Five Trends For Creating Visually Authentic Movies

Visual authenticity is one of the hottest topics for 2020.

No matter what your subject matter is, if you’re behind the camera, the search for visual authenticity is one of the hottest topics for 2020.

What does “visual authenticity” mean to a film or video maker? In 2020, the term can mean many things. But, in short, visual authenticity is a catchall term that reflects the looks filmmakers and videographers are striving to create to make their work stand out, look contemporary and current, and, most significantly, bring a deeper level of meaning to their stories.

The following is a list of five trends visual storytellers are using right now in their quest for visual authenticity.

Trend 1—A Return To Shooting Film

The first is very interesting since it’s really a retro trend of sorts, technologically speaking: Many filmmakers have gone back to shooting film.

One reason it’s intriguing is that most digital cinema cameras today, with a few exceptions, have settings that attempt to emulate film, with film-like image knee and gamma curve response in how the image is presented; they are capable of shooting digital video in 23.98 and 24.0 frames per second, which are standard frame rates for film cameras.

Here’s another example. The most highly coveted digital cinema cameras for the past several years have been ARRI’s digital cinema cameras, which use ARRI’s ALEV III CMOS sensor technology. Most would agree the footage captured on these cameras most closely resembles film, almost more than any other sensor technology on the market.

So, if you are seeking visual authenticity, shooting film removes all doubt about your attempt to present a more “authentic image” to tell your story. Of course, actually shooting film (instead of digital, even on an ARRI camera) is more involved. It’s also more limiting, technically speaking, and can be more expensive than if you shoot digitally. But for some award-winning filmmakers, it’s important. In fact, at the Academy Awards this past year, five of the 10 films nominated for both Best Picture and Cinematography were shot (or partially shot) on 35mm film.

Director Steven Soderbergh
Director Steven Soderbergh shoots a scene for his Netflix NBA drama “High Flying Bird” with an Apple iPhone 8.

So although digital technology moves forward with massive technological advancements, the gold standard for visual authenticity seems to be either in shooting film or utilizing digital cinema cameras that best emulate film.

Trend 2— A Throwback To Shooting Anamorphic

Shooting an anamorphic film began as a technique (in the 1950s) for capturing and projecting a wider aspect ratio on 35mm film. Today, cinematographers covet the unique characteristics anamorphic lenses bring to moving images. For instance, anamorphic images are presented in an ultra-wide rectangular aspect ratio and feature long horizontal lens flares and oval background out-of-focus elements. Regular (spherical) lenses project a circular image onto the camera sensor or film, while anamorphic lenses project an oval-shaped image into the sensor or film stock. These lenses also squeeze more horizontal information from a given scene onto the image recorded. The resulting footage must then be stretched horizontally in postproduction or with an anamorphic lens fitted to the video or film projector.

Anamorphic lenses also typically have a 2X squeeze—meaning that the lens captures twice the amount of horizontal information as a spherical lens. So, when they’re stretched, a 2X anamorphic lens used with a standard S35 image sensor or film frame results in a 2.39:1 aspect ratio. The ratio is often referred to as CinemaScope, a format that first appeared in mid-to-late 1950s.

With digital, the ratios are a bit different: When shooting with a typical digital sensor, a 2X anamorphic lens produces a super-wide 3.55:1 ratio and, with a 1.5x anamorphic lens, will produce an aspect ratio of 2.66:1. To produce a traditional Cinemascope ratio with a 16:9 sensor, you need a 1.33x or 1.35x anamorphic lens.

But is it still popular? According to many of the cinema camera forums I comb through, it certainly seems to be. For instance, one of the first questions that pops up on camera forums with the introduction of a new digital cinema camera is often, “Does it support anamorphic?” (What this means is does the camera have the capability to digitally squeeze the image for recording and de-squeeze the image for monitoring?)

The trend is a throwback to wide-screen spectacles like “Lawrence of Arabia,” which were shot and exhibited in widescreen formats. For others, it’s the generation of filmmakers like J.J. Abrams and Quentin Tarantino whose embrace of anamorphic shooting has served as inspiration to fuel their anamorphic obsession.

But if most content is consumed on 4-inch phone screens and filmmakers even can buy inexpensive anamorphic lenses for phones, one might question the relevancy of how visually authentic anamorphic films can be. Of course, it really depends on the filmmaker’s audience and subject matter, and how the project will be seen.

It’s a fine line between a deliberate filmmaking technique intended for theatrical projection and an anamorphic style that becomes more of a cheap “effect.” For instance, does viewing content on a 4-inch phone screen with heavy letterboxing for an ultra-widescreen look lend more visual authenticity or less? It’s a question that every artist should consider before committing to anamorphic.  

The ARRI ALEV III CMOS sensor is widely acknowledged by many to come closest to emulating the look and feel of film in digital cinema cameras.

Trend 3—Revisiting Lenses With ‘Character’

The most straightforward way to explore lens character is to think about what digital cinema and video lenses were in the past and what they have evolved to today. In the past, lenses used in filmmaking and television were categorized, generally by budget. You had fully manual lenses used in filmmaking with manual focus, iris and zoom controls. These lenses were mounted on film cameras and typically adjusted and focused by a camera assistant or, in the case of documentary and 16mm filmmaking, more often the camera operator used the lens controls themselves.

With television cameras, the lenses were generally B4-mount servo-zoom lenses, where the camera operator would usually control at least the focus and focal range, with the iris control often relegated to an engineer who controlled this remotely, using a CCU (camera control unit). None of these paradigms have shifted radically in higher-end production, but what has shifted in the evolution of lenses is the quality of the lenses and images they reproduce. With the advent and popularity of first HD video, then 4K and currently 6K to 8K and eventually 12K to 16K digital video, lens manufacturers have had to up their game considerably as far as technical specifications and reducing lens defects.

Some of the most common defects in lenses have traditionally been:

Chromatic Aberration: This refers to the failure of a lens to focus all colors to the same point and is caused by dispersion: The refractive index of the lens elements varies with the wavelength of light. The refractive index of most transparent materials decreases with increasing wavelength. Since the focal length of a lens depends on the refractive index, this variation in refractive index affects focusing. Chromatic aberration manifests itself as “fringes” of color along boundaries that separate dark and bright parts of the image.

Spherical Aberration: This aberration occurs because a spherical lens refracts light that enters near the edge more than light that enters near the center. A point of light seen through a spherical aberration will have a fairly large halo effect, and the effect is seen in the center as well as the edges of the image. As a result, the image cannot be focused to a sharp point.

Canon K-35 25-120mm t/2.8 zoom
The Canon K-35 25-120mm t/2.8 zoom is a popular vintage lens for those who seek “lens character” to their projects.

Coma: This complex aberration affects only light rays from a point that passes through the lens at an angle. With coma, the rays don’t refocus to a point; they flare out from the point. This makes points of light look like a comet with a blurred tail, hence the name.

Distortion: Images that deviate from rectilinear are considered distorted. Distortion doesn’t necessarily affect sharpness, but it can affect how straight lines appear in an image. The two most common types of distortion are barrel and pincushion distortion, both of which look like you would imagine them from their names.

Flare: This defect manifests itself in two ways: as visible artifacts and as a haze across the image. The haze makes the image look “washed out” by reducing contrast and color saturation (adding light to dark image regions and adding white to saturated regions, reducing their saturation). Visible artifacts, usually in the shape of the lens iris, are formed when light follows a pathway through the lens that contains one or more reflections from the lens surfaces. Flare is typically exacerbated by very bright light sources.

While this is by no means an exhaustive list of lens defects, it represents the most common ones the casual user will notice. But lens designers and manufacturers have upped their game in the past couple of decades, producing still lenses and television lenses that all look better than they ever have, with fewer and less-severe optical defects. While these defects are still common, the amount of defects visible in newly designed lenses has slowly and steadily decreased. Plus, significant amounts of new optics on the market are praised for having a “neutral” look and feel because these lenses have reduced or masked their optical defects well.

However, some filmmakers actually want these defects! For some users, neutral-looking lenses appear visually “boring and characterless.” So, for those filmmakers seeking visual authenticity, they’ve embraced lens defects and applied the term “lens character” to older lenses that are rife with optical defects, or even modern lenses that have purposefully included what used to be considered lens defects in their new, modern designs. The common refrain is that modern lenses appear “too sterile, too neutral.” Rental houses and lens specialists have embraced the demand for these imperfections and regularly offer old, obscure and specialist lenses that they have rebuilt and rejuvenated for the rental market and for sale.

But lens character remains controversial for some and a norm for others.   

Luxli Cello
RGBWW LED Lights like this Luxli Cello offer color flexibility and features never previously available.

Trend 4—The Emergence Of New LED Lighting

So, finally, we have a relatively “new” trend that isn’t a renaissance or retro trend.

The emergence of LED lighting has coincided with the democratization of cameras. As new types of LED lighting (LED tubes, flexible LED mats, single-source LED spot and Fresnel instruments) have become commonplace, the search for visual authenticity seems to have also had a hand in how these new tools are being deployed. And one reason LEDs have been so popular is the modern digital cameras are much more sensitive than in the past.

What’s interesting is that DPs and gaffers are using LEDs much more subtly in how they design their lighting. New RGBWW LED instruments offer presets that emulate every lighting gel available, which can be applied to the scene in interesting and innovative ways. Light emulation modes with these lights easily reproduce flashing emergency vehicle lighting, lightning, TV flicker, campfire flicker and many other modes, including color cycling, as well. The newer generation of LED lighting, when paired with more light-sensitive sensors in cameras, allows more latitude and dynamic range in the image.

Consequently, hair and hard-rim lights appear to be less popular since they call attention to themselves in many situations. They also tend to make a scene look “lighted,” and it seems more content creators want to achieve a more naturalistic, low-key look. And it’s a trend that’s at this point a widespread style, appearing in projects from small-budget wedding videos all of the way up to large-scale Hollywood features.

New LED lighting tools
Striving to emulate natural light utilizing the new LED lighting tools available has become a popular lighting style. Notice how this shot has no hair light, and the only rim is being provided by window light behind the talent.

Trend 5—Embracing RAW And Log Video For Better Quality

This last trend—which is really two technology trends grouped together—is definitely a non-retro trend, since RAW video and log video rely on the very latest digital video technology.

When it comes to shooting RAW video, the best way to think of shooting in this format is to think of it as the digital equivalent of a film negative. Shooting RAW is generally accepted as the “best” quality format, but it has stringent requirements. For example, RAW requires processing, and it shifts much of the processing of the image from the camera to the computer in working with the footage. In other words, a RAW file must undergo significant digital “development” before it’s visually usable. This provides unprecedented flexibility in post, as you may convert or tweak the footage to fit any color space or other image fidelity specifications, but it can be a lot of work to produce.

The other trend is shooting log video: One of the reasons log recording has become so prevalent is that it is often associated with the idea of better image quality. In short, recording using a log picture profile preserves more of the image’s dynamic range and tonality by redistributing the digital exposure value representations over the entire value set using a preset logarithmic function.

And that’s the reason I grouped RAW and log together—The goal in both is to produce better quality video.

Blackmagic Design Pocket Cinema Camera 6K
Even relatively inexpensive cameras like this Blackmagic Design Pocket Cinema Camera 6K now offer RAW recording.

But they’re not the same. Generally, RAW video takes up much more space on recording media and needs more processing power in post than log video does. But the idea behind shooting RAW and log video is to preserve the most dynamic range and image latitude possible when the signal is converted to REC. 709 color space for mass distribution.

The quest for better image quality is evolving quickly: Look at ARRI cameras and Sony’s PXW-FX9. They can shoot in S-Cinetone Gamma, which has better dynamic range and provides more latitude when editing in post. Using S-Cinetone Gamma on those cameras also allows you to record those signals to a high enough quality internal codec your video will keep all of the latitude and dynamic range intact. You’ll then only need a simple color correction and grading.

That’s why shooting RAW or log video are popular ways for those searching for visual authenticity—they can present a more natural, realistic and lifelike image. But remember—in the upcoming years, as HDR displays become more common, we may be able to obtain just as much, if not more, visual authenticity by simply shooting and editing in newer, more advanced color standards and workflows like HDR, ACES, REC. 2020 and REC. 2100.

The True Path To Authentic Storytelling

The search for visual authenticity encompasses more than just the momentary, fleeting trends of digital cinema/video production. It’s a search for a way to make your content special and extraordinary. You’ll need the right tools, of course. And those that are presently being used in production continue to evolve at a dizzying pace while prices continue to spiral downward, as capability and features rise. But, in the end, visual authenticity goes beyond just finding the right tool. It’s a search that combines the right gear with techniques and mindset, which, when combined, will let you tell the stories you want in the most engaging, interesting and innovative ways possible.