An important next step in transitioning from FILM to DIGITAL CINEMA: FilmConvert

 

I love film.  

Most of us love film.  

In fact when I told my father I wanted to follow in his footsteps and become a photographer (my father was a photographer for Gamma Press, and then the Director of Photography and principle photographer for Premiere Magazine in France)  more than 22 years ago – he was so against the idea, that he sent me to the 3 consecutive darkrooms over 3 summers, to try to dissuade me from my career choice…  

The first summer was spent in a black and white darkroom with one of the top french master printers, named Guy Ben… the next summer was C-41 and C-41 printing… the last was at an E-6 lab, where I learned to process the film, and also Cibachrome printing… after 3 summers, he finally gave me his blessing because his efforts to dissuade me had failed…

These days, I hate to say it, but I do get frustrated when I see the Kodak ads in film trade publications.  Not because I think they are wrong or irrelevant.  But because I feel like they’re not only losing sight of the bigger picture (and the inevitable realities) but also ignoring the potential of what is truly out there…

There is no arguing that film gives you an incredible image that in most cases far exceeds what can be accomplished with a digital sensor (notably when it comes to highlight retention… However – when you look into the shadows, or into high ISO cinematography… it’s hard to argue against digital cinema cameras.)

At the end of the day however, I get frustrated for the following reason:  there is no arguing that film has a unique quality.  One that in some ways CAN’T be matched by most digital sensors TODAY.  

BUT – I am absolutely convinced that in the coming years, that will all change.   I am convinced that digital sensors will come to exceed the dynamic range of celluloid in time… and that it is in every DP’s interest to focus on learning how to best master the emerging (and future) technology (namely digital sensors) – as opposed to fighting what I consider to be a lost battle, in trying to clench onto their (completely justifiable) love of film.  

In fact, what threatens the future of motion picture film the most has little to do with what stock of film (vs digital) is being shot on set… what in fact is threatening motion picture’s film the most is the fact that the industry has moved to DCP (Digital Cinema projections – or delivering films to theaters on hard drives, as opposed to film reels) and to that point, the fact that movies are no longer being distributed in an analog form.  In short:  film prints are no longer being made and shipped out to theaters across the globe – and THAT is what will in the end seal celluloid’s fate..  Hard Drives have won… as has digital distribution.

If you’re interested in seeing a cool film about the transition from analog to digital – you should check out the documentary "Side by Side"  - many of the top filmmakers such as Nolan, Scorsese, and Pfister (he’s now directing his first major feature so he more than qualifies) have some pretty fantastic quotes.  

Another key point for me has always been that there is a lot of incredible technology out there that will allow you to make a RED Epic, Arri Alexa, or Canon C300 look JUST LIKE FILM (or at least very darn close to it!)

 In fact it’s gotten relatively easy to shoot a raw digital cinema negative, and to make it look like any Kodak cinema stock, still photography stock, or black and white emulsion – AFTER THE FACT.    And that should be extremely exciting for filmmakers out there.   You can now cycle through a bevy of films stocks AFTER you shoot… as opposed to being locked into the film stock you chose to shoot your original shot with… let alone the process you chose to process it with chemically. 

With that said:  in comes FilmConvert !

FilmConvert is a plugin for After Effects, Premiere, Final Cut Pro, and Apple Motion as well as a stand alone application, that is used to to approximate the look of different film stocks with footage shot on a variety of digital cameras.  

While everyone is increasingly shooting digital these days, often times different film stocks have desirable qualities which filmmakers will try to achieve through grading in post.  And for that you often need a pretty darn good colorist.

FilmConvert helps to bridge that process.  Essentially the plugin recreates the look of grain structure, color curves, and printer spectral responses from a variety of pre-existing stocks from Kodak to FujiFilm.  

But this is no ordinary "film-look" plugin.  Rubber Monkey, who developed the software, recorded various color charts on different stocks of film and then mapped the qualities of various HD sensors to those charts which is an incredibly important distinction that separates it, from many of the other plugins out there.  

Instead of throwing a simple curve on the image to approximate the look of "film", FilmConvert accurately shifts the values of the image based on the sensor you shot, and intelligently converts the colors that sensor captured, to the type of film stock you choose to emulate.  In other words – they know not only how your individual sensor "sees" or captures a particular color, but just as importantly how each film stock would "see" or render that same color – AND HOW THE TWO CORRESPOND!

You can see example images and one of the color charts that they shot HERE.

The plugin also recreates grain structures that are specific to each stock of film.  Most plugins that apply film grain to your image take a scanned piece of grain and then layer it evenly over the entire image.  However, this does not provide a true, filmic grain structure.  

On film, grain is more or less intense depending on the color and luminosity.  For example – there is less visible grain as an image approaches black, because that is where the negative is the densest, and there is more visible grain at 80% white than at pure white.  Or for instance there is more grain in the blue channel of a tungsten stock film (don’t forget that speed and white balance can’t be changed on a film camera, these setting are dependent on stock) because the blue layer of the emulsion has a higher light sensitivity (higher ISO) than the red or green layer.  FilmConvert takes all of this into account based on whatever stock you choose to emulate.  This is incredible attention to detail.

But still my favorite aspect of FilmConvert is how it processes color, as explained above.  

Digital cameras have the resolution (and often exceed) of film, and in general continue to close the gap towards matching its dynamic range.   Digital cinema frames are progressively scanned (24p rather than 23.97), they have the same depth of field attributes as a 35mm film plane – and still people often complain about the images looking digital.  

So while all these other qualities of the "film-look"  have been achieved by today’s digital cameras, we still aren’t getting the same color out of our images as we would with motion picture film.  

Of course there is RAW color now when using cameras like RED Epic  or BMCC, but unless you have the budget of a huge Hollywood movie and/or are a master colorist – you will have no idea where to push the colors in your image so that you can achieve these looks.  This is perhaps most noticeable in skin tones (see video above), but can also be noticed in sky color and saturation, and trees and foliage (the guys at Rubber Monkey pointed out to me that trees shot on digital are very green and saturated, closer to RGB green, but trees on film tend to have more yellow in them).  

Naturally, the plugin works best with RAW footage, as there is the most information there for it to manipulate, but there is also a Standard version meant to work with your DSLRs ($99). That version has 8 film stocks and can output a 1080p image. Of course the RAW market has really opened up by the release of the Black Magic Cinema Camera, so many will want to check out the Pro Version, which works with RAW, has 19 film stocks, and can output up to 4k.

Check out the video above to see some examples of FilmConvert being used on some RED EPIC footage from our MotoArt shoot, and below check out some frame grabs from the Canon 5D MKII that show what the different stock looks can do for your footage in terms of color and grain structure (full res available by clicking the image).  

And you can of course head over to their home page for more examples and to pick up your copy of the plugin.  

I think this is a very worthwhile plugin for most of you to own as part of your digital arsenal.  And just as importantly – I thin that this kind of technology will help us bridge the gap between celluloid, and digital as we move forward towards fully adopting digital capture.  

Once you apply the look of our favorite film stocks, their behavior to color and light and notably their grain structure… I think people will find that future digital sensor will offer us three possibilities in the coming years:  1. the ability to match and emulate the film stocks and "feel" or looks we have become accustomed to with different film stocks.  2. the ability to change and cycle through a variety of film stocks in post – based on a digital master.  3. the ability to create images we’ve yet to see, based on future sensors with latitudes that will someday (in my opinion undoubtedly) exceed what film could ever accomplish.

Click below to see a full resolution image (based on a far from perfect original…shot on a prototype 5D MKII in 2008, and see how Film Convert applies different looks and film structures to the image.  

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Original 5D (click for full resolution):

 

 

KODAK TrX 400 50% Grain (click for full resolution):

 

 

FUJI Velv 100 – 50% Grain (click for full resolution)

 

FUJI E553 ET 50% Grain (click for full resolution):

 

FUJI 8543 VD 50% Grain (click for full resolution):