'What does "cinematic design" mean?'
This is a common question people ask when I refer to cinematic design in speaking about my work or in lectures about visual storytelling, cinematography, or previsualization. This term is one I first turned to when developing the filming plan for Finding Nemo to describe the overarching visual story design of a film. And I think it nicely sums up what previsualization can help filmmakers define as they shape the vision of their projects.
For me, cinematic design is the telling of visual story expressed through a unified vision of cinematography, production design, and editorial shape. The cinematic design sets the stage for (and responds to) performance. If you're trying to tell a visually strong and compelling story, it's vital to consider the end product as a cohesive whole, such that the individual parts work together to strengthen the message and emotion. Cinematic design is like a visual score for a film. In the way that the score and sound design of a film support and relate to the story through the interplay of various voices, instruments, sounds, musical themes, and silence, cinematic design defines the orchestration of visual themes and arrangement of the various visual storytelling voices.
In listening to a successful piece of music, we are usually unconscious of each individual voice or sound component, because the interplay and tuning of their contributions is what is so powerful and moving. A composer carefully develops and structures themes, determines the arrangement of instruments to play them, and conducts a group of musicians to shape the tempo, volume, and intensity as appropriate for the performance, for the desired mood, emotion, and creative expression. This is not so different from the phases we take a film through—development (composing), preproduction (arranging), and conducting a performance (production). In music, we never imagine the elements of an orchestra working discretely or sequentially—of course musicians practice their craft individually and sections practice their parts, but an orchestra and its conductor remain focused on the whole from the perspective of the final execution, making it the best it can be.
I frequently hear people say they don't like "rules". There's a big difference between "rules" and design. A painting with no design and every colour thrown in is hardly communicative, evocative, or good on virtually any scale. Cinematic design is similar-- it emphasizes consciously selecting and architecting an overall style and palette for the film, but not one restricted just to colour-- rather, a palette taking into consideration all the myriad of applicable visual devices: line, colour, shape, space, lens, staging, quantity of light, quality of light, movement, eye fix, editorial pacing, etc., and determining which will dominate and which will be used specifically to underscore the emotion and story. It is the composition of story-enhancing visual themes and the basic arrangement of how the visual storytelling voices will work together during production to create a unified and compelling final performance.
This is a subtle, powerful, and often-overlooked aspect of filmmaking. As I often heard during my years at Pixar-- if it's in the frame, it's on the screen, and it should strengthen the story. And doing that takes planning and structure-- cinematic design.