February 16, 2014

Uncover the Digital 'Holy Grail': How to 'Get a Film Look Without Shooting Film'

With modern digital cinema cameras, it is often preferable to achieve a look that is more "cinematic" than "digital." No one factor creates a filmic feel, but the precedent is simple enough -- film itself. The emulation of emulsion may depend on anything from lens choice and lighting to grading and grain plug-ins, but there is one sure-fire way to get a true film look: using film. Celluloid acquisition may be beyond the budget of your shoot, but using a "film intermediate" process -- that is, transferring color corrected digital footage out to film, then scanning back to digital -- could be one technique for splitting the difference. A webinar with VFX artist & colorist Jerome Thelia details just such a process, regarding the Oscar-winning short film Curfew. Read on for details.

This webinar isn't new by any means, but that doesn't mean the information it contains is not valuable or relevant. Filmmakers have more options than ever for emulating film grain in post. This technique can be seen as the "organic" -- and more expensive, though more authentic -- alternative. In other words, this is about as close as you can get to a film look without actually shooting film, because it actually uses film as part the post mastering process. Kudos to Shaheryar Ahmed  over at Lift Gamma Gain for posting this. The webinar features Jerome Thelia of Merge Group (who has also done some restoration work with Criterion) and is presented by Studio Daily and Assimilate.

First, here's the trailer for the short film at the heart of Thelia's presentation, Curfew. The film won the 85th Academy Award for best live action short and forms the basis of an upcoming feature.

Get comfy, because the webinar is a solid hour and fifteen minutes, including Q&A. Jerome goes into exactly the amount of detail you'd want regarding a process like this, so the length and depth are welcome and then some. He hits on the normal post production workflow the film would have undergone for both digital and film delivery, the actual process that took place, LUTs, color grading, fixing film dust and hairs, attributes of anamorphic shooting (digitally or otherwise), plus a little history of both the anamorphic format and 2.35-ish aspect ratios.

Obviously this process won't be possible on every production, nor should it be used indiscriminately. However when it's aesthetically beneficial, as the case is for Curfew, a 'film intermediate' constitutes a really interesting creative option. As Jerome points out, there's a certain magic to the way random grain structure transforms digital noise. Likewise, a poster on the LGG thread has this to say, but regarding the audio realm:

That's a lot like what they do in the audio world with 2" tape. Dr. Dre and a bunch of other artists keep big Studer and Ampex decks around to run their final mixes through them and then back out to digital. If you have the opportunity, give it a try. It might give your film that "fat sound" you just can't get anywhere else.

While solid-state acquisition may be superseding legacy media such as analog and celluloid, this type of translation and de-translation seems as good a reason as any to keep them around. Having the option to add a more "organic" layer to digital media is great, and hopefully it won't go away any time soon.

Links:

[via Lift Gamma Gain]

Your Comment

40 Comments

Buy Filmconvert.
???
Film look.

February 16, 2014 at 11:18AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Jake

It's a still lens, and the very short barrell movement makes it unusable in a practical sense. CP2 are not awesome cine lenses, but at least they're usable and at a similar price.

For everything else... dying to work on the Pano Primo V. Now that's glass for the 21st century.

February 16, 2014 at 12:01PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Wrong place.

February 16, 2014 at 12:03PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Aren't there quite a few 'film look" software plug-ins? Film Convert is, I guess, the most famous one around these parts. Anyone used DxO Film Pack?

February 16, 2014 at 2:08PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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DLD

How do you use that for video?

February 18, 2014 at 9:32AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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For a major project I would certainly try to budget for this. With all the digital plug-ins out there this is actually different, I'll bet it changes the cadence to give it even more a cinematic quality on top of the organic grain structure. Whats been working great for me is Dark Energy by Cinnafilm. Theres definitely something special about that plugin, it turns ugly digital noise into film like grain with a few clicks of a button, great customer support too. It does wonders with the weak 8 bit S-log II footage from the fs700, it's like a different camera.

February 16, 2014 at 4:10PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Anthony Marino

[ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H3zXP8o1rAs ] - Dark Energy demo ... and I bet no one knows what movie they're grading (with the lady in an orange dress) ...

February 16, 2014 at 10:38PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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DLD

I was trying to figure that out. What film?

February 17, 2014 at 11:32AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Anthony Marino

[ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RIyXiiaEzjg ] - here's the clip from the film that they're grading. It's a 1973 Soviet comedy "Ivan Vasilyevich changes his profession" (literal translation ... Ivan Vasilyevich in question is the 16th century Russian tzar Ivan the Terrible)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ivan_Vasilievich:_Back_to_the_Future

February 17, 2014 at 12:32PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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DLD

I find this to be extremely funny. This is super expensive workflow. It's funny how people are trying to get grain in there when it does not really matter. Watch any of the remastered films from the 70' and 80's most of them succeed and killing most of the grain. JAWS is a great example. This workflow above is kind of silly, just someone with a bunch of money playing around.

February 16, 2014 at 4:18PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Darren is right - and with the onflux of better quality TVs and computer monitors the public notices and "dislikes" film grain more and more every day.

Watch Men In Black 3 for example. Came out in 2012 and the director and film crew chose Kodak film and chose to KEEP all the grain in for the theatrical and bluray releases. Everyone I know who watches the movie for the first time thinks the movie was made 15 years ago - they think it looks "dated."

Film has a look well beyond "grain" - ask Christopher Nolan.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IyaFEBI_L24

February 16, 2014 at 4:29PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Stem Law

sorry my english poor

February 16, 2014 at 6:04PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Stem Law

35mm look is not only about grain. It is how the emulsion captures color and contrast.
It gives it the cinema look that very few HD cameras have ever captured.
Simply putting grain on some 1080p footage isn't gonna make it look 35mm.

February 17, 2014 at 7:18PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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MenAtWork

Yes it is silly if you don't like grain or care about an authentic film look and so is shooting film for that matter. Shooting film may be the silliest since it uses so much more of it. But having worked on the grading and restoration of several films at Criterion I can tell you that getting rid of grain is not part of the process, perhaps it is on some films. Something that we often forget is that grain adds sharpness perceptually in a very different way than digital resolution adds sharpness, so getting rid of it can really 'dumb down' an image especially a motion picture, not to mention lead to a more sterile, souless image. But again, that just a matter of opinion. Although I've been surprised at how many of my students love film, It's entirely possible that in a few years most people will share your opinion, or film stock will entirely disappear. In the meantime I think the truly filmic image has a strong place in cinema.

February 18, 2014 at 2:04AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Jerome Thelia

the above comment was @Darren

February 18, 2014 at 2:07AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Jerome Thelia

The problem with this workflow is that in capturing with digital as opposed to film, you still are left with all the hallmarks of digital in the finished product, notably exaggerated sharpness and the way digital handles highlights and underexposed areas. The only thing you really affect is grain and some coloration when going through a film intermediate.

February 16, 2014 at 5:52PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Lily

Hi all, Jerome Thelia here... Glad to see there's still interest in this process. As it happens I'm grading the feature version of this short, called "Before I Disappear" also anamorphic but shot Arriraw. It premieres at SXSW on March 10th. Although we won't be making a film intermediate for Before I Disappear we plan on doing it for other films. At the end of the day whether this process is worthwhile or not obviously depends on a number of factors, mainly whether you like film grain or not and whether you can afford it for your film. But I still maintain that the making a film intermediate is far closer to a true film look than any digital methods I've worked with.

February 17, 2014 at 1:43PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Jerome Thelia

@Lily - no, not really... I go into some detail about sharpness and highlights in the webinar, although you'd be forgiven for not listening to the entire awfully long thing. What amazed us is just how filmic the sharpness and highlights were in the film version - real film grain has a way of both softening and sharpening simultaneously that I've never seen in a digital process... Since we graded the film version to match back to the digital in terms of color, the greatest benefit of the film transfer was in grain, highlights and sharpness.

February 17, 2014 at 1:48PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Jerome Thelia

I wonder what the guys over at rubber monkey have to say about this.

February 16, 2014 at 7:00PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Gilles

Anybody have extra money to throw around?
I'd like to see the same clip using filmconvert and this method in a side-by-side comparison.

February 16, 2014 at 8:10PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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GD

I remember listening to an RC podcast about this a while ago. Here it is, for those needing more info on the subject: http://www.fxguide.com/therc/the-rc-126-nab-new-tech-oscar-winning-short...

February 17, 2014 at 7:03AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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This is just a very long process in which most filmmakers of now don't have time and budget for. Plus at the end Digital will always be Digital no matter how you process it. And I don't think film lovers care about Grains as much as filmmakers. Hell, They even think the picture is bad.

February 17, 2014 at 11:47AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Young Pizzy

@Young Pizzy, I think you're right, most filmmakers don't have the time or money to do this, and it's certainly not appropriate for every project. But if you do have the time or the money and love how film looks, this process really works far better than any plug-in.

February 17, 2014 at 1:53PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Jerome Thelia

Do not do a 35mm film out in intermediary with all that acquisition footage!
Do it after digital intermediary, editing and post. The end result is the same, and substantially cheaper.

February 17, 2014 at 7:48PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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MenAtWork

And I Totally Agree with Darren

February 17, 2014 at 11:48AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Young Pizzy

35mm Film out print is the way to go.
Stay digital in acquisition and intermediary (post production, editing, color correction) and then pay up $25k to do a 35mm print.
Then digitize the print for distribution.

We've done work with Sony Ex3, RED Epic and the final product cannot be discerned from 35mm, cos it IS 35mm.

February 17, 2014 at 7:14PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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MenAtWork

Also, we do a 35mm Film Out with all our docs and features. Not only does it give us a beautiful 35mm image, it provides physical archive as a true backup.

February 17, 2014 at 7:27PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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MenAtWork

Yes, this is (or at least was) the standard op for all films... the difference in our process is that we go to shooting stock, not intermediary stock which allows us to use 250ASA (in this case) film. Intermediary stock is extraordinarily clean at 50ASA, so little grain. A film intermediate also gives you the opportunity to bleach bypass and other film based processes.

February 18, 2014 at 12:16AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Jerome Thelia

So, would you then jump to the 65mm film after the 4K digital acquisition?

February 18, 2014 at 1:33AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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DLD

65mm would be interesting to look at and play with if it wasn't so expensive. In any case a larger neg is less grainy, so would be less grainy at the same ASA. But if I was projecting 65mm (70mm in the projection) which no film besides The Master has done for many years, then it'd be an interesting possibility. But 4K recording and scanning to 35mm looks fantastic.

February 18, 2014 at 1:54AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Jerome Thelia

Popular solutions like FilmConvert and Osiris Vision LUTs do the trick most of the time if used with care. Some shooters couple it with lowcons, softcons or hollywood blackmagic filters on top of the lens to get a little dreamy look all over the footage. If you really want analog artifacts like white dots, hair, scratches and that sorta stuff though, print it like they did on Curfew. No other way to get convincing random filmic artifacts yet.

February 17, 2014 at 7:20PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Natt

I agree. I think for many projects plug-ins are just fine. But I have yet to see one that truly looks like film, especially over the course of a whole film.

February 18, 2014 at 12:32AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Jerome Thelia

How can trying to mimic something else by doing half the process be the "authentic" way?? I emplore blogs like this to just drop the bloody film look crap, you literally inspire hundreds maybe thousands of up and coming film people and gestate endless "film look" tests and uniformed practice, it's just loads of people that haven't shot film or haven't lately seen film being projected posting statements like "this just feels more filmic to me", "the noise feels very organic"

Let the graders talk about post production techniques by all means but man! If the look that celloid gives you is really that important to you the get on a shoot as a camera trainee or runner and start the long road to being on a film (not a bloom esque beach and pretty picture movie) set and maybe one day shooting film, better yet buy up an old 16mm camera and some film and go and shoot something, sell the camera after or even just rent one. Whatever, just experience the ball ache of shooting on film and get over it.

February 17, 2014 at 10:08PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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How can trying to mimic something else by doing half the process be the “authentic” way??

Well, because it's not 'half the process'. The digital image is transferred to negative shooting stock - the same stuff that goes into a film camera. I've worked with film for 20 years and in my professional opinion and many others, is that you'd be hard pressed to tell the difference between this film intermediate and having shot 35mm neg. Shooting film is wonderful and some of the films I work on still acquire on film (Walter Mitty, most recently). But there are a lot of downsides besides the expense - light sensitivity and shorter takes to name a couple. This is less expensive than shooting film and has all the benefits of digital acquisition.

Having said that, I agree with you that people should shoot film... It's a lot harder and for people starting out you'll learn a lot. I've been doing a lot of work with 16mm infrared lately and it's amazing - nothing else looks like it and there's no digital process in the world that can really emulate it.

February 18, 2014 at 12:29AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Jerome Thelia

Oooo, 16mm infrared! I saw a small doc based in Africa I think all shot this way, made the uniforms of soldiers pink, ever so surreal.

I'm sure you're right but it can hardly be seen as a cheap process to do this and it's not like a BMCC or DSLR film is going to go through this process, it will more than likely be a Red, ALEXA or F65 that would have enough left in the budget to do a film DIT post grade and if that's the case it probably wasn't a jump to just shoot film in the first place.

For me it would have to offer something over just looking like film.

I'm very happy with how Skyfall turned out, no grain added in post (despite Deakins testing it) and I think inception is breathtaking in places. This fascination with a particular format is just becoming peculiar, if you're in a position to pick your format then by all means make an informed decision but the cost of this process could be better spent elsewhere and let's face it, it's only being done like this because they didn't just shoot film in the first place.

February 18, 2014 at 2:50AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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As many have mentioned before - grain is no the determening factor in getting the film look.

Notice the many color correction tutorials suggest "crushing the blacks", and that's an intuitively right step; film handles shadows the way digital handles highlights - once you hit black, it's pure black - that's film. Once you clip the highlights with digital, it's pure white with no detail.

I wouldn't necessarely want a film look with every project. I believe films like The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo, Dogville and Need For Speed benefits from the digital look, and i feel films like The Terminator and a lot of science fiction would have benefited from it too.

The real problem is that "digital" has a bad reputation due to an abundance of poor cinematographers, and somewhat due to unperfected technology like that 8-bitness. Keep in mind that film stocks also underwent evolution, a much slower evolution in fact.

February 18, 2014 at 7:49AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Patrick

The funny thing is that I watched a few minutes of that old Soviet movie being graded in Dark Energy in 1980p yesterday and, in a few spots, it looked too much like video (and it was shot on film way back when) but that was likely due to lighting, scene composition and camera movement (or lack thereof). Film scanning is an interesting idea but, IMO, using filters for a "creamier" look a la Alexa or the new Red Dragon, certain type of older lenses and then, if still required, some minor digital effect more or less gets you where you want to be.
.
PS. In terms of audio, going to and fro a high quality analog piece is in the same vein. There are ways to record audio that doesn't sound harsh or brittle.

February 18, 2014 at 8:42AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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DLD

I have some background in audio production.
My experience has been that the best way to "sound analog" is to use high quality transformer balanced gear. The good stuff has an intentional transfer function that cleans up the sub lows and ultra highs, while also smoothing out spiky transients. A nice side effect is that EMI/RFI noise rejection is near perfect compared to electronically balanced.
To be honest, I think a lot of what we have heard as 'harsh digital' was audio production techniques that evolved in the analog era when you had to fight for every db of snr and every octave of bandwidth.
Those bright condensers that were spectacular sounding coming off of 2" at 15ips sound spitty and brittle coming out of Pro Tools.
Replaced with Ribbon mics, problem solved.
To carry this forward with digital cinema, I think we should embrace the resolution and detail of digital over film. Film looks great, but like analog recording that is becoming a luxury reserved for people who have already 'made it'.

February 21, 2014 at 4:00PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Russ D

our post folks just bump the saturation and contrast to an absurd level, then a producer tells them to calm down. Instant film look.

February 21, 2014 at 3:52PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Russ D

The problem with the digital to 2 inch audio tape comparison is that digital audio captures a higher resolution and dynamic range signal than analog. This means that the transfer process, which is particularly used by some on drums - for example - for the compression and frequency artefacts of analog tape, is coming from a higher specified format to a lower one. If you consider the digital audio capture as being effectively neutral then the transfer to analog and back does do what it is claimed to do. Effectively neutral is a contentious area, of course, although I certainly believe that high quality converter to file is close enough these days.

Film has a different dynamic range than video and a smoother rolloff when saturated so the losses incurred in these area in video will not magically appear when creating a film intermediate although anything inside these limitations will, if done correctly. Sure, you will get the color (assuming a wider gamut has been recorded on the video) and the noise/grain but you won't get back what isn't there.
I'm all for people doing stuff like this to improve their output if they think it works. However, I don't have the budget for this sort of thing so I'll be getting the best colorists and editors I can afford to make my digital files look as good as they can. I'd rather use the cash spent on a process like this on better locations, props and more importantly, actors and audio and then live with the difference which, frankly, is not going to be noticed even subliminally by the majority of the audience if the other areas of the film are good and the post has been appropriate and skilled.

As someone who has moved from band recording through audio post into production and directing of film I've seen this sort of process rise and fall in popularity in the audio world, particularly as digital audio got better. I'm not going to buy into a similar situation with video, although I am happy to admit it may be creating a useful difference to some people some of the time. I'd rather spend effort and money on areas that are going to have a bigger impact. I love the technology and the feel of film as much as the next geek but understand that putting energy into where it makes the most impact gives better value.

May 7, 2014 at 8:24AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Simon Shepherd