Defining the Film Look

All video professionals and indie filmmakers put a great deal of effort into their final product. Many of them wish to go a step beyond and achieve that pinnacle of video nirvana known as - "The Film Look." In this segment we will discuss what "The Film Look" means, why film and video look so different in the first place and how you too can achieve "The Film Look" in your next project.

Video Transcript

All video professionals and indie filmmakers put a great deal of effort into their final product. Many of them wish to go a step beyond and achieve that pinnacle of video nirvana known as - "The Film Look." In this segment we will discuss what "The Film Look" means, why film and video look so different in the first place and how you too can achieve "The Film Look" in your next project.

The Film Look?" - When we talk about "The Film Look" we are typically referring to the unique appearance of movies shot on film. Many factors contribute to the way film looks, including the grainy structure of the film stock itself. Furthermore, film cameras capture full frame images at the slightly less than life like rate of 24 frames per second, which accounts for the slight blur that is often associated with motion pictures. Another characteristic of the film look is that it has a very broad contrast ratio. In other words, very bright and very dark objects can exist together in the same frame while maintaining the fine details of each. Beyond the nature of the camera and even the film itself, basic production value plays a huge role in creating the look we have come to associate with big budget Hollywood films. Control is key at this level. Lighting, depth of field, frame composition and sound are all carefully planned and strictly controlled. Even after production wraps, this level of control continues into the edit room. Precise cuts and dissolves are the mainstay of editing transitions in Hollywood. Almost never will you see the likes of a diamond wipe or venetian blinds transition sully the carefully crafted frame of such a film. A final contributor to the film's look is color correction and color grading. The first balances the color and luminance values between shots so they all match and look the same. The second aims at creating a unified, even signature look, over large segments of the production or perhaps the entire film, often matching the film's theme. For examples, think of the stark exposures and extremely warm hues in the daylight scenes of Pitch Black or the richly saturated palette of CSI Miami.

While film cameras capture the entire image in every frame, video has traditionally captured images using interlacing. Half the image is scanned on each of two separate passes. The alternating passes are then stitched together, or interlaced, to form a complete image. Also, video is shot at 29.97 frames per second. This faster-than-film frame rate more closely approximates the speed of life and contributes largely to the crisper look of video. Technical limitations of camcorder sensors and processing capabilities account for video's reduced dynamic range and color reproduction capabilities. Differences in picture resolution are also partially responsible for the very different look of these two mediums. Standard definition video has vastly lower resolution than film, and high definition, while much better, still falls short. Film, with its much higher resolution, is able to cram a great deal more information into the same amount of screen space. More information means a greater dynamic range, more color detail and greater scalability, allowing movies shot on film to fill gigantic theater screens with no loss of quality. The lack of lens choices has also contributed to the visual differences between video and film. Until recently, video producers have been limited to fixed lens camcorders with virtually no opportunity to achieve the visual beauty that film's wonderfully shallow depth of field affords.

While it may seem at this point that "The Film Look" is something best left to Hollywood, and is far out of the reach of we mere mortals, the truth is, that there is much that can be done by video producers to achieve a look that closely resembles film.
Today's DSLR cameras have become extremely popular among video producers, largely due to their ability to produce near-film-quality images. Their large sensors dwarf those of most camcorders; they gather more light and result in better low light performance, richer color reproduction and greater dynamic range - and many shoot in full high definition. A key component to achieving the film look is shooting in 24p. That's 24 progressive frames per second. Progressive is the video equivalent of film's ability to capture whole images at a time - without interlacing, a common feature on these cameras. Another major benefit to DSLRs is interchangable lenses. No longer tethered to a fixed lens, creative options for producers are now nearly limitless. Need a distant shot? Use a telephoto lens. How about an extreme closeup? Try a macro lens. In fact, adapters can be used to attach just about any lens imaginable - even cinema lenses. Lens options and large sensors combine to form a perfect marriage that gives birth to a beautifully shallow depth of field that brings us ever closer to the coveted look of film.
Even if you already have a camera that does not have all the features of a DSLR, there are still some things you can do to dramatically improve the look of your video project, and having a high production value is right at the top of the list. Pay attention to your composition. Study and follow basic techniques such as the rule of thirds, don't break the 180 degree rule, and always have proper head, nose and chin room. And be sure you don't have telephone poles or other objects rising out of your subject's head. Study the capabilities of your camera. If you can achieve a shallow depth of field to any degree at all - use it. Never leave lighting to chance. Whether indoors or out, give thought to your lighting choices. Be sure your scenes are both well lit and appropriately lit. And always remember to white balance whenever you change locations or your lighting changes. And here's a big one - move the camera. Hollywood cameras are often moving. They're tilting, panning, dollying, craning; they're seldom stationary. Move your camera and move your video closer to the look of film.
Software programs can do wonders to improve the look of your project. First of all, if you want it to look like Hollywood, edit it like Hollywood. Get rid of the flying-whatever-effects and stick to cuts and dissolves only. Cut on the action and avoid boring your audience to tears with overly long scenes. Furthermore, your editing or effects program will allow you to color correct in order to balance the color and brightness values from clip to clip. Then you can color grade to create an overall look to pull the entire project together or even create a signature look that's all you. Finally, you may even want to investigate film emulation software, such as Red Giant Software's Magic Bullet. These programs consist of various effects and filters specifically designed to bestow that treasured film look upon your latest video creation.

Well, there you have it. What makes up "The Film Look," why it looks so different from video and how you too can achieve it. Follow these tips, apply them to your next project and wow your audiences with the amazingly high quality results you will have achieved.