Notes on Digital Grain

I think most digital filmmakers are a little worried about digital grain plugins, and for very well-founded reasons. First of all when you’re shooting DV you’re constantly fighting the codec itself, straining against it’s compression and limited color space, just trying to produce the image that you think you can work with. After all this toil, then, why do you want to throw a bunch of what might be considered “noise” on top of your picture? In a perfect world this wouldn’t be necessary. In a perfect world we would all have the money to shoot the films we wanted on 35mm or 16 or whatever format we wanted and we’d have all the money in the world for all the telecine which we would need to get that specific effect. But in the practial world of low-budget filmmaking where, at times, I think you have to stretch your budget a little, and I think given the extreme creative possibilities of video I think you’d be a fool not to try and open your mind to some new things, at least sometimes.

I was forced into using digital grain when I had to somehow link parts of FBN that I’d shot on Super-8 with DV-sourced material and to a certain degree I was successful. You’ll just have to see the results on the final DVD when it comes out, but I think the entire film lays together surprising well with the processed miniDV and in some very limited cases I was able to really grab the video and come out the other end with something which was indistinguisable from Super-8. In other cases I had to work with the footage I had and it came out just okay, and at other times I consciously wanted to go for a cleaner look because the further I got into the project the less I cared about simply mimicking Super-8 or trying to ape some retro look, because I realized for me that movie had become about this character who is so locked into the past of his life that he can only live within the damaged depths of his own mind so how better to reflect this than make a film which had an aged look to it like some faded Kodachome photographic “memory” from years ago? So, in a sense, the “medium became the message,” to badly mangle a McCluhan quote. Again, I think after a while these idea just develop. To me the key phrase is “style BECOMING substance,” but perhaps I place too much emphasis on this.

Grain is an odd thing. I’m not sure about the full photo-chemical analysis of it but to my eye, grain doesn’t sit on top of the picture but it’s somehow integral to it. It’s the brush strokes on a painting in a way and it somehow gets the audience closer to the physical medium on some psychological level. For FBN I tested three distinct grain plugins: Digieffect’s Cinelook Film Damage, Grain Surgery and the built-in grain filters in Magic Bullet Suite. I found that overall, Cinelook’s tools gave me everything I needed and even though the default Film Damage settings are a little extreme, once you dial everything down, take out most of the scratches and those stupid stains and white flecks, things begin to take shape. Film Damage’s built-in grain plugin is also a little simpler than the others and it only produces black-and-white grain which to me looks less like video noise and it seems to impregnate itself into image more fully; I began to experiment with changing the degree of grain and then placing two instances of Film Damage on top of each where they began to give me this good “resonating” effect because both plugins were firing off slightly different, which I liked. I could see from my limited testing that Grain Surgery was a monster plugin which could be used to great results but it was a far more exacting and high-resolution solution (really for high-def / 35mm production) which couldn’t quite give me the “filth” I was looking for in SD, but when I start finishing things in HD I think Grain Surgery would be something to return to. Recently I’ve been doing some 1080p tests and Grain Surgery is looking good (though Film Damage looks quite beautiful in 1080 too). I only tested the Magic Bullet Suite in Premiere Pro because when I tested it the Grain plugin was only available in the “suite” version and wasn’t part of the After Effects plugins. I was pleased with the results but I definitely wasn’t pleased with the fact that the plugin was so sluggish and I just wanted to stay within After Effects to maintain a consisten workflow (though I must admit that FBN’s workflow was rather messy). One more thing I really liked about Cinelook’s plugins was that they were relatively responsive and rendered quicker.

Digital grain provides a certain consistency to your look and it can also hide a multitude of digital sins, kind of like one of the reasons for the snow running over those composites in Citizen Kane was because Orson Welles and his technicians were never happy with the grain introduced using then-current optical printing technologies so they used this snow to kind of “hide” things. There were a number of rather extreme digital recomposites (most shots in the alley scene at night) and zooms (the hotel scene) within FBN which would’ve stood out and looked very soft if you saw the raw DV but which very nearly worked with all damn grain, so when all else fails, basically what I’m saying is go nuts with this grain stuff.

It’s a weird thing for me to watch this film I’ve made and see how grainy the image really turned out, because as a kid that was totally foreign to the visual style I wanted to cultivate. This comes from my roots in low-res video, 8mm, and combined with the low-quality CCDs of consumer cams this just makes for a fuzzy picture through and through. When I was kid I hated this and I wanted to makes images so sharp that if you got too close to the screen you might worry about cutting yourself on the edges, I mean I was committed to sharpness to a degree you can’t possibly fathom. I guess the old adage “be careful what you wish for” holds true because when I finally got into miniDV I found my tastes had changed and of these jagged digital edges began to disturb me. I actually think analog video hit a weird kind of “sweet spot” with Hi-8; have ever seen any Hi-8 footage shot with a really solid 3-chip professional sony cam? It really sings. Much of the reason we think of the format as so muddy is because we’re seeing the output from those early tiny cameras. Even though it was shot with a tiny cam, some of the Hi-8 transferred to 35mm in Abel Ferrara’s Dangerous Game really stands out for me as interesting-looking stuff.

I don’t know, beyond all of this jumble of anecdotes and academic scribbling I think the most important thing is to just go out, experiment and use both the features and limitations of any medium you choose to full advantage. Sometimes I personally get really discouraged when I read all this crap on the internet about 8-bit vs. 10-bit NLE, the limitations of this codec, problems with this and that and all the rest. Very little of it seems substantial while the balance just feels like a bunch of kibbitizing from maladjusted teenagers; the sad thing is that most of these postings come from middle-aged men who I feel are and taking this IBM sales approach to High-Def, leaving a great deal of invention by the wayside. I think there have been many accusations thrown at me about about pretension this, arty that, and if all I did was write this blog or sit in some dusty room ranting to people I could see that but for me, in my heart I feel like I’m a technician; I think about this stuff, I try to test but then I go out and try to make something. Even though I like technical things and equipment I have no extreme dogma or any kind of fetishistic attachment to one technology over another, because really when it comes down it I think that line of thinking is a load crap. It’s stuff like that which is a poison to the mind whatever kind of financial gain one might recieve out of it. Ultimately, I just want to go out and get to the finish line.