Need your footage to have a vintage vibe? Here’s everything you need to know to create a fake film look in Adobe After Effects.
While nothing can quite replace the look of real, tangible film, you may find yourself wanting to emulate its general appearance, whether it be to meet a desired aesthetic or simply make footage appear older than it is. Thankfully, it’s quite easy to produce some quality vintage results in Adobe After Effects without plugins. Without further ado, let’s take a look at the techniques involved in imitating the appearance of retro film footage.
Example photo below via Shutterstock
A great place to start is by adding artificial grain. After Effects has a built-in Add Grain effect that generally works quite well, though it is fairly taxing on processing power. It includes a number of presets based on existing film grains, with adjustable parameters such as grain size, softness, animation speed, and more.
How noticeable you make your grain is up to you, but even with the most exaggerated vintage look, artificial grain is best used in moderation so as to not call too much attention to itself. As you can see here, the subtle addition of grain can sell the aesthetic without being immediately recognizable.
Arguably the most prominent characteristic of retro film is its unique color. Color grading your footage the right way can make a drastic difference in its perceived age, quality, and origin. Generally speaking, the “vintage film” look features muted blue tones, with red highlights and green shadows.
Within After Effects, this can be achieved with the color effect of your choosing, though I’ve found that Curves tends to be one of the easiest and most precise. Some increased contrast can go a long way as well. Again, it’s important to remember to apply these techniques conservatively, as it’s easy to overuse them and cheapen the appearance of your final results.
One of the easiest and most effective things you can do to achieve that film look is use an overlay of film artifacts. These vary greatly in style and density, with some simply providing a natural grain, and others including vignettes, dust and scratches, film burn, and other imperfections common in old film stock.
There are plenty of resources, both free and paid, for film overlays that can help you find the appropriate overlay. You can even specify what film size you’re hoping to replicate, such as 8mm, 16mm, or 35mm. If you’re looking for a place to start, check out our post from last year covering 10 free film grains.
When adding an overlay to your footage in Adobe After Effects (or Premiere Pro), you can tweak it to best suit your situation by adjusting the opacity, or changing the Blending Mode. I’ve personally found that the modes “Screen” and “Overlay” have provided me with the most natural, subtle results. However, feel free to experiment and see what works for you!
In some cases, you may come across an overlay that wasn’t rendered with an Alpha (transparency) channel, with an annoying black background. You can often work around this by applying the Shift Channels effect to your overlay, and setting the Take Alpha From tab to Luminance. This isn’t a guaranteed fix, but in many scenarios, it can make an otherwise useless overlay work.
Another common element of the vintage film look is the use of a vignette. Like many of these elements, you can find pre-made vignettes online — but for the most precise results, it’s best to create your own. In After Effects, the simplest way to create a Vignette is by creating a composition-sized black layer with an ovular mask (double click the oval mask button).
From there, you can either invert the mask or set its mode to subtract. Then, simply feather out the mask and adjust the layer’s opacity to your heart’s content. Tweak the mask’s expansion to adjust the reach of the vignette.
You can get creative with vignettes as well, say, by applying this same mask to an adjustment layer, with an effect of your choosing applied to it. You can set the vignette to darken the edge of your footage with color correction, or even add blur to it. There are many ways you can use vignettes, but you’ll want to stick to these to maintain that vintage look.
If you’re going for a more hyperbolic film aesthetic, you can add some flicker to your video as seen in older, 8mm-esque film cameras. While many overlays already include a flicker, creating your own will provide added flexibility. In After Effects, you can apply the wiggle expression to the opacity of an adjustment layer (or the footage layer itself) to quickly achieve this effect. If your results still don’t feel organic enough, you can further randomize your wiggle expression with the random expression.
One of the more drastic and stylistic ways to give a sense of old film is by lowering the framerate and slightly increasing the speed of your footage. Setting your footage to 15-20fps can give the illusion of primitive camera capabilities, as can footage at up to around 105% speed. This is best applied when depicting pre-1950s cinematic content, or pre-1980s television and home video content. This is up to your own discretion, but it’s best to keep your aesthetic somewhat reasonable.
Lastly, adding light leaks can often be the finishing touch to your work. The warm, natural look of light leaks accompanying your footage can really improve the fidelity of your project. We recently gave away a pack of 13 Free 4K Light Leaks for you to use in your work, so feel free to give those a try!
By combining, flipping, and adjusting the colors of these leaks, you can keep your footage unique and dynamic. Like with film overlays, various blending modes will implement these light leaks differently. I’ve found that “Overlay” and occasionally “Add” are most effective. Also keep in mind that most natural light leaks are generally variations of red, such as orange or pink.
The Final Result
Bringing all of these elements together should give you a somewhat accurate representation of what your footage might have looked like were it filmed on an older camera. We’ve provided a pretty exaggerated example of these techniques, but which ones you take and how far you take them is up to you.