Filmlook Basics

by Rick Shipley

Hey there everyone, I wanted to see if anyone here has their own techniques to make DV look like film and I would like to share what I've tried.

Years ago I began getting involved with production work and some of these projects were very low budget. Back in 1990, I was DP for a horror production that was shot on VHS. Yep, that's rightm VHS. You have to remember that back then even VHS cameras were over $1,000, and Hi 8 was just being introduced (DV wasn't around yet). We were shooting an anthology along the lines of Creepshow called SCARY TALES. As much as we tried to shoot it and treat it like a big production, it still came out looking like a "Soap Opera." Since then it had been a personal quest of mine to have video simulate a film look at an affordable price.

Later, when Sony came out with the VX line of DV cameras, I was in line spending over $3,000 for one. I ended up shooting my first Action feature, titled DANGEROUS MODE, almost all on my own with my Sony VX DV camera. I wrote, shot, directed, produced and even acted.

When it came time for distribution of the movie, DV was still very new and everyone treated it as if I shot it on VHS and I wound up turning down every distribution deal that was sent my way. Why? Because almost every so called deal was designed to make sure I wasn't going to make any money. When the distribution company gets a guaranteed 40% up front and all of the duplication, advertising, legal fees and whatever else they can think of comes out of your end, chances are you will never see a dime. (Remember to always read the contracts)

Since then DV and HD have become much more acceptable in the marketplace. Even though DV and HD are looked at in a different light, it still doesn't look like film.

While working with the Canon GL-1 and XL-1 we began to shoot in frame mode that helps simulate the look of film but still isn't quite there. After reading many articles on the subject and experimenting I have found some simple lower cost ways to make DV look more like film.

1. LIGHTING - Start with soft lighting. Bright, harsh light really make for less of a film look. Try to avoid allot of red light because it has a tendency to "bleed." You will want to light the scene properly. Use your iris controls to help when it is too light or dark. Keep in mind if it is too dark, you are going to have problems fixing it in post because brightening your footage never looks as good as making it darker. It may take some testing to get the look you are searching for but it will be worth it in the long run.

2. FILM/FRAME MODE - Try using your camera's frame or film simulation mode. Most newer cameras have this feature already built in. With the right light and the movie simulation mode, you will see a dramatic difference from a video look to more of a simulated film look.

3. FILTERS - There are a bunch of filters that you can buy to help soften the look of your video and help achieve a film look. I've worked with the Promyst (black) in the past and it looks much closer to film than almost anything. You should experiment a little to see what filter would work best for you and what you want to see. So with the lighting looking good, shooting in frame movie mode and the addition of your filter it should look even closer to film.

4. FOCUS - This might sound stupid but it is very important. First off you should try to avoid using the auto focus on your camera because there are times it could pull out of focus when you are shooting a scene. It is best to learn how to use the manual focus as much as you can. If you want to help with the illusion that you are using film, pull the background slightly out of focus. When you watch big budget Hollywood movies, you will notice that when a character is in the foreground, the background will normally be slightly out of focus. An easy way to do this is, place your camera back a little further than you normally would, use your zoom to tighten up on your subject to get the desired frame you want to be filled, then use the manual focus to pull the background out of focus. Now with the lighting, frame movie mode, filter and focus just right, you should have something that looks closer to film for a fraction of the cost of actually shooting on film.

5. POST PRODUCTION - Most editing programs have basic controls you can use to help get that film look. This may take a long time and allot of experimentation to figure out but one of the most basic ways to make your DV footage look like film is to bring up the colors and contrast. Color on film is very rich but on DV or video, colors don't look as good. By increasing the red, blue and green in you editing system, you can give it a little more punch. Then by adjusting the contrast up you will increase the blacks and darker colors. With film, blacks are much darker and by adding to the contrast you can help achieve that film look. Of course like everything else, you will want to experiment to help you find the look you are going for.

Well, these are all things that I have done to help simulate a film look from DV. I hope this helps the folks that haven't thought of using these techniques.

I would also like to hear about some other processes or techniques I might not have covered. So please give your thoughts, suggestions and comments.

HOW DO YOU MAKE YOUR DV LOOK LIKE FILM??? Please write and let us know: shipley_rick(at)

Rick Shipley is the director of the Rockabilly thriller DANGEROUS MODE. Originally from Baltimore, Md, Rick is currently active in the Las Vegas film community. While he's worked on productions ranging from SERIAL MOM to OCEAN'S 13, Rick is most at home in the realm of loq-budget cinema. In various capacities, his resume includes titles such as HUNTING HUMANS, HARVESTERS, and CHINA DOLLS.