How does one know the difference between film and video? Film has blown-out highlights, too. Film has low-contrast images, too. Film can be desaturated in color, too. Film can have low resolution, too.
What people do to get the film look
In this section let’s take a look at some of the ‘common sense’ advice to get video to look like film:
Most modern cameras in every budget are capable of 24p, so this is no longer a factor. However, some camera sensors first encode in 50i or 60i and then convert data into 24p. Interlacing is a dead giveaway.
DSLRs have electronic shutters for video, which can be set to replicate the effect of filmic motion blur. The most expensive cameras like the Alexa and the F65 have mechanical shutters, but what difference do they make? Here’s a lesson from Red that provides a simple overview of the difference.
Depth of Field and Bokeh
Film grain isn’t rectangular, whereas anything in video must be rectangular, and that includes video noise as well. There are products in the market today that try to simulate film grain. On an aesthetic level, I can imagine why one would want to add grain, when Kodak was trying its best to get rid of it. However, video with grain still looks like video, no matter what.
Cameras like the Canon T4i shoot great stills even in JPEG mode in 8-bit, like this one shot on JPEG, color corrected, cropped and recompressed for the web:
As we have seen in Color Space and CIE XYZ, sRGB and Rec. 709 are similar for all practical work. If 8-bit sRGB still images are okay, what’s wrong with 8-bit Rec. 709 – they are practically the same thing!
Similarly, movies shot on film, scanned to digital and then compressed to Rec. 709 for consumption don’t look like video. If the original film had colors beyond the gamut of consumer displays, their loss should be clearly felt. Are they? Did you catch a loss in colors the last time you watched a Blu-ray movie?
Clearly, adding or changing color is not the key to achieving the film look, yet you have plugins and tools that do just this.
This is one aspect even camera manufacturers take seriously, by trying to ‘flatten’ out the image via Log Gamma or whatever proprietary name they want to call it. On DSLRs, we have Technicolor Cinestyle. My tests with Cinestyle over Neutral (the built in setting) show that there’s no worthwhile difference.
Even on the C300, I never use Log because I can get what I want with Rec. 709! Here’s a test of Canon Log with Canon LUT applied:
Even if you haven’t played the above video, can you tell whether it was shot on film or video, by just looking at the still frame? However, we have all probably seen Mobius:
Mobius is the closest to the film look I’ve seen, yet there are quite a few shots in which you can clearly tell it was shot on video. The brilliant grading and camera work cannot hide this.
So, is my camera really good enough for theatrical distribution?
Well, I already told you that it is, technically.
Yeah, but can I apply all the tools at my disposal to make it look as good as film?
You can come a lot close nowadays, but you can’t beat film.
Wait. Why don’t you ask me what you really want to know?
Okay, will distributors, the film festival screening committee, the film critics or the moviegoing audience know the difference?
Yes, they will.
Will they care?
I would love to say they won’t. I would love to say content is king, and if you make a great movie nobody will care. But in reality I have learnt the opposite – people do care about the look. Especially the people who guard your entry to theatrical distribution. And the movie going public, too, for that matter. They might not be able to articulate it, but they will know.
Don’t take my word, ask your own friends and family if your masterpiece was shot on film or digital. You will have your answer. And before you go investing in some camera because somebody online promised you the film look, look at footage from it and show that to your friends and family.
But why is that some footage looks like film while others from the same camera don’t? Why aren’t the results consistent?
Because you can hide many of the flaws, but not all of them. If you’re shooting an interview or well controlled closeups, you can actually deliver stellar results, as Mobius shows. However, a movie is more than a bunch of closeups. There are many shots that have to be intercut with each other.
Isn’t this the bane of the low budget indie filmmaker anyway? You hardly have enough time on a shoot to get all your shots, let alone get them Hollywood-style.
Do you have 60 to 90 days for a shoot, or is it more like 15 to 20? Can you control the lighting and dynamic range of every single shot? Do you have the post production resources to grade your movie under the care of a genius colorist?
Anybody can download Resolve nowadays but how many can use it to its full potential? Out of this, how many have the ‘artistic eye’? If you really have the budget to grade in such an environment, why not use that money to shoot with a better camera in the first place?
But let’s not lose hope and get carried away. The film look isn’t everything, nor should it be. The bottom line is one can still make great images even with a cheap DSLR like the Canon T4i. You should be proud of these images.
But don’t ever kid yourself, or let anyone else sucker you into thinking it will look like film. Ask me again, now.
Is my camera good enough for theatrical distribution?
Yes. Here’s a movie shot on DV that did great:
And here’s one from the same director, with a 2K camera without cinematic DOF: