Chasing the Elusive Film Look

Ever since we started shooting dramatic content on video, directors have pushed to achieve the cinematic qualities of film. Sometimes that’s through lens selection, lighting, or frame rate, but more often it falls on the shoulders of the editor or colorist to make that video look like film. Yet, many things contribute to how we perceive the “look of film.” It’s not a single effect, but rather the combination of careful set design, costuming, lighting, lenses, camera color science, and color correction in post.

As editors, we have control over the last ingredient, which brings me to LUTs and plug-ins. A number of these claim to offer looks based on certain film emulsions. I’m not talking about stylized color presets, but the subtle characteristics of film’s color and texture. But what does that really mean? A projected theatrical film is the product of four different stocks within that chain – original camera negative, interpositive print, internegative, and the release print. Conversely, a digital project shot on film and then scanned to a file only involves one film stock. So it doesn’t really mean much to say you are copying the look of film emulsion, without really understanding the desired effect.

My favorite film plug-in is Koji Advance, which is distributed through the FxFactory platform. Koji was developed between Crumplepop and noted film timer, Dale Grahn. A film timer is the film lab’s equivalent to a digital colorist. Grahn selected several color and black-and-white film stocks as the basis for the Koji film looks and film grain emulation. Then Crumplepop’s developers expanded those options with neutral, saturated, and low contrast versions of each film stock and included camera-based conversions from log or Rec 709 color spaces. This is all wrapped into a versatile color correction plug-in with controls for temperature/tint, lift/gamma/gain/density (low, mid, high, master), saturation, and color correction sliders. (Click an image to see an expanded view.)

This post isn’t a review of the Koji Advance plug-in, but rather how to use such a filter effectively within an NLE like Final Cut Pro X (or Premiere Pro and After Effects, as well). In fact, these tips can also be used with other similar film look plug-ins. Koji can be used as your primary color correction tool, applying and adjusting it on each clip. But I really see it as icing on the cake and so will take a different approach.

1. Base grade/shot matching. The first thing you want to do in any color correction session is to match your shots within the sequence. It’s best to establish a base grade before you dive into certain stylized looks. Set the correct brightness and contrast and then adjust for proper balance and color tone. For these examples, I’ve edited a timeline consisting of a series of random FilmSupply stock footage clips. These clips cover a mix of cameras and color spaces. Before I do anything, I have to grade these to look consistent.

Since these are not all from the same set-up, there will naturally be some variances. A magic hour shot can never be corrected to be identical to a sunny exterior or an office shot. Variations are OK, as long as general levels are good and the tone feels right. Final Cut Pro X features a solid color correction tool set that is aided by the comparison view. That makes it easy to match a shot to the clip before and after it in the timeline.

2. Adding the film look. Once you have an evenly graded sequence of shots, add an adjustment layer. I will typically apply the Koji filter, an instance of Hue/Sat Curves, and a broadcast-safe limiter into that layer.

Within the Koji filter, select generic Rec 709 as the camera format and then the desired film stock. Each selection will have different effects on the color, brightness, and contrast of the clips. Pick the one closest to your intended effect. If you also want film grain, then select a stock choice for grain and adjust the saturation, contrast, and mix percentage for that grain. It’s best to view grain playing back at close to your target screen size with Final Cut set to Better Quality. Making grain judgements in a small viewer or in Better Performance mode can be deceiving. Grain should be subtle, unless you are going for a grunge look.

The addition of any of these film emulsion effects will impact the look of your base grade; therefore, you may need to tweak the color settings with the Koji controls. Remember, you are going for an overall look. In many cases, your primary grade might look nice and punchy – perfect for TV commercials. But that style may feel too saturated for a convincing film look of a drama. That’s where the Hue/Sat Curves tool comes in. Select LUMA vs SAT and bring down the low end to taste. You want to end up with pure blacks (at the darkest point) and a slight decrease in shadow-area saturation.

3. Readjust shots for your final grade. The application of a film effect is not transparent and the Koji filter will tend to affect the look of some clips more than others. This means that you’ll need to go back and make slight adjustments to some of the clips in your sequence. Tweak the clip color correction settings applied in the first step so that you optimize each clip’s final appearance through the Koji plug-in.

4. Other options. Remember that Koji or similar plug-ins offer different options – so don’t be afraid to experiment. Want film noir? Try a black-and-white film stock, but remember to also turn down the grain saturation.

You aren’t going for a stylized color correction treatment with these tips. What you are trying to achieve is a look that is more akin to that of a film print. The point of adding a film filter on top is to create a blend across all of your clips – a type of visual “glue.” Since filters like this and the adjustment layer as a whole have opacity settings, is easy to go full bore with the look or simply add a hint to taste. Subtlety is the key.

Originally written for FCP.co.

©2020 Oliver Peters