Independent filmmakers are constantly striving to make their low-budget films emulate higher budget productions in any way that they can. One of the most common goals for directors and cinematographers is to recreate the ‘film look’, (which is certainly something I can relate to!). But unfortunately in the quest to find this look there have been some really unpleasant and cheap looking techniques that have become over popularized in recent years… The first was the overuse of shallow depth of field that exploded a few years back after the 5D MK II first was released, but most recently it is the milky black look that is destroying the color on so many filmmakers works of art.
For those of you that don’t know what I’m referring to when I say the ‘milky black look’, I’m simply referring to a color grading technique that is characterized by shadows that are crushed to black (while color grading), and then lifted up so that the black point of the image is never truly black. The areas of the image that should be completely black and contrasty are now somewhat muddy, smokey, or milky. The look can work well in certain circumstances, but for the most part it is being completely overused and misused by many amateur DPs. Take a look at this shot below for an example of the look. First is the raw shot, then first grade (with crushed blacks), and then the final shot with lifted blacks:
Why has this look become so popular? As we’ve already touched on, it is often associated with a more cinematic or filmic look as this technique softens up the image in the same way that certain types of older film stocks would. It is also a particularly easy look to achieve as once you’ve figured out how to do it (which is really only two steps in any basic color software or NLE), consistent results can be achieved quickly and easily. In a way, this may all sound good on the surface, but in reality it is not – in fact I think it’s just about the least filmic thing that you can do to your footage in many scenarios.
Let’s step back for a moment and address the notion that milky blacks are associated with the ‘film look’. This really could not be further from the truth. Yes, there are some film stocks that are very low-contast and produce this milky look, but the vast majority of DPs that are still shooting on 35mm stay far away from these stocks unless they are doing something ultra-stylized, where it is used purposefully. Also, saying that lifted shadows are characteristic of the film look, completely disregards all of the countless variations of film stocks. There are so many different types of stocks, all of which have their own unique look and feel to them and all of which are suitable for different stories. Just because the low-contrast look is the easiest to achieve does not mean it is the best technique for any given story.
A few years back, everyone that owned a DSLR would shoot wide open to get an extremely razor thin depth of field, believing that this would give their work a more cinematic look. Ironically, it branded their work as DSLR footage because it was taken too far. Productions would shoot at F1.4 on a full frame camera and they would end up capturing shots of their actors with only one eye in focus. It was really a terrible look that allowed filmmakers to be lazy by using shallow DOF to hide poor production design and composition from their viewer by relying on selective focus. With the exception of a very few rare feature films that shot in this style intentionally, this aesthetic is not in itself characteristic of a cinematic look. Shallow DOF is nice, but razor thin ultra shallow DOF is way too much most of the time. It simply was taken too far, and the exact same issue is happening now with the milky black look.
Here’s a bit more food for thought on the topic… High level DPs and directors today that are actually shooting on 35mm film are most often shooting with extremely clean film stocks that have nicely balanced contrast. Think back to recent films like The Master, Django Unchained, The Fighter, or any other higher budget film production of recent years. They all have beautiful contrast, black levels in the right places, and are extremely cinematic.
Even on films like Black Swan which intentionally use 16mm film to get a more gritty look, the DP and colorist are still conscious of their black levels to ensure that there is still a nice amount of contrast in the image. The vast majority of movies that are shot on film today are using extremely modern and clean looking 35mm film stocks that aren’t really that far off from high end digital formats such as ARRI RAW in many regards.
Great cinematography happens when purposeful choices are made by the DP and Director in order to serve the story in best way possible. There is no one-size fits all approach to the craft, and every project should be approached uniquely, and intentionally. Some productions may require a cleaner more clinical look, while others might be best served with an underexposed and muted color palette. There isn’t any right or wrong choice here, as long as the visual and artistic choices that are made are chosen based on their specific relationship to the creative project, and not simply out of convenience.
With all that said, there is nothing wrong with the milky black look when used correctly. I actually like this look quite a bit when it’s used right, and I myself have used it from time to time – but only when it is pertinent to the story. The film Martha Marcy May Marlene for instance makes excellent use of this technique, but the reason it works is because the aesthetic of the murky world that the filmmakers created calls for it. They didn’t simply choose to shoot and color it that way because it would be easy or because other people are doing it.
So if you are going to use this technique, make sure that your project truly calls for it, and that you don’t go overboard. Even just lifting the shadows slightly can give you this look, so don’t get tempted to take things a step too far and degrade the image!
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AlesAugust 5, 2017 at 8:35 pm
Great article. But if I do black, really black, it looks digitally. I do not know why. My camera Nikon D5100. I like bright black, but it would not fit into comedy, of course.
Noam KrollAugust 18, 2017 at 6:03 pm
Fair enough! Every camera has it’s quirks and we all have our own preferences and taste, so as long as you find a look that works for you that’s all that matters.
McBrideApril 19, 2017 at 4:28 pm
I only got about half way through the article, but I disagree.
One thing I learned in film was just to do things because you like and enjoy it. I think people use the grade because they like it. just because it’s popular doesn’t mean it is bad. We all got into filmmaking because we enjoyed it.
Noam KrollApril 19, 2017 at 7:21 pm
Thanks for the note – and I actually fully agree with you 🙂 If you got to the end of the article, I wrote:
I think we are coming from the same place. If you genuinely like the look and it’s right for your film – more power to you. But don’t just do it because it’s “in” right now…
Thanks again for sharing your thoughts on this. Hope to see you around the site again in the future!
michael cestaroJanuary 18, 2017 at 2:20 am
Great article. I don’t 100% agree with your out right criticism of the style but I do agree it’s being used too often and too inappropriately. I will say that as a commercial videographer for many years now, I’m finding that clients often look for it even if they don’t know to describe or even reference it. The last project I worked on I did a small experiment where in between revisions with the client I made all the changes we discussed but I also recolor graded the short piece to have the “milky black” effect (which is a great name for it btw). The client noticed it instantly and said, “Wow, what did you do! It looks so much more high-def and professional”…(she clarified “of course it looked amazing and professional before but…) “was this another camera I didn’t see?” She asked me. I was a little sad that something so seemingly trendy and prominent made my work that much more desirable by a client. I’m trying to keep this comment short but I think there’s a few reasons for this some of which you touch on here so beautifully. One, since clients are seeing this look everywhere (and on a lot of otherwise great work), they have associated it with good. I did think it was funny that the first description out of her mouth was “high-def” (I assume she meant more professional). Second is a more technical look at what is happening around video and how ONLINE video especially is being used. As a web developer and graphic designer, lower contrast images or video is a lot easier to place (white) text on. By bringing down the highs, you remove colors closer to white and by removing colors closer to black, you create a seemingly less busy image so that the white text is separated clearly from what’s behind it. Lastly, I think the milky black covers up lack-luster lighting and imperfections in skin and even masks hot spots on oily skin. My point being is that there are advantages to grading this way. Glad you’re writing about this!
Noam KrollJanuary 23, 2017 at 9:27 pm
Thanks Michael! And I totally agree with your points as well. As much as I ragged on the look in this article, there are circumstances where it works well, and where I use it too… I just get sick of any look when it gets over done!
Zack GietekFebruary 21, 2015 at 5:56 pm
Thanks for this Noam- you are spot on. I really dig the info that you’ve been sharing-well done.
One of the first directors I worked with shared some valuable insight, for the post-process, and one point that I live by and often share with newer post-guys is to “not let the effect overpower your message/story” This is exactly what your saying here. thanks
love your site btw- keep it up!
Noam KrollFebruary 23, 2015 at 4:52 pm
Thanks a lot Zack, and I completely agree with that point. Like any storytelling technique, it needs to suit the story and not just exist because it looks good or resembles some vintage film quality. There is a time and a place for it, but more often than not the natural look is better in my opinion!
Download 3 Free Low Contrast FCP X Color Board Presets For The Cinematic Look Here! | Noam KrollFebruary 20, 2015 at 2:36 pm
[…] Also, keep in mind that you don’t want to push things too far with a low contrast look. I wrote an article a while back about how the milky black look is very overused, and there is a fine line between a low contrast image and a milky image (which in some cases can […]
Nick Josh KareanJuly 22, 2014 at 7:30 am
Yes, as you very well have written it, there’s nothing wrong with the milky black look when used correctly and only when it is pertinent to the story because the aesthetic of the murky world calls for it instead of just shooting and coloring it that way since it’s easy or simply because other people are doing it. A film project has to truly call for it and it should not be done overboard as it will degrade the image especially when a particular film actually requires a more vibrant and exciting look and feel. We really need to understand how to express and tell a story from each color grade process used.
Noam KrollAugust 4, 2014 at 6:37 pm
Thanks for chiming in Nick and glad to hear you get what I am saying here! Nothing wrong with any aesthetic as long as it’s purposeful…
Nick Josh KareanNovember 26, 2016 at 8:01 pm
Here’s a related video essay on this subject as well ~> https://youtu.be/hpWYtXtmEFQ
ChrisJuly 14, 2014 at 4:23 am
The reason martha marcy looks that way is because the DP underexposed the stock by 2 stops and did not push it in development. This shifts the black and white levels organically. It also introduces more grain wich adds texture and a magenta shift to the blacks which in agreeance to your article reflect on the mood and feel of the story.
Noam KrollJuly 18, 2014 at 8:38 pm
Thanks for sharing this Chris!