How to create the look of your film

10 / 07 / 19

Behind the Scenes

Working to create a beautiful aesthetic in our videos and animations is one of the principal reasons why we do what we do. We love finding a unique way to make a story as beguiling and compelling as it can be, and it doesn't happen by accident.

There are many considerations we have to make. What story do we need to tell? How can we imagine and best capture the essence of it? How can we ensure our audience will relate? What should we do to reinforce the emotional impact? We think about these things in pre-production, all the way through the shoot and beyond - and we remind ourselves of the initial concepts when we review our work before delivery.

First and foremost, it's the story that motivates our efforts. We pick everything apart and we try to work backwards. We explore what we want the target audience to do after they see our film. Thinking this way is what helps ensure we adopt the right approach for the client. Once we figure this much out, it's time to consider how we can manipulate the design to support the motive.

It's all about influencing mood. Naturally, there are always going to be certain people, objects or details to represent based on the subject at hand, and these come first most of the time. Importantly, though, it's crucial that we consider what tools and techniques we need to employ and how they relate to the mood we are aiming to evoke. After all, it's the emotional connection between the audience and the story that determines the success of a film - so we have to know what kind of emotions will ensure this before the following decisions are made.

We must think from the outset about how and where the video will eventually be used; an impactful film can be completely undone by the space in which it is viewed. Is it a television piece? A cinema ad? A film for social media? All are consumed differently, and let's be honest, there's only so much emotional weight a 60-second Instagram video can achieve.

One of the main ways we create the look is through the cinematography. The equipment we use, the camera angles, the shot compositions and, above all else, the lighting. We think about any props and how we think the set should look to make the shot more believable. A sense of place is so important, and if the shot looks really false, you can't expect a genuine positive reaction (unless, of course, it's a spoof piece).

You want your target audience to identify with what you show them. Just by virtue of the way light hits a certain object or person in the shot, you can entirely influence the way it is perceived. When we produced the Stop the Stigma film for Opportunity Nottingham, we gave this some serious thought during the development phase. After research and interviews with many beneficiaries, who would become the subjects of the film, we had a much better understanding of how we wanted to use our lights and the emotional influence we wanted to achieve. The nature of the film was one of stigma, negative perception and solemnity. We set up with a deliberate absence of a fill light - coupled with a strong backlight - to create real depth, deep shadows and crisp highlights across the contours of the face. We wanted to evoke the feelings associated with darkness and light, and evoke a mood often associated with those on the receiving end of stigma (shady, hidden, unnoticed, ignored).

When it comes to editing it's important to recognise that this is the sculpting of the finished piece. It's all about refining the look and feel to create the energy required. During the edit, we manipulate the pace and structure, the shot selection and the influence of the sound design to help the cinematography come to the fore. Choices made during the edit - coupled with the right photography decisions - have a profound effect the overall perception of the film.

For example, handheld footage, shot on a low shutter angle might require a pacy edit on the action, contributing to a frenetic, high energy look (perfect for a sports, action, combat, etc). Conversely, smooth gimbal shots and soft, natural lighting - coupled with a haze machine - would benefit from fewer transitions and cuts to help evoke the feelings associated with light, nature and comfort (which is more likely to suit a lifestyle brand or a gentler subject matter). The way you set up the shoot is one thing; what you do with the footage is another.

The colour grade is perhaps the most significant part of the overall aesthetic. It's also one of the final parts of the process, which means it can all be won or lost at this stage. Whether that’s as part of your colour palette within an animation or through continual colour grading in programs like Da Vinci Resolve, this phase is vitally important because it's where all your other hard work manifests. You balance your footage and you delve into the skin-tones, key colours and other points of interest, which could mean emphasis on a bright red coat for dramatic/thematic effect or even compressing the warmer tones to create a more cold/bleak look. You may apply a LUT (Look Up Table) - which behaves similarly to a filter in Instagram - to give your footage an overall tone or visual quality that works.

Ultimately, everything we do to develop the appearance of the film is both intentional and thought about...and this is underpinned by our belief that good cinematography should be ‘visibly invisible’. Your eyes and your minds should be on the story. It's counter-intuitive, but effective cinematography, editing and grading is about making the shot as real as it can be to the viewer without being noticeable. You want your audience to accept what is being shown to them without distracting them by the way it's being shown. That's when the film works and that's what encourages the viewer to then do the thing you hoped for in the first place.

Our job is to bring all of the pieces of the story together to create the right look for our clients, and like everyone else, we love positive feedback. In our experience, the more investment made in the visual design, the more profound that feedback tends to be.