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Classic 90s Film Look


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Ive been looking into exactly how to achieve that classic 90's film look of any big budget feature. I have shot on a good mount of stock from that era (though expired) and also EXR, Vision 1, 2 3 ect and it never really seems to capture "that look". I am leaning less towards film stock and more towards scanning or a combination of film stock, scanner and lighting in a specific way for film stock of that era. With high end scanners today, we are pretty close to having everything scanned on the same sensor regardless of scanner manufacturer. I feel like this may be a reason as to why there seemed to be a shift from one aesthetic to another. 

If anyone has any input it would be greatly appreciated. 

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Certainly shooting on 35mm color negative helps, but whenever anyone talks about the look of old movies, they need to tell us what their frame of reference is - Memory? Old 35mm print projected at a revival theater? Old DVD copy probably transferred to NTSC using an interpositive? Modern blu-ray transfer to HD from interpositive or even camera original?

And that doesn't even address the stylistic changes in lighting, filters, fashion, hairstyles, etc.

 

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For sure. For instance anything from Whats Eating Gilbert Grape to The Shawshank Redemption, Groundhog Day or even Speed and Diehard I consider 90's. For me, growing up with these movies in SD on television then to re-watch them on a more modern HD television, they seemed to still have retained a certain aesthetic.  

If you look at Reservoir Dogs, even though that was made in 92, it to me has a more vintage feel from the 70/80's feel which was the point. A movie that looked like it was from the 50's but also the 70's but set in the 90s. I think this is a great example of what your talking about with lighting, filters, fashion, hairstyles, etc. Lenses also. 

Even movies from the 80's such as Ghostbusters seem to have a certain look and feel. 

Then move to the 2000's with one of my favorites Requiem for a Dream and it has a different feel and aesthetic which very well could be just a different approach to lighting and art dept. That era seemed to be when cinematographers and directors were really leaning into alternative processes like bleach bypass or C-41 X-Pro or even just the use of unfiltered T Stock in daylight and chasing a more stylized look. 

Whether its a theater experience with a 35mm print or watching on HD or SD, for me there has always been an inherent quality to early to mid 90's movies that is hard to describe and I think noticeable from both past and present films.

 

Edited by Jeremy Saltry
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I think one aspect is that they are generally LIT, there was less ability to shoot in available light all the time. Some are very naturally-lit however, like "Shawshank Redemption", compared to the noir-ish-but-glossy lighting in "Die Hard".  And some of those examples you mention are more theatrically harder-lit than others, "Reservoir Dogs" in particular (especially since it was all shot on 50 ASA daylight film using HMI Pars as key lights.) That gave the movie a retro-look even when it came out.

 

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Thats a great observation and very logical. The more everyone saw advances with film stock and then eventually to digital sensors, more boundaries were pushed and the less you would have to light a scene. Thats a cool example of how technology directly impacts the art or aesthetic side of film and how it can shape an era or generation. 

You're spot on in that it is a culmination of a many things. Do you know how 90's films would typically be transferred to digital? I would assume a print would be scanned. I almost wonder if there was one or two scanners in particular being used. It seems like the difference would be negligible if scanned today on a ScanStation Director vs whatever the capture would be in that generation. 

Edited by Jeremy Saltry
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A projection print is considered too high contrast to make a good video transfer though for some old movies like some 20th Century Fox Technicolor films of the 40's, that's all that exists. I think even the blu-ray of the European cut of Ridley Scott's "Legend" is from a print because that's all that exists of that version. So it's possible but it is hard to color-correct with so little latitude.

Generally a movie back then would have been transferred either from the interpositive (a positive color-timed copy of the negative, with the same orange mask, with more or less the same contrast as the negative) or a low-con print, sometimes called a "tele print", a flatter version of the projection print.  Most films with a budget would have used the interpositive, though the first transfer of "Se7en" for Criterion laserdisc used a low-con print that went through the same silver retention process as the release print, which means it ended up not being very low-con (but still less contrasty than the theater prints.)

Interpositives can be made on pin-registered contact printers but a low-con print is more likely to be made on the same high-speed printers as the release print, so there is more possibility of jitter and weave to be introduced and it might not be quite as sharp.

It's harder to transfer from the original cut negative because it has been spliced and sometimes it is A-B rolled. Plus it is the original negative after all, the less you touch it, the better.

Scanning versus a telecine is a separate issue from the film element used. Today it's a gray area, but "scanning" generally means each frame is pin-registered and is scanned and saved as a file, and it happens in less than real time (i.e. not at 24 fps), but a telecine transfer runs the film in real time and is saved as in a video codec. However, like I said, it's a bit of a grey area, some telecines are more like scanners, save the recording as individual files, run less than real-time, etc.  Cut negative more likely might get scanned more than telecine transferred. Someone else here can answer that more accurately than me.

These days, since some of these 90's movies are valuable assets, there might be a digital restoration done to both create a digital archival master and new masters for home video.  I recall visiting someone at Universal who said they were scanning the original negative of "Out of Africa" at 6K on the Arriscanner.

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 Jeremy,

 

   You can get that 90's look with the right ingredients.

Filmstock: Shoot on Kodak 500T 5219, underexpose by 1/3 stop, push 1 stop in processing.

Lenses: Use Zeiss Superspeeds(any series is fine) or LOMO primes (use the 77-89 lenses)

Lighting: Employ purposeful separation with sidelight, edge light and kickers. DO NOT USE LED's. The TEXTURE of the light is VERY important in re-creating the 90's. Utilize Tungsten fixtures,  T12 KINOFLO's and Chinese lanterns with incandescent or quartz(500 or 1000 watt bulbs) and HMI's. Make some covered wagons using ceramic light sockets that burn incandescent bulbs. Employ a bit of overhead lighting when possible.

Atmosphere: Rent a HAZER not a fog machine. Use it in the background. Test it to see if you like the look.

POST: Find a post house that has a CRT Telecine and make a transfer. Ohhh.. those CRT transfers really have a nice quality to the colors. It will take you even closer to the 90's look.

KNOWLEDGE: Read key 90's issues of AMERICAN CINEMATOGRAPHER(ie; The issue about how Khondji shot SE7EN, THE CITY OF LOST CHILDREN issue, the FIGHT CLUB issue, the GLADIATOR issue, The MAY 1993 issue, The 1996 MISSION IMPOSSIBLE issue.

 

YOU CAN GET THAT 90's LOOK WITH TODAY'S GEAR. Arm you self with knowledge and experiment.

 

Edited by Dave Kovacs
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Love these discussions! I wonder, would a 'dry' scan look significantly different than a 'wet' scan?

David, I get your point about lighting - lots of diffused lighting is used today, but not so much in the '80s IIRC. Although I am thinking of TV shows. However, they did have 500T stocks back then... unless those stocks weren't actually 500 ASA!

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Certainly many 90's productions could shoot wide-open in very low-light on 500T, maybe underexposed, and some did. If they pushed, that would have increased contrast. But the average movie often rated 500T at 320 or 400 ASA and tried to work around an f/2.8 or even an f/4 for anamorphic movies, there wasn't the stylistic obsession with super shallow depth of field as today. So there was more lighting going on at higher levels than today.

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19 hours ago, Giray Izcan said:

I would push and get a lowcon print and scan the print. There you go, you will get that 90's movie look. That is how I. work so I know for sure. I don't always push but I do quite often.

Lowcon prints aren't that low contrast, and are quite difficult to work from.  In the end, your color correction is likely to look more contrasty than viewing a release print of the same movie.  Your result might look "old", but not like viewing a film print in a theater in the 1990's 🙂

 

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  • 5 months later...

That's a great thread !! I want to add some examples of "90s look reference"  that i watched recently on tv channels or netflix

-AS GOOD AS IT GETS 

- DISCLOSUR

Also there was 'Heat' on tv .. and even though i think  it's more "dark" that the classic 90's style .. it was SO different that the modern movies that was the same time on other tv channels 

Edited by panagiotis agapitou
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I would say, start by using more light and stop down more. Shoot on 200 ASA stock, not 500 ASA. Use a print emulation LUT or a high contrast curve in post, and light with that range in mind. All those movies were intended for theatrical release on contrasty print stocks, so they had to light and expose accordingly.

I feel like lower budget indie films of the era generally shot on faster stocks and used less light, making them look closer to how we shoot today. But the big budget studio films had the money for bigger lights.

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  • 1 year later...
On 3/5/2020 at 7:31 PM, Dave Kovacs said:

POST: Find a post house that has a CRT Telecine and make a transfer. Ohhh.. those CRT transfers really have a nice quality to the colors. It will take you even closer to the 90's look.

 

First of all congratulation for your really great advices !!

Can you suggest me some post houses with CRT telecines ? Also what is the maximum resolution you can get from a CRT telecine ? 

Thank you very very much !!!!

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I don't know if Gladiator (2000) qualifies as a 90's style looking movie but I must say it has a fantastic look. Watched it again recently (twice, once with the commentary from Ridley Scott and the DP). Shot all with spherical lenses on 35mm. I don't know how it was transferred to DVD but it has a look to the colour and texture that I really like. Looks so much better to me than many of the latest movies at the cinema. Looks almost like it was scanned from a print.

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15 minutes ago, Jon O'Brien said:

I don't know if Gladiator (2000) qualifies as a 90's style looking movie but I must say it has a fantastic look. Watched it again recently (twice, once with the commentary from Ridley Scott and the DP). Shot all with spherical lenses on 35mm. I don't know how it was transferred to DVD but it has a look to the colour and texture that I really like. Looks so much better to me than many of the latest movies at the cinema. Looks almost like it was scanned from a print.

Can you post some frames ?

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On 10/10/2021 at 1:52 PM, panagiotis agapitou said:

First of all congratulation for your really great advices !!

Can you suggest me some post houses with CRT telecines ? Also what is the maximum resolution you can get from a CRT telecine ? 

Thank you very very much !!!!

That will require some research. Visit the website of the telecine post houses in your area. Some may still have a RANK telecine or any type that still uses the CRT technology. Dig into the archives on this site and read the discussions on the differences in telecine machines. I know for sure the SPIRIT Datacine and Spirit 2K machines will NOT be the type that you are looking for.  Something is lost with the upgrade to the 2K and 4K machines. There is a post house that is still using a RANK telecine for transfers, I'm not sure which one does.

 

 

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33 minutes ago, Dave Kovacs said:

That will require some research. Visit the website of the telecine post houses in your area. Some may still have a RANK telecine or any type that still uses the CRT technology. Dig into the archives on this site and read the discussions on the differences in telecine machines. I know for sure the SPIRIT Datacine and Spirit 2K machines will NOT be the type that you are looking for.  Something is lost with the upgrade to the 2K and 4K machines. There is a post house that is still using a RANK telecine for transfers, I'm not sure which one does.

 

 

Is this one ok ? https://youtu.be/aT81llm_0Fw

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Rank made a super neat machine that was a CRT lamp HD telecine, that's the machine I'd use if you want that 90's look on 16mm especially. It was widely used, but finding one today that runs maybe tough. Most of the people who owned them converted them to all-digital or tossed them out, as the CRT's have been impossible to get for years now. So if you were able to find a facility with one, it may not be what you're after OR even work. Finding one used, forget about because they're very heavy, require a lot of power and are for better or worse, going to fail on you due to the CRT lamp source. The later generation Spirit is a totally different machine, nothing very similar honestly, it looks like a modern machine in a lot of ways, just slightly softer due to it's optics/imaging technology than a modern scanner. Still a very good machine, but maybe not quite the 90's look unless you muck with the scan quite a bit. 

Personally a lot of the 90's look is also the EXR stock that is LONG been since discontinued. Gotta think about that as well. 

 

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