I would first like to point out that I am highly unqualified to be writing an in depth filmmaking guide for two reasons:
- My filmmaking experience revolves mostly around researching stuff on the internet and impulsive homemade clips.
- I am not good at writing.
A bit ironic that I am writing a guide about filmmaking despite the lack of writing and filmmaking skills. The good news is that I really enjoy watching movies and shooting videos with my Canon 60D. It’s the thought that counts, right?. Anyway, I hope you enjoy this guide even though it is written from an amateurish filmmaking perspective.
Anyone can make digital look like film
The main objective of this guide is to get a “film look”. But I think getting the film look is not enough. You need to get the film feel. It’s my goal to explore all the variables that make up the movie goers expectations. For instance, when I watch a movie I expect it to have a certain aspect ratio, a familiar style of camera work, believable acting, and about a 100 other things. There are a lot of variables that go into making stuff look like it belongs in Hollywood, and if you really want your work to approach the Hollywood level of look and feel you will most likely need a team to help you as well as lots of time, planning and money. If you are like me, you don’t have the necessary resources for creating a commercial look. I figure most people are in the same boat I am in; short on money, short on talent, and often unmotivated. The good news is you can still make your footage look and feel really good. It just won’t look and feel as great as commercial Hollywood films.
If you stumbled upon this guide because you are looking for a way to achieve a film look, chances are you have a camera already. This guide kind of assumes you own a camera that can shoot 24p and has manual controls. If you don’t have a camera with 24p video mode and manual controls then achieving a film look will be much more difficult. Today you can buy used DSLRs for under $400 that have all the required functions for achieving a basic film look. If you are short on cash, I would recommend buying a used Panasonic GH1 (hacked), GH2, or Canon T2i.
The importance of audio
In my opinion, the single most important variable in creating impressive video is audio. I know that sounds wrong, but you know what I mean. Audio gives you a ton of control over how your audience feels. Furthermore, good audio introduces realism into your video, enabling you to fool your viewers into thinking that they are watching something cinematic and not amateurish. When I watch videos on vimeo, typically people record some footage that looks decent, and then slap on an audio track and call it a day. The end result is quite monotonous. When I watch videos on Vimeo, I often get bored because it’s the same thing over and over again. Nice footage, and absolutely no attention paid to audio. It’s flat out uninteresting. If you are going to cut off half of my senses by slapping on a music track, the video footage better be extraordinary! If you take away only one thing from this guide, I pray that it is an appreciation for good audio. Forget the video. Forget the color grading and the cinematography. If you want to set yourself apart from your peers, nail the audio.
Where do you start? By understanding the film look variables
Okay, that last part about forgetting the video aspect of filmmaking was untrue. Video makes up a big slice of the pie. Allow me to list a bunch of stuff that in my opinion makes up the film look pie:
- Fitting music: Does the music or score blend in with the film? Or does it take you out of the story. Allow me to let you in on a huge pet peeve of mine. Somewhere on the internet someone must have shared a free music track for people to use. The track sounds like a cross between music that could be used for an action movie trailer and music that could be used in a World War II film. It’s epic, traditional, manly film score music (if that makes any sense to you). Well somewhere around 2011 everyone decided it would be cool to use this style of music in their videos. Filming a car chase? No problem, lets put some WWII/trailer sounding music in. Filming a scene that is completely unepic and unsuspenseful? Lets not put fitting music in. Lets put WWII/trailer sounding music in. Do you have some lens flares you want to show off? WWII/trailer sounding music is perfect for lens flares.
- Quality sound effects: I guess no sound effects are better than bad sound effects? But ideally you can get your hands on, or create, some semi decent sound effects. Attaching believable sound effects to your footage is actually much simpler that it sounds. I will expand on this later.
- Clean dialogue: This is tough. And it costs a decent amount of money to get right. Oh, and it usually requires an experienced boom operator.
- Stabilized camera footage: Image stabilized lenses, tripods, sandbags, steadicams, flycams, vests, dollys, rails, and editing software for stabilization in post. Wow, this can get very expensive very fast.
- Camera movement that is not dumbed down: Here is another pet peeve of mine. The assumption that the audience is mentally incapable to think for itself and must therefore be spoon-fed. Like, you don’t always have to show me everything.
- Conventional camera angles and movements: this is probably the toughest element of filmmaking to get right. I honestly have very little advice on this particular subject. My recommendation would be to either take some film making classes that focus on cinematography, watch films from a cinematography prospective or buy some books. Personally, when I watch films, I get too caught up in the story to pay much attention to camera work. So if you are looking to learn good camera technique by watching films, I suggest you mute the audio. Or, you can hire a cinematographer if you have a budget to work with.
- Organic look: you want video to look as if it living. Digital cameras have a tendency to make stuff look cold and dead. A great deal of this guide is going to focus on achieving an organic look.
- Appealing color grading: people love to crank the $%^*# out of their video. High contrast, high saturation, annoying tint, blown out highlights, crushed darks, and on special occasions a soft blur to make the footage look dreamy. You do not need to abuse your footage like this in order to achieve a film look. Without a doubt you will want to color grade your footage a little bit so that you achieve a look that seems fitting. But people often go well beyond any sensible threshold and make their footage look like crap.
- Proper lighting: adding light to your scenes will result in better colors and better image quality. Optimizing sunlight can make your footage really pop as well (shoot in the evening, etc..). For interiors, I would suggest lighting the whole room with a ton of diffused light. Once you do that, as a bonus, you can light your subjects. Cheap DSLRs have lots of issues when they shoot video in low light, or when they shoot in a high dynamic environment so adding lighting in harsh conditions is usually a good idea.
- Interesting sets and locations: this is a great way to add production value. Watching short films or skits of people in their late 20’s sitting around their apartment can get a bit boring after a while. Filming in a grand setting adds to the Hollywood film feel.
- Realistic special effects: It’s the same deal as it was with sound effects. Having no special effects is better than having poor special effects. If you don’t know how to sell the effects, it’s better to exclude it from your film. Or you can imply that something crazy happened by cutting away from the action area and selling the effect via audio.
- Believable dialogue and acting: Allow me to revisit those poor 20 year olds who always use their apartments as film sets. How come they never act or speak like normal 20 year olds? Something always seems to be off. Maybe it’s because the dialogue is way too clever. The acting and dialogue in these skits r short films is always a bit off, and leaves a very creepy feeling in the pit of my stomach.
- An interesting story: This is just a bonus. You do not need an interesting story to get a film look or film feel.
- Good pacing: Poor pacing can really hamper a film. When you edit footage, ideally it flows at a good rate and the viewer is not stuck or accelerated through scenes at an unnatural pace. I don’t know how to teach this as it is subjective and is not scientific, so I will not bother addressing it.
In my opinion, if you can competently execute the variables in the above list, you will get a film that will most likely have a commercial film look. The film might suck and get a low score on Rotten Tomatoes, but goddamnit at least it will look and feel like a film!
Continue to my other pages about getting a film look with your DSLR:
- Film Look Examples
- Criterion Collection Examples
- Choosing the Right Lenses for Getting A Film Look (Currently under construction)
- Visual Work Flow
- Camera Setting (I’m currently writing this)