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Do We Really Want Our Digital Footage To Look Like Film? Or Are We Actually Chasing The ‘Alexa’ Look

As many of you know, I am someone that is particularly obsessed with the ‘film look’. Much of my directorial work is narrative based, and as such I am naturally drawn to a more cinematic look as it is often conducive to the dramatic stories that I like to tell. And although I am far from the only filmmaker that is chasing this aesthetic, I would argue that many directors & DPs are really chasing more of a high end digital look – even if they don’t know it.

In some ways, I came up in both the best and worst time for indie-level cinematography. When I was first getting started (in high school and my early 20’s), miniDV cameras were all the rage, with the Canon XL1 and Panasonic DVX100 being the 5D’s and BMCC’s of their day. This was an amazing time for low/no budget filmmakers as these cameras allowed for an economical way to shoot reasonably high quality video, and in many cases the results were even compared to Super 16mm film. The only problem was – it wasn’t Super 16mm film. Had I (or anyone else in my generation) grown up ten years earlier we would have lived and breathed film, and rather than trying to emulate the look of it, we would simply have it, and be free to focus on the bigger picture – namely the content itself. We often forget just how accessible and common film was, not even that long ago, and in the 90’s and early 2000s even low budget productions (docs, music videos, etc.) would often still opt to shoot on film as it was widely available.

Arriflex 16SR3

While I have always loved the aesthetic of motion picture film, perhaps what drew me to it above and beyond everything else was the fact that it was always just barely out of reach. I started working semi-professionally right on the cusp of the digital video revolution, and always thought to myself – the next project will be shot on film. But that next project never was shot on film, as digital technology continued to evolve and innovate at an alarmingly fast rate. That time was bittersweet for me as a filmmaker (as I got to enjoy the benefits of digital, while shooting film quickly became a pipe dream), but thankfully digital cinema technology progressed quickly enough that before long I was content with shooting digital. Productions on the 5D or other DSLRs started looking great, and before I knew it I was working with the RED one, and felt like I was finally getting close to the ‘film look’… Even though I would later learn that it was an impossible task.

The Film Look

About a year ago, I wrote an article titled ‘How To Make Video Footage Look Like Film’. In the article, I outlined 9 key factors for achieving a film look – from depth of field to lighting, to color correction and everything in between. While all of the points that I detailed are certainly relevant for achieving a ‘filmic image’, they are just as relevant for achieving a ‘cinematic look’, and I would argue that those are in fact two separate things.

It’s impossible to deny that films like ‘Gone Girl’, ‘Skyfall’ or any of the other countless Hollywood level features that are shooting digitally, are cinematic. Although they weren’t shot on film, the filmmakers treated the process (on both a creative and technical level) in very much the same way that they would have if they were shooting film, with adjustments inevitably made throughout the process to accommodate for the digital format.

gone-girl shot on digital

skyfall shot on alexa

The result of course, are final products that are beautifully produced, shot & colored and that average audience members would never know from 35mm motion picture film. In fact they are so well crafted that the majority of up and coming filmmakers probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference from film either… However, this isn’t because these movies actually look identical to film, it’s because audiences (including professionals in the industry) have been accustomed to believing that cinematic and filmic are the same thing, and I would argue that they are very different.

The Only Way To Get The Real Film Look

If you’re truly after the film look in it’s most literal sense of the word, there’s only one secret to achieving it – actually shooting film. While you may be able to come close enough with digital that 99% of viewers will never tell the difference, if you are one of the 1% that does know the difference and is truly after the film look, then you’re never going to be satisfied until you actually pick up a film a camera and use it. It’s a harsh reality, and one that thankfully only affects a dwindling number of us that truly care about the look of film. But if there is one thing that I’ve learned after years of shooting digitally – no matter what you do, it is never going to be a perfect match for film.

The fact of the matter is that film is film and digital is digital. We can make better digital cameras every year that come closer to the film look (and on some technical levels may even exceed the capabilities of film), however it will always be a different format. Although it might feel disheartening to think that we will never be able to shoot with digital cameras that emulate the exact look of film, the key in my opinion is to embrace both formats. For many of you that are reading this, you might feel that you want to achieve the film look, but in reality… You might want the cinematic look – which can very much be achieved digitally, especially with cameras like the Arri Alexa.

It wasn’t until recently when I started shooting 35mm film again (for stills photography) that I realized just how skewed many people’s perspective on the film look actually is. After showing a number of people some raw scans of my slide film (not telling them that it was shot on film), I had two people on separate occasions comment on how the photos could be colored to make them more ‘filmic’.

One of the 35mm shots:

Noam-Kroll-Shot-On-Film

The irony of course, is that these pictures were taken on film! Which should be the very definition of filmic… And as funny as it was to me to hear those comments, it made me realize that the average person (even in the industry) really doesn’t know what film looks like anymore. We have been so conditioned to watching films shot digitally on cameras like the Alexa, that we don’t always realize what we are truly chasing after… Don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the Alexa look, as produces some of the nicest digital images in the world today. However to a seasoned DP who has been shooting film for their entire career – they would know the difference instantly. They are two different formats for two different types of productions.

We can always look to digital photography to see where things will go (quality wise) with regards to video. It’s obviously simpler to capture a single high quality raw image, than 24 of those images per second which is why photography will always be a couple of steps ahead with regards to resolution and overall image quality. The fact that digital and film (on a photography level) still look so vastly different today – even with 50+ megapixel cameras, goes to show that innovation has taken us in a new direction, and we need to embrace that.

So when you’re making your next film – really consider whether or not you are going after the film look, or if you are going after a digital look. Because if it’s the latter, I would highly suggest that you save yourself some time and effort and embrace digital rather than fighting against it. Taking your 5D/Red/GH4 footage and putting it through FilmConvert doesn’t make it any more filmic. Milky blacks don’t make it filmic either. Either does adding excessive amounts of grain (especially considering how low-grain most modern film stocks are). So if you are really determined to shoot on film – then go for it. The industry needs more people like you…. But if you simply want a cinematic look and enjoy the high end digital aesthetic, then adjust your process to maximize your results within that format.

UPDATE; I just released my custom Film Grain Packs – now available in both Clean & Dirty variations  – that allow you to add real Super 35mm, Super 16mm, and Super 8mm grain to your digital footage. Check them out here!

About Author

Noam Kroll is an award-winning Los Angeles based filmmaker, and the founder of the boutique production house, Creative Rebellion. His work can be seen at international film festivals, on network television, and in various publications across the globe. Follow Noam on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more content like this!

8 Comments

  • Felipe
    February 6, 2017 at 2:28 pm

    I’m definitely aiming for the alexa look, and not the film look. Is there any process I can use to make my gh4 look like alexa? I really want alexa colors. The dynamic range I can work around, but I need those colors. Is there a lut that converts gh4 footage to alexa color scheme? It should be easy, right? It’s just colors.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      February 9, 2017 at 8:42 pm

      Unfortunately it isn’t as simple as just adding a LUT, since both cameras will look different under different circumstances. They also both capture different colors/tones, etc. as a result of sensor differences. The best thing you can do is color grade every shot individually to try to get it as close to the Alexa look as possible. Also avoid Cine-D on the GH4 as that will mess with the skin tones in a way that can limit your ability to get the look you are after.

      Reply
  • Lauran Deitrick
    October 1, 2015 at 7:57 pm

    Do We Really Want Our Digital Footage To Look Like Film? Or Are We Actually Chasing The

    […]In practice, adjusting the aperture one stop above or below the sweet spot will not greatly affect image quality on a noticeable scale. […]

    Reply
  • ty stone
    January 6, 2015 at 4:05 am

    Hey, love your site. What about the Digital Bolex look. I find that one of the best image indie cameras out there. I feel it gets over looked by a long shot. And it has that Arri Aelxa “look”.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      January 11, 2015 at 9:32 pm

      Thanks a lot, Ty. I also love the look of the Digital Bolex. I think the usability of the camera and general quirkiness has kept a lot of people away from it, but as a whole there is no denying the images look incredible.

      Reply
  • Anthony Vescio
    December 30, 2014 at 1:31 am

    I remember shooting the shit out of my XL1, and then seeing what Sodenberg did with his made me want to throw mine against the wall!

    I also think everyone chased the film look because of the fear of your film not being respectable enough. I don’t think that is the case anymore, but late 90s early 00 hell yes.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      January 11, 2015 at 9:23 pm

      Definitely – great points!

      Reply
  • Xiong
    December 24, 2014 at 8:32 am

    I personally really do love the film look over digital, not knocking digital at all because it excels in so many other ways that film can’t. I love the look it gives(film) without all the clean up that happens afterwards: the grain, chromatic aberrations, global shutter. That was one of the reasons when the digital bolex was out, I was among the people who praised the image coming off it. I prefer the CCD sensor over CMOS any day, it makes the image feel more fuller and real, like when you look through a microscope/telescope: life with all its imperfections. Compared to digital that feels almost like an emulation of life, too clean. I think one way to help hide this is with shooting with anamorphic on digital cameras. This is all personal, as im sure the audience will not even be able to tell the difference. When it comes to scale, budget wise, digital will always be the choice, along with which format to show the film.

    An example I’ll use is these 2 trailers:
    Beyond the black Rainbow, shot on film:
    https://vimeo.com/37719915
    and Blackhat, shot on Digital:
    http://youtu.be/tKyuDgygvqc
    Both different tones and genres but the feel that the images bring in my opinion is noticeable to me. As a director with free reign and a large budget, I would choose film. Also an interesting aspect is that an independent film has a better impression on me then one by Michael Mann, an acclaimed director. This is all visually of course, as the actual story/storytelling is another matter.

    As for that milky black look, I dont think its very filmic really. Its more of what “we remember it as” compared to what it actually is. Its like when we think of people in the 30s-50s we kinda see them in sepia tone.

    Again, all of this is personal. As when I make home projects or narrative stuff I like to think that I am making them for myself first and then to the audience, so its only natural that I go with what I think is the best look.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      December 28, 2014 at 9:12 pm

      Thanks for chiming in Xiong! So glad to hear that the film look isn’t lost on you either… The more of us there are fighting for it, the better. Appreciate the links as well.

      Reply

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