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How do I make my video look like film?

Internet Filmmakers' FAQ

The short answer to this rather repetitive question is simple: if you want your movie to look like it was shot on film, then shoot it on film.

Whilst there are many products out there that can approximate a film look, not one of them currently stack up against the real thing. Film is film, video is video. The very way in which the image is captured is so different between the two mediums, you will possibly never be able to get an exact match. Benedict Thienpont provides this brief overview of the key differences:

"Technically speaking, video is capturing in RGB, meaning the picture is effectively captured using three cameras in one: one sensitive to red light, another to green light and a third to blue light. This is very close to the way our eyes see. We also have sensitive cells for red, blue and green light plus cells that are sensitive to light in general (these are most effective to see in darker environments, when we see less the colour aspect of the light). So what we see on video covers greatly our own experience of vision. In video reproduction there are 25 or 30 still pictures passing through per second to create the illusion of motion. During recording each still picture was created as the view is being scanned from top to bottom from left to right in a weaving manner.

What happens to film is the light is being captured in CMYK, sort of the same principle used in quadri print production. There are four photosensitive layers on the film. One for the magenta coloured elements in the viewed picture, one for the yellow, one for the cyan and a fourth for light strength in general. The fourth one is especially for dark areas and good light contrast. Actually the charm of film reproduction is in the fact there's an error in colour. Not all colours are reproduced and are shifted. The overall result is warmer. In film reproduction there are 24 still pictures passing through to create the illusion of motion. During recording each still picture was being scanned in one shot just like an ordinary Kodak camera does."

Of course, there are now quite a few commercial products on the market for use in post-production to help approximate a "film look." These normally take the form of plug-ins for post-production applications like Adobe Premier Pro, Final Cut Pro, and After Effects, and have got much better over the years. The leading products for approximating the look of film in a video are Digieffects CineLook, BigFX FilmFX and Red Giant Magic Bullet Suite. All of these products are plug-ins for popular NLEs and FX packages such as Adobe Premiere Pro, Avid Xpress, Final Cut Pro, and Adobe After Effects.

But remember, these will not give you the same results as shooting on the real thing. And don't forget that lighting and lenses will ultimately have a far greater impact on the finished look of your film than shooting format. Learn more about film at Kodak.

Of course, with the growing strength and quality of new digital cameras in the marketplace, what exactly constitutes a "film look" is now more contentious than ever. A range of factors, such as lighting, shooting format, lenses, DOP skill, and of course the camera itself, will have a major impact on how cinematic your film ends up looking. Having state of the art equipment won't magically turn a crappy film into a good one but it does help boost the production value.

Answer by Benjamin Craig  |  Last updated 31-Mar-2011


Older Comments

MD  |  13-Feb-2014
I have to say this is a flawed answer to the question. It omits the most important difference between video and film look... that is how each frame is captured. Film is captured 'progressively'. This means every frame is captured in one instant. Conventionally, video is captured 'interlaced'. This means each frame is captured twice by scanning odd numbered video lines then scanning the even numbered lines. This produces very important motion artifacts which are the single most important factor in creating a film look. Interlaced video cannot produce a film look no matter how much tweaking you do to the colours. You need to capture your video in 'progressive' mode. This has been an option on most HD cameras for some time. The second important factor is 'detail' settings. Video cameras create artificially enhanced images to compensate for their lack of resolution when compared to 35mm film. However, these days true HD cameras (not small format CCD 'HD' cameras) are easily capable of matching the resolution of film, so you can turn the detail off in the menu. Finally, the contrast range of a modern HD camera can now match that of film, but you have to make sure this is set correctly to match the range of a film negative. Grading will be needed. If you combine all these things you can very closely mimic a film look without all the problems that film has: dust, scratches, gate weave, optical losses in the post production process. If you want a slow, expensive, technically inferior look then by all means shoot on film!
Jonathan  |  02-Oct-2007
I found this video that relly helped me get a film look in my videos:
Lynny  |  31-Jan-2007
I've had great results shooting with all the Canon XL cameras while fitted with a 35mm prime lens adapter, such as the P+S Technik. It's all in the lens. Shooting digital with a film lens means a greater depth-of-field and added dimension. Additionally, the DP lights for film, not video. I've used all the XL's with these adapters. The XL-2 and XL-H1 work especially well coupled with a film lens, because they shoot 24 frames.
alfred robbins  |  22-Jan-2007
I recently shot a feature film using a Canon XL-1. We got a local rental house to rig a matte box for us to place over the existing lense of the camera. We placed a 1/4 inch Tiffen Pro-Mist filter in the matte box. We lit it like we would film. We got excellent results. We even found distribution and received " up front" money .Good luck!
Mac  |  29-Jan-2006
When It comes to outside, I had success in tampering with your camera's color filters until you can block out the obvious glare from the sun. In desert scenes, the glare from the sun is essential, so keep it there. That will help the lighting and the overall lighting go over swimmingly.
Patrick  |  07-Nov-2005
In the video industry, everyone is talking about HD video shot at 24p or 24 progressive frames per second. It's closest video will get to film at the moment. With the right lighting and maybe some color correction in post the two are virtually indestinguishable. As far a affordability goes I'd say stick with video. It's much cheaper. Companies are comming out with "prosumer" camcorders that can do the things only expensive professional quality cameras could do. In short get an afforable camera that can shoot HD 24p.
bill hughes  |  04-Aug-2005
I have had remarkable success by making a "kine" of the finished video product. This proccess gives you a negaitive of your production which you can them make a print from / or / go back to video via a film color grade. I produced the TV series "Phoenix" using this technique in 1990.
Steve London  |  24-Jun-2005
Some newer "prosumer" MiniDV camcorders have features that go partway towards achieving a film look and produce attractive results. One such camera is the Panasonic AG-DVX100A This camera gets a film-like look by three means: 1. It can be adjusted to film in 24P mode: 24 frames per second which is the rate for film cameras instead of the normal 30 fps for video, and progressive scan mode which means an entire frame is captured by the camera at once instead of a frame being assembled from two scans of alternating scan lines which is normal for video. The slightly choppy or strobing look of the lower frame rate is identical to what we have become accustomed to in film movies. 2. It can be set to use cine gamma. Gamma is the response of the light sensor (or film) to light. For both film and video it is typically non-linear meaning that as the quantity of light increases by a given increment the output of the sensor or density of the film does not change by the same amount. Doubling the light, for example does not result in doubling the brightness of a scene recorded by video or film. Film and video gammas are inherently different and the DVX100A can mimic the gamma of film well enough to improve the film-like appearance of the result. 3. Finally, many prosumer cameras can record with aspect ratios (ratio of width to height) of 16:9 typical for modern motion pictures instead of video's normal 4:3. Unless special anamorphic add-on lenses are used the cameras simply record black bands top and bottom to produce the 16:9 mode or they electronically squeeze the horizontal information as they record it and unsqueeze it for playback (or the editing software does this.) All these adjuncts produce images that are noticeably different from video and conspicuously similar to film, though they fall well short of a perfect match.