The Film Look

The film look is something I’ve been trying to recreate for some time. Over the past few years I’ve been searching online for different techniques but there’d never be a comprehensive guide for how to do so in a convincing way, and for good reason. I just didn’t really understand the principles of image acquisition and post processing in depth enough to really get it. My philosophy on being able to recreate these looks just comes down to time and effort. One off tutorials or buying creative LUTs never helped me, because I lacked a core understanding of the fundamentals.

The ‘film look’ can mean many things. If you look up ARRI Alexa vs 35mm film samples, the Alexa already does an amazing job mimicking the 35mm look. Add a good color grade with some grain, combined with good lighting and optics and it starts to get a lot closer to what you see on a Hollywood screen. Then there’s the 16mm look. It can look grainy and soft, but also sharp and organic, all depending on varying factors from film stock, optics, and the scanner being used.

There’s a lot of room for interpretation, and there are a lot of vague terms thrown around, but I’ll leave it at this since I’m not going into a deep analysis on this post – it either feels right or it doesn’t.

Completing the Look

Over the past year I’ve gotten a lot closer to being able to achieve this look myself. We were able to get close on the feature film I shot, Alberto and the Concrete Jungle, but I wasn’t the colorist, nor did I know how to explain the ins and outs of what I wanted the footage to look closer to. It wasn’t until I really dove deeper into coloring and image processing techniques and just work on a sheer number of projects before I really started getting it.

The footage below was taken by me on a BMPCC 6K. Out of camera, the footage is very sharp. Since I bought the camera I modified it to a PL mount and using my Zeiss Standard Speed set. This is the footage out of camera, BMPCC Film (basically log). One additional trick is I used a Schneider Black Frost 1/8 (similar to Tiffen’s Black Pro Mist) to bloom the highlights. 1/8 is pretty strong with street lamps.

From here, I added the LUT that changed everything for this camera, Juan Melara’s p6k 2 Alexa LUT. It adjusts the colors and contrast to get closer to the Alexa color palette:

I thought the contrast was a bit much from the base LUT, so I dialed it back using the color wheels:

I also thought it looked a little green, so I did some color balance to adjust the RGB parade and get it a touch more neutral:

Here is one of the key steps that I haven’t been able to create. I started seeing examples of this popping up online over the past few months by various colorists, and thought I would try to study this, but a colleague who’s in the same master mind group I’m in, Luke Linssen (@luke_linssen ), shared his technique and it’s a game changer.

One of the ways you can tell actual organic film from video that was graded to look like film is looking at highlights. In many instances where it rolls off into a blown out highlight, a red glow appears. Up until now it’s been one of the aspects I hadn’t spent time trying to reverse engineer.

I could have stopped there and would be happy with the results, but I decided to see how I could dirty up the image a bit more. I added a touch of blur to the image just to get it looking like vintage film, and I was blown away how close this looks. I also did a noise reduction to remove the chroma noise that comes with digital cameras and prepare for a clean grain addition.

The final step was to add some 35mm grain, direct form Davinci Resolve: 

This look isn’t for every project, but having it in the tool box to use when needed is definitely something I’m looking forward to.

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