How do you define the word cinematic?

“The truth is the best stuff evolves when I don’t really think about it. The good ones just come naturally…” [Andrew Mohrer]

Downpour by Andrew Mohrer
Downpour by Andrew Mohrer

Few weeks ago I received through email inspiration several photos by Dj Poe (Andrew Mohrer, New York based photographer). And I was absolutely amazed. Usually, I move the emails right away to my email inspiration folder, but not this one. I couldn’t stop looking at the pictures. They were absolutely stunning, they looked like they were taken from a movie! In other words, they felt really cinematic.

Recently I was wondering, how would you actually define the word cinematic? (I guess I should know, since I’m writing a blog about cinematic storytelling.) So I decided to go back to that email and tried to answer, what does the word cinematic really mean to me.

Vanessa by Andrew Mohrer
Vanessa by Andrew Mohrer

Looking at the picture above, we can see that there is a shallow depth of field, the image has widescreen aspect ratio (plus the black bars at the top and bottom), the colors are desaturated, the lighting is great and the composition is perfect as well.

The problem is that you can find thousands of pictures  like this on the internet, books or magazines with shallow depth of filed, desaturated colors etc. And yet, most of them won’t feel cinematic at all.

So what I think makes the photos by Dj Poe really cinematic is their ability to make you ask questions. The most obvious question in this case would be:  Where is she looking at and why? You can come up certainly with many other more or less relevant questions like:

  • What car is she driving?
  • Is it her car? Is she a driver by occupation?
  • Is she waiting at a crossroad for a green light?
  • Is she waiting for someone?
  • What is going to happen next etc.?

But the point here is not what kind of questions makes the image ask you, but the fact itself, that it DOES make you ask those questions.

Making the viewer ask questions is a very powerful cinematic technique, because it makes the viewer involved, and that happens when there is a certain kind of mystery, a space for your (viewer) interpretation.

That’s the difference between evening news (basically random shots, no need for interpretation) and movies by Stanley Kubrick (every shot is a very well composed shot with layers of meaning).

What I think is great about this definition of the word cinematic, that is

  • adding additional layers of meaning
  • making viewer involved by asking questions
  • ability to create a story in viewer’s mind

is that it’s applicable not only to photos, but to music, visual effects, sound design, you name it. The point is: Great art poses questions. So leave a space for an interpretation of your work, would you? 🙂


Jun 11, 2012

Andrew actually read this article, look what he wrote under one of his photos Caught The Eye.

Jun 17, 2012

Stu Maschwitz mentioned today in his tweet link to his article that he wrote back in 2009: Fact, Moment, Light. I read it today and it’s brilliant!

The fact, moment and light are 3 zones he thinks about when taking a photo. He firstly describes each zone individually and then concludes, that best photos occupy the intersection of all three zones. At the end, he shows an example of such photo (FML shot).

FML shot by Stu Maschwitz
FML shot by Stu Maschwitz

But here comes the best part! Not only it is a FML shot, but it made Stu ask questions!

  • Is that a joint in his hand?
  • Is it so important that he keep it lit that he’s tied a lighter to his wrist?
  • What do those tattoos say? Caution tape?

Read the whole article by Stu by clicking here.

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6 thoughts on “How do you define the word cinematic?

  1. Cinematic is when the cinematographer sits at the cockpit of a Huey helicopter which — together with dozens other Hueys — attack a Vietcong infested area to the tune of Ride of the Valkyries..

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