The field of film emulation software has some pretty well-established players in both the video and stills worlds. On the still photography side, there’s Google’s Nik Collection software, VSCO’s Film Series of plugins, and a variety of others. On the video side, however, things are… somewhat more complex (as all things video generally are).
For starters, there isn’t just one way to get your footage looking like film. LUTs, or Lookup Tables, are an easy way to add film-like color and gamma settings to footage, while scanned blank negatives of 35mm film are converted to digital files and made available from a variety of vendors for you to overlay on your footage (here’s a particularly nice selection of free grain scans from various companies).
Other software packages like Red Giant’s Magic Bullet Suite and FilmConvert can act as plugins for apps like Premiere, After Effects, and Davinci Resolve. In this article, we’ll be looking at FilmConvert in particular, as it has turned into one of my favorite color grading tools.
When I first started shooting video, I was pretty surprised by the restrictions imposed on me by the limitations of the codec, bit rate, depth, and resolution of files I was working with. Being used to RAW files that can have the white balance and exposure (among other things) adjusted to a pretty wide degree, having to deal with what was somewhat like a JPEG file in its flexibility was a bit jarring.
After all, I came from the world of Lightroom, Capture One, and Photoshop, which made image manipulation almost ridiculously easy. Imagine my surprise when I ran smack-dab into color wheels, vectorscopes, and RGB parades.
Immediately, I began looking around on YouTube and Vimeo to see what my fellow filmmakers were using. As I looked through dozens of videos, I saw a trend emerging: a lot of folks were using this package called FilmConvert.
I looked it up, and balked slightly at the price. At $299, this wasn’t a piece of software meant for beginners.
Still, it came highly recommended – even the highly regarded Vincent Laforet had recommended it – so I found a coupon for a few bucks off and bought the software.
Turns out, it was one of the best dang video-related purchases I’ve made so far.
Using the Software
Hands down, the nicest part about using FilmConvert is that the app can be really simple to use, or it can present some really powerful color grading tools to you with a few clicks on disclosure triangles.
3-way color wheels and exposure histograms are available from right inside the Premiere plugin’s interface. As you make changes to the various controls, the results are reflected live in the Program window, making it really easy to dial in the perfect adjustment.
Moreover, the plugin includes the ability to draw elipse, polygon, or free bezier curves to isolate the film effect to parts of your frame, complete with opacity, feather, and mask edge refinement. This is, again, pretty powerful and takes the plugin a step beyond what your average LUT can do.
FilmConvert also customizes the way it applies color adjustments based on the sensor in the camera capturing the footage. I use Sony’s a7 series of cameras pretty often but my old 5D Mark II with the Technicolor CineStyle profile is one of my go-tos as well. FilmConvert offers what they call a “Camera Pack” that adds a custom profile for not just my make and model, but for the specific picture profile you use.
At the time of this writing, there are camera packs available for everything from the Canon Rebel T3i to the Arri Alexa. The folks behind FilmConvert are pretty quick to release new camera packs as new cameras hit the market.
Speed, Speed, and More Speed
Not too long ago, you had to render FilmConvert’s effects every time you applied them. This could be somewhat exasperating if you had to change the look slightly, then re-render, or if you had to apply the look across multiple clips, then wait a while for it to render.
Recent updates, however, have added the ability to take advantage of Adobe’s GPU-accelerated Mercury Engine, which means that applying, changing, editing, and replicating effects happens instantaneously, with rendering happening in the background. Any Mac or PC with a fast enough graphics card can take advantage of this, and I can absolutely vouch for the fact that this changes a lot. Now, grading with FilmConvert has become part of my editing workflow in a way I’d never thought.
For example, when I start to put a video together, I have no compunctions about applying a FilmConvert effect to a bunch of clips together so I can better visualize what the finished product will look like. In the past, I’d have waited till I was done cutting before applying any color grades. Now, seeing something closer to the finished product helps me by allowing me to rearrange a sequence so that clips with more shadow areas aren’t all clumped together, or, conversely, that I don’t break up two extremely high-key shots with an inadvertent low-key shot. These things can be somewhat harder to spot when everything has been shot in Log or flat picture profiles where everything looks like it has a bit of haze overlaying it.
Results (and an Unexpected Bonus)
FilmConvert have a lot of examples on their website, but here are a couple that I’ve personally shot.
The first is part of a test I was doing with the Sony a7S II in S-Log3 mode. In this video, I used the S-Log3 color space, with S-Gamut3.Cine gamma. White Balance was set to Daylight.
The second is a piece I shot for my personal portfolio and was graded entirely in FilmConvert.
Now, this second video is particularly important because I took advantage of one of FilmConvert’s little-known features: its ability to generate LUTs based on your current settings. I used it to generate a LUT for Kodak T-Max 100 black and white film and installed that in my Atomos Shogun and was able to preview my footage and adjust it for exposure while in the field.
This was pretty handy, as I was instantly able to see which areas would be blown out once I used the T-Max film effect, and where my blacks would be crushed. Pre-visualization for the win, folks!
FilmConvert has what I think is a blockbuster of a software package. It’s easy enough to use for beginners, yet offers enough tools to keep demanding pros happy. You’ll likely do a bit of final touchup with custom curves after you lay this effect down if you fall into the latter category, but I’ve walked away without adjusting anything at all and been happy with the results.
The guys who work on FilmConvert seem passionate about their software, and their customer service is top-notch, too. As an example, I worked with one of them over email to isolate a problem with using the OFX version with DaVinci Resolve and actually found an issue with the version of DaVinci Resolve that was distributed from the Mac App Store as a result (thanks, Sandboxing).
Bottom line: is it worth the $299?
Oh yeah. Definitely.
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