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UNREAL ENGINE - CINEMATIC CAMERA FRAMING 101

Cinematic Cameras are used to guide the player through significant moments of the game narrative by following principles that have been used in professional Filmmaking and Photography for centuries.


One of the most important aspects is FRAMING, meaning how the visual elements of an image are presented, most specifically, the placement of its subjects in relation to other objects.


When working as a Cinematic Artist, “framing a shot” is the first thing you focus on right after creating a new camera and perhaps the most important.


It’s key that you make informed decisions by following ground theories that will save you from time consuming mistakes and improve the composition, balance and the overall cinematic look of your shots.


Activate the Cinematic Viewport to see what you are doing.


Unreal Engine has a built-in feature called Cinematic Viewport. By activating it, you will have access to a series of overlays that will help you frame your subjects consciously.


To turn it on, click on the “Perspective” tab in the left-top corner of your viewport and flag “Cinematic Viewport” at the very bottom of the list. The overlays menu will appear in the top-right corner of the viewport.


This will be your best friend and I suggest you always keep your overlays of choice enabled when framing your subjects. You will see later in this article how you can use some of the available options to improve your compositions.


Let’s now see a few fundamentals you must keep in mind when framing your shots.


1- Pick the right lens for the right shot


Generally, there are 3 main shot types: Wide Shot, Medium Shot, and Close up. Their names refer to the size of the subject within the frame. 

Each of these shots have usually associated a range of lenses that can vary according to your camera settings or artistic choices. 


Wide-Shot:



Mid-Shot:




The subject usually sits on approximately ⅓ of the frame and equal importance is also given to the surroundings. This shot can be used during a dialogue or when the character moves around a contained location. Lenses between 35mm and 65mm.


Close Up:



This type of shot have an intimate correlation with the character’s psychology or emotions and the subject fills most part of the frame. A close-up can also be used to frame objects of relevance, or some particular actions (for example a hand grabbing a ring or a foot kicking a ball). Lenses between 50mm and 85mm.


Even though the shots listed above are commonly associated to a set of defined lenses, it does not mean you can’t experiment.


For example, if the character is facing a psychological challenge, a close-up shot can use a wide lens such as a 24mm (commonly used for wide shots). A mid-shot can use a lens greater than 85mm if the goal is to make the subject more flattering and detached from the background because of the shallow depth of field.




Whichever you pick, make sure you don’t use odd lenses (such as 65.32 or 85.74) and if possible, determine a lens kit at the start of your project and stick with it till the end, to keep your sequences consistent.


After all, there is no right or wrong lens. It all comes down to the message you are trying to convey and, most importantly, to your artistic vision.


2- Frame your subjects using the “rule of thirds”


The rule of thirds is a composition guideline broadly used in professional Photography and Filmmaking. It guides the viewer’s eye into the frame and places more emphasis on the subject.


In Unreal, it’s called “Grid(3x3)” and can be activated in the Composition Overlays panel of the Cinematic Viewport. When you enable it, the viewport is divided in nine equal rectangles.




As you move your camera around to find the right angle, place the most important elements and subjects along these lines (vertical or horizontal) or their intersections. 


You can see in the examples below how the rule of thirds is used in some of the most breathtaking cinematic games of all times.







You can also use the rule of thirds to play with negative space, and create stunning narrative shots. For example, if your character is travelling across the frame, keep the empty space around the character oriented where your character is looking or heading to.



If you combine it with a subtle camera movement the result will look even more immersive as the viewer’s eye will be naturally moving across the shot along with the characters.


Remember, when using the rule of thirds with moving cameras, it’s not important that the subjects strictly adhere to the lines or their intersections, as long as they are placed in the general area around them.


The Rule of Thirds can be bent and broken while still achieving a solid composition but I would encourage you to follow this guideline when framing your shots until you gain more confidence.


Chances are, after a while, you will start applying it unconsciously even without the overlay being active.

3 - Use the Letterbox, but use it right


Letterboxing is often referred to as a purely aesthetic accessory that is used to give cut-scenes a cinematic look by adding horizontal black bars at the top and bottom of a frame.


Although this is partially true, letterboxing is a bit more complicated than it seems and, if not used properly, it can create problems that will lead to extra work when trying to correct it in post production.


A mistake that is often made is adding black bars as an overlay on top of your footage after you have rendered it. What often happens is that your character’s head will partially be covered by the top black bar.



Certainly, to correct this issue you could just offset the frame vertically in post production (using software such as Premiere Pro or After Effect) so that the bottom part of your frame is chopped instead. No one will notice, but by doing so you are not only wasting time correcting each affected shot, but you are also unnecessarily sacrificing other bits of your composition.


The right approach, instead, is to determine which aspect ratio you will want your cut-scenes to be in at the very beginning and crop your footage after you have exported it.


Let’s choose, for the sake of this example, the 2.35:1 aspect ratio commonly used in movies.


Activate the Letterbox Mask in the Cinematic Viewport overlays panel and set the left value (width) to 2.35 and the right value (height) to 1.



With this overlay active, as you move your camera around finding the right angle, you will be aware of which areas of your composition will later be chopped and will choose your lenses and camera position more consciously.

However, keep in mind that the black bars will not be rendered when exporting your final cut scene. In fact, you don’t want that. Instead, you will want to ingest your footage in an editing software (such as Adobe Premiere Pro) and crop at export.



In Premiere Pro "export settings" panel, click on the crop icon (top left of your screen) and set the Top and Bottom values manually (number of pixels). To find the right value, divide the width of your footage by the aspect ratio. (1920 / 2.35 = 817.0212765957447). Round it off to the closest even number (816) and subtract it from the height of your footage (1080 - 818 = 264). Divide it now by 2 (as the 2 black bars) and you will find the right amount of pixels you want to crop from the top and bottom corner (132 pix).


The black bars will automatically be generated when your cinematic is seen on certain screens, but those won’t be part of your export. In fact, it’s a misconception to think that bars should be embedded in your footage, that’s just not how it works. In the worse case, it can create artifacts when uploading to video streaming platforms (YouTube. Vimeo, etc) and increase your file size unnecessarily.


In Conclusion...


Regardless of what you are filming and what your artistic views are, the basic "unreal engine cinematic camera framing 101" summed up in this article have been around for quite some time now and have proved to be effective across different disciplines such as Filmmaking and Photography.





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