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Looking for film look? Shoot like film!

COW Library : Cinematography Tutorials : Kim Segel : Looking for film look? Shoot like film!
CreativeCOW presents Looking for film look? Shoot like film! -- Cinematography Tutorial

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Film look software will never offer the same impact on your work that film-style shooting will. Software will also always take longer than shooting right the first time. Longtime film shooter Kim Segel shows you the tools and techniques to maximize film looks, even on paupers budgets.

"Film look" software will never offer the same impact on your work that film-style shooting will. Software will also always take longer than shooting right the first time. Longtime film shooter Kim Segel shows you the tools and techniques to maximize film looks, even on pauper's budgets.

Y ou've tried all the tech basics of getting that elusive "film look:" shooting 24 fps, adding grain, using an S' curve gamma, even adding a tiny bit of dust and scratches. But your project still lacks that certain "something," that "big-budget feature" look.

It's easy to focus on the "film" part of film making, but a lot of the differences between the look of video vs. film are not in the actual media. They're in the techniques and tools used to acquire the content.

When telling your story, the goal isn't to make something that looks like "a film," but to completely involve the audience in a different world. Think of it as creating virtual reality for your audience

Most of the great film conventions are based simply on organic human experience. We fade to black instead of green or plaid, because black is what we see when we close our eyes.

A dolly move always feels more organic than a zoom move because, after all, our eyeballs don't zoom. Our eyes are essentially spherical, prime lenses, and if we want to change our view of the world we can tilt or pan our neck (separate muscles, like a gear head) or walk towards or away from something (like a dolly).

Here are some tips to getting that "big movie" film look.


So, what's so great about film-style shooting? Shallow depth-of-field? Dolly moves? It's all about mind control! Making the viewer look where you want, and feel the way you want.

With a shallow depth-of-field - and a good follow- focus operator - you can rack focus through the shot and force viewers to look exactly where you want, exactly when you want.

One common saying is that: "Film is a medium of the long shot and video is the medium of the close up."

If you're shooting HD, just forget that old saying. Think of every big feature you've ever seen: starting with that gigantic long shot that magnificently sets the scene.

Even try framing your CUs a little looser than you're used to. Imagine you're filling a 60 foot screen.

Shot of chiaroscuro
Kim frames a shot using chiaroscuro lighting for this dream sequence. See wikipedia for chiaroscuro details .


One of the tasks of the director and DP (or you) is to take a three dimensional world that has been flattened out onto a two dimensional movie screen, and re-imbue it with a sense of depth.

It's common in video shooting to keep the lighting bright and flat. This gives you a deep depth-of-field and lets you see everything in the shot. However, this isn't the always the best way to involve your audience.

Avoid flat lighting. Create pools of light and dark, with the light patches where you want the audience to look. (It's called "chiaroscuro" when Rembrandt does it.) It pulls the viewers' eyes to the bright parts of the shot.

If your shot is mostly dark, try to include just a couple of bright point of light (candles, distant streetlights) so the viewers can retain their orientation.


By keeping your moves smooth, you take your viewer's attention off the camera work and keep is focused on your subject.

Avoid hand-held camera if possible, unless it's explicitly part of the story's visual style. Stay on your sticks. Use a gear head instead of a tilt-pan head. Leave the zoom ring alone, pretend you're shooting a prime lens, even if you're not.

Here's your new mantra: "Slow down." Everyone has seen the MTV jerky-cam moves. They're so 1995. The trick is to use moves judiciously.

The dolly is one of my favorite mind control tricks! In real life, if you're in a conversation, you tend to physically lean in when things get interesting, and lean out when you lose interest.

With the camera on a dolly you can actually force the viewer to be interested. As you slowly dolly in, you can force the viewer to feel like they're leaning in.

Avoid compound moves, i.e. tilting while panning while zooming. Try to simplify moves, like a slow pan to follow your subject. After you have settled for a while, then begin a slow dolly in, only tilting to maintain headroom.

Pauper's tip: if you can't afford a dolly, try a wheelchair, skateboard, little red wagon or even a shopping cart.


Motion blur is your friend, so turn off that high speed shutter on the camera. In fact, early motion-control and CG work looked unnaturally "crispy" until they figured out how to simulate natural looking motion blur in each frame.

Film makers have always had an easier time changing the frame rates than video shooters. This is a great and simple trick for changing the viewer's perception of a shot.

An overcranked slo-mo in the field yields a much more beautiful slo-mo than just slowing down the footage in post.

By overcranking the camera, you make time slow down. This can make a scene more romantic, more dramatic, or simply give the viewer more time to absorb the totality of a scene.

You have to overcrank when you shoot miniatures for them to scale correctly. This is especially true when you are shooting smoke, water and fire " three things that quickly give away to the viewer the actual scale of the shot.

The "simple" formula is: the normal playback speed, times the square root of the reciprocal of the model scale equals the shooting speed.

(Yikes! Now, don't you wish you were paying more attention in school?)

In the real world it might look like this:

shooting rate

This would be for a project that will be playing back at 30 fps (the 30' at the beginning) using a half scale model (the .5')

So a quarter-scale model would be .25' instead of the .5' In this example the overcranked shooting rate should be = 42.4 If you were working on a 60fps project, and your model was scale (.75) you would overcrank to 69.3.

This same formula also works for shooting oversized models and props. In these cases it yields an undercranked frame rate.

Of course, you can speed up the footage in post with no loss of quality.

Pauper's Tip: Until extremely recently, only film cameras or expensive pro video cameras could overcrank. Sony's new HVR-V1 HD camcorder will overcrank all the way to 240fps (though for a limited duration.)

If you're shooting a miniature scenic, use layers of a light gauzy netting (called "Bridal Tule") to create the effect of atmospheric diffusion. As seen in the example below, you can use multiple layers of tule to create the illusion of tremendous atmospheric depth.

Bridal Tule


Film shoots often use fog or smoke on the set to create a moody effect or simply to create depth. The quick way to fog a very large area (like a whole city) without renting the big, BIG foggers is twofold:

• Fog the immediate area with a small juice fogger. This will be the swirly' stuff the talent interacts with. Fan gently with foamcore.

• Create the impression of your fog extending back to infinity by using a "graduated fog filter" (also called a double fog') in your matte box. A graduated fog filter is foggiest at the top, fading out towards the bottom.

As in real life, if you're standing on a foggy beach; you see almost no fog if you are looking down at your feet, but a thick fog as you look out towards the horizon.

Pauper's tip: You can buy really inexpensive juice foggers at department stores when Halloween rolls around. I found some for $18, including a small bottle of fog juice! You can get a small graduated fog filter from Cokin S.A.S. for as little as $20.

Filters are cool, and pro DPs know this. The Canon X1 and XL-H1 are among the video cameras that can use them. Here's a real short list of the coolest:

Polarizer . This one is pure magic! Used outdoors, linear polarizers make the sky deep blue, make all your colors pop, and cut glare on surfaces like water and glass "Hey look, you can actually see through that windshield!" It does stuff you can't do in post.

Graduated blue . In case your sunny' shoot day really turns out to be overcast, this one will turn your skies blue again. "Bluebird of Happiness" optional.)

Graduated green . Just like the above, but makes the grass green. It's this, or use 200 cans of green spray paint.

Tiffen Black Pro-Mist® gives a rich misty quality to the shot, but without elevating your black levels.

Neutral Density, aka ND. These let you reduce the light coming into the camera without closing the iris and losing that shallow depth-of-field that you've now came to love! Graduated NDs let you knock down that bright sky and not affect the rest of your shot.

Star filters Remember that dark shot with the candles (above)? This will kick cool stars off all those points of light. A single-line star filter is called a streak' filter.

Split-Field . Technically a lens, not a filter, but these are used just like filters. These let you keep half your frame in focus on a very near object and the other half in focus at infinity.

Imagine that tight shot of the lawman's holster on his hip, and the bad guy at the end of the street reaching for his gun. Use this one when there is simultaneous action at two different focal distances.


Sound, especially dialog quality, is another major factor that give your work that "big movie" feel.

In a feature film about 80% of the dialog is re-recorded (ADR) in a sound studio. If you can't afford all that session time, try this "Pauper's ADR: "

1) Copy off your field dialog as one-sentence .mp3 files.

2) Download them into a regular .mp3 music player set it to "repeat one song."

3) Have your talent listen on headphones.

4) Record them under sound-controlled conditions while they listen to their looping, original dialog.

They don't need to see their performance. All they need to do is speak in unison with the loop. If you have limited access to your talent, you can even do this in the field by making a little sound booth out of sound blankets.

Foley sound and room tone are also often overlooked in production. It adds depth and dimension to any production to add foley sound, not just the obvious SFX like gunshots and car engines, but the tiny, subtle sounds: birds twittering outside a bedroom window, the complex layers of sounds inside an office.

"Room tone" is simply the sound of your set with no talent speaking. Record 30 seconds of it at the end of each setup. Don't let people leave. They're all part of that sound environment. Record 30 seconds of ambient sound when you shoot outdoors as well.

When you're editing, instead of leaving silence between lines, cut a chunk of the matching tone into that space.


Try not to get too caught up in the technical aspects. Remember: at the end of the day, it's the strength of your subject, story, or actors' performances, that touch your audience and create your reality.

Kim Segel Kim Segel
Northridge, California

Kim has been creating television shows, films and computer animation since the 1980s. He's worked on everything from music videos to computer games. He's held a Pyro Technician Special Effects 1st Class Permit for 15 years. He currently works full-time in Hollywood, doing digital effects for two television networks, and recently gave an 8-week University lecture series on creating digital visual effects for feature films.

Get the PDF of Kim's article here!

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