What is Film Grain? (Includes Free 4k Film Grain Downloads)

This article will answer “What is film grain?” and discuss why filmmakers want to use it. Film grain is a visual texture made up of small, randomly organized particles. It appears in photos and movies shot on photogenic film, and many people describe it as “gritty” or “sandy” looking.  Film grain can have many different looks because grain size, density, and roughness can all vary. Factors like film speed, exposure levels, and developing time and conditions may influence graininess.

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Each individual frame of photogenic film has a unique grain structure. Because of this, motion picture grain arrangements look like they are moving when played back. Some people say this movement looks like a snowstorm. Grain is usually most noticeable in the darker areas of an image, but it is often present throughout the entire image. If you check out the picture below, you’ll see the film grain is more noticeable in the dark tones.

Although film grain is technically a defect (sometimes called film noise), it is highly sought after. Filmmakers have grown to love the look. Its vintage appeal has stuck around, even when shooting on film stock has fallen out of favor. Consequently, a sizable portion of the digital film making community adds it to their footage. You can download premium and free film grain online to add to your footage.

Black and White & Color Grain

The classic grain look is commonly associated with old black and white film. However, it is just as common in color film. Black and white grain is monochromatic. It is black and white, just like the film stock. Color film stock, on the other hand, has colorful grain.

More complex than b&w film stock, color film is made up of light-sensitive layers of cyan, magenta, & yellow stacked on top of each other. In fact it is often made of o several layers of each color. After processing, color films stock leaves color dye clouds behind. These dye clouds are what make colorful film grain.

black & white film grain

Black & white film grain

color film grain dye clouds

Color film grain dye clouds

A photo with Color Film Grain

A photo with Color Film Grain

What Causes Grain?

Let’s Get Technical

Grain texture results of the film emulsion process. Photogenic film is made of a transparent plastic strip. Inside, a gelatin packed with light-sensitive silver halide crystals. When the crystals are exposed to light, they clump together, converting into metallic silver. Later, the development process chemically removes silver. Grain structures are the remnants of clustered halide particles.

We tend to think of film in two dimensions, but it has thickness to it. When silver particles cluster, they do so in all three dimensions.  Film grain structures are formed as a result of clustering occurring in the depth of the film strip.

What we see as film grain is actually a phenomenon of our perception. Our eyes and brains work together to process what we see in a photogenic capture of an image. We see the full thickness of the emulsion layer, which is often maid of several layers, and we perceive a granular pattern. The pattern is really what we take in, rather than the individual particles.

silver halid the building block of film grain

A microscopic shot of silver halide

Film Stock and the Appearance of Film Grain

Faster film stock uses large silver crystals, which make the film more sensitive to light. Consequently, fast film tends to have larger grain. Slower film stock, on the other hand uses smaller silver crystals. They take longer to collect light and  often result in smaller, finer grain.

Film stocks often have a mixture of large and small particles. As mentioned earlier, film grain is sometimes more noticeable in the dark areas of a shot. This is usually a  result of the large particles receiving full exposure, while the small particles go underexposed. Because film prints to a negative, the light areas are originally grainier because more light equals more clusters of silver halide. After processing, the underexposed parts of a shot are the grainiest.

Photogenic film resolution is dependent on the size and distribution of silver halide.  Kodak’s invention of T-GRAIN (tabular grain) made film crystals more efficient at capturing light. T-Grain silver particles are flatter than standard silver halide. As a result, they capture light on the surface and have lest particle clumping in the depth of the film. This gave filmmakers fast films stock  with clear images and fine grain.

 

Why do digital filmmakers want to add film grain to their work?

Modern digital cameras do not generate film grain. However, many filmmakers add grain later in post. Overlaying film grain to footage is mainly a stylistic choice. Some filmmakers simply like how it looks. There are a variety of logical reasons to add film grain to video, as well.

High Quality Film Grain

To Get the “Film look”

Achieving the film look is the most noteworthy reason filmmakers use film grain. When filmmakers discuss achieving the film look, film grain is one of the first topics they bring up. Movies lived on photogenic film for nearly the entire history of cinema. It makes sense that film grain intertwines with the notion of the film look. Lots of filmmakers feel that a traditional, film-like visual aesthetic is essential to creating a full cinematic experience.

Cohesion

A proper film grain overlay helps blend footage together. Insert shots are common in filmmaking. Oftentimes, shots captured from different cameras or under different recording settings do not blend well. Grain can add a cohesive look that binds everything together.

Dynamic Aesthetic

As mentioned earlier, film grain adds a layer of movement to footage. This is typically the reason why photogenic film enthusiasts feel that movies shot on films are more dynamic and feel more alive. This movement often helps make still shots and graphics look more interesting.

To “fill in the cracks” of digital cinema

The super-fine picture detail in films shot in 4k and above can sometimes come across harsh and jagged. Due to its soft, diffused nature, film grain takes the edge off over-sharp images.

Additionally, grain  helps fix footage that is over-smooth images that result from digital noise reduction. Sometimes, the effects of noise reduction in post-production can make people look too smooth and plastic-like. Grain adds texture back in, giving the image a bit more character.

Finally, grain helps reduce the effects of video compression, like moire  and banding, when films are uploaded online. Grain obscures fine detail. As a result, it is an elegant solution in battling digital artifacts.

Grain Vs. Digital Noise

Both analog grain and digital noise are types of artifacts or defects in regards to image capturing. Their differences lie in the patterns of these artifacts. Analog grain is random and chaotic, whereas digital noise is systematic. Digital noise is often blocky. Because of this, it is visually less visually interesting to most viewers.

Conclusion

In conclusion, film grain is an effective tool in achieving the film look, adding life to your shot, and blending footage. While it is important, film grain is not the only element to creating a cohesive, visually pleasing piece. If you use it as an element that support great lighting, composition, and camera movement, you will create a fantastic work of motion picture.

Sources & Recommended Reading

Film Structure by Kodak: PDF
Silver-Halide Recording Materials: for Holography and Their Processing View Page
Film Grain, Resolution & Fundamental Film Particles View Page

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