Q+A: What makes a city or neighbourhood cinematic?

Jun 20 • Entertainment, Q+A • 1390 Views • 10 Comments on Q+A: What makes a city or neighbourhood cinematic?


Three individuals, from various professional backgrounds, and from different parts of the globe, give answers to our question of the week. 


Brendan MacDevette is a location scout & manager for film, television and advertising campaigns in New York City.  www.BrendanLocations.com


The root of photography is light. And it is with light that we can capture cities and neighborhoods. It is a longer, more predictable and luminous light that shifted the film industry from Fort Lee, NJ to Hollywood. A neighborhood of skyscrapers blocking the sun’s rays does not photograph beautifully despite talented lighting technicians using artificial lights.


A postcard can tell you a lot about a city or neighborhood. A strong postcard image often conveys the unique character of a place whether it is of natural beauty or man-made wonders. The same goes for capturing a place on film which often casts a city as a supporting character. The history of the buildings, architecture and the emotional impact on the characters speak volumes. A romantic stroll in Central Park, a shopping spree down Fifth Avenue or skateboarders performing kick-flips underneath the Manhattan Bridge at the Banks – these locations quickly convey to the audience the class, attitude, values, disposition and lifestyles of the characters on screen.


If the backdrop is non-descript, there is little sense of time and place expressed through the location and character development through scenery, you may be filming in a less than cinematic neighborhood.


The best video content illustrates in seconds where you are and gives a thousand visual cues as to who the character is on screen. Location scouting really is storytelling. And while the jobs and crews change over the years, what they find cinematic does not. High ceilings, open spaces, skyline views, alleys, modern kitchens and robber baron mansions are always in demand. Elaborate sets can compete but hardly ever trump shooting on location because the history of a building shines through the screen and a Hollywood backlot never quite looks like 42nd Street.


Stephen Knifton creates and produces brand video for design and architecture at popstream.ca:


What makes a city Cinematic ?

What does Cinematic mean ?

This is like defining porn, as the Supreme Court Justice once said:  “I can’t define it, but I know it when i see it”.


For this exercise, let’s go with: a good place to set a film. Are we looking for a cityscape suitable for re-staging Woody Allen’s Manhattan ?  Or Orson Welles’ The Third Man ?  Full Metal Jacket ? Pleasantville ?

Cinematic has to mean: having qualities characteristic of films – but then that could confer descriptions like: humourless, dull, disposable, pointless and commercial on any given city — and you know who you are.


What makes a city Cinematic ? I would say, a city that knows how to be itself, and how to confidently stay within itself. My company creates content for architects, designers, builders and developers – i’ve shot a lot of New York, Toronto, Chicago and DC. i like cities that are authentic. New York knows what it is – the financial and cultural capital of the western hemisphere. If you need a backdrop for an important film for the past 100 years, you know where to go.


So as New York develops, architecture like the Woolworth Building, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Seagram’s building just seem to fit. New York breathes authenticity — It embodies Cinematic. (Although let’s leave Times Square out of this for now; that place is as real as Plan 9 From Outer Space.)


Is Toronto cinematic  ? Maybe, because location scouts think you can dress it up like anyplace. Is it authentic? i don’t know. Do The Crystal or The Tabletop actually fit in? Does anyone want them in their movie ? If I think of Toronto’s cinematic qualities, i think of Liberty Village, Corktown, or the Distillery.


In film, New York City is the ultimate location for a film-maker. Toronto … is for hire as a stand-in, or a stunt-man. What makes a city cinematic ? True Grit.


Dr. M. Hank Haeusler is a Senior Lecturer (Architecture) at the University of New South Wales, Sydney; director of the Media Architecture Institute and known as researcher, educator, entrepreneur and designer in media architecture, digital technology, interaction design and ubiquitous computing through five books, over 20 papers and several design projects. www.mediaarchitecture.org:


When thinking about cinematic cities or neighborhoods one would quite quickly think about large screens on buildings. What one unfortunately mainly sees are urban screens, not media facades or media architecture and we would like to differ there as we understand ‘Media architecture’ as a holistic concept that requires thinking about communication and including communication technologies into the design. Further urban screens often do not respect the architectural and urban context and are primarily attached to a building but not integrated, an aspect that is quite important for media facades as shown in publications such as ‘Media Facades – History, Technology, Content’ or ’New Media Facades – A Global Survey’. As well Media architecture is not limited to large screens on buildings. Think about how many kinds of relationships we have with screens in our day-to-day lives – computers, tablets, smartphones and so on. Media architecture is like extending screen devices to a building scale, it’s the integration of those kinds of communication devices into architecture. Communication and the content are as well important aspects here and media architecture aims to understand better urban interaction design. It is one thing to interact one-to-one with a personal device but by far harder to understand who is enabling the interaction when several people are standing in front of one big screen. In short we from the Media Architecture Institute believe that what we experience at the moment are the first steps into defining what architecture could be in the communication age, with many more challenges, ideas and projects ahead of us.



So what do you think?

What makes a city or neighbourhood cinematic?

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