How a Pro Colorist Uses Film Grain

There’s a ton of conversation in color grading circles about film grain. How to get it, the best way to get it, when to use it, negative film grain vs positive film grain, etc. All this debate can feel overwhelming, but it reveals what a hot topic this is in modern filmmaking.

While I don’t use grain on every project, it is definitely a tool in my creative arsenal that I need to be able to apply well. So in this article, I’ll cover how I impart film grain in my images using DaVinci Resolve and share the principles that guide my process.

Grain is only part of the puzzle

If you’re looking to add film grain because you want your images to feel like they were shot on film, it’s essential to realize that grain is just one piece of the film look puzzle. Ask yourself, “Do the core characteristics of the image feel like a film image, or do they feel fundamentally digital in nature?”

If your image is very low contrast or somehow feels digital, then no matter how artfully grain is applied, the image will never feel credible because its aesthetics do not agree with the aesthetics of a photochemical system. Even if the end viewer doesn’t know that consciously, they know it subconsciously.

So if you add film grain—a characteristic of film stock—but you have other core characteristics that don’t support a film aesthetic, it won’t feel authentic and will feel just slapped on. That’s the worst possible outcome. We don’t want our grade to feel imposed; we want them to feel innate. Let me show you what I mean.

Adding film grain at the Timeline level

Let’s set up our image pipeline in Resolve and give it a film shape before we add grain to the image.

We’ll start by establishing a creative look at the Timeline level of the node graph. Toggle between the Clip node graph and Timeline node graph by clicking the two dots in the center top or by clicking the name dropdown.

Here, I’ve added some look components from my Voyager LUT pack, in this case, some contrast, a tone modifier, and a palette node, but you can also use my free Kodak 2383 LUT or any other well-built film LUT. Since we are working at the Timeline level, these nodes will globally affect every clip in the timeline.

Remember that if we introduce grain as part of a comprehensive film aesthetic, the elements work together in harmony with the image, and the result will feel more organic and more innate.

With a film look established, let’s add the film grain node. Navigate to the Effects tab in the upper right and select the Library panel. Type “grain” into the search bar to reveal the Film Grain effect, or scroll down to the Texture Group, where the Film Grain effect lives.

The best place to add the Film Grain effect is before the creative look components in the Timeline node graph. Film grain should be a unifying element, not something that diverges and shifts depending on nodes in an individual clip grade.

Soften your image to receive film grain

There’s one more thing to do before diving into the grain settings that might sound weird but makes all the difference.

If you go back and look at any photochemical film stock, you’ll notice that the grain is the sharpest element in the image. Therefore, you want the rest of your image to be just a little bit softer than the grain you add. You might not be able to see the difference super clearly, but I promise it’s something that you–and your viewer–will feel. Let’s see how this works.

Select the Film Grain node we just added and hit Shift+S to add a serial node before the selected node. Right-click the new node to twirl down the Gamma submenu, and choose Linear.

Next, go to the Blur panel and slightly increase the radius a few points to create a subtle blur. The grain we add in the next node will be applied to a slightly softer image. This is a good technique to add grain that feels filmic in nature.

Working with film grain presets

With our film grain node set up properly, let’s dive into its settings. First up is presets: 16mm, 16mm 50D, 16 millimeter 500T, etc. Which one do you want? Which one is going to be perfect for your project? I’m going to let you in on a dirty secret. These don’t really mean anything. These are just presets for the parameters below.

If you like one of these presets, and it helps you get what you’re looking for, go ahead and use it. But if you don’t, these are not forensic models built off a particular film stock. These are just sensible presets. If you want to do something custom, you should feel totally empowered to do so.

Here’s a good workflow to get comfortable working with the grain settings. Start by setting Opacity all the way to 1, just to make it really easy to see the effect. Pick a preset that sounds good as a starting point, like 35mm 200T.

Next, play with the Grain Size slider, increasing or decreasing from the preset to get the right feel you want. Then move to the Strength slider to increase or decrease the overall strength of the grain in your image. These two sliders are really the main ones to work with. The Advanced controls allow finer control if you feel you need to, but I generally don’t do much with them.

With the texture of your film grain established, it’s time to back our opacity way off.

Getting grain that feels authentic

I’ll give you my rule of thumb for authentic grain by way of a story. Back in high school, I played the guitar in the jazz band. I’m 16 years old, so I want to rock and roll and let that Stratocaster rip. But I’m playing in the jazz band, so the band director says, “The guitar should be felt and never heard.” While I didn’t like that advice very much as a 16-year-old trying to shred, it’s actually really good advice when it comes to film grain.

My take is that grain should be felt rather than seen. By the time you can really overtly see it and your viewer is noticing it, I think it’s kind of failing. So, in this case, let’s dial our opacity back to around 30%, a level where we are getting something filmic, just not in an obvious way.

Now, if you’re going for a Super 8mm or a 16mm look and you really want to hit it hard, then you may want to go with a coarser texture or a larger grain size. But in general, I try to tuck things in and be just barely noticeable.

Film grain as a unifying force

The last thing that is implicit in what we’ve covered thus far but that I just want to call out—we want grain to be a unifying element. We don’t want it to be a shot-by-shot tailored and tuned thing. That’s one of the biggest challenges that film engineers and filmmakers were trying to overcome for the entire lifespan of film. How do we get less grain in our images? And just as importantly, how do we avoid big jumps in the amount of grain between shot A and shot B?

We want grain to be a unifying element. We don’t want it to be a shot-by-shot tailored and tuned thing.

That’s another reason to place the grain node at the Timeline level so that it hits every image in the timeline with the same type of grain. Then, the grain applies a unifying aesthetic to all of the images, as opposed to being a shot-by-shot adjustment and altering the grain in each.

Grade your images after building a film aesthetic

With an overall film look established, with grain as one part of a comprehensive approach, it’s finally time to grade our individual clips. We always want to grade in the context of the grain because it will change how the images look and feel to you.

For instance, we could say this sample image is bordering on overexposed, but maybe that’s beautiful with the organic, textural feel we’ve just created. Maybe instead of bringing down our exposure to a more normalized level, we actually push it further and let it feel imperfect, more organic and textural.

That’s one way film grain can actually stimulate your creativity and inspire where you might take the image you’re grading.

Putting all the puzzle pieces together

To recap, if you’re applying film grain because you want to create a “more filmic” image, you should be thinking about texture like grain. But if that’s the only thing that you think about, you’re not going to be very successful in achieving that aesthetic. Because the film aesthetic is not just about texture; it’s about contrast, it’s about color, it’s about tone, it’s about all the subtle things that we covered here today.

Grain is a big subject with lots of tools and philosophies, but this is how I think about applying grain in my practice. If you observe the principles I’ve shared here, you will be well on your way to successfully using grain in your projects.

Cullen Kelly

Cullen Kelly is a Los Angeles-based senior colorist with credits spanning film, television, and commercials, for clients and outlets including Netflix, HBO, Hulu, Microsoft, McDonald’s, and Sephora. With a background in image science as well as the arts, he’s passionate about the intersection of the creative and technical, and its role in great visual storytelling. In addition to his grading work, Cullen is an educator and proven thought leader, with platforms including his podcast The Color Code as well as his YouTube channel.