Films that have a good film look:
It’s subjective, everyone has their own opinion
So I figured that I’d start off with naming some movies that I think have a distinct, filmic look. They all have a look that takes us away from reality, and takes us into some other world. It is very important to take the viewer away from reality and into the movie through a visual medium. If you have an engrossing story and excellent production value, your film will not be as effective if visually it looks like a soap opera. In fact I know a lot of people would not get into Peter Jackson’s the Hobbit because their attention was focused on the bizarre look of 48p (normally, Hollywood films are shot at a frame rate of 24 progressive frames a second, not 48). The movies I list below certainly have more going for them than just a conventional frame rate. It’s hard to explain why these movies jump out at me. Maybe you will hate how they look, it’s all subjective after all.
In my opinion the two greatest science fiction movies of all time are 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien. If you have not seen them, I suggest you watch them. I have always considered Alien to have the ultimate film look. Right off the bat you notice the anamorphic characteristics; 2.39:1 aspect ratio, and truly wonderful bokeh. Bokeh is the property of a lens’s out of focus area. All lenses have bokeh, but bokeh on some lenses looks much better than on other lenses. Bokeh is very important to the film look, and anamorphic lenses have a special kind of bokeh. Anamorphics like to stretch the out of focus areas vertically. This creates a very distinct stretched out of focus look that is particularly noticeable on unfocused lights. Though the example stills I posted above don’t have much bokeh because of the deep focus. Scott used beautiful yet moderately used anamorphic lens flares, great lighting, combined with a neutral but slightly cool low contrast color grading, to get a very sweet looking style.
Blade Runner is way more stylish than Alien. It features Citizen Kane-like smoke and lighting combos, flashing lights, lens flares, more flashing lights, more smoke, rain, and even more flashing lights. Some people would say this can get tired, but thats what the movie is. It’s a sleepless, chaotic, cold place with a crap ton of flashing lights. Each scene is wildly interesting because of this atmosphere. Like Ridley Scott’s Alien, this movie features all the wonderful anamorphic characteristics minus the lens flares. I always found it ironic that no lens flares were worked into this movie, considering all the insane lighting that is going on. This movie features more energetic visuals than Alien. There is more color, more contrast, and a noticeably distinct effort on noir style lighting mixed with modern sci-fi lighting.
Both Alien and Blade Runner were shot on 35mm cameras, using Panavision anamorphics onto a Kodak 5247 stock. While DSLR shooters can’t shoot on film (the D in DSLR is for digital) you can potentially use some picture styles and LUTs to mimic the look of some film stocks and then add a little bit of grain in post. I will explain what picture styles and LUTs are later on. A much more practical solution to mimicking particular film stocks is to purchase some film grain packages that feature several film stocks.
Like Alien, The Shining as a fairly cold feeling to it, but the colors in this movie are richer. To my eye, the film uses warmish color tones, and has very saturated colors, but somehow feels very cold. I am not sure if it’s the color or the sets that make the film feel cold. I have always equated this movie with the textbook Kubrick look. Rich colors, lots of symmetry and nifty dolly shots. The composition between the shots in The Shining and Blade Runner are very different. The characters in Blade Runner were always framed off to the side so that you could take in the atmosphere. There is very little symmetry in Blade Runner. Kubrick is pretty much the exact opposite, he like to have everything centered and symmetrical in his films. If you have already seen The Shinning, or don’t feel like horror, I suggest you take a look at Eyes Wide Shut. It is another movie that stands out in my mind for rich Kubrick color, and awesome film look.
Movies from the late 80’s and early 90’s:
like Short Cuts, Lethal Weapon, Beverly Hills Cop, The Last Action Hero
While Alien is my favorite looking film, it a science fiction film and so it’s aesthetics may not transfer to other genres gracefully. Cool colors, low contrast and lens flares would seem pretty awful in many genres. Not to worry, because if you cannot go for the science fiction look you have the amazing 80’s/90’s film look to fall back on. Like Alien and Blade Runner, Lethal Weapon used a Kodak 5247 film stock. Late 80’s and early 90’s films, in my humble opinion, set the bar for the ultimate film look. The movies from this era felt very Los Angeles. The streets of L.A are hard to mistake, they have an architecture and landscape that screams at you. When I see it, my brain thinks Hollywood movies. These movies had warm, fairly flat colors. You got the anamorphic properties, combined with classic L.A scenery, combined with a natural organic color grade. I can’t stress enough how much I love the look of Hollywood films around the start of the 90’s, specifically films that were set in L.A and had action.
Foreign movies such as Contempt, Red Desert and Playtime:
Without question the best thing you can do if you want to invest in personal film knowledge and film appreciation is to start watching foreign movies. Unlike Hollywood films, foreign stuff is very creative. Not only that, but many of the greatest films ever made were foreign. In fact, some people would argue that most of the greatest films are foreign. Contempt and Playtime are certainly two foreign films that are considered to be great. Playtime is one of the most visually striking films you will ever watch. It is very tedious, and may be too much for some. It’s more like watching a bizarre, comical painting rather than watching a movie. The color in this film is wonderful, flat, retro. It reminds me of a subdued Technicolor look, certainly not as rich. The look is on par with many 1960’s films. What sets Playtime apart from pretty much every other movie ever made is the amazing composition and artistic sets.
Contempt, visually, is one of my favorite films. The color throughout the movie is rich and bold. But the color is nowhere near the detail-lacking, aggressive crap that is common in today’s videos. Contempt is colorful, but the colors are more pastel like than vivid. It is a look I would only recommend for niche filmmaking. You need to make sure the composition, cinematography and the sets are there before you can be this bold with the grading. Red Desert is along the same line as Contempt. The colors are just as beautiful, only they are more earthly and cold. Antonioni chooses such colors to reflect a cold setting and a detached protagonist. Both of these films pair contrasting colors to make the picture pop. Red on white, or green with orange. I think it’s an important lesson to take away. Rather than cranking up the settings in post, try to make the image striking through composition.
Old Technicolor films:
True Technicolor is pre 1955 Technicolor. After 1955 films were not shot in Technicolor, they were made to look as if they were in post production using a color matrix by Technicolor (Contempt falls into this category). For our general purposes there does not need to be a distinction between pre and post 1955. Technicolor is Technicolor because it looks like Technicolor!
I must say, I love the look of Technicolor, but in today’s day and age I don’t see much practicality in making your footage look like it unless you are going for something artsy. I think going for a subdued Technicolor look is more practical. Most of the famous Technicolor films use a three strip. The three strip process is a fancy way for saying colors were rendered more accurately. Technicolor is very rich and very colorful. As I pointed out above, if you are going to be bold enough to go for a Technicolor look, what you film should be very interesting and fitting. Some movies that define the greatness of Technicolor are The Red Shoes, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, Black Narcissus, The Thief of Bagdad, The Garden of Allah, and The Adventures of Robin Hood. If you are interested in other Technicolor films you can check out a Criterion page dedicated to Technicolor titles.
such as Stagecoach, Lawrence of Arabia, Days of Heaven and Out of Africa
I think there is a difference between film look and cinematic. Cinematic has a grand connotation. If a film is cinematic, I feel it belongs in the cinema. Whereas a film that has a film look can be very plain and dull. A film with a film look simply looks like it may have been shot on film. It processes many characteristics of typical Hollywood films but it is not necessarily considered cinematic.
If I had to name the most influential filmmaker of all time, I would say John Ford. I don’t know film history that well, but I think this is a pretty easy answer for me. Other directors that would be in the running (if I had to answer objectively) are Alfred Hitchcock, Jean Renoir, and Fritz Lang. Of these four directors, John Ford’s style seems to be most grand or, as I call, cinematic. I used to be big on old westerns, and I will never forget the great chase sequence in Stagecoach. As I sat watching the action I couldn’t help but appreciate what an amazing feat it must have been to create such a grand and chaotic scene back in 1939.
This lesson I learned is often overlooked by amateur filmmakers. Go big. Shooting something that is inherently beautiful, or extraordinary. It is amazing how many movies I remember strictly by one or two remarkable scenes. And although the movies I listed as examples are high budget and filmed in exotic locations, you can figure out how to make stuff look cinematic right at home. One of my favorite camera shots of all time is an overhead shot of a parking lot in the film Fargo. I don’t want to spoil the scene, but it’s basically a brilliant composition that seems to be there strictly for art’s sake. I don’t know about you, but I am at the point in my filmmaking career where I am happy if I make some sort of positive impression on my audience. I am not telling very good stories, so if I can work in some cinematic scenes into my films and embed some sort of positive memory in my audience’s brain I will be happy.
It goes without saying that David Lean, who is easily one of my favorite directors, made some of cinema’s greatest epic films. Just watch Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, and Bridge on the River Kwai.
Days of Heaven is a very cinematic film but it is not as grand as Lawrence of Arabia or Out of Africa. Like most of Terrence Malick’s work, the story is quite simple, the characters are genuine, and the film style is Malicky. Days of Heaven has a wonderful film look. Almost the entire film is blessed by warm, soft, sunlight. Many of the scenes occur at dawn or sunset. The setting is beautiful, the wildlife is beautiful, and the compositions are beautiful. The camera work is not as aggressive in this film as it is in his other works. This film is truly a visual masterpiece but for completely different reasons than Alien or Blade Runner.
Unless you live in some sort of pit, there should be something beautiful somewhere within a 30 or 40 mile radius. So go out and find some cool looking buildings, urban settings or natural landscapes that you think will take your footage from ordinary to beautiful. But don’t confuse this “shoot cinematic” idea with writing elaborate stories. An epic story is very hard to pull off. Stick with simple stories with beautiful visuals if you can think more Days of Heaven than Lawrence of Arabia or Ben-Hur.
Goldeneye and Mission Impossible:
Before I wrap this up I need to get something off my chest; I really dig the look of Goldeneye and Mission Impossible. Gosh, not only were those two films great action flicks, but they also had a great film look to them. So there, I don’t hate the look of all “modern” movies. That is, if you consider ~1995 to be modern.
Conclusion about good looking films:
Many of the above mentioned films had great cinematography that added to the beautiful film look. But in the case of the 80’s/90’s action films this is not the case. The ordinary cinematography of those films didn’t take one bit away from the amazing film look. In fact, maybe the plain cinematography added to the film look. Maybe in my mind I expect commercial, “safe” camera movements. You know, camera movement that you usually don’t notice, but always seems to fit. Too often I see indie film makers incorporate unorthodox camera angles, movements, and cuts that seem bizarre. One thing that is certain is that these movies look very real and lifelike. They are imperfect. Simply, they look organic. The colors are rich but not blinding. The colors certainly look real, there is no HDR and no overprocessing. If the color looks cool or warm, it is subtle and not extreme. The dark frames have detail. The films are widescreen and have great anamorphic properties. There is film grain. The camera movements are subtle and stable. Nothing looks run and gun. It all looks slow and thought out. The sets are rich, the acting doesn’t suck, and everything seems to feel right. I hope you enjoyed this page and I recommend you check out my Criterion Collection page which features 50 beautiful film stills.