By Brady Betzel
If you’ve been around any sort of color grading forums or conferences, you’ve definitely heard some version of this: Film is so much better than digital. While I don’t completely disagree with the sentiment, let’s be real. We are in a digital age, and the efficiency and cost associated with digital recording is, in most cases, far superior to film.
Personally, I love the way film looks; it has an essence that is very difficult to duplicate — from the highlight roll-offs to the organic grain — but it is very costly. That is why film is hard to imitate digitally, and that is why so many companies try and often fail.
One company that has had grassroots success with digital film stock emulation is FilmConvert. The original plugin, known as FilmConvert Pro, works with Adobe’s Premiere and After Effects, Avid Media Composer and as an OFX plugin for apps like Blackmagic’s DaVinci Resolve.
Recently, FilmConvert expanded its lineup with the introduction of Nitrate, a film emulation plugin that can take Log-based video and transform it into full color corrected media with a natural grain similar to that of commonly loved film stocks. Currently, Nitrate works with Premiere and After Effects, with an OFX version for Resolve. A plugin for FCPX is coming in March.
The original FilmConvert Pro plugin works great, but it adjusts your image through an sRGB pipeline. That means FilmConvert Pro adjusts any color effects after your “base” grade is locked in while living in an sRGB world. While you download camera-specific “packs” that apply the film emulation — custom-made based on your sensor and color space — you are still locked into an sRGB pipeline, with little wiggle room. This means sometimes blowing out your highlights and muddying your shadows with little ability to recover any details.
I imagine FilmConvert Pro was introduced at a time when a lot of users shot with cameras like Canon 5D or other sRGB cameras that weren’t shooting in a Log color space. Think of using a LUT and trying to adjust the highlights and shadows after the LUT; typically, you will have a hard time getting any detail back, losing dynamic range even if your footage was shot Log. But if you color before a LUT (think Log footage), you can typically recover a lot of information as long as your shot was recorded properly. That blown-out sky might be able to be recovered if shot in a Log colorspace. This is what FilmConvert is solving with its latest offering, Nitrate.
How It Works
FilmConvert’s Nitrate works in a Cineon-Log processing pipeline for its emulation, as well as a full Log image processing pipeline. This means your highlights and shadows are not being heavily compressed into an sRGB color space, which allows you to fine-tune your shadows and highlights without losing as much detail. Simply, it means that the plugin will work more naturally with your footage.
In additional updates, FilmConvert has overhauled its GUI to be more natural and fluid. The Color Wheels have been redesigned, a new color tint slider has been added to quickly remove any green or magenta color cast, a new Color Curve control has been added, and there is now a Grain Response curve.
The Grain Response curve takes adding grain to your footage up a notch. Not only can you select between 8mm and 35mm grain sizes (with many more in between) but you can adjust the application of that grain from shadows to highlights. If you want your highlights to have more grain response, just point the Grain Response curve higher up. In the same window you can adjust the grain size, softness, strength and saturation via sliders.
Of the 19 film emulation options to choose from, there are many unique and great-looking presets. From the “KD 5207 Vis3” to the “Plrd 600,” there are multiple brands and film stocks offered. For instance, the “Kodak 5207 Vis3” is described on Kodak’s website in more detail:
“Vision3 250D Film offers outstanding performance in the extremes of exposure — including increased highlight latitude, so you can move faster on the set and pull more detail out of the highlights in post. You’ll also see reduced grain in shadows, so you can push the boundaries of underexposure and still get outstanding results.”
One of my favorite emulations in Nitrate — “Fj Velvia 100” or Fujichrome Velvia 100 — is described on FilmConvert’s website:
“FJ Velvia 100 is based on the Fujichrome Velvia 100 photographic film stock. Velvia is a daylight-balanced color reversal film that provides brighter ultra-high-saturation color reproduction. The Velvia is especially suited to scenery and nature photography as well as other subjects that require precisely modulated vibrant color reproduction.”
FilmConvert’s website offers a full list of the 19 film stocks, as well as examples and detailed descriptions of each film stock.
Working With FilmConvert Nitrate
I used Nitrate strictly in Premiere Pro because the OFX version (specifically for Resolve) wasn’t available at the time of this review.
Nitrate works pretty well inside of Premiere, and surprisingly plays back fluidly — this is probably thanks to its GPU acceleration. Even with Sony a7 III UHD footage, Premiere was able to keep up with Lumetri Color layered underneath the FilmConvert Nitrate plugin. To be transparent I tested Nitrate on a laptop with an Intel i7 CPU and an Nvidia RTX 2080 GPU, so that definitely helps.
At first, I struggled to see where I would fit FilmConvert’s Nitrate plugin into my normal workflow so I could color correct my own footage and add a grade later. However, when I started cycling through the different film emulations, I quickly saw that they were adding a lot of life to the images and videos. Whether it was the grain that comes from the updated 6K grain scans in Nitrate or the ability to identify which camera and color profile you used when filming via the downloadable camera packs, FilmConvert’s Nitrate takes well-colored footage and elevates it to finished film levels.
It’s pretty remarkable; I came in thinking FilmConvert was essentially a preset LUT plugin and wasn’t ready for it to be great. To my surprise, it was great and it will add the extra edge of professional feeling to your footage quickly and easily.
In my first test, I threw some clips I had shot on a Sony a7 III camera in UHD (at SLog3 — SGamut3) into a timeline, applied the FilmConvert Nitrate plugin and realized I needed to download the Sony camera packs. This pack was about 1GB, but others —like the Canon 5D Mark II — came in at just over 300MB. Not the end of the world, but if you have multiple cameras, you are going to need to download quite a few packs and the download size will add up.
I tried using just the Nitrate plugin to do color correction and film emulation from start to finish, but I found the tools a little cumbersome and not really my style. I am not the biggest fan of Lumetri color correction tools, but I used those to get a base grade and apply Nitrate over that grade. I tend to like to keep looks to their own layer, so coloring under Nitrate was a little more natural to me.
A quick way to cycle through a bunch of looks quickly is to apply Nitrate to the adjustment layer and hit the up or down arrows. As I was flicking through the different looks, I noticed that FilmConvert does a great job processing the film emulations with the specified camera. All of the emulations looked good with or without a color balance done ahead of time.
It’s like adding a LUT and then a grade all in one spot. I was impressed by how quickly this worked and how good they all looked. When I was done, I rendered my one-minute sequence out of Adobe Media Encoder, which took 45 seconds to encode a ProResHQ and 57 seconds for an H.264 at 10Mb/s. For reference, the uncolored version of this sequence took 1:17 for the ProResHQ and :56 for the H.264 at 10Mb/s. Interesting, because the Nvidia RTX 2080 GPU definitely kicked in more when the FilmConvert Nitrate effect was added. That’s a definite plus.
I also shot some clips using the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera (BMPCC) and the Canon 5D Mark II. With the BMPCC, I recorded CinemaDNG files in the film color space, essentially Log. With the 5D, the videos were recorded as Movie files wrapped in MP4 files (unless you shoot with the Magic Lantern hack, which allows you to record in the raw format). I brought in the BMPCC CinemaDNG files via the Media Browser as well as imported the 5D Movs and applied the FilmConvert Nitrate plugin to the clips. Keep in mind you will need to download and install those camera packs if you haven’t already.
For the BMPCC clips I identified the camera and model as appropriate and chose “Film” under profile. It seemed to turn my CinemaDNG files a bit too orange, which could have been my white balance settings and/or the CinemaDNG processing done by Premiere. I could swing the orange hue out by using the temperature control, but it seemed odd to have to knock it down to -40 or -50 for each clip. Maybe it was a fluke, but with some experimentation I got it right.
With the Canon 5D Mark II footage, I chose the corresponding manufacturer and model as well as the “Standard” profile. This worked as it should. But I also noticed some other options like Prolost, Marvel, VisionTech, Technicolor, Flaat and Vision Color — these are essentially color profiles people have made for the 5D Mark II. You can find them with a quick Google search.
In the end, FilmConvert’s Nitrate will elevate your footage. The grain looks smooth and natural, the colors in the film emulation add a modern take on nostalgic color corrections (that don’t look too cheesy), and most cameras are supported via downloads. If you don’t have a large budget for a color grading session you should be throwing $139 at FilmConvert for its Nitrate plugin.
When testing Nitrate on a few different cameras, I noticed that it even made color matching between cameras a little bit more consistent. Even if you have a budget for color grading, I would still suggest buying Nitrate; it can be a great starting block to send to your colorist for inspiration.
Check out FilmConvert’s website and definitely follow them on Instagram, where they are very active and show a lot of before-and-afters from their users — another great source of inspiration.
Main Image: Two-year-old Oliver Betzel shot with a Canon 5D with KD P400 Ptra emulsion applied.
Brady Betzel is an Emmy-nominated online editor at Margarita Mix in Hollywood, working on shows like Life Below Zero and The Shop. He is also a member of the Producer’s Guild of America. You can email Brady at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @allbetzroff.