched into a 2:39:1 aspect ratio. 

Blade Runner 2049 was shot on the Arri Alexa XT, with Arri Master Prime lenses. These help to capture the dream-like, colorful world the plot presented.  

The idea in your head while you’ve been reading this is probably that to make a good looking film you need millions of dollars in camera equipment, and to some extent, that is true. But let’s change the narrative for a moment, the two films I’ve talked about both had budgets exceeding one hundred million USD. Out of this budget, less than 0.6% of it was spent on camera equipment. And the remainder of each films respective budget was spent on lights, software, costumes, concept art, and the research & development of the look they sought to achieve. This could be estimated at approximately 12-20% of each films respective budget. To put it a little more simply, when a film costs as much as a mansion, the cameras inaccessible to the average filmmaker are lampshades to the big budget producers and directors. 

So what about filmmakers with low budgets trying to make visually appealing work? There is obviously still hope. Not only is high end cinema grade equipment becoming more available with cameras like the Sony a7iii, Panasonic Lumix s1H and Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 6k, it’s easier now than ever to really learn cinematography. High end software like Hitfilm 4 and Davinci Resolve 16 have free, capable versions of their software, allowing anyone with a laptop from the last decade to learn editing, color grading, and all of the other overlooked but vital areas of cinematography. 

A good example of all this put to test would be my own work. (right, screenshot from a music video I directed. DC Malice – Fools Gold) All of the equipment was bought used or thrifted. It’s easy to get good at cinematography when you have to work twice to three times as hard as the big budget hollywood cinematographers just to get a passable image with basic equipment. 

     If you’re interested in this any more, I’d suggest viewing the works of cinematographers such as Roger Deakins (Skyfall, Blade Runner 2049, Fargo), Bradford Young (Arrival, Solo: A Star Wars Story), and Hoyte Van Hoytema (Interstellar, Dunkirk). Watching these films on a large, calibrated, high resolution display in a quiet, dark room is the best way to view them, however even watching on your phone with a cheap pair of headphones will still provide a stellar visual experience.