Why do we strive to mimic film? What is the film look anyway?


Please don’t take this post the wrong way. I DO understand why some people like to try and emulate film. I understand that film has a “look”. I also understand that for many people that look is the holy grail of film production. I’m simply looking at why we do this and am throwing the big question out there which is “is it the right thing to do”? I welcome your comments on this subject as it’s an interesting one worthy of discussion.

In recent years with the explosion of large sensor cameras with great dynamic range it has become a very common practice to take the images these cameras capture and apply a grade or LUT that mimics the look of many of todays major movies. This is often simply referred to as the “film look”.

This look seems to be becoming more and more extreme as creators attempt to make their film more film like than the one before, leading to a situation where the look becomes very distinct as opposed to just a trait of the capture medium. A common technique is the “teal and orange” look where the overall image is tinted teal and then skin tones and other similar tones are made slightly orange. This is done to create colour contrast between the faces of the cast and the background as teal and orange are on opposite sites of the colour wheel.

Another variation of the “film look” is the flat look. I don’t really know where this look came from as it’s not really very film like at all. It probably comes from shooting with a log gamma curve, which results in a flat, washed out looking image when viewed on a conventional monitor. Then because this look is “cool” because shooting on log is “cool” much of the flatness is left in the image in the grade because it looks different to regular TV ( or it may simply be that it’s easier to create a flat look than a good looking high contrast look). Later in the article I have a nice comparison of these two types of “film look”.

Not Like TV!

Not looking like TV or Video may be one of the biggest drivers for the “film look”. We watch TV day in, day out. Well produced TV will have accurate colours, natural contrast (over a limited range at least) and if the TV is set up correctly should be pretty true to life. Of course there are exceptions to this like many daytime TV or game shows where the saturation and brightness is cranked up to make the programmes vibrant and vivid.  But the aim of most TV shows is to look true to life. Perhaps this is one of the drivers to make films look different, so that they are not true to life, more like a slightly abstract painting or other work of art. Colour and contrast can help setup different moods, dull and grey for sadness, bright and colourful for happy scenes etc, but this should be separate from the overall look applied to a film.

Another aspect of the TV look comes from the fact that most TV viewing takes place in a normal room where light levels are not controlled. As a result bright pictures are normally needed, especially for daytime TV shows.

But What Does Film Look Like?

But what does film look like? As some of you will know I travel a lot and spend a lot of time on airplanes. I like to watch a film or 2 on longer flights and recently I’ve been watching some older films that were shot on film and probably didn’t have any of the grading or other extensive manipulation processes that most modern movies go through.

Lets look at a few frames from some of those movies, shot on film and see what they look like.

Lawrence-of-Arabia-01-1024x576 Why do we strive to mimic film? What is the film look anyway?
Lawrence of Arabia.

The all time classic Lawrence of Arabia. This film is surprisingly colourful. Red, blues, yellows are all well saturated. The film is high contrast. That is, it has very dark blacks, not crushed, but deep and full of subtle textures. Skin tones  are around 55 IRE and perhaps very slightly skewed towards brown/red, but then the cast are all rather sun tanned. But I wouldn’t call the skin tones orange. Diffuse whites typically around 80 IRE and they are white, not tinted or coloured.

300x250_xdcam_150dpi Why do we strive to mimic film? What is the film look anyway?
braveheart1-1024x576 Why do we strive to mimic film? What is the film look anyway?

When I watched Braveheart, one of the things that stood out to me was how green the foliage and grass was. The strong greens really stood out in this movie compared to more modern films. Overall it’s quite dark, skin tones are often around 45 IRE and rarely more than 55 IRE, very slightly warm/brown looking, but not orange. Again it’s well saturated and high contrast with deep blacks. Overall most scenes have a quite low peak and average brightness level. It’s quite hard to watch this film in a bright room on a conventional TV, but it looks fantastic in a darkened room.

Indy_cuts_bridge Why do we strive to mimic film? What is the film look anyway?
Raiders Of The Lost Ark

Raiders of the Lost Ark does show some of the attributes often used for the modern film look. Skin tones are warm and have a slight orange tint and overall the movie is very warm looking. A lot of the sets use warm colours with browns and reds being prominent. Colours are well saturated. Again we have high contrast with deep blacks and those much lower than TV skin tones, typically 50-55IRE in Raiders. Look at the foliage and plants though, they are close to what you might call TV greens, ie realistic shades of green.

A key thing I noticed in all of these (and other) older movies is that overall the images are darker than we would use for daytime TV. Skin tones in movies seem to sit around 55IRE. Compare that to the typical use of 70% zebras for faces on TV. Also whites are generally lower, often diffuse white sitting at around 75-80%. One important consideration is that films are designed to be shown in dark cinema theatres where  white at 75% looks pretty bright. Compare that to watching TV in a bright living room where to make white look bright you need it as bright as you can get. Having diffuse whites that bit lower in the display range leaves a little more room to separate highlights from whites giving the impression of a greater dynamic range. It also brings the mid range down a bit so the shadows also look darker without having to crush them.

Side Note: When using Sony’s Hypergammas and Cingeammas they are supposed to be exposed so that white is around 70-75% with skin tones around 55-60%. If used like this with a sutable colour matrix such as “cinema” they can look quite film like.

If we look at some recent movies the look can be very different.

the_revenant Why do we strive to mimic film? What is the film look anyway?
The Revenant

The Revenant is a gritty film and it has a gritty look. But compare it to Braveheart and it’s very different. We have the same much lower skin tone and diffuse white levels, but where has the green gone? and the sky is very pale.  The sky and trees are all tinted slightly towards teal and de-saturated. Overall there is only a very small colour range in the movie. Nothing like the 70mm film of Laurence of Arabia or the 35mm film of Braveheart.

deadmen-1024x576 Why do we strive to mimic film? What is the film look anyway?
Dead Men Tell No Tales.

In the latest instalment of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise the images are very “brown”. Notice how even the whites of the ladies dresses or soldiers uniforms are slightly brown. The sky is slightly grey (I’m sure the sky was much bluer than this). The palm tree fronds look browner than green and Jack Sparrow looks like he’s been using too much fake tan as his face is border line orange (and almost always also quite dark).

wonder_woman_still_6 Why do we strive to mimic film? What is the film look anyway?
Wonder Woman.

Wonder woman is another very brown movie. In this frame we can see that the sky is quite brown. Meanwhile the grass is pushed towards teal and de-saturated, it certainly isn’t the colour of real grass.  Overall colours are subdued with the exception of skin tones.

These are fairly typical of most modern movies. Colours generally quite subdued, especially greens and blues. The sky is rarely a vibrant blue, grass is rarely a grassy green. Skin tones tend to be very slightly orange and around 50-60IRE. Blacks are almost always deep and the images contrasty. Whites are rarely actually white, they tend to be tinted either slightly brown or slightly teal. Steel blues and warm browns are favoured hues. These are very different looking images to the movies shot on film that didn’t go through extensive post production manipulation.

So the film look, isn’t really about making it look like it was shot on film, it’s a stylised look that has become stronger and stronger in recent years with most movies having elements of this look. So in creating the “film look” we are not really mimicking film, but copying a now almost standard colour grading recipe that has some film style traits.


In most cases these are not unpleasant looks and for some productions the look can add to the film, although sometimes it can be taken to noticeable and objectionable extremes. However we do now have cameras that can capture huge colour ranges. We also have the display technologies to show these enormous colour ranges. Yet we often choose to deliberately limit what we use and very often distort the colours in our quest for the “film look”.

HDR TV’s with Rec2020 colour can show both a greater dynamic range and a greater colour range than we have ever seen before. Yet we are not making use of this range, in particular the colour range except in some special cases like some TV commercials as well as high end wild life films such as Planet Earth II.

This TV commercial for TUI has some wonderful vibrant colours that are not restricted to just browns and teal yet it looks very film like. It does have an overall warm tint, but the other colours are allowed to punch through. It feels like the big budget production that it clearly was without having to resort to  the modern defacto  restrictive film look colour palette. Why can’t feature films look like this? Why do they need to be dull with a limited colour range? Why do we strive to deliberately restrict our colour pallet in the name of fashion?

What’s even more interesting is what was done for the behind the scenes film for the TUI advert…..

The producers of the BTS film decided to go with an extremely flat, washed out look, another form of modern “film look” that really couldn’t be further from film. When an typical viewer watches this do they get it in the same way as we that work in the industry do?  Do they understand the significance of the washed out, flat, low contrast pictures or do they just see weird looking milky pictures that lack colour with odd skin tones? The BTS film just looks wrong to me. It looks like it was shot with log and not graded.  Personally, I don’t think it looks cool or stylish, it just looks wrong and cheap compared to the lush imagery in the actual advert (perhaps that was the intention).

I often see people looking for a film look LUT. Often they want to mimic a particular film. That’s fine, it’s up to them. But if everyone starts to home in on one particular look or style then the films we watch will all look the same. That’s not what I want. I want lush rich colours where appropriate. Then I might want to see a subdued look in a period piece or a vivid look for a 70’s film. Within the same movie colour can be used to differentiate between different parts of the story. Take Woody Allen’s Cafe Society, shot by Vittorio Storaro for example. The New York scenes are grey and moody while the scenes in LA that portray a fresh start are vibrant and vivid. This is I believe important, to use colour and contrast to help tell the story.

Our modern cameras give us an amazing palette to work with. We have the tools such as DaVinci Resolve to manipulate those colours with relative ease. I believe we should be more adventurous with our use of colour. Reducing exposure levels a little compared to the nominal TV and video – skin tones at 70% – diffuse whites at 85-90%, helps replicate the film look and also leaves a bit more space in the highlight range to separate highlights from whites which really helps give the impression of a more contrasty image. Blacks should be black, not washed out and they shouldn’t be crushed either.

Above all else learn to create different styles. Don’t be afraid of using colour to tell your story and remember that real film isn’t just brown and teal, it’s actually quite colourful. Great artists tend to stand out when their works are different, not when they are the same as everyone else.


10 thoughts on “Why do we strive to mimic film? What is the film look anyway?”

  1. Mate this is great as ever and really informative. You are right as well… when you look at the transformer films they are very teal & orange at times…. and it becomes way to noticeable. I guess the wonder woman film was trying to take you back to a grungy world war I feel. As well as some advertising stuff I shoot weddings and I am still searching for my favourite look and feel colour wise. The one thing I always struggle with is the correct skin tones to make it feel ‘film like’ …. my take on ‘film like’ is … telling an organic story rather than copying a look from years ago. I loved the look of the new Westworld series for example as it seemed to help tell the story (Maybe not for weddings). I can’t go too far off the norm as it is just a wedding after all and everyone knows what they look like. What are your thoughts on exposures for skin tones at the wedding and some setting advice for my mixture of sony cams…. A7s, A7Rii, A6500 (soon to be A7Riii). I currently use a mix of S-log (very bright days) cine4 as the contrast lowers a bit. Not really used the new hypergammas yet as the A7s & A7Rii does not have them. I noticed your comment about having slightly lower skin tones at 55% ish rather than 70%. Thanks

  2. I think it’s worth noting that film is meant to be projected on a screen in a dark room in the DCI-P3 standard. When you’re making IRE compairisons, i’m assuming you’re using the rec.709 representation of that media?

    Most people don’t get to see the film the way it gets mastered. Dolby Vision is a color and brightness management solution to bridge the gap, but few TV manufacturers have even implemented it.

    1. I do mention the viewing environment as important. If handled correctly DCI-P3 and 709 should have the same relative brightness levels and the overall look should not be significantly different. If the DCI-P3 in the cinema looks significantly different to the 709 version on a TV then something somewhere is very wrong – and it often is with uncalibrated TV’s in vivid mode with all kinds of auto settings in less than perfect viewing conditions. P3 is a wider gamut but that shouldn’t change the general look, just show a broader range. Dolby Vision is great in theory and in a tightly controlled viewing environment like a cinema it works well. But to work properly at home not only does the calibration of the TV need to be carefully controlled by also the ambient light levels etc.

      1. I saw large differences in skin tones when Dolby demoed off P3 gamut vs Rec.709 gamut even in the same 2.2 gamma space. After you’ve seen wide gamut, skintones always look too green in rec.709. This was before they turned on the massive increase in brightness values over Rec.709

        While on paper it may feel like it’s not too different, when it comes to movies being mastered in a wider gamut, something gets lost when even an artist makes color timing decisions down to a smaller gamut.

        1. Then there is something very wrong with the setup. In gamut colours should not look any different and gamma should make no difference. Skintones are well within 709 gamut. These are simply transfer functions used to get from the captured value to the display value and if everything is setup right skin tones really should not look different. P3 compensates for the way a projector works while 709 compensates for the way a TV works so that the on screen result should look the same, that’s the whole point of these standards, consistency from one medium to another. Just as with 2020 v 709 or HDR10 v 709. The mid range should be exactly the same for both, the difference is only in the extremes that can be captured and displayed, the middle tones, including skin tones should be identical.

  3. Dear Alister,
    thanks for your great work! There is no other place on the web to find these kind of articles about sony-cameras as on your site! I would like to know one thing about the “film-look” on the sony a7s. I am shooting documentaries for television (rec709) mostly in cine4, because they will be color-corrected afterwards. Do I have any advantage when using the cinema-gamut instead of pro-color as a color space? I thought maybe the desaturated colors of “cinema” will have more room before they start to clip – so I should have more room to change white balance afterwards when I dont have time to do a white balance while run-and-gun-shooting. But I am not sure if I will sacrifice detail in skin-tones because of the desaturated look compared to “pro”. On the Sony Website it says, cinema color was made for cine1 profile and pro-color for rec709. Do cine1 or cine4 play well will pro-color for correcting afterwards? Regards!! Sam

    1. Another option would be to turn saturation down for “pro” or to turn it up for “cinema”. Are there any advantages in doing so? Tanks for your help!!!!!! 🙂

  4. Great post Alistar. I think that this hunt for the “film look” is similar to the obsession that many people had with shallow depth of field when DSLR-video began to give enthusiast acess to it. They just forgot that shallow DOF is only one way of seperating a subject from a background, lighting and arranging the background are some of the essentials forgotten in the equation.
    Similarly, the “film look” to an amateur is just about colours, while all the old techniques are a book sealed with seven seals. To achive a film look, you have to find a film language and that’s more about dolly, jibs, pans, tilts and tracking than it is about colours.
    And while on the topic of colour, I think that many people forget to place the mission before the technique and not vice-a-verse. The colours used should be the ones that suit the story, not copying some sort of scheme. The same goes for lighting. I remember someone shooting a TV interview with extreme shadows, portrait-like-style, because it “looked cool”. Sure, that would have been the case – if it was aimed at a documentary. But this was a news reel! And so, the hunt for the “film look” just created a mess that stood out as something unlike the rest of the programme.

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