Refining The Film Look May 2021

Building Looks, General Color, Look Creation

During some downtime I decided to try to refine the film look even further. At a certain point it’s starting to become about the minor details. I’m starting to notice nuances in color overall. Using a Blackmagic Film to Arri LUT from Juan Melara is a great starting point, but I’ve found that I needed to balance the image even further. A couple of samples below, along with a video showing the before/after.

The Film Look

Look Creation

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.

Look Analysis: Cyan Skies

Look Creation

The Hollywood films I have been drawn to since I first started watching movies generally have a strong color palette with great use of color, with the color grade enhancing those elements to really make them pop. These movies feel glossy and special to me and speak to me as a cinematographer (regardless of the story).

One element I came across when studying films to try to mimic their color is the use of cyan in the skies. Once I started seeing this pattern, I couldn’t unsee it. One thing to note is that this isn’t a given for all films – it depends on the look of each film – but still a pattern nonetheless. Some are more pushed than others. This pattern is sometimes tied to the teal orange look, but not always is associated with it.

Some examples I’ve noticed in varying degrees of saturation/luminance in the skies, usually always pushing blue towards cyan:

The Wolf of Wall Street
Sicario
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
The Judge

The main takeaway for me after recognizing this pattern was that I had another element in my images I could think about shifting the color to. I look at it as another tool in my arsenal as a cinematographer to utilize for the feeling the film is trying to create, vs. a blanket rule to apply to all footage.

Here’s some a screen shot from a project I shot with a comparison between what is captured on camera compared to where the image could be pushed. It starts with Arri Log-C converted to Rec.709 using Resolve’s Color Space Transform tool. Here is the transform with no other color applied – you could basically say this is ‘out of camera’. It’s not bad, but it feels incomplete. It also feels a little magenta in part of the sky:

Arri Log-C to Rec.709

Using Resolves Curves tool and just making an adjustment in the Hue vs. Hue tool to push blue a little towards cyan yields a subtle look in the sky without pushing too hard.

Hue Vs Hue, pushing blue towards cyan

If I wanted to go for a really obvious look, it would be a combination of pushing all of the Hue Vs tools – Hue, Sat, and Luminance. To me this feels a bit heavy and I likely wouldn’t go this far, but you can start to see how just pushing this one element completely changes the feeling of the image. One must also be careful of other blue objects in the image as they will be affected by the adjustments. This feels like something you’d get from a random LUT pack online 🙂

One of my mentors, Waqas Qazi, has repeatedly commented on work I’ve submitted to him for comments on and tells me to keep it as simple as I can. The more I dive into color, the more I’m seeing that when I focus on one element using as few tools and adjustments as possible, a lot can be done with a lot less work. It’s sometimes tempting to try to add tons of nodes to feel like I’m doing work, but often times images don’t need or require that much work applied to them.

The comparison:

Fortunately, these cyan sky changes are easy to apply across platforms as well, and not limited to just Davinci Resolve. It’s totally possible to do this in a workflow in Premiere Pro for editors who are dabbling in color as well. Find out how to learn these skills for Premiere Pro at https://purecolor.teachable.com

White Wall Grades

General Color

There have been many projects in the past where as a cinematographer one has to guide a portion of the post production. One of the major considerations is of course, the color grading process. It’s been my experience a lot of editors do not have experience doing anything beyond the basics of white balance and perhaps some contrast control. I was recently inspired by work Tom Poole did on Bad Education and it reminded me of this project I worked on years ago when I was still learning the outcome of not providing a color notes for post production.

The director gave a reference to another film whose office had a bluish gray tint. In Hollywood productions, it’s easier to swing this way because there’s budget for production design to paint the walls and bias it towards one color for better separation. On low budget indie films, this likely won’t be the case the majority of the time. So the color grade can come into play here.

The interesting thing about Bad Education is that I could see the office walls were white with a little bit of color mixed in. This let me go back and see that I could implement this on a past project.

Here’s the rough cut from the editor. It was originally shot on RED and converted to Rec.709:

Luminance Balance:

Then a white balance to get back to a neutral position in the color space:

From here it’s clear the skin tones are super pale. Therefore I pulled a qualifier for the skin and brought it to the skin tone indicator and boosted the color in the lows and mids.

From here another luminance balance:

Then using a reference frame I grabbed from Bad Education, I matched as closely as possible the tone in the walls. This will give the white walls some separation with the actors:

From here I passed the skin qualifier in a Layer Mixer node and brought the skin luminance down to match the reference point.

Adding 35mm grain finishes the look: