Video & Filmmaking

4 Steps To Give Your Digital Video the Look of Film

July 30, 2014

By Ryan E. Walters

© "The Butcher & The Fox"

A still from the film "The Butcher & The Fox, which Ryan Walters shot on a Red Epic with an Angenieux 25mm-250mm lens to produce vignetting.

The following article first appeared in a slightly different form on the blog of cinematographer Ryan E. Walters,

Thanks to many innovations in technology, digital cinema cameras are continuing to improve in quality by leaps and bounds. However, the pristine images that these cameras deliver have introduced a new problem that we haven’t had to think about until now: The images are getting too good. They are too clean. Read on for why I think this is a problem, and what to do about it.

One of the reasons why people, myself included, enjoy the esthetic of film is due to its “organic” nature. While people might use this term to describe different qualities of film, I think a lot of the time it is a highbrow way of saying “technical imperfection.” Film by its very nature is an imprecise medium. It does not have a hard cutoff point in the highlights; it gracefully rolls off. Digital, on the other hand, is very precise.

When it hits that clipping point in the highlights, all of the information is gone. Film is developed through the exposing and developing of silver crystals on a thin membrane. The formation of these crystals is never exactly the same. So even in a completely static shot, every individual frame is unique as the film grain does not align itself in exactly the same pattern. With digital, however, it is either a 1 or a 0; it is exact. This level of precision takes away a lot of the “organic-ness” that film brings with it. When you add amazingly clean and perfect modern glass to this digital “problem,” it ends up creating a technically pristine, clinical image that is free of character and free of life.

One of the ways that camera manufacturers have addressed, or contributed to, this “problem” is through their use of optical low-pass filters (OLPF). Having worked with the ARRI Alexa and Red Epic cameras quite a bit, I can say that the Alexa has a stronger OLPF than the Epic. While I haven’t done side-by-side testing to prove this yet, the highlights from the Alexa roll off and bloom in a much more pleasant way than the Epic’s less strong, and thus more precise, OLPF. From my research and conversations with people in the know at Red and elsewhere, it is the Alexa’s stronger OLPF that contributes to part of this camera’s look. This brings up an interesting issue with the Blackmagic Cinema Camera. From the reports I’ve heard, Blackmagic is either using a very weak, or no, OLPF on the camera. This means a tack-sharp pristine image.

So how do I add life and a more organic nature to the digital imagery that I produce? My recipe calls for a four-part mixture of lighting, lensing, filtration and grading that are all mixed together in combinations that support the story.

About 70 to 80 percent of the final look that I get in my work comes from my lighting. When I first began, I was much more concerned about technical precision in my lighting and making sure that perfect exposure was maintained through the frame. But as I’ve grown in my profession, I’ve realized that great lighting is as much about the places in between the light as it is about where the light exists. So I’ve moved away from worrying about always being technically precise at every point in the frame. What this has done for me is that it has allowed me to move toward a more natural and organic lighting style. (This should not be confused with sloppiness in lighting. I still meter my setups and make sure that I hit specific values within my frame.)

Another 10 to 20 percent of the look that I get comes from my lens choices. I spend a lot of time researching, testing and evaluating the characteristics that lenses bring to the final image. If it is appropriate for the project, one of my favorite combinations these days is to use old lenses on digital cinema cameras. The imprecision that these lenses have in their optics and the degradation in the lens coatings can add life and personality back into an otherwise sterile image. There is a time and place for modern glass, but nothing can replace or replicate the look that an older lens will bring to the footage. Oftentimes, the softness that older lenses add to the look of digital cameras is just what is needed to help replicate that organic nature of the “film look.” And other times, the unique flares produced can add a new dimension to the image. EBay can be a great place to score deals on older lenses, but as more and more people catch on to this idea, these affordable lenses have increased in price. If eBay is not your thing, then one of my favorite dealers in old cinema glass is Kevin Cameras. (I know, I probably should have kept that secret to myself, instead of increasing the competition.)

The next 10 to 20 percent of my personal esthetic comes from the use of filtration. As with my testing of lenses, I’m always testing filtration to see what kinds of looks I can create in camera. With every piece of glass that is added in front of the lens comes an additional element that changes and mars the image in a unique way. I have also used filtration to match modern lenses with the look of older lenses. When I shot the “Blackstar Warrior” trailer, I only had one adapter and one set of Cooke S2/S3 lenses available to me, but we were shooting on two Red Ones. (The second camera had a set of Red Pro Primes.) During the preproduction testing, I found that a Schneider 1/8 Classic Soft and a 1/4 Coral matched the Cooke S2/ S3s well. (The second BTS video from that production can be viewed on my blog.) Watch the video and see if you can tell which shot was with the Cookes and which was with the Red Pro Primes using filtration.

The last 5 to 10 percent of my style comes from the final grade. (Yes, I know my percentages can add up to more than 100 percent. The point is to indicate where I derive most of my style from.) The look I get in my footage is mostly generated in camera. The final grade is then used to enhance what is already there. While a lot can be done in the grade to create various looks and styles, to date, none of the results that I have seen come close to replicating the organic nature (technical imprecision) that I can achieve by creating most of the look in camera first. So for me, the grade is about finessing and unifying the look, rather than creating it from scratch. One little trick I’ve had done on some of my projects lately has been to overlay actual film grain as the last step before outputting the final deliverable. This adds back in some additional texture to the video, enhancing that technical imprecision—aka its “organicness.” This should be done with a light touch, and it is best to use real film grain, from people like Grain35, Gorilla Grain or R-Grain. (The digital film grain plugin generators look fake and just don’t work, in my opinion.)

Wrap Up
I realize that esthetic taste is a highly subjective thing, and my approach may not be right for you. You may prefer the ultra pristine look that you can get from digital cameras, which is great! But if you are looking for a way to add some character and personality back into your footage, then add in some lighting, lensing, filtration, grading and season to taste. Then you will be well on your way to creating nuanced imagery that will have life pulsating through every frame.

Ryan E. Walters began telling visual stories at the age of 7 with his comic strip series “The Flip Side.” Years later, this same drive for storytelling has evolved and taken him around the world, working on projects both large and small. For the last 15-plus years, he has worked on feature films and commercial work for companies like The Travel Channel, adidas, Nike and Autodesk. His blog has an extensive archive of articles in which he freely shares his insight, filmmaking tips and experience.