Cinematography is the art of producing images and recording motion pictures. It has been used in films, television shows, and commercials for decades to capture the authenticity of a scene or emotion. This form of visual storytelling is essential for conveying important messages and creating an emotive response from viewers.
Advancements in digital filmmaking have opened unprecedented creative possibilities for television cinematography. Once bound to multi-camera studio set-ups, TV series now rival the visual sophistication of big-budget movies thanks to innovations like affordable cinema cameras and LED stages.
But beyond just enhancing the look, cinematic techniques developed for the ever-evolving small screen storytelling medium have massive influence throughout the production process. Visual approaches drive everything from location selection to lighting design to actor blocking during shoots.
Here’s how vital decisions around cinematography shape a holistic television production from start to finish.
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Defining an Authentic Visual Identity
In their pursuit of storytelling excellence, television makers must define an authentic visual identity within the parameters of a given budget. For example, filmmakers may decide to shoot with handheld cameras for a more intimate feel, or opt for steady dolly shots to evoke tension. These decisions help create a distinct aesthetic that’s unique to each show.
Establishing a unique visual identity starts in pre-production as directors and cinematographers analyze the style of cinematography suited to the show’s specific world. Is the vibe gritty vérité like The Wire? Slick and contemporary like Insecure? Retro throwback like Stranger Things? Cinematic style impacts production design, location choices, wardrobe, and technical workflows.
For example, sitcoms use warmer colors, softer lighting and flatter depth of field to achieve an inviting look. Or dark crime dramas leverage cooler tones with dramatic shadows and dynamic camera moves for tension. The intended cinematography informs every creative decision in development.
Scouting Real World Inspired Locations
The right locations contribute significantly to a show’s sense of authenticity and visual appeal. To achieve this, cinematographers must carefully scout real world-inspired settings that can accommodate the technical needs of their production.
Location scouts use creative tricks to make existing spaces look bigger than they are or alter their nature for practical purposes. For instance, an alleyway can be made to appear narrower by adding foreground objects or using a telephoto lens. A park may need to be dressed up with extra foliage and seemingly arbitrary props for a more lived-in feel.
The choices cinematographers make during location scouting will directly impact the show’s visual grammar, ultimately defining its look and feel.
Instead of constructing elaborate sets, productions lean heavily on real world locations that supply authentic backdrops and realistic lighting sources. Those locations are selected for how they can be shot to advance the visual language of the project.
For city-based shows, urban spots that enable dynamic camera motion and backgrounds with depth and character get priority. Wider vistas work for sweeping western landscapes. Older architecture fits period dramas. Tech scouts photograph potential locations thinking about scene blocking and coverage to match the intended cinematography approach.
Casting Camera Conscious Actors
How an actor performs in front of the camera is a key factor in creating an authentic on-screen presence. Cinematographers and directors cast performers who know how to respond to subtle nuances of lighting, lens choice, and camera motion.
Trained actors move differently when the environment changes based on different lenses or framing angles. Similarly, cinematographers seek out talent with a naturalistic delivery. This helps create grounded moments in heightened scenarios or catch unexpected moments of emotion that are best captured off the cuff.
The goal is to capture an actor’s most compelling performance—the subtle nuances, breathless pauses, and spontaneous gestures that give a scene its authentic feel. Achieving these takes practice for both the performer and cinematographer.
The rise of naturalistic acting means performers now need to play subtly on camera for intimate close-up shots. Casting seeks actors with experience translating nuanced emotions through restrained expressions and active listening instead of theatrical overacting. Media-trained stars understand technical aspects like cheating eyelines, hitting marks, adjusting to lengths and lighting positions.
Productions schedule adequate camera testing to assess actors’ on-screen presence and chemistry from different angles before confirming casting. The right performers can seamlessly enhance the scene coverage and blocking.
Read more about casting here.
Optimizing Lighting Setups and Rigging
Lighting is key to creating an authentic visual identity. Cinematographers and DP’s use lighting techniques like backlighting, sidelighting, rim lighting, and contrasty hard shadows to emphasize facial features or evoke specific emotions.
Since productions use more practical lighting sources from locations, cinematographers determine optimal setups to supplement these natural sources and shape the desired mood. They strategically rig LED panels, overhead rigs, portable units and other gear in areas of action to craft evocative lighting schemes.
This enables the authentic motivation of light from within the set while maintaining control. Interactive lighting also facilitates the flexible 360 degree continuous shooting style of modern television. Pre-lighting also allows starting and stopping scenes quicker.
Blocking Scenes Around Planned Coverage
Cinematographers and directors plan scene coverage of action based on the intended visual grammar. They consider possible camera placements and angles that achieve the desired look with blocking around them. Scenes are staged to maximize each shot, allowing for multiple takes from several angles and establishing a greater sense of location.
This helps keep productions efficient while capturing visually rich scenes in limited time and space. Cinematographers also plan coverage for cutaways, reaction shots, and other details that add authenticity to the scene while allowing for more creative editing options in post-production.
By combining all the creative decisions made during pre-production, cinematographers work with directors to block scenes around planned coverage. This ensures they capture enough material to cut together an effective final sequence.
The rule of thumb is to shoot multiple angles and a variety of shots from each setup, while still keeping camerawork naturalistic and easy on the eye.
During shoots, blocking is dictated by the scene coverage needed to fulfill the creative vision. Directors map out all the planned angles and shot types in advance – close-ups, over-shoulders, wide masters, steadicam tracking, and more.
Actors are positioned relative to cameras and marks to optimize framing and sightlines for what will cut together editorially. For walk and talks, actors hit specific beats to time with planned tracking dolly shots. Set decorators adjust backgrounds for continuity across coverage. Everything serves the coverage.
Choosing the Right Camera Technology
Cinematographers select the most appropriate cameras for each project. Camera packages include digital cinema cameras and professional video cameras, each with its own strengths and limitations.
Broadcast-oriented shows might use smaller cameras or robotic heads for wider coverage angles and minimal set disruption. For productions that require greater latitude for color grading or extensive VFX, cinematographers might choose a digital cinema camera.
Cameras have specific formats and resolution profiles, along with diverse sensor sizes, lens options, and systems for motion control. Cinematographers also consider the desired workflow to ensure compatibility with post-production workflows in terms of color space and file type.
Production demand the latest digital cinema cameras that balance portability with high resolution, dynamic range and low light capability for a true cinematic look. Form factor is considered to enable mounting on dollies and rigs for movement.
Larger HD sensors critical for filmic depth of field are prioritized over built-in broadcast features like zoom lenses or wireless transmission. Shows also leverage technology like multi-cam arrays or LED volume stages that enable photoreal CGI environments in real-time during live capture. Camera tech enables the creative vision.
Pacing Scenes in Long Takes
Television productions often allot tight shooting windows and all-in-one setups. Cinematographers pace scenes using long takes to capture performances in their entirety, while allowing for rehearsal with blocking and tracking moves.
This helps establish a mood or emotional context that builds tension in the scene, even when working with static camera angles. The idea is to create seamless or continuous editing options that maintain narrative flow while capturing extended portions of performance.
Long takes are also used in single-take scenes, co-ordinating cast and crew to move through an entire action sequence without a cut. Long takes help enrich the viewing experience with an increased sense of realism while delivering a greater connection to characters onscreen.
Today’s television embraces longer takes and fluid camera motion over choppy cuts to sustain tension and realism. Directors shoot masters, multi-cam coverage and moving perspective shots in extended continuous takes. Actors time responses and blocking to unfold organically within these long takes.
The sustained in-scene pacing builds actor energy and dynamic blocking opportunities that editing later can accentuate. Cinematography flows handheld or on dollies around the authentic blocking rather than artists adjusting their performances to static cameras.
Incorporating Subjective Perspective
Cinematography enhances a show’s realism by capturing on-screen characters from their subjective perspective. This technique heightens the physical and emotional experience of events by putting viewers directly in the point of view of characters or objects to motivate scenes.
Subjective camera angles capture moments as if the audience were actually there, engaging them with an immersive environment that shows action from a character’s perspective. This creates an added layer of emotional connection to the characters, allowing audiences to experience scenes on a more intimate level.
The storytelling language of television expands by integrating more subjective camera perspectives into scenes. Shows follow characters moving through spaces in real-time via steadicam tracking shots.
Handheld cameras lend an in-scene immediacy. Point of view angles place viewers within characters’ vantage during exchanges. Shifting visual perspectives keep scenes engaging while communicating narrative themes and relationships. Cinematography draws audiences into confronting characters’ experiences and emotions directly.
Developing the Look in Post-Production
Post-production furthers the creative vision through color grading and VFX. Colorists adjust images by applying specific looks to match the director’s desired aesthetic.
This involves making subtle adjustments in exposure, contrast, saturation, highlights and shadows to develop a unique look for each episode. Cinematographers use reference photos or test footage of actors and locations to help create a specific look that translates from on-set to post-production.
Visual effects are also used in post-production, either enhancing existing footage or creating entirely new elements. VFX can be employed to subtly improve shots with the addition of backgrounds, clean up footage with compositing techniques, or even replicate a live plate completely using CGI and motion capture.
With raw camera footage ingested, directors and cinematographers fine-tune the sophisticated look leveraging advanced post-production techniques. They color grade to set visual tones, contrast and saturation that heightens mood.
Photoreal VFX extend worlds and action. They craft scene transitions and apply processing for stylistic impact. For period pieces, every detail not in frame gets digitally removed or altered – utility poles, modern cars, anything anachronistic. Post-production perfects the cinematic polish.
Influencing Acting and Performance Style
Cinematography influences how cast members approach and perform a scene. This is especially true with single takes featuring dynamic camera movements, where actors must time delivery and blocking to capture the entire performance in one take.
Actors rely on cues from directors and cinematographers to deliver their lines and actions within specific frames or sections of a long take. Cinematographers enhance directorial stage direction by leveraging camera movement to convey tone, mood and meaning.
The results are performances that feel more alive, dynamic and emotionally authentic since they weren’t created in post-production or edited from separate takes. Cinematography directly encourages a certain type of performance style where actors must perform their lines and movements with increasingly greater precision so the camera can capture it all.
Cinematic style requires performers to employ more intimate, nuanced acting calibrated for the penetrating drama of widescreen close-ups. Too much theatricality feels incongruous with subtle camerawork.
Actors gauge their performance volume to each lens size. Wider shots are played fuller while close-ups rely on fine layers of emotion in eyes and expressions. Directors may frame up test takes to help actors understand their most effective scales. Performances evolve to harness what plays best on any focal length and angle.
Making Locations Integral to Story
Cinematographers add production value and enhance storytelling with the creative use of space and locations. Through smart composition, lighting and camera angles they make a huge impact in small spaces, highlighting their importance to the story as well as blocking options for characters.
Beyond just pretty backdrops, locations become woven into the actual narrative to inform character and theme. The cityscapes of shows like Billions and Industry contribute to the ambient tension and excess.
The small town in Virgin River visually reinforces the intimacy of relationships. Saul Goodman’s office on Better Call Saul immediately conveys his imposter lawyer schtick. Series leverage locations themselves to heighten the story being told. Production design fully realizes locations for deeper meaning beyond set dressing wallpaper.
So from casting to location scouting to lighting designs and rigging through to post-production polish, the intended cinematography approach steers every creative decision in mounting an impactful television production. As more ambitious creators embrace the expanding canvas of small screen storytelling, visual techniques historically reserved for blockbuster films are now becoming fundamental components of engaging episodic television. Television cinematography continues maturing into a highly sophisticated artform that captures cultural imagination by leveraging every new tool available. The drive to innovate visually moves the entire medium forward.
Why work with C&I Studios?
At C&I Studios, we prioritize visual storytelling in our work. Our team of experienced cinematographers and editors are well-versed in pushing the boundaries of television production and can help you create a show that stands out from the crowd. We understand how to craft imagery that speaks volumes beyond what’s on the page.
Through artistic lighting, expert camera work, and creative post effects, we deliver a visually stunning presentation that will make your show stand out. We stay agile to accommodate the ever-evolving production landscape and take great pride in bringing stories to life with captivating visuals.
With C&I Studios, you can trust that your project is in the best of hands! Get in touch today to learn more about how we can help you create something that will capture the attention of viewers everywhere!
And in doing so, television cinematography has become a medium unto itself. Providing an unprecedented level of detail and emotion to stories, it offers creators a powerful tool for compelling visual storytelling. The potential is truly limitless, as there are no bounds to what kind of visuals one can craft. Whether it’s a sweeping cityscape, intimate close-up, or fantastical effects – television cinematography can bring any story to life in ways never before imagined. To craft your own unique vision of the world, look no further than C&I Studios!
Contact us today to find out how our team of experienced cinematographers and editors can bring your story to life. From script breakdown all the way through post-production, C&I Studios will help to ensure that your project is a success! We look forward to hearing from you and helping make this season of television one for the books.