Optimizing Film Grain for Web Output

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.

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Latest Comments
  1. MS

    Color on the RX100 can be further flattened in Davinci Resolve Lite by using a Video2Log LUT prior to adding other “cinematic” looks. This opens the door to post-processing non-RAW data.

    • Brandon Li

      Interesting. Have you found a LUT to be of practical use for grading with the RX100? I’ve always thought a LUT would be most useful for matching the looks of different cameras, but not necessarily useful if grading only Rx100 footage.

      • MS

        Yes I do find certain LUTs to be very useful because they instantly give the footage a filmic look. I mainly mess around with lift, gain and saturation as the primary grading and rely on LUTs mostly for coloring. You have to try them and see what works. Luckily many free ones are available to try. Some LUTs posterize everything, while others do a fantastic job of getting the orange skin tone/ teal shadows look which is very challenging otherwise.

  2. Al

    Thank you for your detailed explanation, Brandon!
    I purchased 35mm film grain 1080p full pack from here: http://vegasaur.com/film-grain and your article is very helpful!

    And I like your site! Subscribed…

    • Brandon Li

      Sure thing! I haven’t seen that grain brand before, but I’ll check it out. Best of luck in your ventures. Let me know if you come across any other tricks for enhancing the look of your film grain.

  3. Rob

    Hi, I’ve tested real camera film grain by capturing a white wall at mid meter reading (50% grey exposure) at high ISO. This recording can then be laid over the original footage and blended on ‘overlay’ to just apply the film grain look. I found it looking very natural and organic, you might have to do some testing though to see which ISO produces the nicest grain etc… (Note: I was using Photoshop to cut and edit the video, but I think similar blending options should be available in other software packages, too).

  4. Peter Price

    When you are using DSLR footage, are you transcoding the footage to ProRes, or staying native through and through, and have you seen quality differences in output, between these workflows?

    • Brandon Li

      Hi Peter,

      I use FCP X and let it automatcally transcode imported media to Prores. In my experience, there’s no noticeable advantage to transcoding to Prores other than faster rendering and playback. The outuput quality is no greater than keeping the files in native AVCHD or mp4. Nonlinear editing programs process color in a 32-bit float anyway, so you’re already getting maximum quality without transcoding.

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