What Gives Movies That Distinctive ‘Film’ Look?

There are a few factors that collectively impart the typical ‘film’ look that movies have. Let’s take a look at a few of them:

Frame rate

Frame rate is the measure of the number of individual images shown every second (in a video). Commonly abbreviated (and known) as ‘fps’, it’s the frequency of consecutive images (called frames) that appear on a display.

We humans can process 10-12 images per second and perceive them as individual images, but when a higher number of images are shown within the duration of a second, we perceive it as motion.

Given below is a table of significant frame rates used in modern devices:


(Photo Credit: University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign )

As you can see in the table above, different kinds of videos have different value of frame rate. The ‘film’ look that Hollywood movies have is perceivable because those movies are shot at a frame rate of 24 frames per second (with a shutter speed of 1/48th of a second).

You could also shoot a movie at a much higher frame rate. In fact, movie makers often dabble with different frame rates to find the most suitable setting for the content of their movies. However, most filmmakers stick to the standard frame rate of 24 fps.

hobbit 48fps

A still from the movie The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. The entire movie was shot in 48 fps, rather than the industry standard of 24 fps. Interestingly, some viewers complained that the scenes looked “too real” on the big screen! (Photo Credit: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug / New Line Cinema)

Dynamic range

Dynamic range is the ratio between the smallest and largest values that a certain quantity can have. In the context of photography and videography, it refers to the data caught caught between the ‘highs and lows’ of the image; in other words, it refers to how much detail is captured between the brightest areas and the darkest ones.

To put this in perspective, imagine that you are in your garage and, from right there, you take a picture of a friend who is posing in the driveway, entirely bathed in bright sunlight. If your camera has a high dynamic range, it would be able to capture both the darkened interior of the garage and the brightly lit outside at the same time.

Here’s an example:

contrast underexposed and overexposed

The dynamic range of the image on the left is the best of all three images here.

The higher the dynamic range, the better your image/video will turn out to be.

Movie makers shoot movies with modern high-definition cameras, many of which are specially designed to have a very high dynamic range, something that regular cameras lack.

If you use a camera with a lower dynamic range (traditional smartphone cameras usually have a low dynamic range), you will have to make a compromise between how the brightest and darkest aspects of your frame appear in the final image.

Contrast and color grading

After the filming of a movie is complete, it’s passed on to the editors’ table. These people work on the ‘visual enhancement’ aspect. In addition to doing a bunch of other stuff with the video, they also add contrast and push up certain colors to make the video look more aesthetically appealing.

colour contrast

The image on the left side has the best contrast among all three. Notice how good contrasting and color grading can make the same picture look better. (Photo Credit : Max Pixel)

If a video is not properly color graded or contrasted, it looks pretty similar to a traditional phone-recorded video.

Aspect ratio

This is another factor responsible for that signature movie look. The ‘aspect ratio’ is nothing fancy; it simply refers to the overall shape of the footage. You may have seen that the shape of the video shot by a DSLR camera is different from that of movies we see on the big screen. Cinematic shots are less tall and much wider.

Visual comparisons

Can you tell which image looks more ‘cinematic’? (Photo credit : Andreas -horn- Hornig/ Wikimedia Commons)

If you shoot a video in a standard cinematic widescreen ratio, its ‘shape’ will be quite similar to that of movies.


The importance of proper lighting in photography cannot be stressed enough! Movie producers spend a great deal of money to get the lighting on their film sets right.

A significant part of that ‘film’ look of movies can be attributed to having just the right amount of both natural and artificial lighting while filming scenes on movie sets.

bad light in photography

Poor lighting can ruin a good picture. (Photo Credit : PxHere)

It should be noted that these are NOT the only elements that contribute to the ‘film’ look; there are, of course, many other factors involved (such as camera equipment, especially lenses, and even the skill of the cinematographer). Together, all these ingredients, when mixed together, impart that signature look to movies that we’ve all come to know and love.


  1. Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI)
  2. Harvard University
  3. University Library, University Of Illinois
  4. Massachusetts Institute Of Technology
  5. The University Of Kansas
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About the Author:

Ashish is a Science graduate (Bachelor of Science) from Punjabi University (India). He spends a lot of time watching movies, and an awful lot more time discussing them. He likes Harry Potter and the Avengers, and obsesses over how thoroughly Science dictates every aspect of life… in this universe, at least.

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