The ‘Filmic Look’

Since uploading the review of the Sony PXW X70 (which moved from page 26 to the number one slot on page 1 Google search in two 1/2 months) I have gotten a lot of comments on the YouTube video as well as a number of comments on the blog and personal emails. They’ve all been truly great.

Confession: I’ve never been a geek. I admire those who are and those who understand all the ins and outs of codecs and all things electronically technical. I really do.

Some of those folks have commented now and then that I should look into some of the available pre-sets on the X70. More than a few have commented that with a proper setting my videos wouldn’t look so ‘video-like’.

Well, I really do want to look into those settings when I get a moment. In fact, I look forward to it.

And while I may eat my words after I’ve done so, I do want to mention something on the subject of the ‘filmic look’ that I didn’t mention in the book ‘Run ’n Gun Videography published recently.

I started off in cinematography. Film. First 16mm with a $50,000 camera/lens kit (in the early 80s), then 35mm with cameras costing between $50,000 and $250,000.

Funny thing. Even then I didn’t like the ‘filmic look’.

That, to me, meant GRAIN. And we were forever testing films and ASA (ISO) going for the least amount of grain as possible.

Anyway, in the early 90s I was assigned to a video documentary team. And at once, I loved the immediacy of video. You didn’t have to send it to the lab. You could play it back right then and there. And, of course, there was no grain. We had pretty good broadcast quality Sony cameras, so the picture quality was excellent. Crisp. Clear. Great color reproduction. I was in heaven.

Guess I was never really a film snob.

So my point is this: “What’s wrong with the ‘video look’? What’s this urge for people using video cameras to make them seem to be film cameras?

The chapter in the book that covers this subject was meant to clarify what is really meant by the ‘filmic look’. It’s a bit ironic actually how the filmic look came about—including how shallow depth of field came about. But as I said in the book, there hasn’t been a director or cinematographer in history that attributed any part of the success of a film at some awards ceremony to ‘depth of field’ or a particular film stock. It just never crossed their minds. Sure, they’d talk about their choice and manipulation of film stock for some particular look or mood they achieved, but that was in magazine articles. There’s something else far more intrinsic and important to the filmic look than all that stuff and that was the point of that chapter in ‘Run ‘n Gun Videography’.

But I also pointed out that I’m not ‘down on the filmic look’ either. I know what they’re talking about.

It’s just that I’m not down on the ‘video look’ either.

Maybe I’ll have to eat my words after I check into the X70s alternative pre-sets, but I can’t imagine that they won’t just be another version of the ‘video look’.

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8 responses

  1. Just wanted to say that so far, the book is a great read. Puts into words a number of things that I agree with and unconsciously do myself. Great tone as well – approachable and personable while remaining informative. I look forward to reafing in full at a later date.

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  2. Thanks for the post. I’m the same – I get the codecs and geeky bits. I appreciate the film look and no grain, but try not to spend too long chasing it purely in presets. I get too side tracked.

    I’ve never used film, although I’ve worked on commercials using film. Ive shot primarily on DSLR’s the last 5 years and broadcast video cameras plus a few lesser models, before that. Im guilty of chasing the film look, and it is does seem to be a goal to aim for. Sometimes I’m not sure why, or what it is. Maybe it’s the previous association with budget, or maybe it’s a snobbery, maybe it’s a pace and quality standard… Either way, I always hold my hands up and hand over to more competent d.o.p’s, camera ops, however. Im not so far involved in certain detailed aspects.

    I can’t decide which aspect of film making I like best, but I’m sure it’s not all the technical ins and outs. Yes they count, but as you say, they’re part of the bigger package.

    Hope you achieve some improved output with your presets exploration. I’ve tried and can’t always tell the difference (shouldn’t admit it!). At times, yes. Others, not so much.

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      • Thanks Joe, I’ve downloaded a sample on Kindle. I do most of my work running and gunning. I’ve not read much on it, as I don’t come across much, so I’ll have a read and see how I find it.

        The challenge of getting the quality while responding to circumstances is what I live so much. Never predictable, always challenging.

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  3. I totally agree. I bought a Canon 6D (couldn’t afford the 5D3) last year because of the full frame DSLR hype (shallow DOF, great in low light, etc.). What I found is that, not only are lenses way too expensive, but it’s horrible for video: terrible moire, terrible ergonomics, no auto focus when needed, and most DSLR lenses are neither parfocal nor “smooth aperature capable,” have to attach so many extras to make it work for video that it looks like a “Frankenstein” camera, and way too bulky to carry around, so I just don’t use it. It’s probably a great camera to shoot portraits at weddings, but I’m not interested in that.

    Even in Hollywood features, DOF is very subtle, not exaggerated like in “indie” films made on DSLR, because they aren’t trying to scream “look at the DOF!” they are trying to actually tell a story. Sometimes it feels like people are trying to make statements like, “ooh, look, I made this film with an expensive DSLR and even more expensive lens, look at me!” I worked on a small film project like that once. Everyone on the team was so excited about the full frame cameras and lenses, but the story was worthless. What good is any look, “filmic” or “video,” if the story is empty or meaningless?

    Now, I agree that that shallow DOF is sometimes useful, when you really need subject separation … but when is that super-shallow DOF absolutely, unequivocally indispensable to the message? If the message itself can’t live without that, maybe it’s a weak message?

    I just ordered the PXW-X70 Monday and getting it Monday. Debated several cameras for weeks, but your advice about having a professional, broadcast quality camera that you can just take anywhere just stuck with me. Very excited to shoot with a video camera again. I’m going to just get out and shoot. Isn’t that the point?

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    • Tom you’ve nailed it. This is the very thing I cover with some detail in the book Run ‘n Gun Videography both in general throughout the book and specifically in a chapter on the ‘filmic look’. You’ll be a lot happier with the X70, especially if you’re more interested in telling a story than in shouting ‘look at my cinematic expertise’.

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