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Film and Video Looks

Grain is one of several properties commonly associated with a "film look." People tend to mean different things when they speak about a film or video "look," perhaps because they have different purposes in mind for these looks. For example:

  • The story calls for a sequence to appear as if it had been shot on old home movie stock, such as Super 8 (a popular format from the 1960s and '70s).
  • The filmmaker wants to shoot as cheaply as possible, yet achieve the look of an expensive feature film.

The first situation is relatively simple and straightforward. In the same way that you match the color and grain of foreground elements to the background, you can match a whole shot to the look of an old film stock using those same grain and color tools, along with details such as a vignette effect, which makes footage brighter in the center and fading to black at the edges as with an old projector (see Figure 33). Good reference will help.

The second situation is broad enough to constitute a whole book. (For example, Stu Maschwitz' book The DV Rebel's Guide: An All-Digital Approach to Making Killer Action Movies on the Cheap.) I almost hesitate to broach the topic here, but enough student or low-budget filmmakers have clearly gone for a filmic look and missed in elementary ways that it seems helpful to offer a few pointers.

Figure 33

Figure 33 Clichés of aged film, recognizable even with an otherwise blank frame, include heavy grain, a vignette, and a lack of saturated reds and yellows.

Here are three important film/video distinctions that novices overlook:

  • Garbage in, garbage out. It sounds obvious, but if you're shooting your own footage (on MiniDV tape, for instance), simple decisions on the shoot have profound consequences in After Effects. Too often, artists learn too late what they'll try (and fail) to fix in postproduction.
  • Frame rate and format matter. Frame rate and aspect ratio might seem to be inconsequential or a matter of personal preference, but I would argue that when low-budget video producers are trying to make shots look filmic, frame rate—at least—is significant.
  • Color affects story. Changes to color and contrast can change the overall mood of a shot.

The following sections offer a few simple pointers for anyone with an effects shoot on a tight budget and the goal of producing a shot that will stand up against feature film footage.

Garbage In, Garbage Out

Garbage in, garbage out isn't a new principle. But what does it mean in this context? Here are some specifics (with details following):

  • If you, the After Effects compositor, are on the set, you are the "bad cop" who must continually look for flaws that will be difficult to fix in post.
  • Don't under-light a scene, but don't over-light it, either. Maintain a low level of overall contrast when shooting digitally, as contrast can be enhanced later.
  • If directing your own project, plan carefully: Storyboard, scout, and eliminate variables.

The most radical decision you can make on set to ensure a good result when shooting MiniDV or HDV video is to aim for a low-contrast master. This is "radical" because it is bound to look horrible to the director of photography, but it carefully preserves highlight detail that, once blown out, is impossible to recover (see Figure 34).

Figure 34

Figure 34 Sunsets and other light flares present a problem for digital cameras. Once the highlight areas are blown out, they're not coming back unless you're working with a medium such as film that can handle them.

Most camera operators are inclined to deliver an image on set that's as close as possible to final, which is often an appropriate strategy with film. A low-contrast digital video source leaves ample room to enhance dynamic range by using tools such as Levels and Curves in After Effects, even working with super-bright pixels in 32 bits per channel.

Frame Rate Matters

Others would argue this point, but if you want your footage to look filmic, the frame rate should be 24 fps.

A compelling demonstration of the difference between 24 fps film and 59.94 fields per second NTSC video dates back to the Golden Age of television and is available on DVD. In 1960, when the original Twilight Zone was in production, video cameras were briefly tried instead of film during the second season as a cost-cutting measure.

The experiment lasted six episodes, and then was abandoned. The difference in how the drama "reads" on video versus film is simply incredible. The video versions play almost like a soap opera; the film versions retain the spare, noir ironic distance and mystique that made the series famous. In short, the videotaped versions have immediacy, but the filmed versions appear timeless.

If you're with me on this, but you're still faced with shooting NTSC video, consider carefully whether there's any way to capture your footage with the slower frame rate. Many contemporary video cameras include a 24 fps mode; prior to that, digital filmmakers would use 25 fps PAL format cameras and slow the footage down to 24 fps.

If the immediacy of reality television is what you're after, by all means go for it: Shoot source with a video camera and maintain a 30 fps (29.97 fps) frame rate throughout the process.

Format Matters

As the world transitions from standard definition to high-definition broadcast television, formats are undergoing the same transition that they made in film half a century ago. The nearly square 4:3 aspect ratio yields to the wider 16:9 format, but also 1.85 Academy aperture, 2.35 Cinemascope, and who knows what else.

Big-budget films are often created for multiple formats, and yours can be, too. For a film destined both for theatrical release and video markets such as airplanes, all shots are typically created at a 4:3 aspect ratio and then masked off for the wider theatrical version.

The Day After Tomorrow employed a theatrical mask positioned near the top of frame, where all essential action had to appear. This took on the nickname Ueli-mask, after the film's cinematographer, Ueli Steiger.

Color Affects Story

The influence of color decisions on the final shot—and by extension on the story being told in the shot—is an immense topic, hashed over by cinematographers and colorists the world over. Any attempt to distill this issue into a few pithy paragraphs would be a disservice.

Thus, if you're new to the idea of developing a color look for a film or sequence, look at reference. Study other people's work for the effect of color on the mood and story in a shot, sequence, or entire film. Figure 35 is taken from an independent short film series shot on DV but intended to parody the look and attitude of big-budget action movies, of which color is an essential component.

Figure 35

Figure 35 Radical color transformation is undertaken to give this no-budget action movie parody the feel of the kind of big-budget action films it satirizes. (Images courtesy of MarkAndMatty.com.)

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