16 Tips to Make Your Video Look Like Film
In my young career, I’ve received some brilliant agency storyboards from my Executive Producer. Whenever this happens, I hunker down at my desk in the office and brainstorm a treatment. This is the fun part. This is when I earn my money. I spend hours trying to come up with ideas that will make the ad better than it is on paper. When I’ve come up with striking visuals and a narrative arc that I would be proud of, I ask her what format we’re shooting in. I can’t count how many times my hopes and dreams have been crushed when she says, «HD.»
Arggghhhh! There goes the beautiful vignettes. Gone are the gorgeous colors and textures.
Dealing with increasingly low budgets on commercials and music videos, I’ve found myself forced to use video many times. Over the last few years, my cinematographer friends and I have almost perfected the art of making video look like film.
In the land of film wannabes, DEPTH OF FIELD IS KING. Depth of field is the distance in front of and behind the subject that appears to be in focus. The shallower the depth of field, the less focused the objects around your subject will be. DoF allows you to shape the composition of your frames by selecting what areas will be in focus. This aides your storytelling and art direction. And it just looks better. There are instances though that you would want deep focus like for really wide shots.
DoF is usually the first dead giveaway that you’re shooting video. That’s video’s weakness. Everything is in focus. But how do you get shallow depth of field?
The following are techniques we’ve used and I swear by them.
CAMERA SET UP
Shoot Wide Open — The wider the opening of the camera aperture, the shallower the depth of field. The aperture size is specified by the f-stop. The higher the f-stop, the smaller the aperture and the larger the depth of field (Remember that inverse relationship!). Think about your eyes (which are essentially nature’s most advanced set of lenses), when you squint to look at a distant object (reduces aperture), you can see that it’s sharper. When your pupils dilate (aperture open), things get blurry.
Okay, enough of the technical talk. Just remember the inverse relationship: High F-Stop, Small Aperture, Large Depth of Field. We want the opposite: Low F-Stop, Large Aperture, Shallow Depth of Field.
Use the Long End of the Lens — Zoom in as far as you can go and move the camera back. Although you won’t quite get the same composition because you’re changing the focal length of the lens, it will be easier to defocus the background. However, using a longer lens does not necessarily mean you will get a shallower depth of field.
24P — In this day and age, I would never shoot anything interlaced again. 24P cameras mimic the way images are captured on film. I won’t go too much more into this. This topic has been beaten to death since the Panasonic DVX100 came on the scene. JUST SHOOT 24P!
Diffusion Filter — Throw a piece of glass over the lens. No, not just any glass. More specifically a diffusion filter. You can use Promist or Black Diffusion from Tiffen. These filters soften up the image a little and saves you from the harshness of video. As a side benefit, your actors will love you. 🙂
Adjust Shutter Speed — Video is usually set at 1/60 shutter speed. Film records at 1/48. So if you want to emulate film, obviously shoot at 1/48. Doing so adds a bit of motion blur to the images, which is a good thing since video is inherently very sharp.
Gamma — A camera’s sensitivity to the bright and dark areas of a scene is called gamma. Film provides a much wider latitude between the bright and dark areas. Video doesn’t. That’s the reason video’s bright areas blow out quickly and the dark areas lose detail quickly. More advanced video cameras allow you to modify the gamma up to a certain extent. Stretch it a little bit to get closer to film.
Film Lens Adapter — As much as possible, I don’t shoot video without a film lens adapter. I just recently switched loyalties from P+S Technik over to Letus. The great thing about the Letus is that it’s not quite as light hungry as the P+S. And if you’re shooting video, you most likely don’t have the budget for too much lighting equipment. Besides, the Letus is much much cheaper than the P+S. If you can afford to rent Zeiss Ultra Primes, go right ahead. I use either Ultra Primes or the Zeiss ZF set I own. But a set of Nikon lenses should suffice.
Use Proper Composition — Learn the techniques of proper composition. Just pick up any photography book and you’ll discover how simple it is to make an image much more powerful and dramatic by just composing it slightly different. Keep the «Rule of Thirds» in mind each time you compose.
Use a Dolly, Crane, or Jib Arm — Fine, renting a crane is expensive. Well, at least use a dolly. Dollies can be rented cheaply. I’ve done the wheelchair thing but frankly it’s just not as smooth as a well-oiled dolly on tracks. A dolly move adds a bit of production value, something you won’t see in a home video. If you can get a boom, so much the better. Any type of «professional» camera moves you can add gives your work a sense that it is grander than just a guy running around with a handheld camera.
Use Proper Lighting — A popular myth in shooting video is that you don’t need as many lights as in shooting film. The cinematographers I’ve worked with have always used «film lighting» practices even when lighting video. Use the «Three Point Lighting» method. Use a fill, key, and back light. If you have more lights, go with four points by lighting the background. Video has very shallow contrast range (blows out easily). You need to light properly to balance out the contrast. Control lights with silks, gobos, cookies, flags, and bounce boards. These can all be home made with just some cardboard, aluminum foil, etc. Because of video’s crappy contrast range, avoid shooting against bright backgrounds. You will lose detail fairly quickly.
Professional Audio — People forget that images only make up half the movie. The other half is sound. Well-recorded and mixed audio makes a huge difference on how watchable your material is.
Use Magic Bullet — A few years ago, Red Giant Software came out with this remarkable software. This is almost a must have. It allows you to manipulate your images into almost any look you want. Try out their presets. These are often good enough with just a little tweaking.
Use Letterbox — This method is somewhat of a cheat. If you’re camera shoots native 16×9, then by all means use it. If it doesn’t, then frame for 16×9 in your shoot and just throw on a letterbox in post. Use masking tape on your monitor and LCD screen to give you the proper dimensions. This is crucial otherwise you might end up with some shots framed for 4×3 and some for 16×9.
Color Grade — No matter how good your cinematographer is, his work will still need to be graded. I have found that crushing the blacks gives video a more dynamic feel. The image becomes more aesthetically pleasing. Adding a bit of warmth and diffusion also helps. Don’t go overboard though as you can easily make the grading look noticeably «touched up».
Place foreground and background images — Part of art direction is shaping what goes into the frame. Every frame is composed of 3 elements: the foreground, the midground, and the background. Many novice filmmakers focus only on the midground (where your actors are) and the background. This often results in flat images. What if you throw down a potted plant in front of the camera? What if you’re shooting through a window or steel bars? Make sure the foreground is out-of-focus enough so it doesn’t distract from the main scene (the midground). That is, of course, unless your main scene is happening in the foreground.
Blocking — Move your actors away from the background if possible. Doing so will allow you to defocus the background. If you’re doing an over the shoulder shot, you can also cheat this by moving the actors away from each other. The farther objects are from each other, the easier it will be to get a shallow depth of field.
SO THAT’S IT. BUT DON’T FORGET!
It’s still all about content and story. If you can’t hook your audience into the story, they won’t care that you shot a beautiful piece of art. That’s why some of the best reality shows are still better than some of the best shot films.
I hope you have learned and enjoyed from these snippets of advice I have given. It took me and my staff lots of trial and error to get things right. Believe me, it totally sucks when you get back to the editing suite and you find the grid lines of the diffusion filter on the screen. 🙂 As with anything, practice makes perfect.
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