Digital Cinematography Tips: Making Digital Formats Look as Film-Like as Possible

In making digital video resemble the look of film, the art of cinematic lighting is perhaps the most important issue. Much of how movies work relies on mood and perception, and lighting is at the core of this.

Film lighting relies on contrast, modeling, shadows, dappling, and generally eliciting mood (warmth, beauty, danger, or whatever the director wants for the scene); digital cinematography is more likely to approach the look of film if it is guided by the same principles. To make a digital production look as if it was shot on film, it has to be lit like a movie. The flat, high-key look that is so common in soap operas is therefore to be avoided at all costs. Sometimes a high-key, flatly-lit look is appropriate to the story being filmed, but it is never conducive to achieving a film look with digital cinematography, so it is a difficult decision to make.

Lighting DV to look like film

It is therefore imperative to hire a DP who knows how to light DV in a cinematic way. Ironically, cinematic lighting for video is actually no different, in principle, to lighting celluloid – you simply have to adjust the contrast ratio to match the significantly inferior dynamic range of video. (The contrast ratio is the ratio of the highlights’ brightness to that of the shadows.) You also have to be extra careful to avoid muddy, low-contrast lighting, and at all costs avoid overexposing the highlights.

The image above is taken from my first film — I added some notes on how to light digital video for a film look.

I shot the image above with a 2/3” MiniDV camcorder (the JVC DV700).

This is as much a problem with high-definition video (HDV) as it is with standard definition video. Even the high-end HD cameras used by major productions have problems with blown-out highlights and ugly, muddy mid-tones; this is why the overwhelming majority of high-end feature films are still shot on 35mm film.

Rodney Charters, DP on many episodes of “24,” stated that digital video’s poor handling of high-contrast lighting conditions makes it unsuitable as an acquisition format in episodic TV, in which there simply isn’t enough time to spend on making video look passable. Hence he still prefers film, not just because it looks better, but because it is actually easier to light. It is interesting to compare this with the widely held (but totally incorrect) view that video is easier to light than film. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The biggest shortcoming of digital video is its rendition of highlights, mid-tones and shadows – it’s a world apart from celluloid. The surest way to make video look like video is to blow out the highlights. The transition from “brightly exposed” to “completely white” is very sharp in video and looks incredibly ugly, regardless of whether you’re shooting a movie or newsreel footage, so make absolutely sure that the highlights do not blow out. It is better to have correctly exposed highlights and slightly underexposed mid-tones than to blow out the highlights for the sake of bright mid-tones. In a documentary situation, expose for the highlights and let the shadows take care of themselves; in a movie situation, light and expose precisely for the look you want!

An excellent way to ensure that the highlights are not blowing out is to use a camera that has the zebra pattern feature. When the zebra pattern is engaged, any area that is overexposed will be highlighted in the viewfinder by diagonal stripes – hence the name.

You should also use a properly calibrated production monitor when you shoot. This is effectively your light meter. There is little point in using a film-style light meter when shooting digital video, because with digital video half a stop can make the difference between a good image and one that is irremediably overexposed, so you have to see exactly what you are shooting – there is no margin of error. Besides, it makes sense to have a proper look at the lighting as it appears on the calibrated monitor, which will allow you to decide whether it is the look you really want. This is a luxury that is not available when shooting on film, so you may as well make the most of it (with film you have to wait at least a day before you can see the developed footage). Video monitors also play a big role in focusing, since they afford a much clearer view of image focus than any LCD viewfinder ever will, and if you are shooting with a 35mm lens adapter, accurate focusing is a big deal.

The use of filters in digital cinematography

Some people advocate the use of diffusion filters to soften the video image and ameliorate the ugly electronic sharpness of digital video. I disagree with this. Diffusion filters may be appropriate in certain special cases, but generally they make digital video look even cheaper. The fact that many soap operas are shot on video with diffusion filters has undoubtedly contributed to the negative viewer perception of diffusion-filtered video.

In any case, you should definitely avoid diffusion filters if you plan to transfer video to film – there is a general consensus among video-to film transfer facilities that the video should be completely unprocessed, as the very process of transferring it to celluloid will confer it a distinctly film-like quality. For optimum results, video that will be transferred to film should be masterfully lit, and that’s it – no diffusion, no deinterlacing, no timing or grading – the transfer facility will take care of that.

A much better way to soften the video image is to turn down the electronic sharpness enhancement in those camcorders that allow it. If your camcorder does not allow it, you should still avoid using diffusion filters and apply slight diffusion in post-production instead. There are some amazing software packages these days that can approximate the subtlety and texture of film very well, making crude diffusion filters obsolete.

Which is not to say that all filters should be avoided. Neutral density filters are extremely useful in reducing the light that goes through the lens, allowing the use of wide apertures in bright conditions, which in turn results in a shallow depth of field. A shallow depth of field is absolutely essential if you want to make video look like film.

Graduated filters can also be very useful. They have a transparent part and a colored part, with a blurred transition in between. They have been used in many movies to darken the sky while leaving the rest of the frame bright, and come in many different colors. Film director Tony Scott used them in virtually every movie he makes. His brother Ridley Scott and Michael Bay also like to use them. Needless to say, if used correctly, graduated filters can make a positive contribution to your digital cinematography.

The use of smoke in cinematography

Use of smoke / haze in cinematography

A powerfully cinematic technique used in film lighting is the use of smoke to create a slight haze and enhance the illusion of depth, as well as to make beams of light visible. Smoke, which is made by fog machines, gives a beautiful texture and mood. It is much more subtle and visually pleasing than diffusion filters, because the degree of haziness is proportional to the depth, which means that objects at different distances from the camera will have different degrees of haziness. I was particularly impressed by the smoothness and coherence of the smoke used in the second half of “Snakes on a plane.” You never see this kind of thing in low-end projects, but you see a lot of it in high-concept movies, and it plays an important part in the storytelling process. Accordingly, smoke can make a big difference in digital cinematography.

To summarize:

1. Light for a cinematic effect – use dappling, shadows, backlight, modeling, pools of light, and other cinematographic techniques;

2. do not use flat, high-key lighting;

3. take special care not to overexpose the highlights – use a camera with a zebra pattern if possible;

4. avoid using diffusion filters as they do more harm than good;

5. consider using smoke to add texture and make shafts of light visible.

Lights cost money and take time to deploy properly, but if you are serious about digital cinematography and achieving high production value you must allow for this.

6 Replies to “Digital Cinematography Tips: Making Digital Formats Look as Film-Like as Possible”

  1. Great overview and some excellent advice here. There is so much controversy over how to make video look more cinematic, whether to introduce artificial gamma curves, latitude and contrast range, when and how to use filters. Most importantly, one must have a basic, fundamental understanding of light and how to use it effectively. No real in-camera trickery can compensate for a poorly lit scene.

    Contrast ratios, lighting continuity, having enough light to expose blacks, not clipping the highlights, three dimensional lighting techniques. These matter most and will apply to the benefit of the shooter across all capture media formats.

    1. I would say “Dated now, fortunately!” — striving to achieve the film look on digital video was an exercise in extreme frustration. High-end digital cameras have solved that problem for good.

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