Ryan E. Walters, Cinematographer

Cinematic Excellence at 24 Frames a Second

How To Properly Add Life Back Into Your Digital Footage

(Before: Log/After: Grade w/Film Convert)

If you have been following my blog for any length of time, you probably know that one of my biggest frustrations with digital imagery today is how pristine it is. Digital images are just too good, and too clean. When great digital cameras are coupled with great modern glass, the resulting image is one that is technically "perfect," but lacks the "life," "character," & "personality" that film brought with it in years past. I have developed a three step process to reintroduce life into my footage: 1. Proper lens selection, 2. Proper in camera filtration, & 3. Proper post processing. Recently I have added FilmConvert to the post processing step of my footage. But I've wondered... When is the proper time to apply FilmConvert? Since the online documentation is lacking, I set out to test a couple of workflows for myself. Here is what I've found.

My previous workflow entailed overlaying scanned film grain at one of the last steps of the post process. But FilmConvert is so much more than just film grain. It actually adjusts the color response of your camera to match or emulate how film responds. If you are not familiar with this program, I suggest that you head over and check out their sample footage.

Since it is manipulating the color response of the camera... How should it be used? Where in the post pipeline should it be used? While the answers may be clear to some, it wasn't for me, which is why I did these tests...
(C100 using Default C-log Profile)

Camera Setup:
The most crucial part of the process comes before the footage even gets to post. How you set up and record your footage will predetermine how effective FilmConvert will be when applied. FilmConvert has done an impressive job at calibrating a wide range of cameras (& camera profiles) to match film. As long as you use these cameras, and record using these specific camera profiles, your footage will be processed correctly. It is when you deviate from outside these norms that you run into problems. So stick to these settings if you plan on using FilmConvert in your post processing.

If you plan on using a custom profile, like Art Adams Alexa Profile for the C300/C100, you will be significantly changing the color response of the camera, and the resulting footage from FilmConvert may not look as good as if you had used the default profile. So before you use any custom profile, be sure to run a complete test all the way through grading & delivery to make sure your camera profile isn't adding an unintended look to the footage.

(Chart blown up in resolve)

(You might also like: How To Shoot & Light For The Grade)

Post Processing:
Once you have your footage properly recorded, it is time to ingest & grade it. But should you apply FilmConvert before or after your grade? This is where shooting a chart and a sample scene comes in handy. The chart gives me a set standard to measure by, and the scene gives me something practical to evaluate.

The first thing I did in Premiere was to create a timeline with a copy of two clips in it. I left the first set of clips alone, and I added FilmConvert to the second set of clips. The only setting I changed in FilmConvert was the camera profile. Since I shot in Log on the C100, I selected the corresponding profile and then rendered out the sequence and imported it into Resolve.

Once in resolve, I blew up the chart to fill the frame. Then, using the left three chips of the chart and waveform scope, I quickly balanced the image and set the appropriate levels. (SIDE NOTE: The waveform in Resolve makes it VERY easy to know when the color channels are balanced, as they create a white line when all three colors are on top of each other).
C100 frame without FilmConvert Applied

C100 frame with FilmConvert Applied

As you can see in the above pictures, I tried to match the levels as close as possible in each clip. The trace (white & colored lines) in the lower picture are thicker due to the film grain that has been added into the image from FilmConvert. These thicker traces made it a bit more difficult to get an exact match to the thin trace of the image without FilmConvert applied.

C100 frame with FilmConvert applied AFTER the grade

C100 frame with FilmConvert applied BEFORE the grade

As you can see by these two samples, if you apply FilmConvert after the grade, a lot of the subtlety in the shadows is lost due to the increase in contrast. It is also worth noting that there is some loss in color saturation (take a look at the center & right columns of chips in the chart). According to the results of this chart, if I want to retain the most amount of subtlety in color and tone, then I need to apply FilmConvert before I take it into Resolve for the grade.

(C100 using Default C-log Profile)

That is all well and good for charts, but what about a real life example? In the samples below I went beyond just balancing the image, and applied a grade I found appealing.

C100 frame with FilmConvert applied AFTER the grade

C100 frame with FilmConvert applied BEFORE the grade

The results of the charts are borne out in real life. When I apply FilmConvert prior to the grade, I retain more detail in the shadows as the image is less contrasty. It is also interesting to note that in this example the top image is actually more saturated due to the increased contrast. I'm not entirely sure why this result is different than the results from the chart, but it is worth paying attention to. (It could just be due to how the underlying image affected my choices when I was grading the image in Resolve, as I wasn't trying to match the two, but rather create an image I liked).

If you are going to use FilmConvert in your workflow, then following these recommendations will ensure you are properly set up to add life back into your digital footage:

  • Shoot with a camera and camera profile that matches a preset supplied by FilmConvert.
  • Make sure to not clip, or only minimally clip your highlights
  • Apply FilmConvert to your footage PRIOR to grading in your NLE, or sending it off to Resolve.

While adding FilmConvert is a great way to add life to your footage, it will add time to the post process, which is important to take into account if you are on a tight deadline. While I did not see a massive increase in render times, I did get a red bar on my timeline in Premiere, and a slower overall performance on my system once it was applied.

What post processing are you doing to your digital images to breathe new life into them? Are there any other apps, plug-ins, or techniques that you can recommend?

Until Next Time - Get Out There And Shoot!
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