The world of modern video production has its very own search for the holy grail. This search is the eternal pursuit of the highly coveted “film look”. Whether filmmakers, freelance videographers, or hobbyists, those in said universe are constantly on the hunt for how to transform the pristine images that come from modern video cameras into the look and feel of a medium which was invented at the turn of the 20th century. As someone who has had at least one foot in the aforementioned universe for quite a few years now, I can certainly relate to this pursuit. Quite frankly, it can become an obsession. So why are modern video creators obsessed with “the film look”?
Going forward, for simplicity’s sake, the universal term “motion picture” will be used when referring to anything recorded to film or video. This may be a movie, music video, or iPhone video. Film is a medium, video is a medium, the motion picture is what gets captured to that medium.
Let’s take a moment to talk about the wonders of the modern video camera. Whether its a camcorder, DSLR, or the camera on the back of your iPhone, our video devices today are truly astonishing. The image quality they produce, though often times taken for granted, is mind blowing. A motion picture created by modern cameras could, by most standards, be considered perfect—perfectly sterile that is. Modern video has purged the motion picture of what gave it its character when it was captured to film. The characteristics of film, which produce the “film look”, have been stripped out of video in the name of convenience and fidelity. In short, the motion picture on video has lost its craftsman’s mark. Now, the modern motion picture creator is trying to redeem that craftsman’s mark. They are on the search for the holy grail.
Two marks of craftsmanship upon which the “film look” is based are bokeh and grain. Both were prevalent when film was king, and both are rarities in the rein of video. Our devices are engineered to offer ultimate convenience, and image clarity. To achieve bokeh and grain, those replicating that “film look”, the motion picture creator must utilize, properly, a specific tool set. But what in the heck are bokeh and grain anyway?
Bokeh, loosely defined, is the visual quality of the out of focus portion of an image. To better understand bokeh, you need to know a little bit about what is called depth of field. Depth of field refers the level of blurriness in the background of an image. An image with shallow depth of field has a subject that is sharply in focus, and a background that is completely blurred out. An image with deep depth of field will have a subject that is sharply in focus, and a background that is just almost as sharp: no blurriness. So where bokeh is the quality of that blurriness, it is most noticeable in images with shallow depth of field. Images with deep depth of field will have almost no bokeh. When motion pictures were shot on film, particularly feature length movies, a shallow depth of field was usually used in order to draw the audience’s attention the subject. Additionally, the lenses that were used in those days produced bokeh that is very distinctive in its appearance. So, through years of going to the movies, we have come to associate the “film look” with bokeh.
But how does one go about reproducing that look today on video. The only way nice filmic bokeh can be achieved is by manipulating certain settings of a camera and its lens. However, cameras are designed now for users to pull them out of their pocket, and simply hit record. The entire process of setting up a shot, and choosing the right lens and camera settings has been completely removed from recording a motion picture. You just push the red button. To achieve nice filmic bokeh, the proper lens needs to be used, and settings need to be dialed in. The process is not convenient, but the result is that dream like quality of film.
Where bokeh refers to a craftsman’s mark generated in the lens, grain is embedded in the recording medium itself. It is the graininess that is seen in an image when it is recorded to film. Think old movies. Technically grain is flaw. It was something that film stock companies like Kodak worked to eradicate through the years. Every new film stock invented would offer finer and finer grain. Modern video has just about eliminated grain, but video editing software offers the ability to introduce artificial grain into the image. Why would this be? Why take a near pristine piece of video and make it grainy? Well through the years, we came to associate film grain with watching movies. It became tied to the experience. Now motion picture creators use artificial grain to achieve the “film look”. While technology tried to kill grain off, the zeitgeist has kept it alive (albeit in an artificial form). Though grain is a completely manipulatable stylistic option, it still must be used discernably. Simply maxing out the grain slider in a video editor will not create that that “film look”. Some projects call for a lot of grain, some call for little to none. Proper understanding must accompany the tool.
Bokeh and grain are among the craftsman’s marks of a well-produced motion picture. They are achieved by utilizing--properly--a specific set of tools. Conversely, they are not present in the endless sea of shaky, unfinished, videos which we consume at mass. For that “film look” to be achieved, bokeh and grain need to be understood and utilized. In doing so, the modern motion picture goes from being recorded, to being crafted. As with any craft, both tools and know-how are required. The acquisition of those tools is fairly easy. It is the acquisition of the know-how which takes work; and it is an acquisition that never ceases. There is always more to be learned.
While bokeh and grain pertain specifically to the world of motion picture creation, every vocation has its equivalent. Whatever vocation you may be in, it is your craft. You have the opportunity to master that craft. You have the opportunity to acquire the needed toolset, and painfully acquire the know-how. You have the opportunity to do what you do to a high level of excellence. So what is your bokeh and grain? What is your craftsman’s mark? What set’s you apart? What is your “film look”?
This blog aims to highlight those from various practices, who are committed to mastering their craft. It wants to tell the stories of people who have found their own bokeh and grain, and are putting them to work. In so doing, it hopes to inspire you to do the same. After all, what is the point of doing something if you cannot do it well?