Tutorial - Getting That Film Look

Shooting video to look like film

How often do we still hear the term, filming, when everyone really means videotaping? [See Viewfinder, May 2008] While we easily forgive friends or even clients as they repeat this misnomer, there is a certain underlying expectation that is hard to quantify. Projects shot with film simply look better. In most cases, the look that only film offers is synonymous with quality, large-budget productions.

Fortunately, there are several popular techniques and software packages that, when used properly, will go a long way toward making your next video production look like it was shot using film. For this tutorial we’ll focus on just the techniques, but check out the sidebar for links to software solutions.

Think Film

First, we need to reset our mental stage. Let’s start by pretending that you have just spent $350 on a 400-foot roll of 35mm film that lasts only about 25 minutes. You carefully load it into your $150,000 Panavision camera and are about to shout “Action” to Angelina Jolie. A little nervous? Unsure about your exposure, frame rate, shutter speed and lighting? You should be, because get any of these wrong, and it will cost you more than just a lot of money.


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This scenario simply emphasizes how important it is to understand the basics of video production. If you approach creating video with the same care as you would in the above scenario, you will have more than half of what it takes to achieve the look of film. Now let’s dig into specific steps.

Home on the Range

Film has more exposure latitude than video. This has been the bane of video production since the beginning. This inability to see details in shadow and bright areas, or dynamic range, is a big part of why video can look “flat” when compared to film. So the first step is to do everything you can to limit the extremes of bright and dark in your shots. You can do this a few different ways, depending on the environment.

When you are shooting outside, you can wait for the ambient lighting conditions to become favorable. Thin overcast or just before sunrise and just after sunset are times you can take advantage of what Mother Nature gives you. Of course, this isn’t usually practical, especially for long scenes or shots that require retakes from different angles.

If you are shooting indoors, set up your lights so that you limit your dynamic range to about four or five f-stops. This is easy to determine, even if you don’t have an exposure meter. With auto exposure on, simply point your camcorder at the darkest and lightest parts of your scene, and note the changes in your auto iris. Adding more fill or using larger key light sources, like softboxes of bounced light, will help get you into range. But don’t be afraid of shadows; in fact, they are important to avoiding a bland lifeless scene (see Creating Shadows, June 2008).

Frame Rates

Standard-definition video records at 60 interlaced fields that combine to make 30 frames per second. Each field can contain unique picture information, if the camera or subject is moving. This gives video a very smooth look. Film, on the other hand, records a new image 24 times a second, giving it a slightly strobing effect. Many of the newer DV, HDV and HD camcorders offer variable recording rates, such as 24, 30 and even 60 non-interlaced, or progressive (p), frames per second. Using a setting of 24 or 30p will help make your video look more like film, but just be careful not to pan too quickly or attempt to capture fast-moving subjects.

Backside of a DSLR selecting 1920x1080 24fps

Hello, Dolly

Watch any movie and you’ll see the camera move in a variety of ways; dolly, crane, Steadicam and jib shots abound. These, of course, do require some investment in time and money, but you can rent nearly all of these devices or even make them, using inexpensive alternatives. When motivated by the shot type, such as a craning upward to open or close a scene, physically moving the camera gracefully will cinematically speak volumes to your audience. But, since evolution hasn’t yet given us magnification eyeballs, try to avoid zooming. If you want to make your subject larger, get the camera closer, and stay off the zoom rocker.

Field & Filters

Another characteristic of film, or more specifically the camera lenses, is that they can create a very limited area that is in focus. This shallow depth of field focuses the viewer’s attention on one plane, such as the actor’s eye or a person sneaking up behind the main character.

You can use special adapters with some camcorders that will allow you to use film “prime” lenses. You may lose some automated features, like auto focus and exposure, but you’ll gain a powerful ability to highlight just your subject, throwing much of the foreground and background wonderfully out of focus. Opening your camcorder’s aperture to its widest setting will also reduce the depth of field. You can do this by using neutral-density filters, either in camera or in front of your lens.

Lens filters create two other film-like characteristics: they make the image less sharp and reduce contrast. There are lens filters that use various materials to slightly diffuse the image. These often also reduce the contrast at the same time. Polarizing filters will reduce contrast by bringing the exposure value of the sky down, depending on the time of day and angle to the sun. A graduated neutral-density filter can accomplish a similar task, but you are more restricted with its use. A matte box will make using filters easier and will also improve your overall image by keeping stray light off your lens.

Camcorder Tweaks

The middle tones, or gamma, in your images can be adjusted, relative to the very light and dark areas. You can do this if you know the effect you are trying to achieve. However, this is really where specialized software becomes your best friend.

If you are working from a script or have a good idea of what you want your finished video to look like, then try altering your white balance. The two most common methods are white-balancing on a slightly red-orange card or on light-complexioned skin to make the video mimic that chilly blue hue that’s so popular with some sci-fi flicks. To warm things up, white-balance on something slightly blue. You’ll now have the perfect tone for romance in the desert.

Make sure you adjust any detail or sharpness enhancement to taste. Most camcorders come preset with some level of sharpness already applied to the signal, to counter inherently unsharp CCD or CMOS sensors. Even if the setting when you first encounter it is at zero, it probably means this is what the camcorder manufacturer thinks is appropriate. This digital enhancement is very un-film-like, so, with your camcorder trained on a subject with plenty of detail, hook it up to a monitor, and begin lowering the detail level until you are satisfied. At first it may seem too soft, but, when it’s used in conjunction with the other tips in this article, you may find it is just right.


It is always important to frame your shots well, but it is particularly important if you are trying to trick your audience into thinking you shot on film. Amateurish composition will quickly break the illusion of film. Try to frame your scenes with a ratio of 16:9 in mind. You can do this even if you have a camcorder that has standard 4:3 ratio sensors. Just add black bars on top and bottom during editing, and you will force your audience into seeing your film-like vision.

Contributing editor Brian Peterson is a video production consultant, trainer and lecturer.

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