The Film Look

 

The film look. That ellusive, ephemeral, desirable image we’re all after with our sub-$10,000 cameras trying to look like Panaflex or Arri with lenses that represent a years salary.

It’s highlights that don’t bloom, it’s shadows with detail. It’s the ‘not now’ 25p (24p) look rather than the hyper-reality of 50p or 50i. But more importantly, there’s a way that shadows record, highlights occur, the whole contrast isn’t some simple straight line. Shadows ramp up from black to visible. Highlights don’t burn out, they add little grace notes to the tone of the image.

For the last couple of years, we Z1 owners shot stuff to create this look in the edit. We under-exposed the footage to rescue the highlights. We engaged Black Stretch to ensure that the shadows didn’t disappear. We eschewed the CineGamma modes that the Z1 offered, and tried to better the image in post of the Panasonic HVX200’s ‘Scene File Number 6’. Yes of course we failed; the HVX200’s #6 is to die for.

I’ll have a go at a definition of the film look. It’s just ‘a’ definition, not ‘the’ definition, and hopefully it will stimulate some debate as there’s a lot of misunderstanding that the Film Look means 24p or CineGamma or other marketing check box.

So what makes the look IMHO? It’s a combination:

  1. Progressively recorded frames
  2. A frame rate within perceived motion but not within perceived flicker [1]
  3. A ramp up from black to dark tones that preserves detail yet produces rich shadows rather than a linear scale that makes shots look a little bland
  4. A ramp off the highlights, so the last few stops of exposure happen within a limited headroom, rather than going straight from pale to ‘super-white’.
  5. Big bokeh – these are the circles of confusion, the blobs of light that are totally out of focus in the background of a shot. In other words, shallow depth of field
  6. A richness of colours that don’t bleed out of their bounds – the Film Look neatly colours-in within the edges [2]
  7. Absence of artificial sharpening – those white edges round dark things and dark edges round light things that says CHEAP VIDEO
  8. A subtle ‘boil’ in areas of even tone, rather than the blockiness and banding of 8 bit video (so that’s why HVX200s are noisy!)

Okay. Now here’s the footnotes.

[1] The human eye tends to see motion from a series of stills from about 12-18 frames per second due to the persistance of vision. Why was the cinema known as ‘the flicks’? Because whilst we can perceive motion at that frame rate, our eyes perceive flicker in higher frame rates. It only peters off at about 40 frames per second, and quite frankly we’re much more comfortable with computer monitors at around 50-75 frames per second – or ‘Hertz’ as we should say.

So, do we increase the frame rate to the point where flicker is invisible? Could do, but that’s going to be expensive. Double the amount of flim to shoot, double the bandwidth of analogue video to record. Tell you what, let’s cheat! Let’s show every frame TWICE!

Heck, that’ll do it!

Ah, but whilst this may work really well for projected celluloid and for European TV, our US cousins have a bit of jiggery pokery to do when film moves to video. I’ll save that for another day, but the point is that 20-30 frames per second gives us a perception of motion that’s half-finished. And that’s the film look.

Because the frame rate of film – therefore the ‘Film Look’ – is half-baked, it requires a certain style of camerawork that avoids some nasty effects of such a slow frame rate. Pans, zooms and follow-shots require the sort of care that cabinet makers apply to dove-tail joints. You won’t see them, but they’re there – and if they weren’t there, the film would fall apart like badly erected flat-pack furniture.

[2] And that means high colour fidelity, usually meaning 4:2:2 but with better chips and optics, clever codecs and high definition, this is less of a deal breaking issue in most cases.

So there’s no simple formula to the film look.

And I’d argue that there’s a new look around the corner – Digital Cinema. Now that’s a goal worth pursuing. I’ve seen glimpses of it in 720p50, and 1080p50 and Red may stamp their mark as a desirable look.
So I get the feeling that the Film Look will soon be as quaint (grinning, ducking and running) as Black & White.

 

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