on August 22, 2014

The Film Look: 11 steps to turn DSLR footage into “Cinema”

The biggest reason we shoot on DSLRs instead of camcorder is to replicate the film look.
In many ways, ALL the decisions we make as far as hacking the camera, lens choice, settings and gear is because we want to create a cinematic looking image. There is no shortage of things can can help achieve that, but this article os going to concentrate on the big ones- the easy ones. Using a Technocrane or an aerial overhead shot will do the trick, but aren’t always easy to keep on hand.

Before You Shoot: Setting up your camera
1. 24 Frames per second
Or 23.976 (close enough). The reason for the fraction of a frame has todo with 3:2 pulldown and some other complicated stuff. For now, its not important. For now, just shoot at 24 fps. If you are reading this, then you know how to use a computer. You probably are not one the handful of people that had to “get accustomed” to film.
You grew up with films as part of your cultural heritage. Movie studios were already around. Talkies had already been established. Movies in color probably do not seem like a gimmick.
If you’ve ever seen “old-timey” movies, you’ll notice that the action often seems sped up. And if you’ve ever played charades, you know that the gesture for “Movie” has a hand moving a crank. When movies were first made, they were shot like this- with the camera operator approximating film speed and the movie house approximating playback.
When movies went mainstream, a standard needed to be adopted and 24fps came about. (If only the TV standards in the US and Europe could sort out the NTSC/PAL thing.)

2. 180 degree shutter angle
This is a big one. When you shoot on film, you have a shutter that opens to start exposing the frame to light, and then closes to stop the exposure. In order to achieve this at a high speed (compared to still cameras back then) they used a circle that would revolve to expose each frame as it passed in front of the lens.
The shutter angle is calculated in relation to film speed. If you were shooting 24 frames per second, and each shutter exposure was 1/24th of a second, you wold have what is known as a 360 degree shutter angle. Each frame is exposed for 1/24th of a second, and as 24 frames that pass through each second, giving you a 360 degree shutter angle The frame gets exposed for the entire length while it passes through, and there is lots of motion blur. This is a look that we have actually seen in the last generation or so- mostly in home video. Because of that, we tend to eschew this kind of look- it feels amateurish.
180 degree shutter angle gives the kind of motion blur that we are used to seeing in the movies. That means we have to set our shutter speed to MANUAL, and set it to be one HALF of the time that the it takes for a frame to cross the sensor: 1/48
Since most cameras don’t have a 1/48, using 1/50 is pretty darn close, and you’d be hard pressed to notice the difference. The nice thing is, with Magic Lantern, EXPOSURE OVERRIDE lets you dial in your frame rate, and you can go ahead and choose 1/48 of a second. (Don’t get too hung up on this, though. I promise that the difference is negligible.)

3. Slo-Mo
Remember this principle when you shoot for slo-mo. When you change your frame rate to 60fps, make sure you adjust your shutter speed to 1/120 (or 1/125 if your camera only has that. Again- don’t get too hung up on this.)
Manipulating the shutter angle is something you can do for creative effect as well. The best-known example of this is from “Saving Private Ryan”. Spielberg used a 45 degree shutter angle during the beach scene. This gave each frame less motion blur so the images didn’t blend from one to another. The frames seemed jittery and frenetic and helped convey they chaotic atmosphere of war. Really beautiful filmmaking decision.

During Shooting
4. Stabilize the Camera
Home movies also suffer from handheld use and lots of hand motion. This reminds us of the family trips to DisneyWorld and reeks of amateurism. This is also used to great effect for “found footage” shots. At the very least, use a tripod.
Get a fluid head, this will make your pans so much smoother.
Get a monopod. This is an easy way to start moving around your camera. They’re cheap. They have a small footprint and will let you get different and creative shots.

5. Move the Camera
I know this seems to counter to the point above, but camera moves are incredibly cinematic. Great camera moves can make a career (see Michael Bay).
Pulitzer prize winner Vincent Laforet recently did a Directing Motion workshop where he goes through the effects and motivations of the different types of camera moves. There is a lot of film theory tied up in this subject, and I will be doing a series on different camera moves in an upcoming series of posts.

Get a slider. These are a great way to add camera movement and much easier than laying down track. Even those cheap skater dollies will work.

Get a shoulder rig: these are great for handheld work and require little set up. It’s a good thing to have in your back pocket when you’re burning daylight and you still need more coverage.

Get a Steadicam: Every since Rocky, we have all seen what what Steadicam can do. Long, floating shots. Following or leading your hero down a hallway. The cheaper ones aren’t nearly as good as the expensive ones. Get one that has micro-adjustment knobs. Balancing these is a pain in the ass. And using them takes a bit of practice, make sure you put that into your prep time. Steadicam operators are very well respected in the film community because there is a great amount of talent and physical effort that is required to pull this off convincingly.

If you don’t have a mobile rig, don’t worry. These things will come in time, and aren’t NECESSARY for great movies. They are an invention of recent cinema, and movies in the old days, when film cameras were too heavy to carry on a shoulder rig, they used lots of pans and cuts to achieve the same thing.

6. Shallow Depth of Field
I almost didn’t mention this one. It gets overused a lot, and is one of the first things DSLR filmmakers start exploiting. You do this by having a fast lens, i.e. a lens with a very wide aperture. f2.8 or faster will do the trick. Along with this, racking focus will give a very cinematic effect. Again, use this judiciously. Don’t bully the viewer into seeing what you want. Entice them.

Use anything else. Anything.
Disable Auto gain control through Magic Lantern and plug in a mic. Get it to about 3/4 of the way up and make sure you don’t get the audio in the red.

8. Edit on Movement.
This will help hide your cuts and keep the action moving.
9. J and L Luts
This just means your audio goes over from one cut to another, making an “J” or a “L” in the timeline. This does a lot to add continuity to your scene and will make shots shorter, making a sequence more driven.

10. Color Correct
Taking your rough cut through a color correcting program will do wonders. Having a trained colorist do it right will go a VERY long way. But if you don’t have the reources, just adding an adjustment layer and putting some curves on will push your image a little further. A creative LUT (Look Up Table) will open you up to a whole different world. It’s why Amelie looks different from Terminator Salvation and Inside Llewyn Davis. If You haven’t checked out the Osiris LUTs from VisionColor, I highly recommend them. Just wow.

11. Film Emulation
Film Convert has an impressive piece of software that will emulate real film stock. You can adjust the textures of the films, as well as how much it affects the way it exposes color. You can even adjust the amount of film grain as well. It’s really a fantastic piece of software, but it can a bit pricey for some.

A cheap way around this is to find some film grain and put it on a separate layer. Change the composite mode to overlay or screen, and then adjust the opacity as desired.

There are many factors that go into a “Film Look”. Understanding he vocabulary of filmmaking and its history is a great start, but these are some simple changes that you can do immediately to give you a jump start to getting that coveted quality of Cinema.