Independent filmmakers are constantly striving to make their low-budget films emulate higher budget productions in any way that they can. One of the most common goals for directors and cinematographers is to recreate the ‘film look’, (which is certainly something I can relate to!). But unfortunately in the quest to find this look there have been some really unpleasant and cheap looking techniques that have become over popularized in recent years… The first was the overuse of shallow depth of field that exploded a few years back after the 5D MK II first was released, but most recently it is the milky black look that is destroying the color on so many filmmakers works of art.
For those of you that don’t know what I’m referring to when I say the ‘milky black look’, I’m simply referring to a color grading technique that is characterized by shadows that are crushed to black (while color grading), and then lifted up so that the black point of the image is never truly black. The areas of the image that should be completely black and contrasty are now somewhat muddy, smokey, or milky. The look can work well in certain circumstances, but for the most part it is being completely overused and misused by many amateur DPs. Take a look at this shot below for an example of the look. First is the raw shot, then first grade (with crushed blacks), and then the final shot with lifted blacks:
Why has this look become so popular? As we’ve already touched on, it is often associated with a more cinematic or filmic look as this technique softens up the image in the same way that certain types of older film stocks would. It is also a particularly easy look to achieve as once you’ve figured out how to do it (which is really only two steps in any basic color software or NLE), consistent results can be achieved quickly and easily. In a way, this may all sound good on the surface, but in reality it is not – in fact I think it’s just about the least filmic thing that you can do to your footage in many scenarios.
Let’s step back for a moment and address the notion that milky blacks are associated with the ‘film look’. This really could not be further from the truth. Yes, there are some film stocks that are very low-contast and produce this milky look, but the vast majority of DPs that are still shooting on 35mm stay far away from these stocks unless they are doing something ultra-stylized, where it is used purposefully. Also, saying that lifted shadows are characteristic of the film look, completely disregards all of the countless variations of film stocks. There are so many different types of stocks, all of which have their own unique look and feel to them and all of which are suitable for different stories. Just because the low-contrast look is the easiest to achieve does not mean it is the best technique for any given story.
A few years back, everyone that owned a DSLR would shoot wide open to get an extremely razor thin depth of field, believing that this would give their work a more cinematic look. Ironically, it branded their work as DSLR footage because it was taken too far. Productions would shoot at F1.4 on a full frame camera and they would end up capturing shots of their actors with only one eye in focus. It was really a terrible look that allowed filmmakers to be lazy by using shallow DOF to hide poor production design and composition from their viewer by relying on selective focus. With the exception of a very few rare feature films that shot in this style intentionally, this aesthetic is not in itself characteristic of a cinematic look. Shallow DOF is nice, but razor thin ultra shallow DOF is way too much most of the time. It simply was taken too far, and the exact same issue is happening now with the milky black look.
Here’s a bit more food for thought on the topic… High level DPs and directors today that are actually shooting on 35mm film are most often shooting with extremely clean film stocks that have nicely balanced contrast. Think back to recent films like The Master, Django Unchained, The Fighter, or any other higher budget film production of recent years. They all have beautiful contrast, black levels in the right places, and are extremely cinematic.
Even on films like Black Swan which intentionally use 16mm film to get a more gritty look, the DP and colorist are still conscious of their black levels to ensure that there is still a nice amount of contrast in the image. The vast majority of movies that are shot on film today are using extremely modern and clean looking 35mm film stocks that aren’t really that far off from high end digital formats such as ARRI RAW in many regards.
Great cinematography happens when purposeful choices are made by the DP and Director in order to serve the story in best way possible. There is no one-size fits all approach to the craft, and every project should be approached uniquely, and intentionally. Some productions may require a cleaner more clinical look, while others might be best served with an underexposed and muted color palette. There isn’t any right or wrong choice here, as long as the visual and artistic choices that are made are chosen based on their specific relationship to the creative project, and not simply out of convenience.
With all that said, there is nothing wrong with the milky black look when used correctly. I actually like this look quite a bit when it’s used right, and I myself have used it from time to time – but only when it is pertinent to the story. The film Martha Marcy May Marlene for instance makes excellent use of this technique, but the reason it works is because the aesthetic of the murky world that the filmmakers created calls for it. They didn’t simply choose to shoot and color it that way because it would be easy or because other people are doing it.
So if you are going to use this technique, make sure that your project truly calls for it, and that you don’t go overboard. Even just lifting the shadows slightly can give you this look, so don’t get tempted to take things a step too far and degrade the image!
For more in depth cinematography techniques, be sure to pre-order my Guide For Capturing Cinematic Images With Your DSLR by clicking the link below! Or click here to learn more about it!
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!