Tutorial: Simulating 35mm Motion Picture Color Saturation, Part Two

updated 28 January 2003

Simulating 35mm Motion Picture Color Saturation
an article by Daniel Broadway

Welcome to Part Two of my “CineAlta look-alike” tutorial (see Part One here). By using the following process, you can achieve great levels of detail and rich color with your Mini-DV footage. However, you must take special notice of one important detail. If you shoot with low production values, your footage will still look bad after you apply these color correcting techniques. Remember, use film-like lighting setups during your shoots. Employ three-light setups whenever possible. If you are shooting outdoors, remember to use camera supports such as tripods, steadicams, cranes, etc. As for lighting outdoors, for the most part, try to keep the sun as a key light, and use a fill light and a reflector on your subjects. In order to get the most kick from this tutorial, you need the best possible source footage to work with.

And now, since this isn’t a production tutorial, but a color timing tutorial, I will get on with it. It should be noted that Shawn PTH was gracious enough to allow me to use a still from his film for tutorial purposes. A very special thanks goes to him for allowing me to do so. I wanted to use the still from his film, because his film seems to have very high production values, and looks very professionally done. Using a still from his film, I will show you how to take what is already a very nicely done shot, and make it look ten times better. On to the first step…

Note: At this point, you should have already finished Part One of this tutorial and rendered out the footage you prepared in that part. You will use the newly rendered footage for this next part of the tutorial.

Import you footage into Adobe After Effects, or whatever compositing program you happen to use. The first step is to do a Levels call on the footage, to punch up the midtones and make them more visible.

  1. Choose Effect > Adjust > Levels. Set the Gamma to 1.2 to increase the visibility of the midtones. Be wary of this step, as you don’t want to over do it.

Now, this next part needs some explaining. Digital video camcorders by default have their CCDs set to a flat gamma curve. What this means is that there is a gradual fading from white, to midtone, to black. This makes the image look rather flat. On the other hand, 35mm motion picture Film and HD Cinema cameras use a slight S-curve as a gamma curve. This makes blacks deeper, and highlights more soft. This also makes the midtones have more saturated colors and a pleasant contrast. This is one of the most crutical steps in making video look like film.

How do we do this, you might ask? Well, quite simply, we are going to use After Effect’s Curves function to apply a Gamma S-curve to our video footage. At this point, I will not go into great detail on how curves work, because to be quite honest, I really don’t understand them myself. However, I know how to use them enough to achieve our next step.

  1. Choose Effect > Adjust > Curves. You will now see a diagram showing a flat diagonal curve. This is the Camma curve of our video footage. What we will do now is add two control points to our flat gamma curve, in order to give it an S shape. The red circles below indicate where you should place your two control points.

Don’t move them until they both are on the Gamma curve. Once you have them both in place, move the top control point up a little. Then use the bottom control point, and move it down a little. Just a little — don’t over do it. Your Gamma curve should look like the one below.

Results of the Levels / Curves adjustment.

Next we will want to increase our color saturation.

  1. Click Effect > Adjust > Brightness & Contrast. Set both the Brightness and the Contrast between 10 to 15. This will brighten the image very slightly, and adds a bit more kick to the color.
  2. Choose Effect > Adjust > Hue/Saturation. Put the Master Saturation between 10 to 30. You will just have to use a value that looks good to you. This makes the color look much better.

Results of the Hue / Saturation adjustment.

Now all that’s really left to do is add some sharpness to our image, and then add some more saturation and color after that.

  1. Choose Effect > Blur & Sharpen > Unsharp Mask. You can use whatever settings you want here, but personally I found these values to be best:
  • Amount: 85
  • Radius: 01
  • Threshold: 04

There is just one more step we need in order to finish our “film look.” Duplicate your footage layer to create second one. Now, set the top (duplicate) layer’s transfer mode to Soft Light. Wait, that looks terrible! There’s way too much contrast. Now go to the layer’s properties and change its Opacity to 10 to 15%. Now, that looks much better.

Here are the “before and after” results…

Above: the “before” image. Below: the “after” image.

You have now finished my film look tutorial. Good luck, and I hope this has been of help.

Back to Part One.

This article originally appears at

Written by Daniel Broadway.
Thrown together by Chris Hurd.

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