There are countless variables that come into play when attempting to achieve a filmic look with digital source footage. Lighting, lensing, dynamic range, and color rendition all play a huge role in making our footage look more cinematic (or filmic if you will), and those are the primary areas most of us are focused on. But like many creative tasks, when it comes to the film look – the devil is in the details… And going the extra mile is always mandatory.
Many filmmakers will pair vintage glass with a high dynamic range camera, and use a combination of LUTs and film grain in post to achieve a filmic aesthetic. Depending on how the footage was shot, lit, and which camera was used, these steps in production and post can go a very long way on their own.
Even when following all the usual protocol though, there’s often something about the footage that still feels inherently digital. It can be a challenge to identify or articulate exactly what it is, but it is clearly felt on some level by every viewer.
More often than not, this X-factor can be chalked up to a singular detail in the image that gives it away as digital. And while there could be many potential culprits at play; skin tones, color contrast, or black levels for instance, in my experience 9 times out of 10 the issue involves highlights.
One of the most identifiable characteristics of film is the subtle highlight rolloff that transitions seamlessly from well exposed areas of the frame to hot spots that are blown out/overexposed. Although some digital cinema cameras handle highlights quite well, the vast majority don’t, and even the best digital cameras still can’t perfectly replicate film in this respect. Digital blow-outs look harsh and synthetic as overexposed areas clip directly to white with almost no transition. This is in stark contrast to film which delivers a more pleasing, subtle, blooming effect in the overexposed areas.
The good news is, even digital footage shot on a low dynamic range camera (with lots of clipped highlights) can be remedied in post with a simple curves adjustment. The basic idea is to bring the white levels/highlights down to make any blown out areas appear softer, and more natural.
As an example, take a look at the image below and note the sidelight on the talent’s face. While it’s not fully clipping to white, the highlights do look quite harsh –
To mitigate this, we can add a simple curves adjustment in DaVinci Resolve (or any editing/grading software), that should be somewhere along these lines –
We’ll then add some saturation to the highlights only, by using a Luma vs. Saturation curve. This brings back color information that may have been muted after the highlights were reduced –
And finally, we can push a touch of warmth into the highlights to help them blend in better with the rest of the skin tones, and pull down the shadows a little bit for some added contrast. This is our final image –
The difference is subtle, but stated above – the devil is in the details. Small adjustments like this go a very long way in giving digital footage the extra touch that’s needed to fully realize a filmic look.
For a more clear example of what our adjustments are doing, here is a side by side comparison of the model’s face, before and after –
For those of you that are running DaVinci Resolve, you can also use the “Soft Clip” feature in place of a curves adjustment. It will effectively give you the same results, but is often faster and more intuitive to work with.
You can use the “High Soft” slider to increase or decrease the effect, and the “High” slider to adjust the threshold, allowing you to very specifically dial in the effect. The settings are on the bottom right of the curves panel –
Whichever technique you use – curves or soft clip – be careful not to overdo it. Like any other adjustment, going too far with the effect will be counter productive, especially when dealing with blown out areas on someone’s face or skin. Reducing a bit of the clipped areas is great, but taking it too far will drain the highlights from the skin, and leave the actor with a dull, lifeless appearance.
So for those of you that are as picky as I am when it comes to highlights, give this technique a try and let me know what you think! Be sure to leave a comment below once you’ve tried it out…
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!