10 Simple Rules to Make Cinematic Videos

As a travel filmmaker, what I enjoy most is producing travel videos that are immersive, cinematic works of art. These can take forever to edit, but it is very rewarding to create travel content that can help viewers FEEL like they are at the location themselves.

I believe cinematic filmmaking is not complex, and there are simple rules we can follow to create cinematic videos that are treats for the senses. We will go over the 10 most important rules/concepts to make your travel videos more cinematic. We won’t go over technical camera jargon about frame-rates/exposure settings, but will cover broader principles. So it doesn’t matter if you are filming on $6,000 camera or a $100 smart-phone, understanding these rules will take your cinematography to the next level. I made a video demonstrating a lot of these techniques, and I highly encourage you to watch this video to see these rules in action, instead of simply reading about them. This article is meant to serve as supplementary material addition to what I demonstrated in the video. Now let’s get to the rules.

Rule 1: Make your shots “flow”

Flow”, a concept with many names, is one of the most important ideas in filmmaking and story-telling. A sequence has good “flow” if the shots look like they belong in their current sequence and have been placed together intentionally to tell a bigger story.

There’s many ways to make your shots flow. Here’s a few:

  • Have subsequent shots be moving in the same direction. Best way is do this is to plan the shots in advance, and/or to get lots of shots so you have more options to choose from during the edit.

    If the shots available to you during the edit are not moving at all or not moving in the same direction, here are three hacks you can use to make them do so (all are demonstrated in the tutorial video):
    1) Zoom/crop into a still shot (ideally filmed in high resolution so cropping doesn’t reduce footage quality) and move the crop in the desired direction
    2) Horizontally flip the image to reverse direction of movement (be careful about writings or any visuals whose mirror image would give away the trick)
    3) Reverse the speed and play the clip backwards to change direction(watch our for moving subjects or anything that will show a reversal of gravity or show unnatural movements)
  • Flow can also be achieved by focusing on the same subject in subsequent scenes.
  • Subsequent clips that play in the same speed and use speed-ramping to change up speed when needed to match the next clip are also flowing
  • Instead of the camera moving, flow cab also be achieved if there is a continuation of actions/movements in subsequent shots. This can be done by synchronizing steps if someone is walking in continuous scenes, by following an object like a moving ball through different scenes, etc.

Remember that flow is meant to be subtle. Most viewers will not explicitly notice the attention-to-detail you put in to keep your shots flowing. But if you do it wrong, it will be jarring for viewers to watch a sequence where the shots don’t flow.

Flow is important outside of cinematics as well. It’s important to keep a flow in the emotions you are trying to elicit in your audience. You can’t be all over the place with the energy of your video. Speaking of emotions, this is a perfect Segway to what is often the most underrated aspect of filmmaking for generating emotions, sound-design.

Rule 2: Sound-Design to accentuate the visuals

Sound design (not to be confused with music) is the process of adding sounds in the background that make your content feel more alive and accentuate what you see with the visuals. You could add impact sounds, to emphasize a drastic visual changes (or literally to go with physical impacts shown in the video), use whooshes when the camera itself or other objects in the video move fast, use risers in a build-up scene to big moment, or just add general ambience sounds to further accentuate the background noise that you maybe weren’t able to capture with your mic when filming. There’s a million ways to add sound design. In the tutorial, I show a 10 second sequence in the intro of a video I made about Dhaka, Bangla where I had 5 layers of sound-design in 5 audio tracks to make one drone shot feel more engaging. One thing to remember about sound-design though, is that just like flow, it is supposed to be subtle. If the extra sounds sound like they don’t belong in the scene and have been artificially added, then that is bad sound-design.

Rule 3: Find Music that matches the mood

One of the most important aspects of a cinematic video is having the right music. The right music will fit the mood, and often set the tone for the video. The right music will also fit the energy of the shots in the video, which is why it is very common to switch between different tracks in the same video as the tempo/energy in different scenes change. It is very hard to find good music to go with your video, and even harder to find copyright free music that you can use to monetize your content anywhere. I have used all the pouplar platforms that provide licensed music for creators like Epidemic Sound, Musicbed and Artlist at different periods of filmmaking journey, and have ended up selecting Epidemic Sound because I liked the tens of thousands of professionally produced tracks they offer, all the sound effects they also offer which their competitors , because of the way they categorize music, and because they have some of my favorite artists onboard like Bonsaye and Ooyy. I recently had a small partnership with Epidemic Sound which has ended, but to be transparent, I had multiple subscriptions with them as my only source of licensed music for my videos for years before we ever worked together. If you do decide to sign up with them, feel free to follow my affiliate link to get a 1-month free-trial. Regardless of what platform you choose, always see if they have a trial period to make sure that platform works for you Whatever you do, don’t keep using popular tracks that will not only get you demonetized but could you flagged and in all kinds of other troubles (don’t do what I did till 2020).

Rule 4: Add Movement to Your Shots

A great way to make your shots more engaging is to make your camera move along with the subjects. The best way to do this is to intentionally move the camera when filming. But if you are working with a still shot, you can still make it move by:

  1. Zooming/cropping in and moving the crop (recall what we discussed in Flow)
  2. Slowly zooming in to the subject in a still shot (servers to make the shot look more dramatic)
  3. Zooming in and rotating the shot (a trick I often use to make regular drone shots have an FPV Drone look)

Don’t add too much movement, though. If every shot is moving, it might be a bit exhausting too process for the viewers. You want to have some variety in your video, which takes us to the next rule.

Rule 5: Add variety to shots

To keep shots flowing you want some continuity between shots. At the same time, if they are too similar, it will bore the viewers. So you want variety in your shots as well. One easy way to attain this is to focus on a subject and explore how many different ways you can portray them, by focusing on the subject from different distances, different angles or emphasizing different features of the subject in different shots. In the tutorial video, I break down an example sequence, where I used a combination of a drone, a camera-gimbal setup and a GoPro and spent 2 hours capturing what ended up being a 15 second sequence in a surfing video I filmed on Oahu, Hawaii. Going the extra mile to get shot-variety will pay off, especially if your content is made for social media where people don’t have the same attention span that they do when watching films in theatres.

Rule 6: Stabilize Your Shots

Traditionally speaking, cinematic shots cannot have unintentional jerks in them. Here’s a few ways to get rid of these shakes:

  1. The easiest way to get really stable footage is to use a drone, which is why drones are a part of every cinematic filmmaker’s arsenal. 
  2. The next easiest thing is to get a gimbal for your camera/phone. You can have shaky hands, but still get buttery, smooth shots using a gimbal if you know how to use it.
  3. Use the Warp Stabilizer feature (or its equivalent) in your editing software. You definitely don’t want to overuse it though and you don’t want to use it on shots that have too many shakes or large shaky movements, because then it warps the video and just makes it look unnatural.
  4. Another hack is to film at a high frame rate and then slow down the playback, which automatically makes your footage look a lot smoother as it slows down every unintended shake. 
  5. Regardless of if you’re filming hand-held shots or using a gimbal, whenever you’re walking while filming shots, do the crab-walk I show in the tutorial video: bend your legs and walk really slowly. This minimizes the up-and-down bobbing movement when you’re walking with the camera. The walk looks weird, but is very, very important for keeping your shots stable.
  6. Now, let’s say you don’t have a gimbal, don’t have a drone and don’t want to use warp stabilizer. There are still things you can do with your filming device to make the footage less shaky. To stabilize your device, you always want it to have three points of contact. The first two can be your hands. The third point could be achieved by placing it on a stable object, using your neck by making the camera-strap taut, putting it on your bum-bag/fanny-pack (like I do) and whatever creative solution you can find. You also want to keep the device as close to your core as possible to keep it stable.

Note: You don’t have to overdo stabilization. Back in the days, every single shot on cinema used to be very stable and filmed on machines built for the smoothest motion possible. But now if you watch modern day TV shows like Narcos , you’ll notice that directors intentionally leave in some camera jerk because that’s just an artistic preference now. That being said, don’t make your videos too shaky.

Rule 7: Make your shots look realistic during the edit

When you edit a shot, you don’t want it to look fake even though it is edited. There’s countless small things you can do about it but I will just mention one of the most common mistakes that makes a video look poorly edited. If you ever increase the speed of any clips don’t forget to add additional motion blur in Adobe Aftereffects, or your preferred animation software. Without this, sped-up shots are a giveaway that the creator is not a professional editor. This small step increases the render time, the edit time, but it is totally worth it because it is one of the small things that can help set your footage apart.

Rule 8: Know when to Color-grade and/or Color-correct

Color-correction and color grading are very different. Color-grading is a matter of preference and there is no wrong or right. Some people like videos very saturated, and others like flat images, Everyone likes certain colors. You can’t make everyone happy with your color-grading so it is more of a tool to express individualism in your art. That being said, there are popular looks (like the Teale and Orange look) that seem to do better than a lot of other styles.

Color-correction, does have a right or wrong way, with some leeway given to the creators. It is about repairing the colors/exposure in your shots, and matching the colors from different shots in your sequence. And this goes back to having flow between your shots. If you are switching between shots of the same subject with different exposures, that will be confusing to the viewers. You want to adjust the exposure, shadows, highlights, temperature, saturation, and whatever else you need to, in order to make sure the shots go with each other. This is especially important when you’re working with multiple cameras or combining shots that were filmed at different times of the day.

Rule 9: Don’t get married to your shots

You’re going to get a lot of good shots if you’re doing your job right and probably going to get a lot of extra shots. During the edit, don’t be too tempted to forcefully include every good shot that you have. In every video that I’m making, I’m only including 60% at most of the good shots that I have from that shoot. If a shot doesn’t belong in a certain video with this music, and with the story I’m trying to tell, I leave it out. Look at every shot in your video, and ask yourself, “Is it really necessary to include this shot in this video?” Don’t just look at if it’s a good shot. See if it serves a purpose and leave it out if it doesn’t.

Rule 10: Break all the rules

At the end of the day, you’re making art. And art doesn’t have to follow all the rules and you can break them when you think it’s needed so you can tell your story better. But it is good to know these rules, so you don’t go too crazy. 

This isn’t it

That is it for this tutorial. Learning about the concepts we discussed today should provide you a really good foundation on cinematography and should instantly make your videos a lot better if you didn’t know about these principles before. And each of these concepts are ideas you could spend a year, or multiple years of your life learning about, so there’s always room to improve your cinematography. If you enjoyed the tutorial, please do let me know, and check out my travel films on YouTube/Facebook/Instagram.

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