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Behind the Camera: What Is It About Film?

As long as film is around, it will always set the standard for what a theatrical feature should look like By Bill Johns
Beyond the fact that anything shot on video looks like home movies or soap operas, there's something about the "film look" that creates the kind of mood necessary for us to leave reality behind and embrace the fantasy of the movies.

But is it just because it's film? I started out on Super8 movie film which was designed exclusively for home movies before video cameras came along, and no one ever mistook an 8mm film for a Theatrical Motion Picture. Even today it's used to create a sense of old "reality" footage with its golf ball size grain and Kodachrome contrast, but it was extremely rare to ever see it used for a theatrical feature film. Even 16mm has a hard time resolving the kind of fine grain we expect in movie theaters, and transferring MiniDV to 35mm has nearly the same look as a soft 16mm print -- not that great.

In my own experiences, there's nothing like shooting 35mm and being able to watch your dailies on a full size motion picture screen... it's an eye-gasm. But when we took some MiniDV footage from another project and blew it up to 35mm, I found myself making excuses for it, "Well, it looks like 16mm with 35mm grain." I felt then and still do that if it's all you got, then go to it (as long as you have good story and acting).

Some videographers are actually sold on the idea that in time, we will all get used to the look of video and accept it as a medium for narrative film work, but I truly believe that as long as film is around, it will always set the standard for what a theatrical feature should look like. The only way video would ever be acceptable is if it became the one and only medium available. And that's not going to happen. What is going to happen, is that a film-look process will find its way into digital video cameras. Already, Filmlook Inc. and Przyborski Productions are licensing their patented real-time filmlook technology to camera manufacturers. So instead of video "taking over," it will simply emulate film.

This could be good or bad. As I mentioned in an earlier article, I don't like bad cinema. I won't like it more just because it looks like it was shot on film. However, if you have a good movie that you shot on DV, then you should seriously consider giving it a filmlook in post. Don't skip this process and then expect a distributor to be able to envision it with a filmlook; and pick up the tab to have it done (the tab, by the way, is $7650 from Filmlook for 90 a minute movie).

Pricey? You bet. Worth it? Well..... I admit that it's too expensive for most DV filmmakers, but for the type of clients that Filmlook gets (TriStar, MTV, HBO, NBC, etc.), it's a pittance. So, I started looking and experimenting for myself. Although a lot of stuff has been tried and if you enter "film look" into Yahoo's search engine you can find many of them, mine is a blending of some and a modification of others.

For a step-by-step explanation of the process, visit my Web site at cinevidproductions.com. Although I offer to do it for you for about $2000 per 90 minute feature, I've decided to give it away if you want to do it yourself. I have a batch action for Adobe Photoshop users, a filter effect for Adobe After Effects users and a timeline setup for Premiere 6 users. If you don't have those programs, the explanation pages will give you the ability to accomplish the task on most any editing system that allows you to manipulate the image.

I'd like to hear from those of you who give this a try and would love to see samples from your DV movies turned into films.

Till then, you guessed it, I'm still Behind the Camera.

Bill Johns is a seasoned veteran cameraman, DV filmmaker and digital video commentator. Send him a note with your comments, or take a look at his Web site.

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