Filmmakers don’t want movies, they want what people think a movie is by Phil Rhodes

Once upon a time, this would have been a picture we might or might not get at the start of a roll. And we didn’t. But now he’s a keeper, and a putter on the internet.

If you put the film in the other direction, there is even less grain! So we’re twenty years away from the digital acquisition revolution, and somehow, though it’s expensive, noisy, choppy, flickering, dark, and covered in black dots representing the projectionist films recently fallen, the film is still the Holy Grail. That probably explains the gold-plated existence of things like VideoVillage’s FilmBox, movie emulation software the company trusts enough to charge up to $5,000 for a license aimed at high-end users. The published images look very good, with faithful simulation of bloom, variable grain density versus image luminance, gate weave, and scanned particles of real film.

Even so, that sounds like an ambitious price for something that simulates things that some of the most skilled engineers in the industry have spent decades trying to tone down. Also, what most movie sims are actually simulating – and not wanting to unfairly pick on the folks at VideoVillage – is a movie from around 1985, which seems to be the middle ground between things that seem sufficiently modern to be acceptable to 2020s lay audiences, but old enough to look like a movie. The problem is that modern film, and the technology around it, is very good, to the point that it sometimes doesn’t look very – what’s the word – organic. Well, it does, but maybe not enough to satisfy the producer who paid him.

Close-up of the control panel on an Arriflex 435 Extreme 35mm film camera.
Put some modern material in there, and it might actually look less like a movie than a lot of people expect.

What the movie really is

Modern film is pretty weak on the other hand, because at some point in the dynamic range going digital was a selling point and it was a fight the film could easily win. It’s also very gritty, especially if we insist on the best the film can do – which, given the budget, wouldn’t. Shoot 65mm 5 perf on 200 speed film, and grain is a more or less theoretical construction in the context of HD scanning, even before the invention of electronic grain reduction. Modern scanners with digital stabilization can also produce images with better registration than a mechanical arrangement ever could and scans can practically be dusted on a cellphone in 2022.

None of this brings us closer to the kind of things people tend to have in mind when watching, eyes watering for a second, classic 80s cinematography. Aliens, Dune and Back to the future were all turned (at least in part) on Kodak’s long-defunct 400T 5294 stock, which was decidedly organic. 5219, the closest modern equivalent, is significantly less so, as one would expect for something at least three generations further along. Remember, grain and crushed shadows used to be flaws.

What people think of cinema

Now that’s no longer the case, people have started recording digitally acquired footage onto 35mm film and digitizing it (it’s even been called “analog intermediate” by Fotokem, a title that certainly scores for the spirit). Then, because it didn’t look quite like film, although it was film, people started using a smaller area of ​​the film, to increase the apparent grain size (this will also increase the instability and some optical artifacts, but that’s probably not the point of this).

The open mechanism of an Ultra Panavision 70 camera, with a hand holding 65mm film.
65mm. Don’t accept any substitutes – although, if you turn the film the other way around, there’s even less grain.

Then, because maybe that still wasn’t enough, people started putting the precision optical equivalent of sunglasses on ArriLaser film recorders, so they could be used to record onto a camera negative . Usually they were meant to be used with intermediate stock, which is incredibly slow, so it can be incredibly thin, which was a good thing. Suddenly that’s no longer a good thing, and we find that many film recorders’ brightness controls don’t go far enough to accommodate a 500-speed camera negative.

No matter what anyone thinks of any of this, however, the reality is that people are pushing for a movie look that doesn’t actually give you the kind of look you’d get if you had just shot a movie, at least if you were shooting in -date, modern film on modern cameras with modern lenses, processing and transfer. It’s a sort of idealized, rose-tinted memory of the past. This is evidenced by the fact that many of the more popular grain simulations are more monochromatic than the actual grain created by color film, as the speckles of color look uncomfortably like video noise.

And of course, there is nothing wrong with that. Filmmakers regularly embrace hyperreality. Anyone is free to create any image that will go through a quality control process. We do this knowing that some outlets are now extremely picky about the process by which people produce things, and that many reasonable grain simulations are singularly unlikely to pass through the distribution codec entirely unscathed. Yet, given a world in which many people haven’t seen any significant amount of actual film grain, there’s nothing stopping us from using a completely unreasonable grain simulation. After all, there are cell phone apps that make your phone look like it’s running VHS, and not even good VHS. If there ever was a time for the tech purist to flip the table and mutter “do what you love”, it’s now, but there’s never been more fun to be had.


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