How to Emulate the Look of Film in Any NLE
Celluloid film, and the creation of motion pictures utilizing the photochemical process, has a highly specific and very nostalgic quality for many filmmakers, myself included.
Even in the era of all-digital acquisition and production, getting that “film look” is still a top priority for many directors, DPs, and colorists. Thankfully, even though our workflows are mostly digital now, there are plenty of tools out there to help you emulate that highly sought-after look.
In this article, we’ll look into the past to learn about the photochemical process, and use that knowledge to gain a similar look and feel for our footage. Even though I will be using Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve, the concepts and techniques we’ll explore are applicable to all NLEs.
Celluloid to Digital, and back again
Starting in the late 1990’s, something revolutionary in art of filmmaking began to develop—the creation of the digital intermediate process. Creative filmmakers were scanning their film into a computer, manipulating it digitally, and outputting it back to celluloid film for projection.
But there was one huge problem—predicting how the image would look after being printed back to film was very difficult. The images shown on the bulky CRT monitors did not accurately mirror what would eventually be projected at the cinema. The only solution was to develop a new method for previewing the final image before it was printed to film. Enter film emulation.
By technically and visually profiling specific film stocks, color scientists were able to create specific film emulation LUTs, or Look-Up Tables, which post-production artists could then use to simulate what the final image would actually look like once printed back to film. Most theaters at the time still projected movies from 35mm reels, but as DI began to take hold, the high costs and logistical burden associated with transporting, managing, and caring for 35mm reels became an sticking point in the minds of many.
Rise of Digital Acquisition
In the early 2000s, digital camera technology was quickly maturing, and began to attract the attention of professional users, including George Lucas. Lucas had long dreamed of digital production, and decided it was time to put the rubber to the road for his second Star Wars prequel, Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, which was shot using the experimental Sony HDW-F900 camera system. In fact, Attack of the Clones was the first major Hollywood feature film to be captured digitally, at 1080p HD resolution 24 frames per second, which of course matched the rate used by film cameras.
Digital acquisition became more common over the next several years, with other big-name trailblazers like James Cameron experimenting with the technology. In 2009, Slumdog Millionaire became the first digitally captured feature to receive an Academy Award for Best Cinematography. The next year in 2010, industry heavyweight Arri introduced their Alexa digital cinema camera system, which finally persuaded many hold-outs to join the digital acquisition club.
It’s also worth mentioning that the digital intermediate process had become a lot more sophisticated by that point, allowing filmmakers much more control over the final look of their images during post-production.
Now even with the rise of digital acquisition, many filmmakers still desired the visual qualities they were used to with film. Some filmmakers even lamented that high-resolution digital systems from RED, Arri, and Sony captured images that appeared “too pristine” and “clinical” compared to film. This is when the art and science of emulating the look of celluloid film stocks really kicked into high gear.
Unique Characteristics of Film
Film stocks are incredibly varied and unique, with each different type providing different effects on an image’s color, contrast, and texture. A scene shot using Kodak Vision 3, a modern low-grain color negative stock, will look very different than something shot using Kodak Ektachrome, a classic saturation enhanced color reversal stock. Essentially, each stock has a unique contrast curve and color profile.
To complicate matters further, celluloid film is available in a variety of different sizes: 8mm, 16mm, 35mm, 65mm, 70mm, etc. When a larger film negative is used, for example when Christopher Nolan used 65mm IMAX cameras on his 2014 space epic Interstellar, the color and contrast of the 65mm IMAX shots might mirror it’s smaller 35mm cousin, but the visual texture will vary quite a bit.
Between the two images, you’re likely to see a pronounced difference in sharpness and grain. A larger negative is likely to produce images that have a smaller grain structure and appear sharper when compared directly against its 35mm counterpart. Due to that increased quality, large-format stocks were used for VFX plates throughout the 1980’s and early 1990’s to great effect.
Emulating Film Digitally
Now that we have some background knowledge on celluloid film, let’s jump into how we can emulate, or recreate these unique qualities with a modern non-linear editor and apply it to footage captured on a recent digital cinema camera.
To emulate the unique characteristics we discussed above, we’re going to rely on a variety of tools, including LUTs, curves, plug-ins, and stock footage. That said, no matter which NLE or OS you utilize, you’ll find at least one of the below solutions is applicable to your work.
As a starting point, we’ll be utilizing the following shot courtesy of RED, which you can download here. It was captured on a RED Dragon at 6K resolution, and for the sake of simplicity, processed using REDGamma4 in Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve 16.
Emulating Film Contrast and Color
In order to adjust the contrast and color palette of our digitally captured material, we have several options but we’ll start by using LUTs.
Film Emulation using LUTs
All our favorite NLEs can utilize LUTs right out of the box, with Adobe Premiere Pro, Avid Media Composer, DaVinci Resolve, and Apple Final Cut X (as of version 10.4) all support LUTs seamlessly. Other applications, however, might require a plugin or workaround.
As a starting point for this example, we’ll use a freely-available Kodak Vision Film Emulation LUT from the nice folks at Light Illusion. This LUT was profiled using the very popular Kodak Vision stocks, and it provides an ideal starting point for many film emulation looks.
As you can see in the example above, the waveform scope shows a subtle adjustment to the contrast (bottom-left)), while the vectorscope shows a compression of the color palette towards cyan and orange (bottom-right).
While the film emulation LUT provided by Light Illusion is very useful (and quite affordable!), it certainly isn’t the only option when it comes to emulating the color and contrast via a look-up table. A few other commercially-available options I’d suggest are ImpulZ, Celluloid, KojiColor and Lutify, just to name a few. That said, it doesn’t really matter what you use, as long as it preserves the visual quality of your footage and you like the end result.
Unfortunately, most LUTs are limited in that we can only control their strength (via opacity controls), but not anything “underneath the hood” if we want to adjust the contrast or color of the emulation. In other words, you can turn a LUT on, off, and “split the difference” by applying it at half-strength, but that’s about it. Luckily, we’ve got a few more adjustable alternatives.
Film Emulation using Curves
While it’s usually not as technically accurate as using a film emulation LUT, using curves adjustments can be useful for getting that “filmic” look.
Using only curves, let’s see how we can grade the image to give it a more filmic look. I’ll be working in Adobe Premiere Pro 2019, but this process can be applied using any NLE that has a curves tool.
First, let’s apply a traditional S-Curve to each of the color channels, adjusting for slightly cool shadows and warm highlights. By adding a slight touch of green and blue to the bottom half of the curve, we can add a nice cool tone to the lower midtones and shadows of the image. The exact color of the shadows is completely up to your taste, but I would suggest aiming for something near teal-ish blue.
On top of the curve, adding a slight touch to the red curve while reducing blue adds a nice warm yellow-orange hue to the highlights. Next, we’ll adjust the top of the Luma (or Y) curve to soften the highlights and raise the lowest point slightly to add a soft “matte” quality to the shadows.
On the Hue v Hue. curves, we’ll adjust the hue of yellow to a warmer orange-tinted yellow, green to teal-green, and red to a warmer orange-tinted red.
Each of these curve adjustments are very slight, but when combined, they make a major difference. On the Hue v. Sat Curves, we’ll adjust the saturation for each color to taste, somewhere around 75-90%. And on the Hue v. Luma curve, we’re lowering the luminance (or perceived brightness) of many colors slightly, which makes them appear “deeper” and more vibrant without increasing saturation.
Next up, we’ll utilize the Luma v. Sat curve to neutralize the deep shadows and bright highlights. By lowering the Luma v. Sat curve at both ends, we can obtain clean shadows and highlights. Of course, while we do want our highlights and shadows tinted to a degree, we still want the deepest shadows to be clean black and the specular highlights to be clean white.
Last but not least, we’ll utilize the Sat v. Sat curve to reduce the saturation in the higher midtones to highlights, mirroring the color response of film which tends to hit its max saturation levels in the midtones and stays consistent all the way into the highlights.
Emulating Film Grain and Texture
In order to simulate the changes to grain and texture, we have to go beyond LUTs. Believably simulating the moving grain of celluloid film is far more than a color tweak, so we’ll need to utilize real scanned 35mm film that we can overlay over our graded footage.
If you’d like to follow along, you can download free 1080p 35mm film grain here, thanks to HolyGrain. And if you’d like a bit more variety, I highly suggest the products from CineGrain, RGrain, Rampant Design Tools, and ShutterStock.
To apply the scanned film grain, all we need to do is drag the stock footage clip to a new track in your non-linear editor and set the blending mode to “Overlay”. As most grain clips average a short duration (usually ~15 to 30 seconds), you’ll have to copy/paste the grain clip until the end of your timeline sequence. While some applications, like DaVinci Resolve, offer a more streamlined approach to looping grain, this method will work universally in most NLEs.
If you want to emulate the texture of a film stock size smaller than 35mm, you’ll need to make the grain larger and more pronounced by scaling it up and adding contrast. You may also consider adding a very slight blur to the image, to mimic the fact that smaller sized stocks aren’t as sharp and detailed as larger stocks.
Pro Tip: Less is more with film grain. Use the opacity control until the grain appears natural, integrated and not sitting on top of the image.
This example shows the clip before and after the scanned film grain has been applied. Notice how the added grain influences the color, contrast, and sharpness of the image.
Enter the Plug-Ins
If you’d prefer to use a more streamlined, plug-in based approach instead of using LUTs and stock footage, you’ll love this next part. Some color and finishing focused applications, such as Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve Studio, offer a full suite of effects for texture management, such as Film Grain, Film Damage, and Sharpen & Soften, while other needs some third-party assistance.
Luckily, the awesome teams at FilmConvert, KojiColor, ColourLab and Red Giant have created incredible plug-ins that make the emulation process more streamlined. Let’s take a look at the recently released FilmConvert Nitrate, a complete revamp of their incredibly popular FilmConvert plug-in.
As you can see from the UI screenshot, the developers of FilmConvert listened to user feedback and now provide significant control over the look and feel of the grain simulation. Similar to the previous version, we can select from a wide variety of sizes, emulating stocks from 8mm all the way to 35mm, with control over the size, softness, strength, and saturation of the grain.
Most notably, in this new version, they’ve added a grain response plot (essentially a curve), which allows precise control over how much grain is applied to the shadows, midtones, and highlights with smooth transitions in between.
Also, unlike look-up tables, we have complete control over the film emulation luma and chroma with independent controls, allowing even finer customization of how the selected stock’s contrast and contrast curve is applied to our image.
However, if we REALLY need a look-up table of the created look you designed in FilmConvert Nitrate, you can easily export a 3D LUT directly out of the plug-in, for use in another application or in-camera. While we could take the exported LUT and use that going forward (to speed up the final render), the plug-in previews and renders in real time, so it’s not really an issue here.
Red Giant Magic Bullet Film
Aside from FilmConvert, we will also be taking a look at the Magic Bullet Film plug-in from the fine folks over at Red Giant. As is usual with Red Giant tools, this plug-ins offers a nice variety of controls, while also maintaining a level of ease and simplicity you’ll find familiar if you’ve used other Red Giant products.
What’s unique about their offering is Magic Bullet Film allow you to realistically simulate the photochemical development process in that you have independent control over which negative and print stocks to emulate, allowing for some very creative combinations.
As you can see below, I created a custom look using a Fujifilm Eterna negative printed back to Kodak 2383 print stock. While there are a lot of possibilities for unique looks, I can’t say the same for the film grain emulation. Limited to a single “Grain” slider, you’re able to specify the level of grain, but you have no additional control over that texture. It would have been nice to have a few more independent controls for the grain, such as size, softness and strength options, but it’s not a dealbreaker.
If you’ve made it to the end of the article, you’re officially a color scientist! Well, not really, but hopefully more well versed about film emulation and how you can successfully apply it to your next project. Whatever your chosen method of film emulation, go out and create something awesome!
Header photo credit Mark Todd Osborne, Senior Colorist/Founder of MTO Color