Achieving the Look of Film continued

Adding your own film-like processing on a computer can offer you creative control that may equal or even surpass the resources I have already mentioned, but of course you will have to define your own look. I would like to look at one stand-alone tool, Movie Tools from McQ Productions, Adobe's venerable After Effects and CineLook, a powerful new plug-in from DigiEffects.

Lon McQuillan of McQ Productions has been writing code for the video applications for a long time and now has a catalog of four products (for the Macintosh only) as well as offering custom coding to the industry. When I first looked at a Movie Tools demo (download it from I sent him an e-mail suggesting some improvements in the way that the film grain simulation was applied. The next day I received a response that suggested I return to his web site and check out the new version of his software that incorporated my suggestions... well, he does promise the best support in the industry.

Lon describes Movie Tools as a "Swiss Army Knife" for desktop video and animation, and it does offer an amazing array of specialized tools in one inexpensive ($195.00) package. As regards its film simulation, it does a nice job of creating a 3:2 pulldown, albeit with a bit of the not unexpected jaggies that normally accompanies de-interlaced video fields. The grain generation is simple but passable, and I must confess that I would use any grain simulation with an extremely light touch. The product also features a straightforward and easy to use color correction module, in fact the entire product has an extremely straight-forward interface. Movie Tools also operates relatively quickly, enabling you to add pulldown, light grain and gamma correction in just a bit longer than After Effects would take to render a straight pulldown. (Some of Movie Tools additional features include: flipping & flopping an image, extracting & compositing Alpha channels, and resizing from square to rectangular pixels).

Adobe After Effects is an incredibly powerful and flexible program, but one that requires you to climb fairly steep learning curve. If you've scaled this peak and were not already aware, it can easily deinterlace and render with a pulldown, as well as apply some color corrections with only the standard package.

The pulldown and film effect is accomplished as follows:

1) After importing, with your original footage selected in the Project Window, access "Interpret Main" under the File Menu and select from "Separate Fields" most likely "Upper Field First" or possibly "Lower Field First," depending on your own video capture board. (If you are not sure of your field order, please refer to the directions in your After Effects User Guide). You might also check the "Motion Detect" box which will increase image quality in areas without movement (when rendering in high quality).

2) At this point, you may consider using some of the plug-in effects that come with After Effects to alter the tonal range and colorimetry. These tools include: Color Balance, which will allow you independent control over Red, Blue and Green gains; Color Balance (HSL), which functions somewhat like a video proc amp without the pedestal adjustment; Gamma/Pedestal/Gain offers a useful Black Stretch adjustment; Levels, for you Photoshop savants, this one offers extremely powerful control through the use of a graphic curve metaphor.

Because there are so many film stocks and looks that we associate with film (like the encompassing darkness of Film Noir or the unreal richness of Technicolor), you might consider digitizing reference footage from a film that you care to emulate. Be aware that the tools I have described are not entirely intuitive and will probably require significant experimentation before one achieves their desired look.

3) Another optional effect is frame blending, about which we will have more to say shortly. This effect can be achieved by simply ticking the "F" checkbox for the layer that contains your footage in the composition timeline as well as the "Enable Frameblending" switch at the top of the timeline. Be aware that this will greatly increase your rendering time.

4) It is time to render and you must make a few special settings. In the Render Settings dialog you must set Frame Blending to Current Settings, Field Render to whatever setting you had previously determined, 3:2 Pulldown to any sequence (unless you have to match other material), and the Frame Rate (the message should read "Sampling @ 24 fps") should be set to 30. Now get a good book and let 'er rip.

After Effects can do plenty on its own, but there is a new product from DigiEffects, (the creators of the Berserk, Aurorix and Cyclonist plug-in sets) called CineLook, that can make the whole job easier and better. Cinelook takes After Effects natural capabilities and adds extensive controls over colorimetry, grain simulation, and temporal characteristics through its own excellent interface and adds an expandable library of preset looks. Chris Athenas, the genius behind DigiEffects, has really sweated the details with Cinelook, and the User Interface is better than half the story.

The standard plug-in interface has been subdivided with titled graphic devices into three distinct areas of function and over 50 different parameters: "Stockmatch" controls grain amount, smoothness and focus; "ChromaMatch" defines color and contrast curves as well as standard proc amp functionality; "TimeMatch" controls slur or the frame blended blur level. The top of the plug-in has controls to store and recall presets (and Cinelook offers predefined settings for emulating near 40 different film stocks from Kodak, Fuji and Agfa) while a master "Blend" control sits lonely at the very bottom of the plug-in where it might be confused as an addition to the aforementioned "Slur" controls.

This variety of alternatives would be unmanageable if not for the four additional graphic interface screens. Each screen provides three preview screens (with zoom capability), permitting the simultaneous viewing of original footage, the footage with effect added and a third reference image; having these views available simultaneously will permit the novice colorist much greater control than otherwise possible.

Under the StockMatch and Grain windows, adjustments can be made via a Photoshop style "variations" method or by using graphical "knobs" for each parameter; the ChromaMatch window also employs the "variation" interface. The Curves window allows seven points at which one may shape of either master or rgb component response curves; moving your cursor over the image area will provide an indication on the curve display of that color's position on the curve.

These well thought out GUIs prove once again that interface makes the difference in achieving real functionality; go back to the After Effects plug-ins described earlier and you will have no doubt. The only weaknesses that I could find with these controls was that they could not take advantage of either dual monitors or larger screen sizes; (they are meant to fill a 640 by 480 screen).

Ease of use would be unimportant if CineLook did not deliver the look it promises. The colorimetry and contrast controls are as effective as many a dedicated hardware color corrector and the grain simulation tools should actually set a standard. As I said before, I believe that any grain simulation should be applied sparingly, and I would like to see a setable grain size parameter, but the output of this module is stunning, particularly in simulating 8 & 16mm film.

Evaluating the performance of a special effects tool demands that we consider both resultant imagery and the time required to render it. By itself, color and contrast changes are very efficiently rendered, but once we begin to examine the temporal effects that involve frame blending, rendering can become a very serious issue with times as long as one minute per frame. There are several points that must be made in this regard: much of the rendering overhead is based on calculations that are inherent to After Effects rather than specific to CineLook; DigiEffects has promised that this product will be both "iced" and made MP aware in 1998 and these will provide significant speed improvements; the choice of settings will definitely impact your rendering times, for example some effects may be different but still equally appealing and much faster when rendered at medium quality.

The TimeMatch effects are the trickiest to use but potentially offer some of the most convincing illusions. The use of frame blending creates a smoothness of motion not achievable by other means and the "Slur" control offers a means of organically increasing the blur. Problems with any time remapping center around two issues: avoiding the loss of resolution and jaggies caused by utilizing single fields rather than full frames, and the artificiality that is revealed in rapid movement. Frame blending and slur go a long way to hiding the resolution loss but tend to create an excessive blur on moving objects that will definitely obscure detail. One solution to this problem is to apply different settings, dependent on the motion in the frame.

Let me close by saying that CineLook is a great product and if my past experience with DigiEffects is any measure, it is just going to get better as I continue to learn its mysteries, and Chris Athenas and his gang in Frisco continue to improve it.

Film Damage is a second plug-in that ships with CineLook. It is basically a more advanced version of DigiEffects' popular Aged Film plug-in (part of the Aurorix 2.0 set) with 47 as opposed to 21 separate controls and a library of presets. Add a few grease pencil marks and some tape splices, and you'll have no trouble convincing people that you've dragged your workprint behind the car; its your basic way cool effect.

I have tried to cover the subject of making video look like film as comprehensively as space allows. I have only touched on aspect ratios, haven't even begun to look at where the future might take us (Sony has unveiled a new video format to be used concurrently with film to permit more efficient integration of the two mediums). I would be negligent if I did not suggest that sometimes you just have to shoot film... but not as often as you once had to.

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