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  • Writer's pictureBryan Holt

What the Heck is Film Grain and Should You Use It?

Updated: Jun 5, 2023

What the heck is film grain? To better understand film grain here is a short video I uploaded recently on my YouTube channel that helps explain what and why Film Grain is even a thing in 2021.

Film Grain, also known as granularity, is a by-product from the old era of filmmaking before the advent of digital sensors that allowed a more seamless method of exposing images. Pre-Digital era had creatives and directors utilizing celluloid film to capture images. Part of this process would leave behind a kind of metallic texture that would come across as grain. There was no way to escape it, but there were ways to manage it. And in some cases minimize it.

Film grain in willy wonka and the chocolate factory
Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (1971)

And over time, filmmakers were able to devise ways to better control the look and feel of film grain to create a pleasing experience for the audience. As an audience, we also became accustomed to the presence of film grain in our favorite blockbusters. For instance here is a snapshot of "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" (1971) shot on 35mm Film. A classic. I picked this image because it shows a darker scene where film grain can become a bit more noticeable. A little bit more on that in a few. But take note of its presence.

It's Still Grainy in a Digital World

So now that we know where Film Grain comes from and a little bit of why. Let's dive into where the world is at now with the advent of digital cameras. As of 2013, features shot on digital formats officially overtook the amount of productions still shooting on film itself. And despite the fact that a few well-known directors still prefer shooting on film, most of the entertainment we watch today is shot digitally.

First wide release shot entirely on Digital (Sony HDW-F900)
Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002), One of the first wide release shot entirely on Digital (Sony HDW-F900)

And over time, with digitally shot plates, filmmakers have been able to achieve cleaner and cleaner looks as the envelope of technology has been pushed. And even as we crossed boundaries, such as with George Lucas's "Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones" (2002), one of the first full wide release to be filmed entirely in digital, more and more audiences were brought into the world of crisp and clean imagery. But as images and footage have gotten cleaner, something has been missing. You see with film grain, that textured look actually has served over time to provide a level of variance or dynamic. It gives the overall look personality and feel. It has become a major part of the cinematic feel. So, many directors have begun to bring back this look. Even on their digitally shot masterpieces. To make their product have a more personable feel. And others, have continued to shoot on film stock, albeit a much higher quality film stock which gives them allowance on the quality of the grain. For instance, the process of IMAX is used today for many big budget productions. One such example of a director who still shoots on film would be Christopher Nolan, who for "The Dark Knight" (2008), utilized IMAX format cameras for about 28 minutes of the movies 2 hour and 32 minute runtime. As you can see even shooting on 70mm film for scenes like the opening scene, you can spot the film grain... if you are looking for it. But it provides a nice clean feel that still has some texture to it

70mm format used in the dark knight
The Dark Knight (2008) used IMAX 70mm format for 6 scenes in the film.

In the end, film grain is here to stay as a tool to be used to create an emotional feel to your work.

Should You Use Film Grain?

Now begs the question, should YOU as a creative use film grain on your work? What about for graphic design (that is a whole other topic that we won't be discussing here, but maybe will in a future video, article). For us as filmmakers, content creators, and those of the like have a decision to make though. Does film grain enhance, or are we just using film grain because someone told us to? And I would guess the majority of those on YouTube looking to put a polished product up have been told to try film grain. Especially if they are creating short films. I am not going to sit here and tell you that's a bad idea, but I will share some of my experience and my personal thoughts.

Firstly, know your end product, or distribution channel. If you are going to YouTube only, it's probably not worth it, or even a good idea. Here is why. Two words, "YouTube Compression."

When you upload a video to YouTube, it has to get compressed. The larger the file size, the likely more compression will happen. Typically we see videos compressed into the MPEG-4 AVC codec. Don't worry you don't need t know what that is, but you should know that this is the compression that will be applied to most videos on YouTube. YouTube recommends uploading in the .MP4 format with h.264. (developed to transport and display HD video.) It is pretty much the standard used for delivery across multiple medium. Unfortunately, it has its limitations. More importantly, when compressed to h.264, you can still definitely get that natural looking film grain or granularity, but the chances are... it will just turn into a muddy mess.

Personally, I have limited the amount of film grain I add to my end products when uploading to YouTube because it doesn't add, and often times will even destroy my final desired look. Yes I would prefer that nice cinematic feel on my B-roll, but lets be honest, the content is more important.

Another thing to pay attention to for filmmakers and videographers, Would Film Grain or Noise Actually Exist?. So one thing to note, and this is a video for another time, ISO. Typically you will see more noise on your plate when shooting in low light and having to increase your ISO, (How sensitive your sensor is to light). With film you would also have ISO sensitivity or grades. It wouldn't make sense to have a daytime scene and your film grain taking over the plate. One of my favorite examples of this is Empire Strikes Back (1980). I personally love the look and feel of Empire, even with as special effects heavy as it is. The final print just looks so beautiful, and the film grain there is present but never distracting.

Empire Strikes Back uses a lot of dark scenes with heavy vfx
Empire Strikes Back (1980) showcases a lot of dark scenes with heavy VFX. Take note of the look and feel. The Film Grain is clearly present but is by no means distracting.

This is a concept I also recently noticed with the latest Star Wars flick, Rise of Skywalker. If you ever catch yourself watching, take note of the whole sequence in Babu Frik's shop and how grainy all of a sudden the shots feel. In this case, it actually did feel distracting to me, but it would make sense to have at least some granularity here, as this is a darker scene.

Film grain added back into Alita: Battle Angel
Alita: Battle Angel (2019). Take note of how the compositor added back in the grain from the plate to make the CGI asset match the world.

And for you Visual Effects artists like me out there, I will leave you with this. Stick to what is already there. We should only add in Film Grain if its desired. Now if we are the director AND the Visual Effects artist, than this wouldn't necessarily apply. Usually we will add in Film Grain to match our digital asset to the plate. This is what we do as our endgame in comp. Usually with a regrain node or effect of some sort. Not much to say here, just make it match! Lastly, Do your own research. What kind of look are you going for? Or what is the desired effect, look? Keep in mind the different film stock, 8mm, 16mm, 35mm, etc all have a different look and feel when it comes to granularity. This is definitely something you want to pay attention to. You can't expect them to look the same. Thankfully all of our software packages that we use as our daily NLEs or VFX packages have the ability to control somewhat the look and feel of the grain. In render noise is a bit different, but in our compositing packages (After Effects, Nuke) we can add in film grain to match quite easily. That's a video for another time. Also never forget you can download some of your favorite film grain presets and overlays online, just pay attention! So in conclusion, should you use film grain on your projects? It really is in the eye of the beholder! You are the creative, and the beauty of it is you get to make your own decisions. No one person should say this is the right and only way to do things. Something you will learn very quickly in the post-production or even production industry of entertainment for those of you just now getting your feet wet. My advice, have fun, experiment. Test your creations and get feedback from your own network.

Mandy is a case study for the use of film grain.
Mandy (2018) is well-known for its use (or over-use) of film grain to get that old rustic look.

Always Be Trying New (And Old!) Things!

And that leads me to this, never be afraid to try new things. Or in the case of Mandy (2018), really old things. Find out what your audience wants, and craves and bring that served to them on a freshly made silver platter. There is so much to unpack in such a simple little thing such as using Film Grain or not, but I hope you found some enjoyment or inspiration out of this. Let me know what you think! And until next time!

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