One of the most common goals for filmmakers and DPs today is to achieve a film look when shooting videos. I am often asked, "Which digital camera is most similar to the film?" Or "How can I color-evaluate my footage so that it looks cinematic?". The truth is that there isn't a single thing you can do to magically make your footage look like it was shot on film. There are a number of key variables you need to set properly to get the most cinematic footage with digital footage. Below I will break down the more important elements that you should consider. And remember that each of these suggestions is helpful on its own. You can only achieve a film look if all are used together.
1 – depth of field
Many new filmmakers believe that a shallow depth of field (DOF) is the most important element in achieving a film look, which is why DSLRs and other interchangeable lens cameras are popular. For those of you who don't know this yet, DOF refers to the amount of image that is in focus. Traditionally, feature films have used a shallow depth of field to selectively draw attention to a person or an object. Take a look at the photo below and note the areas in focus and those that are out of focus and direct your gaze to the important part of the frame –
I agree that it is necessary to achieve a shallow DOF, but it is by no means the most important variable on this list. In fact, since the beginning of cinema, there have been many films that also use depth of field to their advantage. One of those films is arguably the best film ever, Citizen Kane, which has some of the deepest DOF footage I've seen so far –
Ultimately, DOF is a stylistic decision that you have to make based on the look you want to achieve with your film. Nevertheless, most feature films these days use a shallow DOF on many shots. If you want to achieve this look, you need a camera and lens that can accomplish this. For starters, DSLRs or other interchangeable lens cameras are usually pretty good at getting this look. The larger your sensor, the flatter your DOF. For example, a Canon 5D would have a shallower DOF than a Lumix GH3 because the sensor of the 5D is larger. The other variable to consider is your lens selection. Longer lenses always give you a shallower DOF than wider lenses. Fast lenses (e.g. lenses with F2.8 or lower) also help to achieve this look. The further you open on your lens, the shallower the DOF. For example, if you shoot with f1.4 on a 50mm lens, your image will have a more selective focus than the same lens with f8. Be careful not to overdo this, however, as one of the giveaways for DSLR footage today is footage that has a DOF that is too shallow. You want to find the right balance.
2 – frame rate
It's easy – shoot at 24 frames per second. Or at 24p on your camera. Films have been shot and projected at 24 frames per second since the earliest days of filming, and viewers have become accustomed to this frame rate. Make sure your camera is always in this mode unless you need to shoot at a higher frame rate to achieve slow motion. For example, you may want to shoot at 60 frames per second to slow it down to 24 frames per second later. Your footage will then play at 40% speed.
The main giveaway that your film wasn't shot at 24p is the lack of motion blur. Video footage looks very clinical and sterile and can sometimes be almost too perfect. Older video camcorders were shot at only 59.94i (which is about 30 frames per second) and created a look that looked very realistic but not cinematic. For example, if someone went through the picture, every last picture of the footage would be perfectly clear. That sounds like an ideal, but it's actually not. Real film shows motion blur when an object moves through the screen. To achieve this organic motion blur in your footage, you need to shoot at the correct frame rate. The film "The Hobbit" was shot at 48 frames per second, which is why many viewers did not like to see the film. It looked too much like video and not enough about the surreal world of film. Here's a shot of "Pirates of the Caribbean" showing normal motion blur:
3 – shutter speed
Make sure you use the 180 degree rule when setting the shutter speed. That is, if you set the shutter speed on your camera, set it to exactly twice your frame rate. So when you record 24p, make sure your frame rate is 1/48 or as close as possible. Many DSLRs only have a 1/40 or 1/50 setting. So experiment with these two options and find out what looks best for you. Most cameras work better at 1/50, but some (e.g. the Lumix GH3) actually seem to work better at 1/40.
The wrong shutter speed can have a very negative impact on your film material. If it is too slow (e.g. 1/20), your footage will look as if it is blinking and creating ghost images as images run across the screen. And if your shutter is too high (1/100), your image looks like it has been accelerated, almost as if it were fast forward. It is important to note that there are times when you want to set the shutter speed to an unusually high or low setting. Even when shooting movies, this technique is sometimes used to achieve the desired style effect. With 95% of your recordings, however, there is a possibility that you would like to follow the 180-degree rule. This also means that you have to set the shutter accordingly if you record at a higher frame rate (e.g. 60p) for slow motion. In this example it would be set to 1/120.
4 – camera movement
Not enough filmmakers seem to pay attention to this, but camera movement is definitely one of the most important things to get a film look. Camera movement can include anything from sticking the camera to a tripod, deciding not to move at all, handheld, putting the camera on a boom, and picking up a crane. There is no particular movement that makes your film appear more cinematic. The more importance you attach to camera movement, the more cinematic your film will feel. Some indie films suffer from very poor camera movements and may contain scenes that were partly taken with the handheld and partly on a tripod. This makes it very difficult for your viewers to watch your film.
Also make sure that you select the correct type of camera movement for each scene. If your scene does not require handheld work, do not record it this way. It will only make the appearance of your final product cheaper and will make the audience feel less connected to your piece because the visual elements are not properly connected to the narrative plot and flow.
5 – Don't blow out the highlights!
Blown out highlights are a great giveaway for digital footage. Since most digital cameras have a much lower dynamic range than films, they tend to crop or blow out the bright areas of the frame. When this happens in the movie, it's actually pretty pleasant to watch, and many directors, like Stephen Spielberg, will intentionally blow out some shots to get a stylized effect –
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Unfortunately, blown out highlights look really bad on video. The light does not bloom or roll off like on the film, and your picture looks very hard and synthetic. To cope with this, just make sure you don't overexpose anything in your frame – unless it's something so bright (like the sun or a light bulb) that it needs to be blown out. Reduce your exposure to such an extent that the bright areas of the frame still contain details, and you are already in a better place. But what can then happen is that your subject or foreground is too dark in some areas. You can then choose to either leave the subject unchanged and allow your subject to be in a silhouette, or alternatively, you can use more light to fill the scene and raise the shaded, darker areas.
6 – framing
I cannot stress enough how important the right design is for a filmic image. So many things on this list (all of which are equally important) are thrown out of the window with bad frames. If you have a well-lit shot with a nice shallow DOF, but the subject is not properly framed, everything else you did will be reduced. Great framing not only makes your video feel more cinematic, but your movie gets better overall. Framing a picture can tell a story in itself. Check out this frame from The Kings Speech, in which a very unusual frame was used to create a sense of emptiness in the characters' lives.
7 – lighting
Excellent lighting can take or break your shot no matter what medium you are shooting on. However, certain formats – especially films – are far more forgiving in low light conditions than digital ones. Some low-budget filmmakers are tempted to just grab a digital camera and start filming without thinking enough about the lighting of their scenes. Doing so can be another great giveaway for a very budget and amateur production. You don't have to spend a large chunk of your lighting budget if you don't have the money, but you have to pay as much attention as possible to the right lighting. Whether you're shooting with a large lighting setup or just using springboards and practical lights, attention to detail matters. No color correction can ever save a picture that is poorly lit. Therefore, make sure that your shots are not only properly exposed, but also that the mood and tone of your scene are determined.
I'm not going to bother too much with certain lighting techniques since there are too many to address here. Check back soon, though, as I will be doing a lighting tutorial in the coming weeks that describes this in more detail.
8 – Color correction
In post-production and especially during color correction, there is a lot you can do to make your video look cinematic. Ideally, you should opt for a look in advance and then embed your footage in a rating software (I recommend DaVinci Resolve, but everything will really work) and adjust your settings accordingly. One big mistake I see a lot is that amateur filmmakers exaggerate the color of their film. You will give each shot in the film a highly stylized look so that it looks more like a music video than a feature. A good place to start dyeing is to make your footage as natural as possible. Once you've got your white balance and exposure in the right place, you're already most of the way there. Most films (apart from action and horror genres) aren't actually that stylized. They are usually very accurate colors and are not covered with a wash that makes them unnatural. With that said, you can add warmth or cool down your footage to match the mood of the film as you like. Just don't go overboard.
You should also consider your black levels and contrast. Film can have a much lower contrast than video, and there's a lot you can do in the post to get that look. First, you can try simply reducing the contrast setting (but don't go too far) and then raising the black levels just one touch. Make sure your black tones are not too "crushed" (or dark) in the wrong areas, and you are well on your way to completing your film look. Check out this shot of Upstream Color, which was rated fairly well to look cinematic and has some lighter black levels –
You can also use color correction LUTs to achieve this type of result more efficiently.
UPDATE: I recently released 6 Cinematic LUT Packs that have been carefully designed to help you achieve an organic, cinematic look in post-production. They work well with any camera, and I recommend them to filmmakers and filmmakers who want bold color results while minimizing post-production time. Check them out by clicking here!
Below is a sample video of 3 LUT packages from the "Genre Edition" in action. Look here –
9 – Film emulation
This isn't a necessary step, but one that I think he can put the icing on the cake after you've followed everything else on this list. Film emulation is a technique that allows you to literally apply the look of a particular footage to your footage and match the colors and grain to that of the selected footage. As with color correction, you don't want to go overboard with this technique, but when used tastefully, it can make a big difference. There are many LUTs, software programs, and plugins that you can use to emulate the look of movies on your digital footage. So experiment with different options to find the one that's right for you.
Here is a short before / after sample of a shot before and after applying the film emulation with grit:
While there is no exact formula to get the “film look”, following all the steps above will guide you in the right direction. When you watch a film that was made on film, you feel like you are in a parallel universe. It looks almost the same as in real life, but there are these subtle differences that allow him to feel more surreal and dreamy and to draw you in as a viewer. Doing this digitally is accomplished through a combination of many factors, from setting up your camera to editing in the editing suite.
Be sure to check out my article 10 tips for shooting with natural light, because much of the article also aims to get a cinematic-looking image.
Below is a teaser for my latest film "Brother Sister" that I used these techniques with:
Check back soon to get lots of new articles about the cinematic look, lighting tips, color correction techniques and of course new Cinematic LUT Packs!
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Noam Kroll is an award-winning filmmaker from Los Angeles and founder of the boutique production house Creative Rebellion. His work can be seen at international film festivals, on network television and in various publications around the world. Follow Noam on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more content like this!