Film Look – How To Make Video Look Like Film

What’s wrong with Video?

Maybe you shoot video for a living – doing corporate work, TV documentary or adverts. Perhaps you are a student film maker or an enthusiastic amateur. Regardless of what you do with video, the likelihood is that you want to make films – even if only for yourself and friends and family. If you are new to video production, then the idea of ‘film-look’ – in other words giving video the look of film might seem quite new to you. If you are new to the idea of film look, or only know that you want to make your video look like film then it can be a daunting task to try and discover just what you need to do to make your video look like it was shot on celluloid.

Looking out for a ‘Film-like’ look!

The term ‘film-look’, or filmize (as it is called by wikepdia) is a generic term that has been applied to lots of process, some physical, some chemical and now – many digital. Celluloid (film) is expensive, wasteful and time consuming to develop – not to mention risky – destroying film footage is too easy! Tape is cheap and easy to use and the quality of video cameras has improved vastly in recent years. With the advent of digital video it has become possible for almost any camera to record acceptable quality video – analogue cameras were generally unsuitable for film look unless they were of a high end professional nature. Now, with DV, HD and HDV it has become more easy than ever to make a high-quality movie that has the look and feel of film.

DV, High Definition and ‘film-look’

It is important to realise that the higher quality camera you shoot on, the better your filmized piece will appear. Not is only is the quality of the camera important but also the format it uses. DV, or Digital Video is the lowest quality format you should be using. Ideally, shoot on HDV – a highly compressed High Definition version of DV or a professional HD variant.

So just what creates a ‘Film Look’ on video ?

Been to the theater recently? Film looks very different to raw digital video. There are a number of reasons for this but the most basic and obvious concepts are the differing nature of a film and video camera and more importantly that film stock is a chemical based medium whereas video is a digital / magnetic medium. The chemical nature of celluloid ensures that it records color in similar way to our eyes, has a much larger brightness range and does not harshly clip shadows and highlights. Digital Video stores image data in a finite range and brightness is stored in a linear fashion – quite different to how the human eye sees. Motion is different too, with far less motion blur in an image.

The Evil Legacy Of Analogue Video: Interlacing

One of the tell tale signs of video are the sawtooth like jagged edges that are produced by the interlacing process. In short, interlacing refers to the half frame display of video. Each frame is split up into odd and even lines and these are recorded and displayed out of time to increase the amount of motion recorded. This means that still pictures have higher resolution and moving pictures have more motion (although less resolution).

Creating an authentic film look requires the use of a 24p or other progressive format camera or a deinterlacer to make the interlaced video progressive (or a single frame) . This progressive frame will not feature motion artefacts caused by interlacing assuming that it has been deinterlaced well.

Color Correction / Grading

Much of film look comes from grading / colorising. Video is given a more film like appearance through the use of Gamma and Contrast adjustments. The most common way to give an image a more film like approach is to use a curves tool to create a soft s like curve. The s curve simulates the way film responds to brightness – in a non linear fashion – versus the straight line of video.

Color correction is used to one down the overly bright and saturated look video has. Color correction is also used to stylise the piece – this often helps with film look because film cinematography is often far more intricate than video lighting where illumination is exposure bases.

Film stock flashing and color timing – done in the development lab after shooting – can easily be simulated in software and contribute a huge amount to what most audiences unconsciously recognise as a film look.

Tricks Of The Trade: Advanced Lab Processes

Movie makers often use some sort of processing in the lab to achieve a particular look. Films such as Saving Private Ryan and Munich use a process known a bleach bypass. This increases contrast and reduces saturation by leaving silver halide on the negative – usually it is washed away to show the newly developed image. Essentially bleach bypass can be simulated in Adobe After Effects and similar packages by blending a black and white version of the image over the original color image. However if you want authentic looking bleach bypass you may be best considering a piece of film look software known as a plug-in for your post production system.

Other key indicators of film based production are optical filters such as diffusers and neutral density filters. These alter the quality of light by softening , darkening and blooming specific parts of the image. Diffusers work by affecting specific sections of tonal range, such as shadows and highlights. Neutral density filters tone down overly bright skies and have resulted in the sort of sunset shots seen in many Bruckheimer and Simpson films of the 1980s and 1990s.

Depth Of Field – The More Shallow The Better

For those after an authentic look there are a few other issues that should be considered. The first is depth of field. Depth of field refers to how much of an image is in focus and how much is blurred. A camera can only focus at a single point in an image (in terms of depth) and anything closer or further away to the lens will become progressively more out of focus. How quickly the image loses focus with distance is described by depth of field. A narrow depth of field has only a narrow focal depth and a deep focus lens keeps most of the image focussed.

Focus is directly related to the size of the image receiving device, be that a digital CCD / CMOS sensor or a collection of halide grains in a piece of celluloid. To achieve a simlar depth of field to film (which is relatively shallow), a large sensor is required. While a few camera such as the Panavision Genesis do have 35mm sized sensors – such video cameras are expensive. Cheaper professional and prosumer cameras have much smaller sensors – creating a much larger depth of field than film camera.

To achieve a truly film like depth of field with some camera you will need a lens adapter that allows a film like depth of field to be created. One highly recommended 35mm lens adapter is the M2 from

Film Grain – A non Digital Artifact

Film grain is actually very small. We only tend to see it consciously at the theatre where the image is large. When shown on TV, film-grain tends to disappear and this has become a tell tale mistake of those seaking film look. Such failed attempts involve using some sort of noise generation in their NLE or post suite to simulate the grain of film. Such noise not only looks nothing like film grain but is also far too large.

Grain simulation, except for an aged film look should be avoided at all cost.


capture as much tonal latitude as you can – compressing the highlights and lowlights into a viewable range where detail is kept. You will then expand the range back out in your film look plugin but during shooting it is imperative to capture as much detail as possible

Also consider lighting creatively – why light for video, emulating the lighting style of your favourite movie perhaps. As far as possible try and move away from 3 point lighting, which is more suited to a quick set up than a creative image. This article cannot hope to cover the vast range of lighting techniques used by film cinematographers – really you need to read as much about it as you can so research is the key here.


If you have been creative with lighting, attempted to create a shallow depth of field and intelligently used a film look system such as Halide: Film Look System ([]) you should have a good likeness of film. Getting the perfect film look is not easy and it takes practise like any other discipline in movie making but it can deliver phenomenal results and despite what some might say – audiences respond better to narratives that have film like qualities- video is too strongly associated with news and reality TV.