Introduction to film grain overlays and textures.

In many movies, images and games, film grain overlays give a lived-in, weathered and textured look. Discover how and when to use them.

Photo of Lisbon city skyline with film grain

What is film grain?

If you’ve watched a film and seen speckles on the screen in random patterns, you’ve seen film grain. Originally, the actual grains in film grain were small particles of silver halide, the primary photosensitive substance used in chemical film. These particles are randomly distributed artifacts throughout the image. As film techniques and equipment developed, the particles were engineered to be smaller and less visible.

 

History and origins of film grain

As long as there have been photographs, film grain has been a part of the art form. You might recognize it in photos as small flecks of black or dark material (“grains”) in an image. Like many photographic and video techniques, it can often be used to great stylistic effect.

 

Many filmmakers, photographers and games producers have utilised the limitations of film grain to create striking images. Film grain overlays can be used to generate emotional effects — think of iconic scenes in movies like Saving Private Ryan or Traffic, for instance. 

Film grain picture of beach and ocean with light leaks
Black and white photo of ocean with film grain effect.

What are film overlays?

Film overlays are graphics placed over images or video clips to produce a visual effect. They can be manipulated and edited to create a look such as film grain on screen.

 

Many video editors use them to add an extra sheen to their compositions, improving the overall professionalism of their production. They’re also a huge timesaver, as they can be simply ‘overlaid’ on top of an existing clip.

 

How is film grain measured?

Whether it’s a fine grain or a coarse grain, ISO is the primary method for referencing how much grain exists in an image. ISO is not an indicator of how many grains are present in a film, but a measurement of the film’s sensitivity to light. Higher ISOs are more sensitive to light and, due to the size of the light-sensitive particles, are much grainier. Lower ISO settings are less sensitive to light and will produce an image with much higher resolution.

 

Film grain does not exist in digital photography as digital photographic sensors do not have particles of silver halide floating around inside them. However, ISO settings in digital photography will still produce differences in film grain and image brightness. In a sense, your digital camera’s ISO setting is the computer in your camera attempting to modulate the light that hits its sensor. It can be thought of as roughly approximate to ISO grades of film stock. You can also see film grain effects in the world of graphic design.

Is film grain good or bad?

Film grain used correctly can infuse films with character, nostalgia and emotion. Used incorrectly and it can make your film memorable for all the wrong reasons.
 

Take note of the:
 

  • Amount of grain. Don’t go too strong on the number of crystals you’re adding to the film. Otherwise, it might obscure the footage you’ve captured, rather than enhance it.

  • Size of grain. Related to this, the size of grain is important as larger crystals will be more noticeable – even when used in lower amounts.

  • Roughness. How rough or smooth do you want your grains to be? It will likely vary based on the footage you’re working with.
     

Now, let’s look at some best practice examples of film grain used well
 

Film grain in games, movies and photography.

“In the present, time has no meaning anymore,” Panos Cosmatos, director of the grindhouse film Mandy, says. “Choosing an era for your film is almost like choosing a colour.” The creative choice with film overlays is yours to make. The goal of your work should inform this decision.

 

A sense of historical weight or nostalgia can be added with film grain. It sets a tone. “The more we get to a clean digital world, the more we long for analogue things that make us feel a sense of texture and connection,” filmmaker Nick Escobar says.

 

Having an era in mind or an example of how you want your photos or videos to look is a great way to start thinking about where and when to use film grain in your work.

 

Here are some inspiring film grain examples: 

 

  • Christopher Nolan: •Many Nolan films utilise film grain to great effect, and you can see this in Dunkirk.

 

  • The Third Man: In this iconic 1949 film noir, the night and darkness scenes in this movie use the graininess of film at the time as an asset.

 

  • Louis Faurer: The photographer was known for taking candid street photographs, especially nocturnal scenes, where he tried to capture the deeply human aspects of life.

 

  • Amy Lombard: While she doesn’t limit herself to only using grain, Lombard’s photography can be a great source of inspiration for how colour and film grain can interact.

  • Call of DutyMany of the titles in this gaming franchise have cinematic scenes set in the past. The developers have added film grain overlays to add a movie-style visual element to simulated aspects of the game.
Old car interior with people sitting on the hood with film grain.

How and when to use film grain overlays.

Modern video and photo editing tools make adding in film grain overlays easier than ever before - especially in a post-production environment with a full suite of tools.

 

In Adobe Photoshop, you have several options for adding film grain. The simplest is the Noise filter. You can mix, match and edit the noise to be as grainy as you like. If you’d like to exercise a greater degree of control over the image, you can utilise blending modes.

 

In Adobe Premiere Pro, you’ll need to find a film grain overlay. You can find free film grain overlays online, while others are available to buy.

 

It’s also easy to capture the look of 35mm film or 8mm film with digital filters. Find one that works well for your clip and import it into your Premiere Pro project. You can also apply filters in Adobe After Effects to capture that classic film look.

 

Once you’ve done that, add it to your track. One helpful method for keeping things looking natural and ‘lived in’ is to use the “overlay” blend mode.

 

Continue to learn about using film grain in Photoshop and Premiere Pro with support from the Adobe Help Centre. Or explore Adobe Create magazine for more insights and tips on the film industry and photography.

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