One of the most common goals for filmmakers and DP’s today is achieving a film look when shooting on video. I’m often asked “which digital camera will look the most like film?”, or “how do I color grade my footage to look filmic?”. The truth is that there is not one single thing that you can do that will magically make your footage look like it was shot on film. There are a number of key variables that you need to get right in order to get the most filmic looking footage when shooting digital, and below I’m going to break down the more important elements that you should take into account. And keep in mind, while any of these suggestions will help out on their own, it’s really only when they are all used together that you can achieve a film look.
1 – Depth Of Field
Many new filmmakers think that having a shallow Depth Of Field (DOF) is the single most important element in achieving a film look, hence the popularity of DSLR’s and other interchangeable lens cameras. For those of you that are new to this, DOF refers to the amount of the image that is in focus. Traditionally, feature films have made use of a shallow depth of field to selectively focus the attention on a person or object. Take a look at the photo below and note the areas in focus and those that are out of focus, drawing your eye in to the important part of the frame –
While I do agree that being able to achieve shallow DOF is necessary, it’s not by any means the most important variable on this list. In fact, since the early days of cinema there have been many films that used deep depth of field to their advantage as well. One of these films is arguably the best film of all time, Citizen Kane, which has some of the deepest DOF shots I have seen to date –
Ultimately DOF is a stylistic choice that you have to make based on the look you want to achieve with your film. With that said, the majority of feature films today utilize a shallow DOF on many shots, and if you want to get that look you’re going to need a camera and lens that can achieve it. For starters, DSLR’s or any other interchangeable lens cameras are typically quite good at achieving this look. The larger your sensor, the shallower your DOF will be, so a Canon 5D for instance would have a shallower DOF than a Lumix GH3 as the sensor on the 5D is larger. The other variable to consider is your lens choice. Longer lenses will always give you a shallower DOF than wider lenses. And fast lenses (for example lenses that are F2.8 or lower) will also help out with achieving this look. The more wide open you are on your lens, the shallower the DOF. So for instance if you are shooting on a 50mm lens at f1.4, your image will have a more selective focus than the same lens at f8. Be careful not to overdo this though, because one of the giveaways of DSLR footage today is footage that has too much of a shallow DOF. You want to find just the right balance.
2 – Frame Rate
This is an easy one – Shoot at 24 frames per second. Or at 24p on your camera. Since the earliest days of film, movies were shot and projected at 24 frames per second, and viewers have grown accustomed to this frame rate. Make sure that your camera is always set to this mode, unless you need to shoot at a higher frame rate to achieve slow motion. For example you may want to shoot at 60 frames a second so you could later slow it down to 24 frames a second while editing, and your footage will then play at 40% of the speed.
The main giveaway that your film was not shot at 24p is the lack of motion blur. Video footage is very clinical and sterile looking, and can be almost too perfect at times. Older video camcorders only shot at 59.94i (which is about 30 frames a second) and it created a look that was very realistic looking, but not cinematic. If someone were to walk through the frame for instance, every last frame of the footage would be perfectly clear. This sounds like it would be ideal, but it’s actually not. Real film exhibits motion blur when an object is moving through the screen, and in order to get that organic motion blur on your footage, be sure to shoot at the right frame rate. The film “The Hobbit” was shot at 48 frames per second and as a result many viewers did not enjoy watching the film. It looked too much like video and not enough like the surreal world of film. Here is a shot from “Pirates Of The Caribbean” exhibiting some normal motion blur:
3 – Shutter Speed
Make sure that you use the 180 degree rule when setting your shutter speed. This means when you set the shutter speed on your camera, set it to exactly double that of your frame rate. So if you are shooting 24p, make sure your frame rate is at 1/48 or as close as possible. Many DSLR’s only have a 1/40 or 1/50 setting, so experiment with those two options and see what looks best to you. Most cameras will work better with 1/50, but some (The Lumix GH3 for example) actually seem to work better at 1/40.
Having the wrong shutter speed can be pretty detrimental to your footage. If it’s too slow (1/20 for instance), your footage will look like it is strobing and ghosting as images trail off throughout the screen. And if your shutter is too high (1/100) your image will look like it’s been speed up, almost as if it’s in fast forward. It’s important to note that there are times that you do want to set the shutter speed at an unusually high or low setting, and even when shooting on film, this is a technique that is sometimes used to get a desired stylistic effect. But for 95% of what you shoot, the chances are you’ll want to stick with the 180 degree rule. This also means that if you shoot at a higher frame rate for slow motion (60p let’s say), than you will need to set your shutter accordingly. In that example it would be set at 1/120.
4 – Camera Movement
Not enough filmmakers seem to pay attention to this, but camera movement is definitely one of the most important aspects of getting a film look. Camera movement can include everything from sticking your camera on a tripod and deciding to have no movement at all, to going handheld, to putting your camera on a jib and getting a crane shot. There isn’t a specific movement that will make your film look more cinematic, but the more importance you place on camera movement, the more cinematic your film will feel. Some indie films suffer from very poor camera movement and may contain scenes that are partially shot handheld and partially on a tripod. This will make your film very difficult for your viewers to watch.
Also, make sure that you choose the right type of camera movement for each scene. If your scene doesn’t call for handheld work, than don’t shoot it that way. It will only cheapen the look of your final product and make the audience feel less connected to your piece as the visual elements are not properly tied together with the narrative storyline and flow.
5 – Don’t Blow Out The Highlights!
A big giveaway of digital footage are blown out highlights. Since most digital cameras have much less dynamic range than film, the are prone to clipping or blowing out the bright areas of the frame. On film, when this happens, it’s actually fairly pleasant to look at, and many directors, like Stephen Spielberg for example, actually intentionally will blow out some shots to get a stylized effect –
Unfortunately on video, blown out highlights look really bad. The light doesn’t bloom or roll off the same way that it does on film, and your image starts to look very harsh and synthetic. To deal with this, just make sure that you aren’t overexposing anything in your frame – unless it is something so bright (like the sun or a lightbulb) that it has to be blown out. Bring your exposure down far enough that the bright areas of the frame still have detail in them, and that will already put you in a better place. What may happen then though, is your subject or foreground may be too dark in some areas. You then have the choice of either leaving it as is, and allowing your subject to be in silhouette, or alternatively you could bring in more light to fill out the scene and lift up the shadowy, darker areas.
6 – Framing
I can’t stress enough how important proper framing is to a cinematic image. So many of the things on this list (which are all equally important) get completely thrown out the window with bad framing. If you have a well lit shot with a nice shallow DOF, but the subject isn’t framed right, than everything else you’ve done gets diminished. Great framing not only will make your video feel more filmic, but it will make your film better as a whole. The framing of an image can tell a story in itself. Just take a look at this frame from The Kings Speech, where a very unusual framing was utilized to create a sense of emptiness in the characters life –
7 – Lighting
Great lighting can make or break your shot, no matter what medium you’re shooting on. That said, certain formats – especially film, are much more forgiving with poor lighting than digital. Some low budget filmmakers are tempted to just pick up a digital camera and start shooting without thinking enough about the lighting of their scenes. Doing this can be another huge giveaway of a very low budget and amateur production. You by no means need to spend a huge amount of your budget on lighting if you don’t have the money for it, but you need to pay as much attention to proper lighting as possible. Whether you’re shooting with a large lighting setup or just using bounce boards and practical lights, it’s the attention to detail that counts. No amount of color grading will ever be able to save a shot that is just poorly lit, so make sure that your shots are not only exposed properly, but also lit in a way that sets the mood and tone of your scene.
I’m not going to delve too deeply into specific lighting techniques as there are too many to address here, but check back soon as in the coming weeks I will be doing a lighting tutorial that will go into more detail on this.
8 – Color Correction
In post-production and specifically while color grading, you can do a lot to make your video look more filmic. Ideally you’ll want to decide on a look before hand and then bring your footage into some grading software (I recommend DaVinci Resolve, but anything will do really) and start to tweak your settings accordingly. A big mistake that I see often is amateur filmmakers will over-do the color on their film. They will go in and apply a heavily stylized look to every shot in the film, making it look more like a music video than a feature. A good starting point when coloring is to make your footage look as natural as possible. Once you’ve gotten your white balance and exposure to the right spot, you’re already most of the way there. Most films (action and horror genres aside) are actually not that stylized. They usually have very accurate colors and aren’t covered in a wash that makes them feel unnatural. With that said, feel free to add warmth or cool down your footage as needed to suit the mood of the film, just don’t go overboard.
You’ll also want to consider your black levels and contrast. Film can be noticeably lower contrast than video, and you can do a lot in post to achieve this look. First off you could try to simply reduce your contrast setting (but don’t go too far with it), and then lift your black levels just a touch. Make sure that your blacks aren’t too “crushed” (or dark) in the wrong areas, and you will be well on your way to finishing your film look. Take a look at this shot from Upstream Color which was graded quite well to look more filmic, and has some lighter black levels –
You can also use Color Correction LUTs to help you achieve this type of result more efficiently.
UPDATE: I recently released 6 Cinematic LUT Packs, which have been carefully designed to help you achieve an organic, filmic look in post-production. They work well with footage from any camera, and I highly recommend them for filmmakers and cinematographers looking to achieve bold color results, while minimizing time in post-production. Be sure to check them out by clicking here!
Below is a sample video of 3 of the LUT packs from the “Genre Edition” in action. Take a look –
9 – Film Emulation
This is not a necessary step, but one that I feel can really put the icing on the cake after you’ve followed everything else on this list. Film emulation is a technique that literally allows you to apply the look of a specific film stock to your footage, adjusting the colors and grain to match that of your chosen film stock. Like color correction, you don’t want to go overboard with this technique, but when used tastefully it can make a world of difference. There are many LUTs, software programs, and plugins available that can help you emulate the look of film on your digital footage, so be sure to experiment with different options to find the one that is right for you.
Here’s a quick before/after sample of a shot before and after applying film emulation with grain –
Although there is no exact formula to get the “film look”, by following all of the above steps you will be headed in the right direction. Watching a movie shot on film feels like you’re looking into a parallel universe. It almost looks the same as real life, but there are these subtle differences that allow it to feel more surreal, dreamier and pull you as the audience member into it. Doing this digitally is achieved by a combination of many factors, starting with how you set up your camera and finishing in the edit suite.
Be sure to check out my article on 10 Tips For Shooting With Natural Light, as much of the article applies to getting a cinematic looking image as well.
Below is a teaser for my latest film “Brother Sister”, which I used these techniques with:
Check back soon for loads of new articles on the cinematic look, lighting tips, color grading techniques, and of course new Cinematic LUT Packs!
And for more content like this, be sure to follow me on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter!
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It is very interesting to see how much of what makes a movie look distinctive comes before it’s even filmed, like framing and lighting it well. However, I also like how color correction can by itself make the audience feel the mood from a scene just by looking at it. Reading all this helps me appreciate what filmmakers go through to create stories the way they do.
Hi Noam, i like the way u shot Brother Sister. May I know what lens or lenses you used to shoot your film?
Thanks! It was shot with Rokinon Cine DS lenses, and a Tokina 11-16mm.
For an extremely long time I’ve wondered about how movies get that “movie” look. I’ve asked so many people, looked in so many places, mostly resulting in people not knowing what I’m talking about. Coming across this article was an extremely huge sigh of relief for me. I do photography mainly, but this information will come in handy with a few side projects I’m developing. Thank you so much.
Any time, Mike! So glad you enjoyed it, and thanks for visiting.
I loved this article.. Thank you very much. I have a Sony A7s II and Sony Zeiss 35 f1.4 and Sony Zeiss 50mm F1.8.
The camera has an option to shoot in Super 35mm or Full Frame on these lenses. What do you recommend I set my camera to achieve the most cinematic look?
Also any other tips using Sony A7sII for a film look?
Thanks! In terms of super 35 vs full frame – it’s really a personal preference thing. I personally like S35 over FF because it is more of a motion picture standard (FF is for still photography), but many people swear by full frame. I would experiment with both and see which suits your aesthetic the best.
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Nice article. Actually,am new in film making which I consider my hobby for a couple of yrs now. Currently am basically into commercial filming. Like event filming eg wedding. I have a canon EOS Rebel T6s DSLR camera. Can this camera archive DOF as u explained ?if yes how do I go about d settings?I normally shoot at 1920X1080. My problem is. I dnt really understand what you mean by shooting in 24fps or 30fps. Please throw more light on this.
Hey There! You can definitely achieve shallow DOF on a Canon Rebel. You just want to make sure your aperture is fairly wide open (in other words, the F-stop on your lens is set to a low number, such as 2.8), and you are using a focal length that isn’t extremely wide. Anything from 28mm onwards should work well – although there are certainly ways to achieve shallow DOF even with wide angle lenses.
24fps just refers to the frame rate (how many frames per second). Try to select 24 as that is what is used for cinema. 30 is used for television. Hope this helps!
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Thank you. Where is a good place to shop for a used camera that films 16:9 and that best lends itself to achieving the things you outlined in this article?
I would try eBay or Amazon – there’s tons of stuff out there!
I would like to add to my most recent reply another couple questions:
I read your more recent article on how the filmic look only can really be achieved by film. So how might I do this? That is, how does an amateur film maker film with film…and then edit it? Thanks.
Hi Dan – to clarify, you can get VERY close to a film look with digital. It just won’t ever be identical… But to answer your question, I would start off by shooting some 8mm film to get your feet wet as it’s cheap and easy to learn with. Contact a store like Pro8mm in Burbank that can sell you film and scan the film back. From there, you can edit the film digitally.
So I went with a new DSLR instead of a true film camera, but I’m glad I looked into film so thank you for the direction. My question now is how to easily, if possible, know where my image’s edges will be after I crop my 16:9 footage into 1:2.39? In other words, how do you do this, i.e. know as you film from a 16:9 camera what will truly appear in your scope movie after editing? Thank you.
Great question Dan – some cameras allow you to show “markers” on your LCD screen when recording. These are essentially horizontal lines on the top and bottom of the frame that give you an idea of where the image will be cropped. If your camera doesn’t have the ability to do this, you can also use an external monitor that has the ability to use markers (or frame guides). Or you can go really low-fi and put some black tape on the top and bottom of your monitor! I’ve have to do that myself in the past when I’ve been in a pinch…
Thank you so much, you answered a question i had
Glad to hear Stevo!
Thank you. This is a blessing, finding your webpage. I have been seeking professional-amateur help in cinematography.
I want to film a movie in Cinemascope or the like. I intend to find a camera that can accomplish this ratio. However, I don’t know all that I would like to before deciding on a camera for the job at hand. One concern of mine is that I could arrive at a ratio that matches the original Cinemascope ratio but not actually be filming in such a way that has the especially wide view. In other words, it seems some cameras that offer a “scope” lens capability merely cut off the top and bottom of what normal cameras do.
My other major criteria for my choice in camera is that I can imitate the “film” look you have written of.
Please direct me as you may.
Thanks for the kind words Dan! To generate authentic 2.39:1 footage, you need to shoot with anamorphic lenses. In other words, you would use anamorphic glass on a camera that records to 4:3, and then you would de-squeeze the footage in post to achieve the full cinemascope look. That said, the vast majority of 2.39:1 material that you see is likely shot in 16:9 or 17:9 and is later cropped in post. This is a great option if you don’t want to deal with the extra workflow associated with shooting anamorphic, and it’s a technique I use all the time.
Love this article! Do you have another article specifically aimed at getting a beautiful, black and white Breathless-style feel? Huge thanks!
Thanks Vanessa! I haven’t really tackled that subject yet, but that’s a great idea. I’ll keep it in mind for a future article.
I have a Canon 70D and am wondering what lens you would recommend for cinema.
I’m thinking of a good zoom or prime for no more than $1,500.00.
I was looking at the Tamron 15 30mm lens. It doesn’t accept nd filters.
Have you checked out a used Canon 24-70? That’s not actually a cinema lens, but it’s a nice sharp native Canon lens that will have you covered in most situations. Alternatively the Rokinon Cine DS kit is a good option for a more cine-style package.
Hi Noam! I really liked your article. The technical details really help narrow down the scope of the “perfect movie”. As a low- to zero-budget filmmaker, I’ve always felt editing was a very critical part that could mask flaws that came about during filming. Do you have a preferred/favorite editing software (preferrably free) that could really help? Or is it the editor’s skillset and meticulousness the real key? Thanks!
Thanks Jaime! You’re right that creative editing can enhance the look of any project, as you have the opportunity to hide mistakes and use only the best material. It really is the editors skill set, experience, and eye/attention to detail that matter the most. That said, for a free editing software you might want to consider DaVinci Resolve 12. Alternatively, FCP X is pretty affordable at $299.
In the 3 section on Shutter Speed there is an error, just thought you might like to know
“Make sure that you use the 180 degree rule when setting your shutter speed. This means when you set the shutter speed on your camera, set it to exactly double that of your frame rate. So if you are shooting 24p, make sure your frame rate is at 1/48 or as close as possible.”
SHOULD READ SHUTTER SPEED OF 1/48
Good catch! Will need to fix this. Thanks…
Good, Now I can make a film like a professional. I was pitching for have a camera, Digital camcorder so I could shoot the film anywhere where I think it should be on tube. Finally i bought one and your article give me additional energy to pump up the desire.
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Brother Noam this article is verry for me.
Can you please tell me. What is best setting for canon 700d to shoot short film?
Haven’t used the 700D really myself, but as long as you are shooting in 24p, using a flat picture profile, and the highest resolution you can in camera (1080), you are good to go!
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what about cropping(black strip up n down)….is this good for film..and how do they do it…
Yes, the widescreen look is definitely ideal for film. I recommend adding a letterbox to your footage (either 1.85:1 or 2.35:1) as those are film standards, while 16:9 is a TV standard.
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Your article is great. I was just wondering if it does the same with my digital camera that has 15 and 30 fps that I have. I don’t have my favorite director to look up to, only actors and I yet have a movie editing software. I would love to make movies as a hobby.
If possible I would suggest shooting on a camera that can record at 24 frames per second. 30fps is useable (and you can convert it to 24p in post), but I would recommend looking into a used camera that shoots at 24p, since that’s one of the biggest factors in achieving the cinematic look.
so I cant make a film on an Ipad or a phone ?
Haha! You can do anything you set your mind to!
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thanks for details but i need to know more about dof can i get mail or something coz m having a problem in colour grading when i grade films it looks awsome on my projector with good dof but when i see after dcp on 35 big screen it look like open blacks no dof ya but in some shots…why is like that m not getting …..
Hmm, not quite sure what your issue is – but you might need to be working from a calibrated monitor. Hope this helps!
Great post. What camera are you using for the footage in Brother Sister? Are you using a DSLR?
Thanks a lot Ed. I shot with the Blackmagic Cinema Camera (EF Model).
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Great Article– Starting to film my own projects.. Getting all the info behind everything. Expect a “multi-facial” soon!
Thanks Nico, congrats on getting up and running!
I LOVE THE WAY U TEACH CAMERA BUT I DON’T UNDERSTAND( DOF)
Thanks Isaac – I’ll have to do a post soon on DOF as I’ve been asked this before. Check back soon!
I disagree with shooting in 24p I have the GH3 and I like shooting in 60fps, I do not like how the video lags, I really hate that look. Everything else I agree with. Just my opinion.
Fair enough, to each their own… 60p looks super sharp and crisp on the GH3, but is less filmic in the traditional sense… That doesn’t mean it doesn’t look good though!
Good! So, what do you recommend if I am going to shoot family events like weddings to be seen just on home TV through the DVDs. Shooting at 60p or 60i? regardless the cinematic look, because 24p on domestic TV sets…?
If the destination is BlueRay, then 24p would be ideal?
Thanks a lot. Greetings from Peru.
24p can always be converted to 60i, and it will still maintain a more cinematic look if you do it correctly. That said, for simplicity (and if the 24p look isn’t that important to you) it is probably best to shoot at 60p. I always prefer 60p over 60i, as the interlacing looks pretty bad on a computer screen and de-interlacing is just another step that you might not want to take.
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Nive tips, some of them I was doing, I have some videos of weddings to do this weekend here in Sao Paulo – Brazil, I will test all, thanks! Gaeta, Sergio Brazilian Photojournalist at http://www.amazingfotos.com.br
Thanks for sharing Sergio!
Very good article. I definitely learned a few things! 🙂
Glad you enjoyed it Leon!
Great article. I recently purchased a GH3 and I just wondered two things.
1) Using shutter speed at 1/40 instead of 1/50 creates more cinematic blur in your opinion? Both in 24 and 25p?
2) What color profile and settings do you shoot on? Big debate online but Im currently on Natural with contrast and saturation set to zero and sharpness and noise reduction at -5. I use this in order to get the most accurate emulation with filmconvert.
Thanks for an insightful article!
My Pleasure Pippa, thanks for visiting!
Great article and very informative.
I liked the reference to “Citizen Kane” when providing examples of deep dept-of-field techniques. With the invention of Cinemascope, another great example of this is in John Ford’s “The Searchers.” Everything is in focus from your subjects in the foreground to the sweeping vistas of the four fingers in Monument Valley. It’s not just a stylistic thing either. Ford was a great visual storyteller and from the very first frame he introduces the family all in one very wide-shot, all with varied spatial relations. We know exactly who these people are from this shot. Perhaps a testament to not only deep depth-of-field, but his experience shooting silent films.
The shot from “The Searchers” I was referring to is this:
Thanks for stopping by Ryan, and that’s a great reference point. I will definitely need to re-watch The Searchers – it’s been a long time. Love the still that you pulled.