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Getting The 'Film Look' on a Low Budget Video

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Getting The 'Film Look' on a Low Budget Video
A CreativeCOW.net "Basics of Video Series" Tutorial


Getting The “Film Look” on a Low Budget Video

Doug Graham
Doug Graham
Panda Productions

This edition © Doug Graham and Creativecow.net. All rights reserved.


Article Focus:
It seems that at least once a week someone asks the question, "How can I make my video look more like film?" In this article, Doug Graham puts forth a few pointers that might make your next job a little easier.


This is another one of those articles that was inspired by laziness. About once a week someone asks the question, “How can I make my video look like film?” on one of the video forums I frequent. I want to be able to point them to an article instead of having to re-write the same information over and over again!

A couple of caveats before we start: First, you CAN’T make your video look like film, not really. They are two different mediums, and they each have their own strengths and weaknesses. You can make your video look “more like” film, but it’s never going to really look the same. If you want a real “film look”, shoot real film. Second, I am not the inventor of most of these suggestions, I am merely their anthologist. These tips come from media experts from all over the Web, and/or trade magazines. Thanks to all of you…and of course, any errors are my own fault, not yours!

In The Beginning, there was light. Light is the start of the whole image-making process, and to get the best possible “film look” you should start here, before a single photon reaches your CCDs. Light your video scene like a film setup…but take into account video’s narrower contrast range. Note how many films are lit “low key”, with a great deal of shadowing in the picture, and only a few highlights. This is different from most video work, which is lit “high key”, with few shadows. Pay attention to making shadows with your lighting setups.

She’s So Shallow. Many film shots have a very shallow depth of field, throwing the background and/or foreground out of focus. This is harder to achieve with a camcorder, but if you use a neutral density filter, open up your lens (go to a low f-stop number), and work at the telephoto end of your zoom range, you can get a shallower depth of field.

Softly…Softly. Video cameras, especially consumer camcorders, add a lot of electronic sharpening to the image, which contributes to the “video look”. Reduce the sharpening done by your camera, if you have an adjustment for it. If not (or in addition), use a softening filter, such as a Tiffen Black Pro Mist. Low strengths are generally more useful, such as _ or 1. Some shooters like to stretch a piece cut from a pair of panty hose between the rear of their lens and the camera body, for the same purpose.

That Warm Glow. Film often has a very “warm” tone to it, as opposed to video, which can look quite “cool”. This is more or less pronounced, depending on which camera you’re using. You can warm up the picture by white balancing through a slightly blue-tinted gel, or using a blue-tinted calibration card such as those made by WarmCards (http://www.warmcards.com)

On The Big Screen. Shooting for widescreen display can make your video look more “theatrical”. Many camcorders do have a “widescreen” mode, but most of these simply mask off part of the imaging area, costing you resolution. Unless your camera is specifically designed to shoot widescreen video, like the Sony DSR-500, get an anamorphic lens adapter to “squish” your image, then “stretch” it out in editing.

Steady As She Goes. One hallmark of film images is the steadiness of the camera. Most films are shot with elaborate camera supports – tripods, cranes, dollies, and Steadycam rigs. The point of all this is to avoid calling attention to the camera itself by its motion. You should strive for the same sort of steady shots. The MTV “hand held shakycam” look is not very “filmic”. While we’re at it, don’t zoom. Film camera lenses don’t generally have a zoom ability, so zooming is a giveaway that the material was shot by a video camera.

Sounds Good To Me. Good audio is half, or even more, of a good video or film. If you don’t think so, try watching your favorite film with the sound turned off. Filmmakers pay a great deal of attention to audio, and the final audio mix has very little to do with what was captured during the shooting of the film. There is dialog re-recording, Foley (sound effects), music, “sweetening”, and mixing.

Video Cameras With a “Film Look” Mode. You can use all of the above tips no matter what camera you’re shooting with. But some cameras can help you get closer to a “film look” via technology. In the prosumer/low end pro arena, the top contenders in this area are the Canon XL1s and GL2, with their 30 frame per second “Frame Movie Mode”, and the Panasonic AG-DVX-100, with its various 24 frame per second progressive (24p) modes. These cameras produce image sequences that are closer to the “look” of 24 fps film than ordinary 60 fields per second, interlaced NTSC video.

We’ll Fix It In Post. If you haven’t done some or all of the things we’ve already talked about to get closer to a “film look”, then tweaking the footage in post production isn’t going to do you a whole lot of good. Think of it as the “final touch” rather than the main event. There are several “film look” software packages available, either stand-alone programs or plugins for After Effects, such as “Grain Surgery”. But all of these are relatively expensive. Here’s a technique developed by Shawn Bockoven, a video engineer and filmmaker in Sacramento, that’ll only cost you a little rendering time. The description below is a short outline of the technique. For a full run-down, check out this link.

First, color correct your footage. If you have Final Cut Pro, you have a handy gamma correction filter that works wonders with one click. Otherwise, use your NLE’s color correction tools to give a warm look, add a bit of saturation, and extend the range of tones in the low end (shadows and blacks). When you’re satisfied, make a copy of this clip. De-interlace the copy. Place the copy directly above the original clip in the timeline, and apply a transparency of between 30-50% or so.

Edit It Like Film. With the increasing use of CGI and digital effects, the world of film is beginning to see a few more transitions, other than the traditional cut and the occasional dissolve. But the cut is still king. You should use it for almost all your edits, if you want to “look like film”.

All right, I’m done. I hope these tips will help you to shoot video that has more of a “film look”. Good luck at the next film festival!


###Doug Graham





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