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The Film Look

As soon as I saw this month’s cover of Studio monthly, the first thing I did was inwardly sigh, because as a person in Adobe’s video division, I get asked about the ‘film look’ just about every time we get up and speak in front of a group of videographers. The second thing I did was smile, because I knew I had something to write about today!

So, (pause) the ‘film look’… Even when I write the words ‘film look’ I get an inward grimace and my chest heaves a bit, but for most people, the film look is the ultimate in taste, style and it is just plain cool. It’s a phrase that is bandied about because people view movie making as the ultimate in popular culture and it’s fun to say. The phrase is also assigned to new equipment everywhere and no doubt this NAB will be much the same. I can almost imagine the subtle marketing message that if you buy product XYZ, you’ll be the next ‘insert favorite filmmaker here’. Ahh, but I digress.

So, (pause) the ‘film look’. I can’t claim to be an expert on this, far from it. I’ve never shot film, am not the best guy with a camera and because I work in software, I tend to focus on what you do with your material after you get into the computer. However, I can discuss some of the myths and common approaches to get the mystical film look.

So, (pause again) the ‘film look’. Here’s what a lot of people think the film look is – 24 frames per second, which happens to be what most movies frame rate is. Video in comparison is at 30 frames per second (okay, 29.97 for NTSC!) The lower frame rate creates a different presentation to the eye, where the motion in the scene can become more dramatic. I remember seeing it dramatically portrayed when seeing Gladiator with Russell Crowe. Many of the fight scenes just ‘popped’. The motion was dramatic, not as smooth as you find in video. Taking out 6 frames per second does make a dramatic difference. Most likely Gladiator looked the way it did because of several other things, but I remember it jumped out at me at the time. Now many action movies do the same thing so we’re more accustomed to it.

Another true aspect about the ‘film look’ could be the idea of progressive frames as opposed to interlaced. Again, film (and some video formats) shoot in progressive frames where one frame (or cell of film) contains all the information of the picture. With traditional video, frames are interlaced where the odd numbered lines are captured and then the even numbered lines. The two together form a frame of video, each separate piece is called a field…mmm. Terminology…

So far, the above two are what most people attribute to the look of film, but my tender experience has told me there is a lot more to it than that. First off, there is the depth of field which is what the Studio Monthly review actually spends a fair amount of time on and shows with pictures (for simple minds like my own). The short version is that video cameras keep everything in focus whereas film cameras can keep certain objects in focus while having others out of focus. The advantage of this approach allows filmmakers to focus your attention on what they want you to see. The idea of focus/defocus in a picture is often called the bokeh effect in photography. It’s Japanese for blur. Check it out on wikipedia.

One other big part of the movie look is the aspect ratio. We think about it less often as more of us experience wide screen televisions, but even so, there is a difference. Traditional TVs or standard definition was 1.33:1 or 4:3 (4 inches horizontally for every 3 vertically) and newer HDTV or widescreen TVs are 16:9. Film has moved through a lot of changes over the years but the number I always remember is 21:9 or 21:10. Here’s a neat link that goes through some of the aspect ratios on film. http://www.dvdaust.com/aspect.htm

Without making a long post even longer, let me begin to wrap up by pointing out other characteristics that I understand influence the overall picture that we see when going to a typical Hollywood movie. Not only are there the aspects of the camera itself, such as lens, apeture, shutter speed, focal length and more I’m sure, but there is the film itself which has a specific grain.

There’s some interesting things to discuss here and I’ll hope to post another entry on some thoughts on what we can do to simulate the film look with traditional video.

BTW – here’s the link to the article from Studio Monthly, which is really a review about Redrock Micro’s M2 35mm lens adapter. http://www.studiodaily.com/studiomonthly/currentissue/7749.html


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As a filmmaker and a videomaker, I thought I’d weigh in — nothing anyone’s posted here is wrong, but there’s more to it.

Remember that the “film look” that everyone wants is the look of moving image having been shot on film and then transferred to video. The look of film on screen in a theater is a whole different animal.

There are a lot of different factors, but the main ones for “film look” are probably the frame rate, the “pull down” in transferring to video, and the “squashing” of the film curve to fit the video curve.

The frame rate makes a lot of difference some times, and not so much other times. 24fps is a lot slower than 60fps (the real video “frame rate”, since each field is a separate frame in terms of motion), and sometimes you can see the difference clearly.

The “3:2” pulldown is the translation you have to make from the film rate to the video rate. It’s a little complicated, and it used to be done optically (in a “telecine” machine), but you can see a clear explanation at http://www.dvdfile.com/news/special_report/production_a_z/3_2_pulldown.htm

The main issue, though, is probably the difference between film “curves” and video “curves”. This is the contrast, but also the gamma — that is, the way that film-of-video responds to the brightest or darkest part of the scene: how much at at what rate it “squashes” the image (the “knee” of the curve)to fit in the limited dynamic range. Both film and video have to do this (although film has a greater range), but they do it in different ways.

You can fake this range with a plug-in filter, but it’s best if you do it right in the camera, with a “film look” gamma. Cameras like the Panasonic DV100A do the frame rate, the pull-down, AND the gamma.

All that said, I really like film look, and I use it all the time, BUT it’s just because we all grew up on it. There’s nothing inherently better about it: it’s simply that the works we considered “quality” on TV as we grew up — like movies and dramatic TV shows (shot on film, while sitcoms were shot mostly on video) — were transferred from film.

So, ultimately, go with what YOU like.

[DR – thanks for the explanations and thoughts! Great to see comments on this long after it’s been posted!]

Hey I just posted a comparison between two movies one shot on film and the other on digital. Would like your feedback.

Absolutely! great information. As I said, I’m no expert, just dangerous enough to say some of the basics of what the mythical ‘film look’ in video actually is and isn’t. The shutter speed is something I should have mentioned, but wasn’t sure that was what made Gladiator have the look it does. I saw your review on 300 as well and that certainly is another film that has a unique look, though probably more from color correction and post in this case. I have yet to see it…

Anyway, thanks for the insight and feel free to post links that might help educate.


I agree with Greg, the big thing for “film” is the contrast ratio and the curves in the color information.

Not being a fan of Gladiator, having seen it only once, my guess would that what happened to make the scene “pop” is the use of the shutter speed, not the simple fact that it was 24 fps. Every movie you see at the local cineplex is 24 fps and not all “pop” in the same way. There is more to the Gladiator look than just 24 fps.

But you are right “the film look” has become some sort of idol in the video world for good or bad. I think for the most part it is good, because it has stretched companies to make cameras that give a wider range of images, which I can only take as a good thing. Because with out the desire for the “filmlook” then Panasonic wouldn’t have created its great cameras and the desire for HD cameras would have one less big reason to exist.

But you are right simply making “the filmlook” doesn’t guarantee that your production will look great.

Thank you for explaining this. When I saw Gladiator, I knew I was seeing something different in how it was filmed but had not the technical background to id it. I told my husband that whatever had been done, it was going to turn into a standard technique.

You missed one of the biggies:

Film has a higher dynamic range than video by about 2 or 3 stops. The result is that the same scene shot in video appears to be way over contrasty.

Bringing the contrast down, via Curves or Shadow/Highlight, is probably one of the most important steps.

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