Film Look for Video


Achieving A Film Look with Video
The notes below, from Victor (moviemaker at sprint ca) appeared on the TRV900 mailing list in August, 1999. It describes techniques you can use to make your videos look more film. Many people think of the "film look" as having more desirable, artistic qualities than we usually associate with video. -jpb

Here are some tips to achieve a film look:

1. Use a diffusion of some sort, (take your pick) i.e. - flesh coloured nylon stocking over the front of the lens, Cokin Diffusion 1 or 2, Tiffen Pro Black Mist, smear vaseline over clear filter, etc.

2. Use a slow shutter speed of 30th or 60th - try never to use fast shutter speeds of 125th and above.  These tend to cause strobing.  To see an example of this, aim your camcorder at a computer monitor screen with your screen saver running (if using Windows, set screen saver to "Marquee" with rotating words).  When using a slow shutter speed of 60th second, the motion of the screen saver will be smooth.  When using higher shutter speeds of 125th and above, the screen saver will appear to "jump" or strobe across the screen.  Add and remove light to work within this parameter.

3. Use a wide open aperture (on TRV-900 it's called Exposure in the manual).  This ranges from OPEN to about F4.  Anything higher than that makes a greater depth of field and decreases your differential focus.

NOTE: When using a Cokin #2 Diffuser, anything aperture larger than F4 will show halation and the artifact from the diffusing element in the filter.  Great for special effects (looks like water) but not usually desirable.

4. In order to use a combination of slow shutter speed and wide open aperture in a bright exterior shooting situation, it is necessary to decrease the amount of light entering the lens.  This can be achieved by turning on the TRV900's built-in ND (neutral density filter) filter and adding up to ND8  (or a 3-stop) filter which effectively removes the amount of light entering the lens by 3-stops.  This will give you the combination of slow shutter speed and wide open aperture that yields nice differential focus when shooting in bright exteriors.

In order to shoot within the contrast range of video, once you have set your desired shooting aperture and shutter, add and remove light to your scene if feasible to achieve results.  This includes flagging, scrimming, screening, etc.  It's a lot of work but you did say you wanted film-look right? ;-)

5. Video only has about a 5 F-stop contrast range.  Make sure you shoot within this contrast ratio for best results exposing for your desired highlights.  The best way to make sure you are within the contrast limits is to meter the important areas of your scene with either a spotmeter or incident light meter to determine if your highs and lows are within the ratios.  I bought a Cokin graduated Grey filter which is grey on one half and gradually goes clear on the other half. What does this do?

Imagine a scene where a person is standing inside a house beside window and it is bright daylight outside.  If you expose properly for the person inside the house, scene outside the window will be too bright and any detail of the scene outside the window will be lost in overexposed white highlights.

A graduated grey or graduated neutral density filter rotated to fit the scene, will reduce  the brightness of the window scene while preserving the exposure of the person standing inside the house next to the window.  By reducing the contrast of the scene outside the window, you allow video to capture the scene BOTH inside the house and outside the window.

6. Yeah lighting, lighting, lighting.   Lighting for the film-look is absolutely critical. This means lots of modeling, shadows instead of the flat blast of video light like what you see in news reel footage.

Buy a book on glamour portrait photography which has diagrams of LIGHTING SETUPS and their RESULTING IMAGE on 35mm film.  The lighting is almost always dramatic or flattering (glamour). You will learn more about painting with light using cookies, scrims, spots, cutouts and other devices than from the standard video lighting book.  A good one is:

A Guide to Professional Lighting Techniques
(Pro Lighting series)
by Alex Larg and Jane Wood
ISBN  2-88046-322-X

Designed and Produced by:
Quintet Publishing Ltd.
6 Blundell Street
London  N7 9BH

This is BY FAR the best book I have seen on glamour photography.  Although the book is written for 35mm still photography, the lighting setup diagrams, use of filters and the resulting images can be used for video lighting conceptually are well worth the price.  Using this book as a starting point, one can easily then improvise the setups needed for shooting a video version of this.  If you follow, the techniques outlined in the book, I have no doubt that your video footage will stand out from the crowd.

There are essentially three differences between amateur and pro work:

1. Composition
2. Lighting
3. Use of filtration
 Victor K
Founder - Digital Video Group
Director, Director of Photography, Screenwriter 

Lighting References

I bought New Glamour on Victor's advice. It contains seven chapters illustrating different portrait styles using the work of 23 photographers. It shows 56 lighting setup diagrams each with accompanying photos. 159 pages full of ideas, many are rather dramatic. (jpb)

A film industry standard, that I use for video lighting, is Film Lighting by Kris Malkiewicz. (George Fisher - Prague, CZ)

One book I liked was 50 portrait lighting techniques by John Hart - AmPhoto Books, Watson-Guptil Publications 1515 Broadway NY, NY ISBN 0-8174-3861-0. Like it says - it's for portraits, but covers some very specific (good) ideas in consummate detail. (W T, Australia)

More Film Look discussions

Subject: Filmlook comments: grain, deinterlacing
From: Rod Stevens (cinevsta at primenet com)

There are two primary factors that create the variance in appearance from video to film.

1 = Dancing grains of variably exposed silver salts, versus stable pixels of color reproduction. For this, the most popular attempts involve adding film grain through After Effects, or other effects software.

2 = Though there are some who don't seem to understand this, and will debate it, video is a sequence of 59.97 individual fields recorded each second. Even though it takes two fields to make a frame, you are still viewing a screen full of changing visual information from one field to another, hence is is nearly 60 images per second. Film on the other hand is 24 frames per second - period. It is night and day to me. I shoot almost everything at 1/30th of a second exposure when I shoot video, because when I leave it at normal it really slaps me in the face as VIDEO. Additional evidence was the unsuccessful attempt of Douglas Trumbell to introduce a new film method. He shot 70mm film at 60 frames per second. The image became so fluid and sharp, that people complained it looked like VIDEO!!!

The most successful attempts at making video look like film have always involved deinterlacing the fields. This is essentially what the XL-1 'Movie Mode' is doing in camera. Some people also tinker with contrast and saturation to personal taste. I hear of plugins from various companies, but the biggest gap is in deinterlacing the fields.

Rod - a film guy.

> From: "Craig Ballantyne" (cbal at bekkers com au)
> I've just finished a video shoot for a music video with my
> TRV900. Although the picture quality is excellent I'd like to try and
> soften the overall video "starkness" of the shoot with a more soft 35mm
> film type look.

From: "Jeffrey F. Krepner"

I use a program called FilmFX all the time for this stuff. It is available for Speed Razor and it is great. You can use FilmFX to color correct, adjust brightness curves, adjust gamma levels, and even specify which film stock the video is supposed to "mimic" i.e. Kodak Vision 500t 35mm/16mm etc.. Plus it has all types of film defects, gate weave, dust, scratches, 3:2 pull down etc. -Jeff, scuzzo film,

From: Gianluca Jandelli

If you use Premiere, the best film type look filter is a plug-in called Film FX. It is better, faster and cheaper than Cinelook. You can find it at You can add a combination of adjustments relative to: telecine simulation, letterboxing, emulsion blur, grain, color timing, special fx and old film (scratches and the like) ... btw, there is a preview and presets for many types of emulsions. --Gianluca

Subject: Issues of Lighting and Contrast
From: D Gary Grady (dgary at mindspring com)
Date: Mon, 16 Aug 1999

Terer at aol com wrote:
> In a message dated 8/15/99 3:47:52 PM, dgary at mindspring com writes:
> << (The chief advantage of film over video, aside from resolution, 
>     is a much wider contrast range.) >>
> Interesting. Could you expand on this a bit? Are you saying that detail can
> be captured in the extreme lights and the darks on film that would go
> completely white and black on video? And/or within an equally well exposed
> area are there more distinguishable gradations in film than in video? That
> is, is there a way to light a scene to eliminate over and underexposed areas
> so that miniDV can approach film when it is inturn broadcast on television?

Any imaging system, from drawing and painting to photography and video, necessarily maps the vast brightness range of real-world images into a narrower brightness range of a painted canvas, photographic print, magazine page, or movie or television screen. (Ansel Adams' famous "zone system" for photographic exposure was based on this, and pretty much anything he wrote on the subject is worth reading for video as well as still photographers.)

The blackest part of a television image, for example, isn't even as dark as the screen when the set is off. The whitest part is only so white. (One of the advantages of watching a film in a cinema, incidentally, is that the brightness range of the screen is so much greater.)

For film, video, painting, or whatever, anything brighter than a certain level of brightness goes white (that is, maps to the upper limit of whiteness), while anything dimmer than a certain level goes black. The brightness range in between is typically 5 to 6 stops on prosumer video equipment I think, about 7 stops on professional cameras, and as much as 10 stops on a top-of-the- line HDTV camera. Negative film has an even greater contrast range. (These numbers are mostly from memory, so don't make any serious wagers based on them...) One stop represents a doubling in brightness, by the way, so 6 stops is a brightness ratio of 2^6 or 64.

Film also has a very linear response over its contrast range except for a very long, smooth roll-off near the upper and lower ends. Professional video cameras can be adjusted to more closely simulate the behavior of film in this regard, even if they can't match the full width of the contrast range.

An obvious question is how come film still looks like film, even when it's been transferred to video. After all, the video side of the process is still limited in the contrast range it can handle. The answer is that film has already "pre-mapped" its wider contrast range down to a narrower one that video can deal with.

And this is basically a hint about how to shoot video to look more like film: Use lighting to reduce the contrast range of the important parts of the image. That doesn't mean to light like a 1980s U.S. TV sitcom, flooding the set with light from every direction. It does mean holding the lighting ratio lower than you'd use for film. Otherwise, you *should* light as you would for film, and you shouldn't be afraid to use color gels to get a more film-like (actually a better term would be *movie*-like) look. For an excellent demonstration of the utility of color in lighting sources, see Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. Note the rooms lit in blue in the background in the Crusie/Kidman apartment. Note also Tom Cruise side-lit in blue near the end of the billiard room scene. Lots of amazing lighting in that film.

(Yes, I saw Eyes Wide Shut for the cinematography. I also read Playboy for the articles. Oh, shut up.)

If you really want to do this right, you can tweak the lighting to lighten up shadow areas just a tad and keep highlights from being too hot.

While you're at it, turn down or off any video sharpness enhancement on your camera. The resulting image will (no surprise) look less subjectively sharp, but it will have more detail and hence look more filmlike.

> And is there a better way to quantify the greater resolution of film
> 35mm/16mm/ vs miniDV. I know there is a  more technical language for these
> issues, hope it does not bore anyone.
Making the comparison is actually fairly complicated, in part because human visual perception is complicated. (Video often seems "sharper" than film, even though its resolution is lower; that's related to the business about turning down the sharpness enhancement to get better resolution.)

But it's perhaps worth recalling that even Super8 film has higher resolution than any standard-definition digital video origination formats (all of which have a fixed 720 pixels horizontally, whether PAL or NTSC, D2 or DigiBeta or DV).

> I have also heard there is filtering/processing of some kind that makes video
> look like film. I don't know if this really works or not.
From what I've seen and read, the various processes that aim to achieve a "film look" do so not by overcoming the shortcomings of video versus film but by simulating the *defects* (!!) of film. They add ersatz film grain, gate jiggle, 3:2 pulldown artifacts (at least for NTSC), and so on. They might serve to trick a distributor into thinking something was shot on film, but they I don't think they add very much that's good in an artistic or photographic sense. (The one exception might be that they can create a more film-like shoulder on the H&D curve, but from John Beale's transfer curve plot the TRV900's H&D curve already looks fairly filmlike to me. Also, in fairness, film grain can itself have some artistic value, as can be seen in Eyes Wide Shut, which uses heavy-duty push-processing for all the scenes that take place at night.)

Back in the early 1980s a friend of mine shot a feature on video (3/4" Umatic SP I think, edited on 1") and the result looks as much like film as anything I've ever seen. In fact, it looks damned good! The only "film look" process they used was to transfer the tape to film for theatrical release, then transfer the film back to tape for video release. (If you want to see for yourself, the film is Ocean Drive Weekend and can be found at many Blockbusters. The cinematographer was John Godwin and the director was Bryan Jones. For the record, John now has a VX-1000 to go with his Betacam SP gear, and Bryan uses a VX-1000, an Canon XL-1, and a Sony TRV-900.)

Unfortunately, going from video to film to video is hugely expensive right now, but aside from that little problem there's a lot to be said for it, including the possibility of having a film print for exhibition...

D Gary Grady Durham NC USA 
dgary at mindspring com 
gary_grady at birr com 

Others on the list have suggested that the important "look" advantage of film is the contrast ratio, which helps only if you originate on film. Another is the irregular and unique-to-each-frame grain structure of the film (as opposed to the perfectly regular CCD matrix) which probably does affect the video->film->video image. The problem of shooting with film originally is the high price of stock+processing, exacerbated by the "shooting ratio" (ratio of film shot to film actually used in the final product). If you're making a low-budget feature film, you may do better shooting on a HDTV format camera like the HDW-700 (which supposedly approaches film in contrast ratio and resolution), edit digitally, and then transfer the finished product to film.
Subject: Film-look comments
From: "jerome maro"

I would like to give some comments on your otherwise very informative site,
especially the "film look" page. While the page is generally very
informative (I appreciate very much the part about glamour photography
lightning...), there are a few points with which I do not agree.

The first is the sentence: "even Super8 film has higher resolution than any
standard-definition digital video". Actually, Super8 is closer to VHS
resolution. Perhaps the writer was mislead by published resolution figures
for high definition technical B&W film or some lens FTM measurements, but
even for 35mm still cameras (which are better than any movie camera),
real-life resolution is more like 2500 dpi (about 50 line pairs per mm),
especially when measured away from the center of the image (I know that you
can get double that with some lenses and some slow films at the center of
the picture using an heavy tripod, but notice I said "real life"). From
that resolution figure and the frame size of common film formats (in
inches), one gets the following optimistic figures:

 super 8: 0.166*0.244 equivalent to 415*560 pixels
 super 16: 0.280*0.464 equivalent to 700*1160 pixels
 35mm: 0.715*0.839 equivalent to 1788*2097 pixels (this is only one of the various 35m formats)

Note that super 8 resolution is probably much lower, due to the design of
the cartridge (plastic press plate, bah!).

By comparing the horizontal resolution of the figure above for 35mm (2097
pixels) and the one you give for the Sony HDW-700 HDTV camera (advertised
as "as good as 35mm film": 1920 pixels) you can tell the calculation is not
grossly wrong... Note that the vertical figure is different, because the
aspect ratio is not the same (the HDTV camera is 16:9).

The second point I do not agree with is the theory that film looks like
film because of its wider contrast range. While *negative* film indeed has
a wider contrast range, this is not true for any medium spectators watch
film with (positive prints or video), so that when final copies are made
the advantages of the wider contrast range disappear: it only makes it
easier to get "correctly exposed" final copies. This effect is well known
from still photographers: it's like the difference between negative and
slide film. Negative (wide contrast range) is easier to expose right, but
properly made prints from correctly exposed slides (narrow contrast range)
and negative film give similar results.

On the other hand, a very important difference between film and video, and
one that is completely ignored in the page, is color rendition. Filmmakers
often choose a particular film stock according to the ambiance they want
their film to have, because of the colors they get with that chosen brand
of film. Everyone can do the experiment at home: get some 35mm slide film
(slide so that you can watch directly the film and not color-corrected
prints) from different types (in a given sensitivity like 200 ASA you can
get 2 or 3 types from either Fuji or Kodak), take pictures of difficult
subjects (skin tones, especially from colored persons or plants make far
better subjects than man-made saturated colors) and you'll be amazed
(really!) by the difference in the results. And video cameras give a
different color rendition than any film, which is not surprising given that
the technology is completely different.

The question then becomes: can you get the same colors by post-processing?
Some software claims just that, but those claims should be taken with a
grain of salt. I believe that between the limited gamut produced by CCDs
sensors (with parasitic sensitivity curves vastly different to the ones of
film... or the one of the eye) and the destructive effect of color
subsampling and image compression, there simply may not be enough
information left to go back to different colors. Giving an example: 10
years ago Fuji film was known for its color saturation. Some people liked
it a lot, and it was nice on some subjects, but use that film to take a
picture of your garden and any plant is spinach-green. Now, once you get
that type of colors, there is no way you can go back to the subtle hues of
green that were given by other film brands...

These ramblings are of course completely unproven opinions, since I do not
have the equipement to directly compare the colors of a video camera (with
post processing) to the colors of the same subject, shot on film and
transferred to video tape (although... maybe using a photoCD would be a
good approximation?). But if those ramblings have any truth, there are two
types of "film look" that should be easier to reproduce with a video camera
(using the excellent lightning advice on the page). One would be to only
film very saturated, artificial colors, the other one would be the "black
and white film look". ;-)

Subject: Film vs. Video addendum Date: Fri, 29 Oct 1999 16:30:52 -0400 From: D Gary Grady Jerome Maro's analysis persuades me that Super 8 probably doesn't have more resolution than DV after all (although I would point out that serious filmmakers using Super 8 tend to avoid cartridges with plastic pressure plates, and that contrary to what he says it's nowhere near as bad as VHS). But on the importance of contrast range, I think he misses a critical point in his observation about film stocks. Print stocks don't take pictures of the real world and aren't exposed to real-world contrast ranges. Rather they are exposed to the much narrower contrast range of a developed negative. It's the translation of a wide contrast range into a narrower one that accounts (in part) for the look of film, even when film is viewed on television. D Gary Grady
Subject: Film Look with TRV900: "Flash" digital effect From: "Hal W. Dowdy" (hdowdy at inetconn net) Date: Fri, 4 Jun 1999 18:48:36 -0400 I bought my camera a couple of months ago. It's been a real joy. I am in competition with several filmakers like myself who have gone Mini DV instead of film. The others use The Canon XL-1 and the VX1000. I've seen the footage and it ain't much different if at all. All of us film purists are searching for the "film look". One thing I have discovered and it's pretty simple is that if you use the flash effect at it's lowest setting, you can get the kinetic look of film. I'm sure others have discovered this effect, but I haven't seen it published on your page. The great thing about this effect is, that you can apply it on playback. I am shooting a movie with this camera in straight up video, and I am applying the black and white effect coupled with the flash effect when I dump it into my computer. I will then crush the blacks, to give the image a tonal range similar to film. -- Hal
Subject: Film Look with Adobe Premiere From: "mitko" (mitko popovski at mrak si) Date: Sun, 19 Mar 2000 16:57:13 +0100 I have a comment and maybe a solution for the film look that I read in the discussion on your great TRV900 web page; it is very simple doing it in Adobe Premiere 5.1. The flashlike effect from the camera can be done very well in Premiere by choosing clip>video>frame hold, there you choose alternate frame rate for the clip (I use PAL and 13fps or similar is OK for me). You can choose different settings and get different result ; now add some bightness and contrast and that's basically what expensive programs like bigFX or satori filmFX do!!! When I found this out I thought it can't be so simple but it is. mitko
Subject: Depth of Field and Human Perception From: Danny Grizzle (danny at mogulhost com) Date: 25 Jan 2001 To: (DV-L On 1/25/01 1:02 PM, Mike Jennings ( mjenning Adobe.COM ) wrote: > Why is it that cameras with larger CCD's have a shorter depth of field? Because they require a longer focal length "normal" lens. Normal focal length varies with format size, but depth of field characteristics remain constant for a given focal length. In practical application, long focal lengths - telephotos - are considered to have less depth of field. Short focal lengths - wider angles - have greater depth of field. [...] I've said it before on this list, but I think there is a biological basis for this in human perception. One part of dizzy sex appeal is the fact that our eyes dialate. There is actual physical basis for focusing our attention so intently on something that we actually do lose sight of all else. Control of depth of field in cinematography is one way we visually invoke that feeling. Danny Grizzle Note: see also D Gary Grady's technical discussion of depth of field.

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