What Is Film Grain? How to Give Your Movie a Physical Texture

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You may have heard someone say they prefer shooting on film and wondered why. Isn’t film stock more expensive? Aren’t digital tools more widely available and easier to use? 

While using modern equipment has its upsides, footage captured on film will always have a feel that is unique to the process—and that’s largely thanks to film grain. Below, we’ll explain what film grain is, how to control it, and ways to replicate this effect if physical film stock isn’t in your budget.

What is film grain?

On the most technical level, film grain comes from the small, metallic silver particles that are inherent in any photographic celluloid. When you see grain, it looks like tiny circles swimming around randomly on an image, almost like a sandy filter. This should not be confused with film “noise,” which are the scratches, hairs, specks, and random imperfections that affect a physical print over time. You’ll most clearly see noise during the opening and closing parts of a reel where it gets spliced together. To put it another way, when you’re looking at a pristine restoration of a movie shot on film, you’ll still be able to see the grain, but the noise will be removed.

Why does film grain occur?

Film strip

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Grain is always a part of physical film, but there are ways to make it more or less noticeable. The biggest factor is your camera’s ISO (International Organization for Standardization—not the most helpful acronym, I know). ISO represents the camera’s sensitivity to light; it is represented numerically as 50, 100, 400, 800, etc. The lower the ISO, the less sensitivity the sensor has to light; the higher the ISO, the higher the sensitivity. Furthermore, the higher the ISO, the likelier your shots will have noticeable film grain. Other factors at play include: 

  • Shutter speed, or the amount of time the shutter on your camera is open
  • Aperture, or the amount of light that enters the camera while the shutter is open
  • How much light is available in your scene

Your choice of film stock will also affect your graininess. Lower quality and cheaper stock such as 8 mm or 16 mm will produce a grainier image (think of old family movies shot with Super 8s). At the other end of the spectrum, you have 70 mm and IMAX stock, which achieve not only a massive image but one that’s highly detailed with barely noticeable grain (watch Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” and there’s no grain in sight).

How to create the film grain effect in digital

The drawbacks of physical film are its cost and its logistical limitations. If you buy film, shoot for a day, process the footage, look at the dailies, and don’t like what you see, you’ll need to scrap it and go buy more. Compare that to digital, where you can usually see what you’ve got in real time and can erase files with ease. 

But what if you want that grain effect? Thankfully, there are plenty of digital tools that allow you to add it in postproduction. For example, Adobe Premiere Pro offers 35 mm and 8 mm filters that you can import into your project, and then use the “overlay” blend mode.

Keep in mind that digital grain is different from film grain. With digital, you’ll get a lot of “noise” in your image if you attempt to stretch your camera beyond its dynamic range. That’s why you can’t replicate film grain in-camera while shooting digital by simply bumping up your ISO.

Why would I want film grain in the first place?

This is a fair question. After all, shouldn’t a filmmaker seek to capture a clear, immaculate image? 

Not necessarily. Film grain can give your movie a tactile feel. Think of the way Steven Soderbergh uses it in his 2000 Oscar-winning crime thriller, “Traffic.” 

These are characters who move through the gritty, unrefined world of drug-trafficking. Removing or smoothing out the grain would be antithetical to the tone of the movie and the way Soderbergh gets you to subconsciously co-inhabit the deserts, backrooms, and underground spaces of this setting. The same wouldn’t be true of, say, a sleek futuristic sci-fi film, but grain can impress upon the viewer a sense of immediate reality by telling them the very material they’re watching has a physicality. 

Another movie that uses film grain to great effect is Panos Cosmatos’ psychedelic horror “Mandy.” It was shot on digital but its purposely created film grain not only harkens back to classics of the genre, but also keeps the frame swimming with tiny particles to enhance the sense of the protagonist’s unraveling sanity.

Carol Reed’s 1949 noir “The Third Man” uses film grain wonderfully in its nighttime scenes. The city streets and sewers of post-war Vienna seem to close in around author Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), who gets caught in a web of intrigue surrounding the death of his childhood friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles).

Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” uses film grain to convey the immediacy and chaos of the battlefield. It also creates a visual callback to such war documentaries as John Ford’s “The Battle of Midway.”

When used correctly, film grain is not an obstacle that needs to be overcome or eliminated, but rather a useful instrument in a cinematic toolbox that can further enhance the look and feel of your movie.