Live video is key to getting your church’s message out. Whether you are broadcasting to displays around your building, to a TV station, Livestreaming or just archiving, excellent live video can set your church apart. According to a study by released by Brightcove, poor quality video presentations influence viewers to have a negative perception of the author. This negatively impacts engagement with the organization. So, it’s important to ensure your live streams and broadcasts are the highest quality possible, both in production and delivery.

Cinematic Style Live Production

So, how do you take your live video to the next level? Recently, I directed several worship services for my church near Pittsburgh, PA and we asked ourselves the same question. With my background being in single-camera production with a cinematic style, we decided to try a different approach: Cinematic Live Video (check out this style in action). Cinematic style live video takes the aesthetic qualities of film production and marries it to the live production environment. But before we can employ this style, we must define what cinematic style is and then determine how to apply it to the live production environment. 

What is Cinematic Style?

Cinematic style is a nuanced blend of high-quality elements that combine to create the beautiful and emotionally exciting look of major motion pictures and high-quality television. Just a few of these elements include the proper frame size (or camera sensor), fast lenses, film frame rate, wide dynamic range, and intentional camera movement. These elements together give the filmmaker many tools to enhance emotion while giving the audience the quality they would expect from the cinema. 

The following is an overview of each element of cinematic style and how my church implemented it in our live service production:

#1 – Frame Size

Frame size is critical to the cinematic look. You may notice how certain shots in a movie or TV show have a blurry background. This look is primarily because the frame size (aka the sensor of the camera) is equivalent to 35mm film. Because of this, the focal plane can be reduced with lenses to create the bokeh (blurry background) that makes the subject pop off the background. This helps focus the viewer’s attention on exactly what the filmmaker intends without distracting the viewer’s eye when everything is in focus.

Implementing this in a live setting requires using cameras with a digital cinema size sensor. A typical camcorder has a 1” sensor or smaller. It is nearly impossible to get the right bokeh simply because of the physics of light. Using a micro 4/3 sensor or a Super 35mm sensor is the best starting point. We used the Blackmagic Ursa Mini Pro G2  which has a Super 35mm sensor. A few other Super 35mm cameras are the Sony Fs7, Panasonic EVA1, and the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema 6k. A camera like this will allow you to then use the proper lens to further achieve this look.

#2 – Lens Choice

Lens choice is the next important element of the cinematic style. Lenses that allow more light into the camera will help reduce the focal plane and further blur the background. Ideally, using a lens with an f-stop of 2.8 or lower combines well with the cinema size camera sensor to get excellent bokeh in your image. Additionally, these types of lenses use special glass and coatings that give the image more of a film look.

We used Canon L-series lenses which I think are great for this purpose. They are light, inexpensive, have image stabilization built-in, they are very sharp which is great for live production, and they fit on many different types of cameras using the EF mount. We used the Canon 24-70 f/2.8L II for our on-stage cameras and the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II and the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L III for our roaming floor cameras.

#3 – Frame Rate

Another crucial element for creating a cinematic style is the frame rate. The standard frame rate for video cameras until the early 2000s was 30 or 60 frames per second (fps). This is what news cameras use and over the years the look of this frame rate has been associated with “live” or “news” style production. At the turn of the millennium, a new frame rate was introduced for video cameras: 24fps. This was significant because only film cameras used this frame rate and the look of 24fps was associated with major motion pictures. But movie cameras were massive and required a whole crew of people to use. Also, film was very expensive. But with the addition of 24fps to video, you can achieve the 24fps film look with a handheld camcorder. This changed the game for video and opened the door for creators to produce incredible cinematic images without the high cost of film. But this look was slow to catch on in live production, but now more equipment like switchers and monitors have the ability to handle 24fps.

We decided to produce our services in 24fps which required a slight tweak to our switcher settings, the Blackmagic ATEM 2 m/e Production Studio 4k. By choosing 24fps as the frame rate and matching the cameras to that, we were able to get the slightly strobed look of the film frame rate that helped shed the “news” style look of our live video and take another step toward a cinematic aesthetic.

#4 – Wide Dynamic Range

Another aspect of the cinematic look is a wide dynamic range, which is now possible with newer digital cinema cameras. The dynamic range of a camera refers to how bright and how dark the elements in the frame can be before the sensor cannot capture the information. Most standard video cameras have 3-4 stops of dynamic range. That means if the brightest part of an image is too bright, it will clip and the camera will just record white. The converse is true for dark areas of the image. This means that filming in a high contrast environment, like a concert or worship stage, can be difficult and unless the lighting is perfectly balanced, many areas of the image could be over or underexposed. But like film, newer digital cinema cameras have 12-15 stops of dynamic range. That means more of the image detail is captured giving a more cinematic, film-like image on video.

We decided to use the Ursa Mini Pro G2 which has 12-15 stops of dynamic range. So, the dark black curtains and the bright highlight of a shiny guitar were all able to be captured by the sensor. With the camera not clipping the highlights, the image is crisper and clearer allowing for a more immersive aesthetic. This gives more latitude to the lighting designer to design lighting schemes with more contrast that will please the eye of both the live audience and the screen viewer. In our production, you may notice the difference between the center camera and the other cameras. Our center camera did not have a wide dynamic range and consequently has less detail in the darker and lighter areas of the frame. With this higher dynamic range, it made it easier for our camera people to find excellent shots even when the lighting wasn’t perfect for standard video.

#5 – Camera Movement

The last cinematic element to consider is camera movement. This is often overlooked but if you combine all the other elements but don’t have the right camera movement, the look will fall short of the mark. First off, live production relies heavily on the zoom. However, when you watch a beautiful film, you will rarely see the filmmakers employ a zoom. What you will see is handheld, dolly, truck, pedestal, and other camera moves. Combined with a judicious use of slight zoom, you can create excellent cinema style for live production.

For our cinematic live production, we use a lot of handheld cameras. We also used camera movement that matched the energy of the song. So, a fast song had faster, more organic movement and a slow song had slower steady movement. Our camera people employed truck (side to side) and dolly (forward and backward) movement while holding the camera (see some shots taken on a dolly during our live production of Reckless Love). They would even move the camera higher and lower (pedestal) during a shot and combine these movements together. We used lower angles as well by keeping the audience cameras on the floor and not on platforms to give the viewer the feeling of being in the seats. We also avoided extremely wide focal lengths as much as possible but moved our camera operators away from the subject so they could telephoto in to capture shots. This helped blur the background more and compress the look of the frame which helps create more of a cinematic aesthetic. 

Cinematic style live production is great for your worship sets and music performances. It’s part live production and part music video. Elevation Church’s “Graves Into Gardens” video is a great example of this style done extremely well. As you implement this style, it’s exciting to see the quality of your productions take a leapfrog forward. And, with that quality, you can greatly impact your viewers and increase positive engagement with your message and your church. 

Want to move your live production toward cinematic style but have some questions? Leave a comment or reach out to talk more about the style, gear, team requirements, etc.

For more information related to live streaming, check out these resources:

Fix Your Live Stream Audio Fast

Copyright and Other Live Streaming Considerations You Can’t Ignore

Beat the Church Live Streaming Software Blues