Audra Coulombe is the Marketing Manager for The Molecule, a VFX, Motion Graphics, and VR company located in New York and Los Angeles.
I still have a ton of Hi-8 tapes from my childhood. Family vacations, talent shows, and birthdays (usually with my dad’s narration) all sit, undigitized, in a crate in my parents’ basement.
We all probably have a collection of tapes like these, and the look of the footage can immediately transport us back to the different eras of our youth — even today’s iPhone videos will someday look vintage. Just like hairstyles, the aesthetic of these home movies gives away their decade.
If you want to incorporate the look of old footage in your new project, however, it can be costly and time consuming to track down a working vintage camera and the corresponding film stock or tape cartridge. Luckily, we have some tips that will help you leverage After Effects to mimic the look of recordings from any time period you want.
Pick Your Decade
The most important part of any project is to do your research. Figure out what time period you want to flash back to, and find out exactly which cameras people used during that time. Learn as much as you can about the camera you want to emulate, including frame size, frame rates, and common recording issues that may affect the footage.
Next, you need to find reference videos of the footage look you want. Pond5 and YouTube are great for this. Carefully observe clarity, color fidelity, frame size and shape, and any extra details such as dust and light leaks.
Layer and Refine
In our studio at The Molecule, we’ve used After Effects to replicate the looks of Super 8, Super 16, Kodachrome, Bolex, VHS, and more. “The process involves the layering and managing of footage and effects, which After Effects excels at,” explains Animation Supervisor Chad Sikora. “It’s a fairly simple process that requires a lot of finesse to look right.”
Start by degrading the resolution of your hi-res footage until it best matches your reference footage. From there, you’ll want to soften the image and run a color-correct pass. Also pay attention to the frame rate of the source camera and manipulate your footage as necessary.
Where the final product really comes together is in the later stages. What kinds of unique details does your reference video contain? Older formats might have dust, scratches, or light leaks. If you’re going for a VHS look, for example, pay special attention to tracking glitches and date markers.
VHS look created for Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll on FX (Use slider to view before/after)
Chad adds, “If called for, I also include fun things like burns, roll-outs, or a zooming/defocusing animation, to make it feel like a human hand is operating an old camera.”
Stay True to Your Vision
When in doubt, stay faithful to the look of the original film. Degradation will be your primary task, but color, grain, and frame rate are crucial to selling your finished product.
Also, while there are a ton of great film degradation plugins out there to use with After Effects, Chad recommends doing without them as much as possible. “A plugin will back you into a corner when a client wants you to change the footage in a way it isn’t designed to. Working without plugins is a great exercise in how to manipulate footage and gain a fundamental understanding of building effects.”
Looking for more vintage inspiration? Check out the all-new Pond5 Archival Collection!
Top Image: Aged Vintage Super 8 MM Film Reels by fabiopagani