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This is not a new concept, and it’s certainly one that has been discussed extensively around the Internet. But making digital video look like film is still an elusive task for many filmmakers out there; especially those in my business — small documentary production from weird places. If you are on set, with a decent budget, making a feature or commercial with a RED Epic or a C300, then this is not the post for you. Hopefully, you are already making video look like film. On the other hand, if you are shooting run-and-gun on a DSLR (Canon 5D, 7D, T3i), a small chip camcorder (Canon XF100, XA10) or even HDV (Sony Z1), then there are a few things you should know that might really boost your production value.
Let me make one thing clear: in no way am I suggesting that you “fake” film. Shoot video! Embrace video, enjoy video, take full advantage of the affordability, convenience and power that digital video offers today. Hell, analog film production is still out there and there are plenty of major feature filmmakers who still swear by it. That’s because film looks great, it’s a look viewers expect, and it’s what they learned on. But if you follow some of the great digital doco cinematographers out there (Philip Bloom, Vincent Laforet, etc.) you’ll find that there are a few masters out there who achieve that classic, appealing film look with digital video. Basically, we’re talking about upgrading from the “home video” look to something viewers are more accustomed to, and giving your work an aesthetic that adds depth to the story.
With that in mind, here are a few tips that I’ve picked up on over the years that will help you get the look you’re going for. Of course, I’m still learning, and I welcome your feedback.
1. Depth of Field
Photography 101: Film speed, shutter speed and aperture. Depth of field refers to the distance between which the closest and farthest images in the frame remain in focus. A narrow depth of field means that anything just slightly in front of, or behind, your subject will appear out of focus, thereby bringing more attention to your subject. A deep depth of field is when everything is in focus. For example, look at any Ansel Adams photo. That’s gonna be deep. Everything from 10 feet away in the foreground to the mountains miles away from the camera are all in focus. On the other hand, most portrait photography will give you a very narrow depth of field. Just behind the subjects head all the background is a blurry mess of defocused leaves or something.
What to go for, and how to do it: Try hard for a narrow depth of field. That means your aperture should be wide open. The lower the number, the wider your aperture. By allowing more light to get in at every shot, you create a much narrower depth of field. You’ll find when shooting with a low-number aperture lens (or a lower setting on a fixed lens camcorder) that you are able to create a narrower depth of field and thereby provide more emphasis on your subject. As opposed to DSLR, fixed-lens camcorders tend to take it all in at once, so this can prove difficult. Trick: if you are shooting with a fixed-lens camcorder without much control over your aperture, try moving as far away from the subject as possible and zooming all the way in. You’ll find your background quickly falls out of focus, which is usually what you want. That’s what I did here.
2. Frame Rate
Digital video usually defaults at a frame rate of 30fps (frames per second). That’s great, it can provide for really smooth video. And that’s about all it’s great for, really smooth video. It is also one of the reasons video looks like video and film looks like film. The default rate at which a film camera captures motion is 24fps. Many digital cameras — especially DSLRs — allow you to shoot at 24p now (actually 25p in Europe and most of the world). That’s a big difference. It can be a tough frame rate to get used to, especially if you’re relying on a small LCD screen when you’re shooting. 24p can feel jumpy and awkward, but believe it or not, it’s there for a reason.
What to go for, and how to do it: Just do it. Shoot at 24p. It may not look all that hot when you’re reviewing footage in-camera, but unless you have a good reason not to do it, do it. 24p will help you achieve a more traditional film look. It will look better upon exporting from post than it did on your viewfinder/LCD. Keep in mind: you can’t slow it down. Fortunately, the same cameras that shoot 24p can often shoot at 60i or 60p (60fps). So if you plan on slowing down your footage in post production, use those formats. 60fps and higher will give you the smoothest results when changing the speed of your footage. Trick: not really a trick, but important to know: If you are combining frame rates in the same project — in Final Cut Pro or Premiere, for example — be sure to conform your frame rates within the timeline. If you don’t, even 60fps footage will be jumpy when you slow it down because you’re working in a 24p space. If that sounds confusing, email me or comment below.
3. Aspect ratio
Your aspect ratio says a lot about you. When camcorders first hit the market and met the standard 4:3 (SD; almost square) aspect ratio of consumer TVs, it was easy to identify footage shot on tape vs. film. With DVDs, HDTVs and consumer HD cameras, we grew accustomed to a 16:9 (widescreen) aspect ratio. However, this still meant that films had to be cropped and panned and screwed with to get them onto the screen — that’s what that little notice: “this film has been modified from its original version…” is all about. 16:9 still not the film standard. Think about the last movie you saw in the theater. Better yet, go check one out tonight. Notice how much wider the projection is. The real aspect ratios of film are more like 1.85:1 or 2.33:1 (anamorphic). Trust me on this one. These ratios are a lot wider.
What to go for, and how to do it: With a wider aspect ratio, you will achieve a more “filmic” look. There are a few ways to accomplish this. When shooting, if you are relying on an LCD screen to frame your shots, take a little bit of electrical tape and cover the aspect of the LCD (top and bottom) that you don’t want in the shot; use a ruler. This will ensure that you can keep your subject matter in the frame later, when editing. Later, when editing, place black bars (you can download a great set of mattes here) into an editing layer to keep your content framed just as when you shot it. You can make individual adjustments to the height and width of your footage underneath that frame. Trick: Upon export, you can crop your footage using Compressor or MPEG Streamclip to match the ratio you imposed in editing. For example, if you are going for a 2:33:1 aspect ratio, you should crop off 128px from the top and bottom (image right). See an example of an anamorphic video here.
4. Focus and Zoom
Do yourself a favor and keep your finger off the zoom button. It’s a handy thing when you need it; I especially like the variable 10x optical zoom on my Canon XA10, which allows me to move in nice and slowly from miles away right up into a belly button. It makes sense for your establishing shot in a “60 Minutes” piece on the local prison. Or if you’re doing a film on belly buttons. But remember, that zoom is a loud reminder that you’re shooting digital video. If you want it to look like film, pretend you’re shooting exclusively with prime (fixed) lenses. Not only will you make a habit of getting up close and personal with your subjects, as opposed to shooting them from a distance, but your shots will look more professional. Sure they’ll go out of focus at times when you move the camera. That’s a good thing, too. So focus again. BTW, did I mention avoid autofocus? No? Well, avoid autofocus! If you want iPhone footage, use your iPhone. Otherwise, we are shooting on fancyglass primes here, people.
What to go for, and how to do it: You don’t have to shoot on a prime lens just to look like a prime lens. Just do me a favor: if you zoom in or out, cut out the zoom motion in post production. It’s fine if you want to jump to a close up of a Liberian fish vendor and can’t go running across a heavily-armed Freetown open market to get it. Fine, wimp, zoom in. But I (and your viewers) don’t want to see the lens getting there. When it comes to focus, there are a number of follow-focus rigs out there for DSLRs and digital camcorders. These allow you to adjust your focus as you shoot, without touching the lens and bumping your camera around. Even a cheap focus ring with a handle will do the trick. Trick: how about this? Let your footage fall out of focus from time to time. It’s not the end of the world. Especially if it’s a subject moving from the background to the foreground, or vice versa. Just adds depth of field. Give it a go.
5. Color, Effects and Grain
If you are still stuck shooting in Liberia and uploading straight to a your producer or offline editor at the Fastpants News Network (FNN), then I guess you don’t have time for many effects or color correction. Myself, I’m not a fan of much correction. However, most digital video cameras — especially when shooting in natural or ambient light — will give you pretty flat results. A small amount of color correction and grading can make all the difference in the world. Color correction is a topic deserving of its own classroom but, basically, you are trying to give your footage enough saturation and contrast to look like what the human eye sees, and what the brain records. Beyond that, any additional color effects and “looks” are on you. There are any number of 3rd party color tools out there. Final Cut Pro (FCPX) and Adobe Premiere do a pretty decent job of color correction “in-house”. I personally like Magic Bullet Looks (though I tend to “mix” those effects down to about 10-15%) for many of my jobs. I’m still getting used to DaVinci Resolve 9 from BlackMagic Design, but so far it looks pretty powerful and one day may end up being the only color correction tool I use.
What to go for, and how to do it: Start with this as a base: Once you have your footage ingested and in your timeline, go to your color tool of choice. Exposure-wise, bring your mids up a hair and then come back down on your blacks to level it off. Give it about 10% more saturation than you started with. That should give you an idea of the color and levels that you can achieve in post. From there, make further adjustments, but please do them slowly and cautiously. Trick: I have been playing around with the FilmConvert plugin from Rubber Monkey software and it works a treat. It adds grain (remember: this is “grain”, not “noise” — we’re talking about film, not video) and color effects that simulate the classic emulsion looks of Kodak/Fuji film.
That’s it for now. Below is a short video that I just shot and edited yesterday, wherein I tried to incorporate a little bit of all the above. It’s far from perfect I realize, and I don’t normally like to shoot myself from below. Anyway, this one is not really open for critique. I hope it shows how some of the strategies above can take an otherwise ordinary digital video and give it a “film” look that will add depth to your work and keep your audiences engaged.