Can Digital Really Look Like Film? ☛
Journalistic convention dictates that you review products when they’re brand new, but I’m taking the liberty of reviewing something that’s been around for a time. What can I say? It’s new to me. Be aware: this may get a little technical.
FilmConvert is a bundle of software which aims to make your digitally captured footage look as if it had been shot on film. A tall order: good ol’ fashioned celluloid has a look all of its own; the way the chemicals and silver halides capture colours and light are a world away from the way a digital chip records them. The FilmConvert package contains a ‘stand-alone’ grading program and plug-ins, both for the major editing systems – Avid, FCP (7 and X) and Premier – and for popular grading applications like Da Vinci Resolve and After Effects. I tried out the stand-alone application and the plug-ins for Avid and FCP 7.
Both the stand-alone app and the plug-ins offer a variety of film looks: negative, reversal, colour, black & white, motion picture stocks, stills camera and polaroid. Grain can be adjusted to emulate everything from the busy noise of 8mm, to a much finer super 35mm look. Or you can turn the grain off altogether and opt simply to embrace the colours of film.
The stand-alone application is one of the most intuitive and easy to use pieces of grading software I’ve yet tried. If you’ve ever played around with the colour correction tools in any piece of editing software, you’ll pick up the stand-alone app very quickly. Unless you’re a professional grader, it gives you all the tools you need in order to work on an individual shot.
But the big question is: does it make your footage look like film?
I used to pride myself on being able to tell to a fair degree of accuracy whether any movie was shot on film or digital. Years of sitting through grading sessions will do that for you. Since the introduction of the Arri Alexa, I find it much more difficult to distinguish between that and film, but not impossible. I tested FilmConvert on a variety of footage shot on different cameras and in different circumstances. At the low end: footage shot by myself on my humble Canon 650D (T4i), at the high end: professional feature film footage shot on the Red Dragon. I also tested footage from the Canon C300 and Black Magic Production Camera. Across the board the results knocked my socks off.
Some of the virtual film stocks included are more impressive than others. Surprisingly the Kodak Vision 3 emulators, while good, produce results that are more faithful than they are impressive. Probably useful if you’re looking to intercut digital material with footage originated on that film stock. It’s really the stills stocks that shine: the Fuji Velvia and Kodak Portra 400 in particular. These offer rich, complex colours; faithful but flattering skin-tones; and pleasing curves, giving you a gentle roll-off into the blacks and whites. Just like film.
The grain emulation is pretty sophisticated too. Rather than just being a layer of grain superimposed on your image, the FilmConvert software tweaks the grain according to the colour values and exposure of specific areas of the picture. The result is both faithful to film and very easy on the eye.
Even on the 650D footage the results are remarkable. I wouldn’t say with this particular camera that you could mistake the result for 35mm film footage (if a relatively cheap piece of software could do that trick, Kodak and Fuji might as well close their doors right now). It did however make the Canon footage look as if it had been shot on a considerably higher-end camera. Applied to the C300 footage, FilmConvert was getting close to the territory where I couldn’t tell the difference between digital footage and film – at least looking at it on my non-broadcast monitor. I’m pretty sure that the Red and Black Magic footage could stand in for film, even on the big screen.
Of course, film still outperforms all digital cameras when it comes to dynamic range, and no amount of clever processing will make up for that. Suffice it to say that FilmConvert does a stunning job of creating the feel of film for less than two hundred pounds ($299). But the software is not without its flaws.
It’s difficult to see where best to integrate the stand-alone version into your workflow. This application will only work with individual shots, rather than sequences – it won’t allow you to add cuts where the grade can change. Phillip Bloom has suggested a workflow where it’s used as a secondary grading application, adding a final layer of polish over pre-balanced images. This makes sense, but is frustrating considering that the software is at its best when working with original camera files. That said, while the stand-alone program was happy to import footage from the other cameras, it proved unable to import the C300 camera files; I worked on these using the Avid plug-in.
The Avid plug-in provides all of the functionality of the stand-alone application, so, if you’re happy to grade within Avid, this is a better option. The downside is that the plug-in appears in the Effect Palette, and therefore doesn’t interact with the Color Correction tool. This not only means that you don’t have access to the colour wheels, vectorscopes and the like, but it also deprives you of the luxury of balancing your grade to the previous and next shots.
The FCP 7 is much the same but, unlike with Avid, it doesn’t come with all of the features of the stand-alone version, just enough for a secondary grade.
I suspect the best workflow involves integrating FilmConvert with Da Vinci or After Effects and putting it into the hands of a professional grader. This means that FilmConvert straddles the ‘low-end’ / ‘high-end’ divide a little uncomfortably. It’s probably a little bit basic for a professional grader, but its workflow is a little bit too involved for anyone doing fast turn-around work.
But these are unworthy quibbles; when a piece of software makes it look as if you shot on a considerably more expensive camera, you find a way to make it work. FilmConvert is great value-for-money and an amazing achievement, one that I very much hope the makers, Rubber Monkey of New Zealand, will build upon in the future. I would love to see the development of the interface of the stand-alone version so that it would allow for the grading of sequences. It might also be nice to see pre-sets for classic film-stocks like Eastman Color, three-strip Technicolor and Kodachrome.
One final thought: should we really be trying to make digital footage look like film? Film is a waning technology, digital cameras have come into their own; shouldn’t we be embracing a new aesthetic? Probably so. The problem is that few digital cameras have developed their own distinctive look (at least not a look you’d particularly want to embrace). It’s telling that the most loved camera of the day, the Arri Alexa, is the one that provides results that look most like film.
I’m sure that before too long a camera will come along that has a truly 21st century look, a look that consigns the ‘film look’ to period dramas and nostalgia pieces. Until then we just have to follow the visual aesthetic that best expresses the mood we want to capture, and most readily beguiles the eyes. Film may be dying, but its spirit lives on.
Copyright © Guy Ducker 2014
Edited by Dr Sara Lodge