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Spot the difference--and tell me why it's there

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I've never been able to quite find out what makes contemporary film look so different from older films. I mean, if you watch a film from the '60s and compare it with any film released today, you can see there's a significant difference in the picture; I can't really describe it; it's almost like films today look really "clean", whereas older films have a much more down-to-earth look and feel.

What is it? Digital colour correction? Advances in lighting? Different shooting process? Someone help me out.

I've put this in the "Filmmakers" section because I thought those involved in the art would be the most likely to know the answer.

Edited by Plankton

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Here is my guess.

I am not sure how much film stock has changed over the years and while lighting has perhaps gotten cheaper my guess is that studios had access to lighting systems that could light just as well (if not as effeciently) as today.

I have this vague recollection of when the Godfather triology was released on DVD and people were lamenting the fact that it looked horrible - overly grainy and too dark. The implication was that the original negative wasn't what was "off" but rather the transfer to DVD was not done with the appropriate care.

So I think that one part of the answer is that the rush to get products out trumps the desire to do it well. This is one of the reasons Criterion is so good - they do the transfer well. Telecine transfer and color adjustments can be very expensive so it would make sense that that is where companies cut corners.

Also, I think there is a reason they refer to it as film restoration. The implication is that the negative has been neglected and there is a need to restore it.

So to sum it all up - here is my guess - the issue is not in how it was shot at the time (for major studio releases) but in how the film has been cared for and prepared for digital viewing.

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Well, there are practical, physical differences (in equipment, style, etc.), and also subconscious differences.

For example, yes, film stocks have changed significantly over the years. Especially if you're comparing to films released closer to the initial advent of color stocks, there's a world of difference between then and now. In addition, while cameras themselves pretty much work the same way they always have, the lenses - especially the optics of the glass elements - have gotten more and more refined over time. Finally, the amount of post work that is done - whether digitally or not - is significant. The look of a film - especially in the color - is carefully tweaked before that film is ever released. Not that people didn't do that years ago, but the tools they had at their disposal to manipulate the image were quite primitive compared to what's available today.

Certainly some films are transferred to dvd better than others, or even better/worse than previous transfers of the exact same film, but I can assure you there are enough differences in stocks and lenses alone to make a significant difference.

On top of differences in the physical tools though, there are myriad ways in which you watch a film and subconsciously assign it to a time period that are not specifically related to the tools used. The style that the DP/gaffer use - while different for every artist, there are still trends over time in how a subject or a scene is lit - even if the same basic lights were available then. The set construction - or even decision to shoot on location, whereas most studio films were shot on studio sets at one point. Then of course there are the hairstyles, clothing, makeup, etc. all things that you *think* you can ignore when comparing films, but that still come into play whether you want them to or not.

But even all those things aside, stock and lenses are the single biggest factors in my opinion.

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