HOW TO MAKE VIDEO LOOK LIKE FILM Written by Benjamin Cooper
When it comes to narrative movies, retailers and television buyers will often pass on product that obviously originated on video. They feel it looks cheap and they want to avoid complaints by end users who feel cheated. Foreign buyers that would spend $40,000 and better for a low-budget shot on film picture may spend $4,000 or less for a video picture. Besides, most people (in the western world, anyway) simply prefer the visual aesthetic that film offers.
The best way to make your movie look like it was shot on film is to shoot on film. Unfortunately thatís not always feasible. The new 24p HDTV camcorders now make it possible to shoot 35mm quality on a Super16mm budget with the benefits of a video shoot (what you see is what you get). But for us micro-budget indies this too is out of our price range what with equipment rental fees starting at around $3,000/week. Our best bet is still to shoot on standard definition video and treat it to simulate the look of film.
Here are some tips you can use on the set and in post. In a side by side comparison your results may never look exactly like film. The trick is to prevent the viewer from realizing he plunked down his hard earned cash for a glorified home movie. These techniques in combination are often enough to do that.
Lighting & Exposure: High key, low contrast lighting should be avoided. This look is associated with bad local TV ads and soap operas. Light dramatically. Donít use too much fill light. Try to make your lighting motivated by the surroundings, what Frank Oz likes to call ďsourceyĒ. If thereís a window in the scene, maybe thatís where your key light should come from. You may want to try taking it to the extreme with a low-key, noir look. To do this, use only a pair of hard lights and a lot of shadow in your composition. This technique makes for very dramatic results and is much easier to get right than the high-key commercial approach anyway. Note: this is not necessarily recommended if the end product is to be transferred to film. Be sure to avoid overexposure. Blown out video does not look the same as blown out film. This will betray the effect.
Aspect Ratio: 35mm is usually shown in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, nearly twice as wide as it is tall. By contrast, your standard NTSC television uses a 4:3 aspect ratio. Consider using widescreen in your video. Because viewers associate widescreen with film, it will help sell the effect. Some cameras like the Sony DSR-200 offer a widescreen mode that essentially places black bars at the bottom and top of the image. Some cameras offer true anamorphic widescreen such as the Sony DSR-500WS (J.R. Bookwalter swears by it). In anticipation of widescreen television, this is most desirable. Others like the Canon XL-1 offers a simulated anamorphic. Please note that with cameras like these you can shoot in 4:3 mode, letterbox it in post and the quality will be the same. If you choose the latter approach, be sure to compose for widescreen during shooting. I like to put tape guidelines on my external monitor.
Black and White: Shooting in b&w is an extreme option as it might affect your projectís marketability, but it does have advantages. Viewers associate black and white with film, not video. Also, color film has much more color information and greater color latitude than standard definition video. By eliminating the color altogether, you eliminate the discrepancy. Some cameras offer a b&w setting, but I would do it in post (in case you change your mind).
Filters & Camera Settings: Some recommend shooting with a black pro-mist or a warm black pro-mist filter. Video, especially DV, is more ďedgyĒ than film. It is also more contrasty. These filters reduce sharpness and contrast, however for my taste itís enough to turn artificial detail enhancement all the way down if you have the option. You can actually see the edges softening as you do this. Make sure that your shutter speed is never faster than 1/60. Consider using neutral density filters or tweaking your gain to Ė6db or -9db. This forces you to open your iris resulting in a shallower depth of field. 35mm has much less depth of field than video. Using negative gain will not hurt your picture, but these techniques will affect your cameraís low-light sensitivity. Remember to never use auto settings when youíre trying to emulate film.
Camera Operation: Beware of the handheld shot. If you have a lightweight camera, it simply will not behave the same as a 35mm camera when handheld. If you donít have a rock steady hand like myself, use your tripod. If you want movement in the frame, use a jib arm, dolly or steadicam if you have one. If you absolutely need the handheld shot, buy or better yet, build a rig that enables you to shoulder it.
Motion Characteristics In Camera: 95% of your film effect is in the motion characteristics. Film has 24 frames per second. NTSC video has 60 fields or 60 distinct pictures per second. Soap operas are cheesy because the hyper-realistic look is far less forgiving than the dreamy look filmís slow refresh rate affords. Itís harder to hide the mistakes. Some cameras now offer ways to achieve a film motion effect. The most popular is the progressive scan option also known as the frame movie mode you can find on the Canon XL-1, Canon GL-1, Sony VX-2000 and even the old Panasonic AG-EZ1. With this setting, it records 30 full resolution frames per second instead of 30 interlaced frames per second. Since youíre watching 30 pictures instead of 60, the motion more closely approximates film. Iíve observed that with the GL-1, normal settings in sufficient light make for crystal clear pictures, but the frame movie mode results in increased noise even in the midtones. The theory is that since the video garbage is held onscreen for twice as long as usual, it becomes more apparent. You may get better results with the other cameras. They have bigger CCDs, thus less inherent noise. The Sony VX-1000 and 2000 also offer a slow-shutter feature. Set the shutter to 1/30 and you get a very pleasing, fluid film motion. Supposedly this results in some loss of vertical resolution. Beware, some cameras offer a setting sometimes called strobe or film. This effect is achieved by taking a field out of the video. The result is a film like motion, but it also cuts your resolution in half resulting in ugly alaising (stairstepping). Donít do it. A common myth is that by shooting with PAL gear you can achieve a film look because itís 25 frames per second. Although this offers decided advantages if you plan to transfer to film, it doesnít really make for film motion. Remember, youíre still looking at 50 fields per second. As an example, Temptation Island 2 is shot on PAL DVCAM. It still looks like video.
Filmlookô: This is the patented real time process youíve probably heard of. Itís wonderful if you can afford it. Last I checked it was around $95 per minute for the first ten minutes, $85 after that. If you choose to go with it, be prepared to sit in on the transfer or the operator will take liberties with your color timing. The process affects the motion characteristics, grain and gamma curve of your video to simulate film. The good news is you can now affect these yourself on your home computer, given the proper software. The bad news is it wonít be in real time. Youíre gonna have to render this stuff out, folks. Note: do not use these tips if your goal is to transfer the end product to film.
Motion Characteristics In Post: In Adobe Premiere under field options is a setting called flicker removal. It essentially combines two fields in to one frame. The result is motion very much like the 30fps option Filmlookô offers or the Canon XL-1 frame movie mode, if a bit smoother. In Adobe After Effects it is called reduce interlace flicker and it is variable. This is my method of choice for achieving film motion. The effect is subtle but it does not ruin your picture. Some suggest capturing your video at 24fps or using the 3:2 pulldown in Adobe After Effects. I donít recommend these options. The result is jerky and unnatural. Some use a feature in After Effects called frame blending to smooth it out, however this can be even more distracting and it has the tendency to turn your straight cuts into little lap dissolves. Using these methods in combination with the flicker removal helps a lot, but is ultimately still too juddery (no, I didnít make that word up). Another option Iíve heard of is digitizing your video at half screen and outputting it at full screen. This is supposed to affect motion and grain, but beware, youíll lose color information, resolution and youíll gain compression artifacts. Again, I canít stress it enough, do not use the strobe feature that drops a field. This is commonly found on video mixers and on some TBCs itís labeled ďfilmĒ. It may look fine on a small monitor, but on a big TV or when projected on a big screen, the alaising will look ugly and electronic which is not what youíre going for. You may have heard that converting your NTSC video to PAL and back again will result in film motion. Iíve tried it and it doesnít work. Itís expensive and a bad conversion can result in some pretty wacky artifacts.
Grain: Video pixels are laid out on a fixed grid. Film grain moves around from frame to frame. Adding a modicum of black and white video noise in Adobe After Effects can simulate these properties. Keep in mind a little goes a long way. You may want to skip this all together if your camera or format of choice already has a good amount of inherent video noise. I donít recommend the video noise filter in Adobe Premiere. You have no control over the amount and it causes color banding.
Gamma: With gamma correction you can lighten or darken your picture without affecting the top and bottom values. This keeps your video signal legal. In Adobe Premiere itís under the filters menu. I tweak it down two notches, one notch if the picture is very dark to begin with. Lowering it too much makes the blacks muddy, but if you strike the right balance, your blacks will be richer (simulating filmís wider gray scale), it tends to make the colors pop, and it has the added benefit of crushing some of the garbage in your blacks. If you choose to do this in After Effects you will have individual control over the red, green and blue gamma. You may find the green has to come down a little more than the others to maintain proper color values. Before I discovered this I experimented with tweaking the setup to 0db using a TBC. This crushed the blacks, but I donít recommend it. To keep your video legal the blacks should fall at 7.5 ire and the video level should be no higher than 100 or 110 ire.
Film Noise: Adobe Premiere has a filter under Quicktime Effects called Film Noise. With this you can add variable amounts of dust, hair and scratches. Used in moderation, it can be an effective subliminal means to sell the idea your product is a film. After all, a video picture does not have visible dust, hair or scratches. Use a lot and you can simulate aged and damaged home movies. Keep in mind the effect pretty much plays on a loop. If the viewer tunes in to that your effect will be compromised. I rarely use it myself.
Plug-ins: Software exists that incorporates many of these recommended methods and more. The most recognizable of these is Cinelook. Cinelook, an Adobe After Effects plug-in, even supplies a number of presets that supposedly simulate properties of specific film stocks. If you choose to use this remember that the presets might not give you the results you want. A common complaint is that it comes out too dark. You must learn to go in and customize the settings to suit your video. Also, Cinelook achieves film motion with After Effects own 3:2 pulldown which we discussed. I suggest disabling that and sticking with the reduce interlace flicker option. Finally, Cinelook adjusts so many minute variables that it may take a very, very long time to render out. Before investing too much time with it, try the methods outlined earlier. Some rendering is involved, but it will take considerably less time and effort.
Good luck with your shot on video films.