Adding film grain gives character to the images created by DSLR’s and video cameras. It can create moods, evoke an era, or just give a sense of style.
However, It can be frustrating to optimize film grain for Youtube, Vimeo, and other online outlets. By its nature, grain is random and fast-moving, which is the absolute worst combination for most video compression algorithms. However, it is possible to get visually pleasing grain to survive the compression process.
I’ll give the disclaimer that I have only recently found a method that works for me, and I have not exhausted all possibilities with grain. I will update this article as I discover more.
Film Grain Basics:
1. Which grain should I use? I use Gorilla Grain, which comes bundled with Cinelook for $99. Download free samples here. There are many competing products on the market, but I just want something that looks realistic and is easy to use, which Gorilla Grain accomplishes.
2. Cut your video first. Then de-noise, color correct/grade, then add grain: Follow this order of operations in order to maximize your ability to work with your footage in real time before adding CPU-heavy effects. After cutting your masterpiece, apply noise reduction software (I use Neat Video) to selectively eliminate the original digital “grain” from high ISO shots (not every shot). Then, do your color correction and/or grading. Then as your final step, add grain. In most non-linear editing systems, the effects stack works from top to bottom.
3. Use fine grain, not coarse: This was the biggest revelation for me. I initially thought coarse grain would survive the compression process better, but as it turns out, it looks absolutely awful. Here’s an example of coarse grain gone wrong:
The solution is to use fine grain. I leave all other settings at default in Gorilla Grain. Basically, you want to tweak it so that the grain is visible yet not intrusive.
4. Render a maximum-quality h.264 file: Whether outputting from Premiere, AVID, or Final Cut, you’ll want to first output a ProRes file, then take it into a separate program like Adobe Media Encoder or Compressor and turn all video settings to “maximum quality”. Or if your program allows (like FCP X does), just choose h.264 from your initial output options. Outputting a super-high quality file will give your grain its best shot at surviving the re-compression process in Youtube or Vimeo.
5. Upload to 1080p, not 720p: Grain is small. Preserve details by uploading at maximum resolution. On Youtube, frame size is preserved upon upload. On Vimeo, you have to get a Plus account. First upload the video, then go to Settings > Video File > Upgrade Video and check 1080p.
Some additional thoughts:
Cinelook can help steer your video in the film direction. By skewing the color curves, it can create anything from a subtle film look to a posterized Technicolor appearance. I like using it in moderation (setting color treatment to 30% or less).
Filmconvert is a more sophisticated version of this effect, claiming to accurately replicate many popular film stocks. In my experience, it never looked very pleasing in any of the presets. I didn’t bother tweaking, however. Also, you’re supposed to use it in conjunction with LUT or flat footage.
Magic Bullet Looks is an extremely popular color grading tool, though I’ve only gotten marginal use out of it. Usually, the presets are way too harsh, and the controls and dials are hard to use. The most useful component of Looks for me has been the effect “Cosmo”, which reduces wrinkles and blemishes in skin.
Another option for smoothing out your footage is the free Luster Grading preset “70’s”. It lifts shadows and squashes highlights, so when used subtly, it can increase the apparent dynamic range of your footage.
Best of luck in graining your footage! Let’s all make films, not videos.