Making Your Video Look Like Film

Lighting, Post-Production | By: indie

Cinematic Magic – Making Your Video Look Like Film

There are several things you can do in post-production to make your video look like film, and I’m going to talk with you about them in this article. But it’s important to understand that video, by nature, will never be film. Just like they’ve made electronic instruments such as pianos and drums that sound so close to their ‘real’ counterparts that only the most trained ear can hear the difference and only the most astute player can feel it, there is still a difference.

The Way Film Looks

It would be fantastic if the video you just shot on your handheld camcorder could look just like film does when you see a movie in the theater, right? Well, beyond the simple fact that good sound design does more than you probably realize to make a movie great, you first have to know what you’re looking for.

So let me ask you a question. What does film look like?

Unless you’re sitting there with your hand raised, ready to shout out a bunch of specific qualities you love about film off the top of your head, chances are you couldn’t rattle them off even if you had time to think about it. Can you really describe in concrete terms the qualities that make film look the way it does?

What makes it so special? So majestic to take in?

Well, for those of you who aren’t scholars, directors, or film students, I’ll tell you why you want that film look so badly in your projects.

Film’s Characteristics

Film is imperfect; it physically moves through the camera as it captures imagery. It’s moving at a high rate of speed, and any dust, hairs, or other abnormalities present during each instant are captured as well. The film rolling through a camera reel is only exposed for 1/24 of a second, and as it passes through underneath the lens it captures an image based on the light it iss exposed to. It has a depth and color quality all its own because of the chemical reaction that takes place during this fraction of an instant.

Following are several characteristics of film, an explanation of each, and tips on what you can do during
both production and post-production of your film to mimic each characteristic.

Film Cameras Have A Narrower Field

The measurement of how much of an image is in focus is called the depth of field. I have a whole page devoted to depth of field, actually. For example, you might have a person standing in front of a mountain range and both would be perfectly clear and visible. This image is said to have an extremely wide depth of field. An example of an image with a narrow depth of field would be a close-up of a table fork, where even the tablecloth right beneath the fork is blurred.

In film as opposed to video, the depth of field is quite a bit shorter by default. Movies get part of their
magical quality from the fact that when our main character is standing in front of a crowd of people, you don’t see the whole crowd and everyone’s faces clearly. It’s just our hero, standing there, and he’s clear and sharp and crisp, while everyone in the crowd behind him is blurred.

Good filmmakers use this narrow depth of field to their advantage. The eye is naturally drawn to the part of an image that is most in focus, so everything that’s blurred becomes part of the background. When you shoot a video and your camera is zoomed all the way out (wide), there literally is no background; it’s a flat piece of scenery with a bunch of objects in it.

There is a way you can recreate the film look with video, and that is by narrowing your field depth. You’ll need to set up your shots a little differently in order to do this, and if you’re indoors you may be limited by space. But try using the following technique and see if you can make your video look like film by perfecting it.

Film Look – Tip #1: To set up a narrow depth of field, dolly back so the camera is physically much further away from your subject (in fact, the further away, the better) and zoom in. While zoomed in, every tiny bit of movement or shakiness multiplies the amount your frame will move, so these shots are best attempted while using a tripod with a still or relatively still shot.

When you are significantly further away and zoomed in (telephoto), you’ll begin to see the background blurring out and your subject coming into view clearly. To tweak this shot and adjust the focus exactly how you want it, switch your camera to manual focus mode if it has one and if you feel comfortable doing so.

Film is Slower and Softer

It isn’t composed of pixels like digital video, so film has a smoother, softer look to it. Film also shows motion blurs more easily because it has a slower frame rate than video. Since standard NTSC video is recorded at 29.97 frames per second, and most of it is interlaced, video doesn’t carry the same quality as film because the images are displayed differently.

Interlacing is the method by which video is processed to save bandwidth for broadcasting. Video that is interlaced uses odd and even scan lines that hold two frames’ worth of information in one. Some high-end video cameras shoot in progressive (full-frame) mode, which captures single frames, but most record interlaced video and are therefore prone to the sharpness of the scan lines appearing when motion occurs.

When you begin the editing and post-production process, you can immediately do a couple of things to change the format so that you can make your video look more like film.

Film Look – Tip #2: In your video editing program’s project settings, set your project’s frame rate to 24 frames per second. If there is an option that allows you to de-interlace the footage, select that option as well. These two changes will result in only a subtle change, but it’ll get you that much closer to the film look when you export it.

Film Handles Extreme Darkness and Light More Easily

You may have had an experience with a digital camera where you went to snap a photo and the device took a second (or several seconds) to finish. When it came up, it was blurry and out of focus. Digital photography and video does this often because it requires more light.

So in situations where there isn’t a lot of light, the iris tries to automatically adjust itself to compensate for what it perceives as a lack of light. Any movement on your part during this time causes the blurring effect you see in dark digital photos. Sufficient light is necessary for a digital camera in order for it to get the amount of information it perceives is necessary to take a good picture.

Film has an exceptional tolerance for more extreme levels of darkness and light; video starts to degrade
when things get dark, but film simply takes in what light it can and presses that light into its imagery.

Even on a regular, normally exposed frame of film with average lighting you can see that its levels – the difference between the darkest color and the lightest color in the image – are much wider than that of most video. When you set about making your video look like film, there are ways to adjust the spectrum of light vs. dark in your image.

The closer to true black an image becomes, the more it ‘pops’ out at the viewer. Video taken in low light
conditions tend to be flat and can appear to have a grayish screen or filter over them. You’ll have to shoot your scenes with more light when you use video, just because that’s the way video works. But you can still make video look like film.

Film Look – Tip #3: In your digital editing program, find your video effects panel or menu and look for an effect called Levels. Add this to your video and make the necessary adjustments until the
darkest spots in your videos are close to black.

Each Level filter is adjusted differently, so I can’t give you an exact interface method for getting the right picture. It’s your video though, so mess around with the settings and keep tweaking stuff until you find the look you think is the best you can achieve within your editing program.

Film Captures Closer To True Color

With digital grading and CGI being used more and more to add vivid color and special effects to
films, it’s becoming less common for film to make it from the camera all the way into theaters and home video media without having been run through a computer.

Remember, film captures light – video captures a digital interpretation of that light. The color captured on film doesn’t have to conform to its closest computerized interpretation of how to display that color.

Film Look – Tip #4: Find and add a Color Correction plug-in to your project within your
digital editor. Bring up the saturation a little bit and play with the gamma settings to adjust
the overall lightness level. If necessary, a brightness/contrast effect can also be used to offset any
increases in gamma.

The Highly Sought-After “Film Look”

Hopefully you’ll find these tips useful in getting that “film look” everyone seems to be after, but keep in mind that the way your video looks to you now might change in the future. If you’re a relatively inexperienced filmmaker, you may look back one day, slap your forehead and exclaim, “what was I thinking?!”

Use your best judgment both on set and at the editing bay. Be aware that filmic style changes over the
years and the latest fads and methods in films coming out right now might be old hat in a few years. Try less to mimic what you see on the big screen and more to develop your own unique style.

Do things you think will be pleasing to your viewers, but don’t give up your creativity in place of a trendy or overdone gimmick because it’ll probably wear out faster than you’d like. If this article has provided you with useful tips on making your video look like film, don’t hesitate to read on if you need a refresher on video production and broadcast standards.


Comment from Robert Marshall
Time: July 18, 2009, 2:04 pm

Thank you for writing your Article. I think it will help many people when
making their ‘Indie Movies’ I’ve just bought a new Camera- a Panasonic
HMC-151 Broadcast Camera-Recorder. I’m all ready to shoot (as soon as I
can find a suitable story
Thank you again and good wishes

Comment from a
Time: August 28, 2009, 1:03 am

hey i find your articles insightful
I am getting ready to shoot a short
and wanted to capture “dream-like” qualities either during filming or in post-production,
any suggestions?

Comment from indie
Time: August 28, 2009, 2:13 pm

There’s a video effect in Sony Vegas (my editor of choice) called “Light Rays” that does well to give off a dream-like quality. In the film I’m producing right now, I haven’t decided whether I’m going to use this or the Sepia effect for my flashback sequences, but for a dream-like state this or something like it will do a good job of achieving that feel.

Comment from jamie
Time: September 10, 2010, 8:52 pm

Thanks a lot for this site! It has definitely been a great resource as I am in the process of editing an old film and preparing to write and cast a new one. I have been utilizing many of your suggestions.

Comment from Razvan
Time: March 1, 2011, 3:31 pm

Can’t thank you enough for this website. Everything is so detailed and so easy to understand, I love it. Great job!

Comment from komal
Time: April 25, 2011, 6:53 am

it helped me truly !! thanx for this website !! m looking forward to have a career in filmmaking and i wanted to know actually how all this filmmaking takes i ve got clear idea of it

Comment from Stigs
Time: June 27, 2011, 2:26 am

Awesome job man, really insightful and easy to transpose into filmmaking if you have a basic understanding of how a camera works and some lighting techniques. Really enjoyed!

Comment from grant trumper
Time: October 15, 2011, 7:19 pm

just wonderful, i have read books/ watched dvd’s and tried so many things. you have nailed it, just great.

Comment from Lops
Time: November 3, 2011, 8:16 pm

You, whoever you are, have just made my world a better place. New big job tomorrow and your website has answered so many questions and now hopefully I’ll actually know what I’m talking about, rather than sounding like I do!

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Time: April 8, 2012, 2:50 pm

[…] What makes it so special? Making Your Video Look Like Film | How To Make A Video | Indie Filmmaking […]

Comment from anil nigam
Time: September 1, 2013, 8:28 am

Dear Sir,
You have provided very useful information on video film making. I am also a short film maker and director. Please keep your good work. God Bless You.

Comment from Cai Carney
Time: May 8, 2014, 1:54 am

Hello there! I have been looking all over the internet for the past 6 months or so, and I think I finally found a place where all of my questions about anything can be answered! I found the 29.97 fps insightful because I noticed that on Adobe Premiere Pro CC but didn’t know why it was there or how to change it. Also, the interlaced thing is stupid and I don’t know why it’s on there to begin with. However, for the broadcasting I do at my school, I think the interlacing gives it more of a “broadcast look.” I also like how you don’t abbreviate things so I don’t have to look everything up that you write about. Thanks! Hopefully you can help me out with some tips on the short I’m filming this summer. I really need some insight because I’m only using one camera, and I believe I should be fine since this is my first time, but I’m still trying to get it to look professional like what Emmanuel Lubezki does. I know I will never ever achieve what he’s able to do, but I believe I can always give it a shot!

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