Independent filmmakers are constantly striving to make their low-budget films emulate higher-budget productions in every possible way. One of the most common goals for directors and filmmakers is to recreate the “film look” (which I can certainly refer to!). But unfortunately there were some really uncomfortable and cheap looking techniques looking for this look that have become too popular in recent years … The first was the overuse of the shallow depth of field that exploded a few years ago after the 5D MK II was released, but lastly, it's the milky black look that destroys the color of so many filmmaker's artworks.
For those of you who don't know what I'm referring to when I say the "milky-black look", I'm simply referring to a color correction technique characterized by shadows that are crushed into black (during color correction). and then raised so that the black point of the image is never really black. The areas of the image that should be completely black and rich in contrast are now somewhat muddy, smoky, or milky. The look can work well under certain circumstances, but is largely overused and misused by many amateur DPs. Check out this shot below for an example of the look. First is the rough shot, then the first class (with crushed blacks) and then the last shot with blacks raised:
Why did this look become so popular? As we mentioned earlier, this is often associated with a more cinematic or cinematic look, as this technique softens the image in the same way that it would with certain types of older footage. It's also particularly easy to achieve because once you've figured out how to do it (which in a simple color software or NLE is actually just two steps) you can get consistent results quickly and easily. In a way, all of this may sound good on the surface, but in fact it isn't – in fact, I think in many scenarios it is only the least cinematic thing you can do with your footage.
Let us step back for a moment and address the notion that milky black tones are associated with the “film look”. This really couldn't be further from the truth. Yes, there are some film materials that are very low in contrast and produce this milky look, but the vast majority of DPs who still shoot at 35 mm stay away from these materials unless they do something ultra-stylized where it is used specifically. When one says that raised shadows are characteristic of the film look, all countless variations of the film materials are completely ignored. There are so many different types of stocks, all of which have a unique appearance and are suitable for different stories. Just because the low contrast look is the easiest to achieve doesn't mean it's the best technique for a particular story.
A few years ago, anyone who owned a DSLR shot wide open to get an extremely sheer depth of field and believed that this would give his work a more cinematic look. Ironically, her work was branded as DSLR material because she had gone too far. The productions would turn to F1.4 with a full-frame camera and would end up shooting their actors with just one eye in focus. It was really a terrible look that allowed filmmakers to be lazy using a shallow DOF to hide poor production design and composition from their viewers by relying on selective focus. With the exception of a few rare feature films that were intentionally shot in this style, this aesthetic in itself is not characteristic of a cinematic look. Shallow DOF is nice, but wafer-thin, ultra-shallow DOF is far too much most of the time. It has just been taken too far and the exact same problem now occurs with the milky black look.
Here is a little more food for thought on this topic … Top-class DPs and directors who actually shoot on 35 mm films today usually shoot with extremely clean film materials that have a balanced contrast. Think back to current films like The Master, Django Unchained, The Fighter or other films with a higher budget in recent years. They all have a nice contrast, black levels in the right places and are extremely cinematic.
Even with films like Black Swan, which intentionally use 16mm film to give them a coarser look, DP and Colorist are aware of their black levels to ensure that the image still has good contrast. The vast majority of films made on film today use extremely modern and clean-looking 35 mm film material that in many ways is not really that far from high-end digital formats like ARRI RAW.
A great cinematography is created when the DP and the director make targeted decisions to best serve the story. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to crafting, and each project should be tackled clearly and deliberately. Some productions may require a cleaner, more clinical look, while others are best served with an underexposed and subdued color palette. There is no right or wrong choice here as long as the visual and artistic decisions made are based on their specific relationship to the creative project and not just for practical reasons.
In spite of everything, the milky black look cannot be faulted when used correctly. I actually like this look a lot when used properly, and I've used it myself from time to time – but only if it's relevant to the story. Martha Marcy May Marlene, for example, makes excellent use of this technique, but the reason is that the aesthetics of the murky world that the filmmakers created required it. They didn't just choose to photograph and color it like this because it was easy or because other people do it.
If you want to use this technique, make sure that your project really requires it and that you don't go overboard. Even if you only slightly raise the shadows, you get this look. So don't try to go one step too far and worsen the picture!
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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!