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Why You Should Be Using Film Grain on Digital Video + 5 Free Film Grain Overlays

Robbie Janney

Dirtying up a clean digital image with a film grain overlay is relatively simple, and it’s a perfect way to add a touch of nostalgia your project.

When working with digital images and videos, you may come across a relatively new problem in the filmmaking world. Your video is too clear and too sharp. I know that sounds ridiculous — “My footage is too perfect!” — but really, sometimes you look back at your footage after shooting, and it just seems a little off. Certainly, there are times to use film grain, and there are times when you shouldn’t (we’ll just leave the whole can of worms about using it in the first place for you to fight about on the internet). But film grain has plenty of other uses than recreating an old film look.

Recently, Shutterstock Tutorials gave away 5 free film grains recorded using actual film cameras, and here, I’ll show you why you should be using them — and some unconventional uses for your next project.

So What’s the Big Deal with Film Grain?

Why You Should Be Using Film Grain on Digital Video + 5 Free Film Grain Overlays — Film Grain

If you aren’t familiar with using film grain overlays on digital footage, you may be wondering, “What’s the point?” Well, I think of it like music — how some people prefer listening to music on a vinyl record player. The hums, hisses, and pops of a vinyl record fill in the empty space and create a full sound that feels . . . warm. Digital silence is much different than analog silence — in digital silence, there’s no information being processed, so there is no sound output. With an analog source like a record player, the needle will continue to play the information that it finds in the grooves of the record. It’s comforting in an odd way. Film grain works the same way — it cuts the “silence” of digital video with a bit of motion and grit that brings warmth to an image.

Why You Should Be Using Film Grain on Digital Video + 5 Free Film Grain Overlays — Film Grain

Now whenever I first posted this video to YouTube, the first comments were all pretty much the same — “Why not just shoot on film?” Yeah, okay, that is definitely the preferred way to get film grain. But, the thing is, it isn’t practical. Most people do not have access to a cinematic film camera, let alone can they afford rolls and rolls of 16 or 35mm film, which is very expensive. I remember an episode of Project Greenlight wherein the director wanted to use real film cameras for his feature, but he wasn’t able to since it was going to increase their expenses by about 40 percent. For the average filmmaker who doesn’t have the clout to demand film cameras on set, it just isn’t feasible to shoot with them on a basic budget.

So, your second best option is using film grain overlays.

Using Small Amounts of Film Grain in Your Project

Why You Should Be Using Film Grain on Digital Video + 5 Free Film Grain Overlays — Film Grain

If you want to avoid obvious film grain, whether for aesthetic or practical reasons, you can blend it lightly into your project with the opacity settings. Overlay it with the blend modes in the opacity tab, and then bring down the opacity to 15 or 20 percent. This will just lay a thin veil of grain onto your project, and it might be the slight touch you need to get the look you want. (There is also a very fine 35mm film grain in Shutterstock’s download package that you can use — it has very tiny grains that still act as a cohesive element, but without being as obvious as a  coarse grain.)

Film Grain and Motion Graphics

Why You Should Be Using Film Grain on Digital Video + 5 Free Film Grain Overlays — Motion Graphics

Film grain also adds a cinematic feel to motion graphics. Most motion graphics come out looking very sharp, which could stick out when being integrated into a stylized project. When you overlay film grain onto a motion graphic, it acts like a cohesive agent and “glues” all of the layers together so they don’t look so separate from each other. It also smoothes out the harsh edges of digital shapes, and it even reduces banding on gradient backgrounds. Give it a shot — throw a fine grain overlay onto your next motion graphic and blend it into your layers. You’ll be surprised how much difference it makes.

Looking for more post-production tips and tricks? Check these out.

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