How to Make a Bland Image Cinematic: Take Things Away

How to Make a Bland Image Cinematic: Take Things Away

Cinematic reality is never reality. Know the difference between reality and cinematic reality as a post-production artist and you will raise your game.

In this post, I present a video tutorial showing how pushing an image to the breaking point can dramatically improve it. Messing up the image, from the standpoint of technical perfection, is often just what it needs.

What makes an image cinematic?

Before we look at that main tutorial, here’s a two-minute introduction to the concept of how a cinematic image differs from a mediocre one.

Let’s focus for a moment on those before and after images from San Andreas (a VFX tentpole that many of us forgot about before we even knew about it).

The crowd shot: same action, different angle. Movie image is left, behind-the-scenes footage right.
The wire shot: again, same action, different angle. Again, movie image is left, behind-the-scenes footage right.

What do you notice about the images on the left, compared to those on the right? The color, framing, motion blur and visibility are all different.

And more specifically, the images from the movie have way, way less visual information. How many colors are in the behind-the-scenes footage? All of them. The final images look almost monochromatic in comparison. The wide frame actually crops out nearly a third of the image data. The higher motion blur (and extra debris composited on top) give the final images way, way less detail, as does the shallower depth of field. There are even fewer frames in the final 24fps moving image than in the 29.97fps behind the scenes video (which may even be 59.94 interlaced fps).

Which one looks more cinematic?

The definition of “cinematic”

The definition of “cinematic” is “having qualities characteristic of motion pictures.” So the question “which one looks more cinematic” actually means, which one belongs in a motion picture?

Here is a shortlist of synonyms for the word “cinematic” from

  • vivid
  • accurate
  • faithful
  • detailed
  • lifelike
  • natural
  • precise
  • realistic
  • true-to-life

Here, we’re in some trouble. The only words on this list I don’t have a problem with are the subjective ones: vivid, lifelike, true-to-life, natural. The objective terms are incorrect and constitute a lie. A cinematic image may appear “accurate,” but we see above that it is not. It may feel “faithful,” but it never actually is. And it most certainly is not “realistic” by any standard measure.

Looking again at the examples above, these terms much better suit the behind-the-scenes images. The only way we can say that they fit the actual movie images is to say that they are emotionally true. Literally, these terms are demonstrably false.

The word missing from the list is “evocative.”

Not just “accurate” but “evocative”

Here’s what I like to do to finish a shot. I’ll shoot for realism, even looking for reference images if at all applicable. With reference, I’m looking for surprises, details that don’t fit my stereotype of how the image should ideally look.

Then I will go for the feeling I want to associate with that shot. If the shot should feel hot, I may blow out the highlights a little bit. I’ll look for opportunities to create contrast within the image, even at the expense of detail. If it’s a shadowy image, I might let a lot of the detail I worked hard to key and composite fade into darkness.

An example tutorial: compositing in After Effects

In this example, we are working with some pretty “fake” elements. The talent inside the car was never intended to look realistic; she was flat lit on a greenscreen with no interactive lighting. That makes it all the better to use as an example to see what we can do with it.

(Note: at the beginning I refer to the Color Keying and Rotoscoping & Edges courses I produced to be distributed at

In this example I don’t “finish” the image by tracking in an adjustment mask to bring back the face of the talent. This is accomplished separately (not here) by tracking in a mask. But I do push the image closer to the breaking point—the point where I know it really will look like something is wrong with the image—than many artists would.

Why? One answer is that in a digital world, it’s easier to pull back than add more, and more or less everyone knows that. If a strong adjustment is too much, dialing it down isn’t really a big deal, whereas never going there guarantees it stays flat and blah looking.

Another answer is that only by limiting down the image, in the ways that we examined above and more, do we offer it cinematic appeal. You could even call this sex appeal.

“Bring the sex”

Here’s a thing that Stu Maschwitz wrote almost exactly 8 years ago. It was the Foreword to my book Adobe After Effects Studio Techniques. At the time, he was speaking out to VFX artists, encouraging us to take our images beyond reality. It’s still a great, provocative read even if you’re not slaving away in a feature film visual effects facility. Thanks to Google, I can present it here, copyright be damned (in fact, this is the entire book, already open to the appropriate page).


I don’t need to add much here, except to say that this advice applies not only to VFX professionals. In fact it applies to anyone whose images fail to convey the feeling of the scene by being too bland. The next time this happens to you, look for reference. Untouched source images will show you how nature behaves on camera. Color-corrected images from your favorite movies, particularly the ones that echo the feel you’re going for, may give you ideas you never would have considered otherwise.

And in one way or another, they’ll most certainly go further than you were willing to go destroying the original image for the sake of one that evokes its truth.

Thank you to Mark Christiansen for contributing this article.

Author at and of the After Effects Studio Techniques series (Adobe Press); VES Member, VFX Artist and Supervisor on Avatar, Pirates of the Caribbean At World's End, The Day After Tomorrow, Beasts of the Southern Wild; Founder of New Scribbler (developers of Cinefex for iPad); past employee of Lucasfilm, Adobe and

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