The more time you spend in the videography or cinematography business, the more likely you are to see the word “cinematic” or “cinematic video.” For example, you’ll find it on countless wedding video websites. But it’s a slippery term since it can have different meanings to different people. Some could define it as video that has the appearance of the type of film you’d see in a movie theater. But now that there are so many types of films using all sorts of equipment, from high-end gear to cellphone cameras, it’s getting even harder to pin down a definition.
So, instead of trying to construct a definition, I ask two accomplished wedding videographers, Doug Block and Abe Halpert, what “cinematic wedding video” means to them.
But first how do wedding videos differ from wedding photographs. For example, while photographs capture a short segment of time and are a single-dimensional representations of the wedding day, wedding videos capture much longer spans of that same day.
Video also has a more diverse media palette: For instance, you can use movement, changing lighting, music, sound effects, dialogue and more to bring much greater depth to the memory of the couple’s wedding day. However, while videographers have more media to choose from, it can be challenging to produce a successful film that captures the special day.
So, it’s up to the wedding videographer to effectively tell that story. What’s more challenging is that often the videographer is alone. However, sometimes he or she has the assistance of a few crew members and occasionally a whole team of support crew.
But no matter how large or small the crew, it’s an extraordinary responsibility videographers have.
With that said, let’s turn to two wedding video masters and how they’ve chosen to make their work cinematic.
Doug Block’s Documentary Approach To Cinematic Wedding Videos
Doug Block is an established documentary filmmaker who also happens to shoot wedding videos, a fact I discovered while researching this story. What’s intriguing to note is that in terms of style, Doug is somewhat of an anomaly. For instance, when compared to other wedding videographers who are moving to bigger, fancier and more extensive productions that require more gear, Block prefers to use a more minimalist approach to production and gear. (I’ll focus more on that later in this article.)
As a filmmaker, Block has some notable documentaries to his credit, including the feature documentary “112 Weddings,” which he produced (in partnership with HBO) and directed in 2014. It was popular and was even shown in theaters and broadcast around the world.
In “112 Weddings,” Block revisits 10 of his favorite wedding couples to see how their marriages are faring. It ranges from the first couple he filmed 20 years before (who were filing for divorce) to a more recent couple, who were married five years. The film runs the gamut of experiences and can be both hilarious and heartbreaking. (Take a look at the trailer at dogwoof.com/112weddings.)
When asked about how he began in documentaries and how his work evolved to include wedding videos, Block says, “It all began 25 years ago, when I went to a friend’s wedding and saw how incredibly lame the wedding videographer was. He ruined the atmosphere with his bright camera light and basically stood around flat-footed, zooming in and out. I wondered to myself why weddings couldn’t be shot cinéma vérité-style, like my documentary work. And it’s as if the universe heard me. Within a month, someone called me out of the blue asking for a recommendation for someone to shoot a friend’s wedding.” Block told the caller that he’d be happy to shoot the wedding.
“As a documentary filmmaker,” Block says, “what we want most of all is access to our subjects.” But Block wasn’t only surprised that he could get very close to the happy couple (“within feet of a couple”) but also that they’d welcome it…while going through one of the most important days of their lives together. “And pay me handsomely to do so,” Block adds. “I do weddings to support my documentary habit, but through the years, I’ve never tired of shooting them or become jaded. I still find it thrilling.”
Block’s Approach To The Wedding Event And Gear
Block continues, “To me, what makes a video cinematic is less about fancy gear and more about using the language of cinema to tell the story of the wedding day. That means long shots, medium shots, close-ups and knowing how and when to use them. It’s following the look of the bride’s face when she sees her father for the first time in her dress and then zooming in ever so slowly on his face as his eyes well up. It’s about listening and observing closely and recognizing when those emotional moments are happening. Almost every wedding has a similar story arc, starting with the bride and groom getting dressed and the buildup of tension as it gets closer and closer to when they walk down the aisle, and then the release of tension and celebration after the ceremony. I use the real sounds to tell the story. No added music (there’s plenty at a wedding), no slow motion, no effects. It’s not needed.
“I work solo because I shoot my documentary features that way, so I know how to do that, and I believe in calling as little attention to myself as possible. The cameras have changed over the years—my first few years were with a Hi8 camcorder, if you remember those. And now I’m using a Panasonic DVX200 with a Sennheiser mic on the camera (I’d never, ever put a wireless mic on the bride’s dress!). And other than the toasts, which can go on forever, I shoot entirely handheld and don’t believe in gimbals, steadicams, jibs, drones or anything like that. I firmly believe weddings are about the bride and groom and not about a video production.
“Now that cameras have gotten smaller and half the guests shoot on their iPhones, I like everyone to think I’m just another guest at the wedding. I’m very careful to position myself so that I get the right angle but without obstructing the view of the guests. During the ceremony, unless it’s in a big church, I try to always stand just behind and to the side of the officiant so that I see the faces of the bride and groom as well as all the guests behind them. As I said, it’s all about capturing the emotion.”
Block’s Business Plan And Advice For Young Videographers
How does Block find his clients and projects?
“It’s helped enormously that my documentary feature films have won wide distribution, critical acclaim and a lot of high-end awards. So I have that credibility to fall back on. In the early days, I’d put one ad in New York Bride and wait for the calls to come. Over the years, however, I’ve gotten most of my weddings through recommendations by the photographers. They like working with me because I don’t get in their way and ruin their shots with my lights.”
With rare exceptions, Block says the only light he uses is one he can bounce over the dance floor to bring up the level. But he uses “as soft and low light as possible,” he says.
“I’ve done destination weddings, but most of my weddings are in the New York tri-state area.”
And for those starting out in the wedding videography world, what advice does Block have for them?
“I’d just say don’t get carried away by the gadgets, bells and whistles. In my experience, most wedding couples want something that conveys the emotion and experience of this incredibly happy and dramatic day that goes by like a dream for them. Pay attention. Listen. Be aware of where you are at all times. Be on the lookout always for those small, telling moments that capture the emotion of the day. And move around in the crowd and convey the feel of being there.”
Abe Halpert’s Different Approach To Wedding Videography
Wedding videographer Abe Halpert has followed a different path in his journey toward becoming a cinematic wedding video creator. He knew he wanted to study film in college but wanted to focus on learning theory and history instead of taking production courses. So he attended Brown University and majored in art-semiotics, a mix of theory, history and production courses.
After assisting in the edit room at Break-Thru Films in New York, Halpert decided to pursue freelance work, spending a few years working in a wide range of genres, including documentary, narrative short films, music videos, industrials, commercials, events, live broadcast events, concerts and corporate films. But ultimately he arrived at producing wedding videos in 2014.
Like with documentaries, though, this genre presents challenges. For example, when asked what’s the biggest challenge that he faces in shooting cinematic wedding videos, Halpert says, “The biggest challenge is the same challenge for all documentary films: things happen fast, and they only happen once. Another obstacle can be working around the photographer, who can often get in the way of your framing or occupy the vantage point that will capture the symmetry of the background. But honestly, I don’t find it difficult to create cinematic-looking wedding videos now that I’ve shot over 100 [of them]. I have a strong idea of what’s going to happen throughout the day, of how to communicate with the photographer and of what shots I need to complete the edit.
Landing the Gig And Advice For Up-And-Coming Videographers
How does Halpert land most of his wedding work?
“Most of the weddings I shoot are as a freelancer hired by a wedding video or photography company,” says Halpert. “Taking on work from established companies is what has enabled me to go from shooting my first wedding in 2014 to shooting 40 or 50 weddings annually in the space of just a few years. There are five companies that I currently receive bookings from. I also contract directly with the couples themselves (and will edit the videos as well in those cases).” He connects with couples via Craigslist, through referrals from other couples he’s shot or through referrals from the companies he’s worked for when they can’t take on the client themselves.
“I mostly shoot locally because there’s so much happening in the metro New York area,” he says. “I’ve never done a destination wedding, though I’m open to the possibility.”
What advice does Halpert offer to new and up-and-coming wedding videographers who are trying to up their game and land bigger-budget wedding video clients?
“Take your work seriously,” he says, “preparing for the shoot by making sure you arrive with adequate time to set up. Treating your clients professionally and communicating with them is crucial. Pushing yourself to do better is also crucial. I’m a very harsh critic of my own work. I’ve never walked away from a shoot thinking that I did the best possible job that I could have done. I’m lucky if I walk away and feel like I grabbed a handful of shots that I consider perfectly executed and outstandingly beautiful that I can hang my hat on. (Although other people with lower or more open standards might consider most of the shots I took that day to be good.) And I take all that self-criticism and learn from it for my next shoot.”
He also says that he never tells himself that he doesn’t need to do his best work because he’s “just shooting a wedding and not a Hollywood feature film.”
Instead, he says, he realizes that while working on any project, he’s continually learning.
“I’m constantly trying to learn from what I’m shooting and to try new things,” Halpert says “and new shot possibilities and camera movements that might be captivatingly beautiful in their own right but which also might teach me something new about cinematography that I can apply to a different situation.”
What Sticks With You?
I asked Halpert if there was a particular wedding that was special to him.
“I loved working on the wedding film for a couple named Steve and Diane in 2018,” he says. “They were really friendly, and I enjoyed collaborating with them. Their wedding was set in a beautiful, rustic location in the Catskills. My second shooter and I captured a lot of great shots throughout the day, such that it was hard to pare down the selections in the editing process. I felt like I captured one of the most perfectly framed shots I’ve ever taken that I used for the opening title shot (a landscape pan of the farmhouse at the venue as seen across the pond, under a blue sky with beautiful clouds).”
He said he also captured some nice drone shots of the Chinese lanterns being released into the sky at the end of the night, as well as a tripod shot of the lanterns disappearing into the night sky and blending in with the stars.
“To me, the flight of the lanterns and the shots I captured of it evoked a sense of fatalism,” says Halpert, poetically, “and of…time passing into eternity, as if the lanterns were the couple themselves and releasing them into the night sky an admission of their inevitable mortality and an expression of the hope that the rest of their lives would unfold together from that night until death does them part.”
Cinematic Is In The Eye Of The Creator
So, what’s a cinematic wedding video?
It’s a notion that’s hard to nail down. In fact, you might say that the constant thread that runs through the production of many cinematic wedding videos doesn’t seem tied to one specific technique and doesn’t rely on utilizing specific gear. Block’s videos are a perfect case in point: His minimal approach still results in moving, epic stories.
For me, cinematic wedding video simply means that the videographer utilizes traditional storytelling effectively and concisely and produces content for their clients that tells the story of their special day in an emotionally true way that feels authentic, heartfelt and inspiring. A cinematic video can utilize drones, sliders, gimbals and other camera movement as techniques for elevating how eye catching the visuals appear, but all of those techniques are wasted if the story isn’t captured well.
The best wedding videos are the ones where the camera seems to become a participant in the preparation, ceremony and celebration. Good sound is very important, as is great storytelling.
Utilizing these basic elements well is essential in your own journey in growing your business and making more cinematic wedding videos for your clients.