As a video production company, it’s necessary we achieve the “Film Look” in every project to impress our clients. If not, we’ll be out of the job because the competition is that fierce in the event videography industry.
A common dream among independent filmmakers shooting digitally is to deliver a movie that looks like it was shot on 35mm with a huge budget. We want to impress people and there is a certain look that says, ‘you are a real filmmaker!’
The Film Look
The basic look of film can be broken down into technical factors and style factors.
Technically, film is shot in whole frames (progressive frames in the video world), at a frame rate of 24 frames per second, and the sensitivity of film to light tapers off in the highlights and shadows.
Stylistically, there is a well established process of lighting and shooting movies that is distinct from the the way video is generally produced.
There are a number of things you can do to give the illusion that your movie was shot on film.
Creating the ‘Film Look’ with Video
Light it like film. This is the easiest way to distinguish your movie from the typical ‘shot-on-video’ movie. Do not just turn on your camera and start shooting. The lighting on a big budget feature film is carefully planned to create a specific mood and look for the movie. You may not have a giant budget, but there are things you can do to improve the quality of the lighting in your projects. One cheap trick to better lighting – buy a white Chinese paper light and hold it just out of frame when shooting close-ups. The soft glowing light is flattering to your actors.
- Move the camera like a film. A film camera loaded with 35mm film is heavy. You can not just grab it with one hand and start shooting. Because of this, Hollywood has created a huge variety of devices to hold and move cameras – dollys, cranes, SteadiCams, and more. Move your camera the same way that big budget films do and viewers will subconciously identify the look as ‘film like.’ Nothing says ‘video’ like handheld cameras bouncing around.
- Do Not Zoom!!!! Feature films rarely zoom-in during a shot. If the camera needs to get closer to something, they move it. In the 70’s zooms were often used as cheap dolly-shot substitutes on TV shows and that is what people will be reminded of if they see a zoom in your movie.
- Put your camera on manual. Learn how to control the focus and exposure of your camera manually. Auto-focus and auto-exposure are great features for grandparents videotaping a kid’s soccer game. But, they scream amatuer in a movie. When the focus shifts or the exposure changes in a shot it should be because you planned it that way and not because the camera was guessing at the best settings.
- Shoot in 24p mode. If you have a newer camera and it is capable of shooting in 24 frames-per-second progressive mode, use it. Film frames are captured one whole frame at a time at 24 frames per second. If you use the same frame rate and capture whole frames (progressive), your movie will have a more film-like quality. This makes a huge difference. One caution, fast camera moves will cause a strobing effect in progressive mode that does not happen when shooting interlaced video. Be prepared to slow down a little.
- Deinterlace your footage. If your camera does not support progressive mode and you have to shoot interlaced video, de-interlacing in post production will create a similar effect to shooting in progressive mode. The downsides are that you will have to process every frame which will lead to some degradation of the image and, because you are basically throwing out half of the vertical resolution of the video, you will lose detail and sharpness. There are some software plugins, like DVFilm Maker, that will do an ‘intelligent’ de-interlacing that preserves much of the detail. This software will also convert 30 frame-per-second video to 24 fps.
- Adjust your curves. The sensitivity of film to light has not even. Video chips record brightness in even increments from pure black to pure white. Film’s sensitivity gradually eases in from pure black and gradually eases out to pure white. This creates a characteristic look in the shadows and highlights. In post production you can apply a curves adjustment to your video and introduce a slight ‘S’ shape in the curve. The effect will be immediately appearant. The dark areas will get more dense and the highlights will spread out a little. A little goes a long way. DVInfo.net has an excellent tutorial demonstrating this effect.
These techniques may not fool the trained eye, but they will go a long way toward convincing everyone else. They will certainly make your finished movie appear more like it was shot on film. Have fun experimenting with the techniques and do not be afraid to try a few tricks of your own.