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How to Make Digital Look Like (Grainy) Film: CineGrain Review

Celluloid is expensive. And besides, literally nobody makes film cameras anymore. But it does have a very particular aesthetic, one chief component of which is grain. There is a grit to film that today’s digital cameras lack, and while there are plenty of plugins out there to simulate this grit, there are no substitutes for the real artifacts. The guys at CineGrain took dozens of different film stocks and painstakingly scanned them in, delivering authentic grain, dirt, headers, tails, lens flares, and flash frames on a nice branded hard drive. Film grain isn’t appropriate for every project, but if you want your video to look like grainy 35mm, 16mm, or 8mm — but can’t shoot the real thing — you’ll find CineGrain to be a handy addition to your toolbox of tricks.

To test the CineGrain footage, I applied a few clips to some Canon 5D Mark II test footage I shot for my transmedia project 3rd Rail (which is on hold for now, but will see the light of day… someday). The problem with internet video compression is it’s very good at filtering out fine details — like grain — so I applied CineGrain clips pretty heavily in a couple of places. Again, this is just for testing purposes, as I wouldn’t use CineGrain on this particular project (it’s not appropriate). There’s no sound in this clip, and full screen it if you want to be able to see the grain:

Here’s a closer look at a slightly less-compressed frame:

The presentation of the package is very nice — not only is the hard drive branded, but the clips are neatly arranged into appropriate directories (35mm, 16mm, headers, etc.), each of which has its own unique icon. There are a few versions of the package, aimed to appeal to different classes of production (and budget). The Indie Filmmaker Collection offers 50 clips at 1080p resolution for $299, and 100 clips at both 2K and 1080p for $499 (this is what I tested). This indie collection is licensed for projects with a budget up to $50k; for budgets up to $100k there’s the IndiePro collection (150 or 280 clips for $999 or $1499, respectively) and the Professional license is a 300-clip collection of ProRes 444 clips for… well, more than most of us can afford. But the $3,999 unlimited license may certainly make sense for commercial production houses.

I can see the comment coming already: “it’s too expensive, I can get XYZ film plugin for $29! And iMovie has it for free!” Well, yes, and if those plugins are good enough for your purposes, no one’s suggesting you buy CineGrain. But considering the effort and expense of shooting dozens of different film stocks on all manner of cameras and then developing and scanning the film, the pricing seems appropriate. Speaking of which, here’s a brief behind-the-scenes look at the shooting and scanning of the actual film:

Also file under “comments I see coming:” yes, there is more to the look of film than just grain. But this is a review of CineGrain, not CineLook (which used to be a plugin by DigiEffects.

So, here’s an example of heavy CineGrain use on RED footage:

And ARRI ALEXA while we’re at it:

Beyond simply adding grain, the elements have surprising utility. Even on my Kickstarter video I ended up using some subtle film flares to liven up my interstitial titles, which felt a bit dead and static for my taste. I overlaid some light leaks, and cranked the opacity down to a few percent. I felt it was a subtle but effective (and quick) tweak that made the titles more “active.”

If you feel CineGrain is overkill, Red Giant’s Magic Bullet Suite contains some nice grain plugins (including a highlight suppression slider), and the latest version of REDCINE-X Pro also includes a grain slider in its “Film look” tab.

Ultimately, most digital projects probably don’t need grain, but if you want to go above and beyond digitally simulated grain and utilize real photochemical artifacts, then CineGrain can’t be beat. I know I’m going to find it handy.

The proper application techniques (I used After Effects) are below. You can also sign up to download some sample clips.

Link: CineGrain


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Description image 44 COMMENTS

  • I dig it. I can see the applications for it. And the 4000 dollars seems reasonable for most larger scale production houses to pick up. (Might get the lower end one myself.)

  • I own it and love it, game-changer

  • Just upgraded to the 280 clip version!! Can’t wait to get it, hurry hurry hurry!

  • For all the debates about clean lowlight ISO blah blah blah.. here we are selling $4,000 USD for noise. Amazing.

    the Sony Nex 5N or A77 will do this in camera.:D

    • Shoot, I meant Nex 7 and A77. its a joke coz many whiners call them out for grainy 1600 ISO.

      The Nex 5N has the cleanest High ISO ever made of any camera evar!!!

      • I realise your tongue is in your cheek here, but the issue is that video noise looks nothing like film grain, and to many is significantly uglier.

    • Haha true it does sound idiotic paying 4k for noise when we’re trying to reduce noise in the first place but keep in mind that digital gain is ugly. High ISO gives you multi-colored gain that isn’t like film at all and screams low-budget.

      This is a great way to get that film look without the tedious workflow that film cameras demand, might be picking up the starter kit myself.

      Side note- I’ve read that the Nikon D700 gives the most filmic gain as opposed to ugly digital noise.

      • Some people really dislike the film workflow for a variety of reasons and I can understand why, but the biggest beef with film is the price in my opinion. I love the look, personally and I like the workflow as well. Shooting on a format that demands a very precise workflow ensures that you prepare carefully for each shot, do enough rehearsals to be sure that everyone is ready to go and generally employ a more careful, disciplined process to everything that you do. Depending on the crew on hand that can actually be a tremendous asset when it comes to producing beautiful images.

        Digital obviously has many strengths, but I’m not sure that it’s fair to say that not having the workflow is a cut and dry pro in favour of digital. I think that it depends on the project. Sometimes the film workflow is better.

    • In the list of specialties, I would Probably like to start at at a Family Practitioner. I beilvee this will give me a better opportunity to practice my skills , and once in a while my patience and expedience. After which I would more than likely feel confident enough to tackle any other profession. I would like to build on a solid foundation of skill and knowledge before taking on challenges I’m not well equipt for. The plain fact is , after my confidence is up, I relish i the opportunity to prove my worth.

  • I have yet to find anything that rivals the film grain filter off Apple’s old Shake. Too bad they discontinued it and it quit working on the newer operating systems. Now I just deal with it on an old G5. It is the only thing I still use Shake for, though I love that program. I’d love to see a comparison of the CineGrain vs Shake for a film grain look. If they are comparable then Shake offered it at a much better price.

  • Have you seen the commercials and the people that use cinegrain? It’s definitely for high end productions. The indie collection gets lower budgets in the mix. I personally love this stuff.

  • Film grain is fine in photography but in cinemtography, its super ugly, i hate gains.

    Just like the ppl complains about the grain has been removed from Predator 1987 film on blu-ray, i love it without the grain, cause im all about high quality sharp image without a pixel distraction aka noises. Film Grain looks okay with older films but shooting digital film, it is super unnecessary.

    • Donald,

      Actually grain removal from material shot on film can lower the sharpness inherent in an image due to a drop in acutance that has to be added back in by sharpening processing. It, in a subtle way, kills fine details in most instances.

  • Something I’ve been doing (considering my total lack of budget) is using a freely available hi-res still of some grain (here: ), and simply using the expression wiggle([frame rate],[smallest dimension of still / 2]) on the position value of the layer. Set the layer to overlay, and boom, free simple film grain. Obviously it doesn’t have any of the fancy stuff, and it’s not the most flexible, but for a simple and free way of adding grain I personally feel it’s much more convincing (not to mention soooo much faster to render) than standard film grain plugins.

  • I have a huge ethical problem with adding grain. It – is – fake. Let me draw an analogy with a bigger but still partially similar “switch” back in late 1920s when talking movies started to appear. Numerous directors were against this change and first refused to add dialogues in their movies, some even stopped making movies. Directors then started to work with it, use it as another tool for expressing their creativity. In our technical realm, I think we are facing the same kind of change and this is why products like CineGrain exist, it makes our movies keep the look they always had. I personally believe we shouldn’t think so, I will use my camera as it is, is it digital ? Very well then, I’ll definitely go with it rather than round it. To me a digital picture that has no blue-ish high lights, good sharpness and good tones is already a beautiful one. So yes, I like the fact that you pointed it out, most digital projects don’t need grain. Sorry if you feel this rant was agressive, I’m not a native speaker

    • Grain is just another tool of expressing your creativity now. Some types of movies benefit from grain, it’s a pure aesthetic choice now. Back then, you didn’t even have any other option. Now you can add grain or not add grain. It’s your choice.
      However, I do agree that most projects don’t really need it…

    • I don’t think it’s unethical…I mean cinematographers have been using diffusion filters for beauty shots since the dawn of cinema, which is also a visual trick. However, I agree that many are too obsessed with making digital look like film instead of letting it stand on its own terms. As far as I’m concerned the main important thing to replicate from film is the highlight rolloff, not the grain or other defects.

  • Used the 16mm 200 Cinegrain on this doc short for replicating a 16 texture, its a lot of fun. Ethics be damned @SimonL, in case you havn’t figured it out yet movies are an illusion, for the most part fake and this coming from a film purist. Cinegrain makes for a very happy marriage for old time film diehards like me. Downside is i can see it being overused, but maybe that’s because I’m just noticing it more. Great product.

  • Look at this Nike commercial that uses CineGrain. Found this on their facebook page. beautiful!!

  • So… I hate grain. Can you recomend software to remove grain. I love the clean digital look! Like the kind in the movie “Contagion”

  • Definitely a ridiculous product. Using MB or Saphire and some know how along with depth of field plug ins and most importantly CORRECT lighting during the shoot I’ve made things that blow the above examples away and look like they were shot on film. Cinegrain is joke as well as rip off. Stupidity at it’s best.

  • Also, here’s a WILD idea. Take some time and think of a good story, use your money to hire a good DP (like a pro not a film school hack who thinks he’s the second coming of Darius khondji, and make a good film. WOW who’d of thunk? Too many people are going bling ooooooh I need this camera and this effect and still making junk. A good concept with a strong story and good acting with clear sound and well crafter cinematography will ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS win out over silly films that may look good. In fact you become a bit of a laughing stock with the highly polished film that has acting school rejects looking like buffoons in it and a pretentious story with bad dialogue.

  • I never saw the beauty in film grain. But I also never saw the beauty in 24p… ;)

    Film Grain does have a certain effect, and I’m all for using this effect when it’s appropriate – like in title clips, commercials and so on. I mean I love the title clip of True Blood which uses a lot of film grain and fading effects, but that’s it. I don’t want to see a whole movie with grain unless it was really there, in camera.

    Digital noise is ugly because of the color noise. When I shoot high-iso raw stills on my 7D and then remove the color noise in Lightroom, I think the remaining luma-noise does have a certain analog film-grain look. Not too bad – but I would never add it on purpose. Well, never say never, but I wouldn’t add it on purpose in 99% of all possible cases :P

    However, I am sure that as ugly as we think digital chroma-noise is today, it will be cherished as THE vintage look in the future. 50 years from now, people will probably buy 4K$ packages of chroma-noise plug-ins … ;)

  • If you’re a film grain lover, there’s a $99 plugin for FCPX called CineLook that yesterday added real 35mm film grain to their tool set. It’s pretty slick and fixes a problem with their initial release which added noisy digital grain.

    I posted a review with sample footage here:

  • i like all this stuff and it brings that magic but again.. when you think about it, back in the days they couldnt get rid of that grain and im sure if they had the chance they well. i still love the grain but whats the use of an artificial grain when you have something thats clear … its like the story behind black and white and photographers.. as much as its beautiful .. it belongs in moments and old equipments.. im sure they wanted colour back then… but again ive always loved it ..
    great article btw

  • I personally think the series is great. Top notch quality scans. Of course it goes without saying you wouldn’t want to use this on all projects, but there is a certain aesthetic nostalgia that comes with this type of grain and in my opinion for a DSLR user this stuff is invaluable.

    This will cover up the DSLR’s crappy grain with a filmic, more uniform Gaussian grain of old film. Making it look, at least in my opinion much nicer.

  • CineGrain undoubtedly the best, but damn… I can not afford it!
    There are several good websites that offer high-quality and cheap products. I use this one:

    • this vegasaur looks/is fake and it’s crappy encoded…you can hardly see any grain structure from the pixelation. Of course you get what you pay for…If I couldn’t afford any grain I wouldn’t destroy my precious footage with noise at least….

      • watch in HD/Full Screen on Vimeo. And this is a 100% real film grain with the highest quality

      • I used their 35mm grain pack in a couple of my projects – I was pleased with the quality

  • Albert Nobbs on 08.26.13 @ 12:48PM

    FILMLOOKS.COM has better scans and much much cheaper than Cinegrain. I bought their film grain collection for only 14.95$ The dirt and scratches collection which has many many files is freaking amazing and i only paid it 29.95$. You should all check this out because this is the real deal:

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