DIT’s and Pixel Laundering
Digital cinematography is changing the anatomy of the camera department, as the traditional lines between production and post-production become blurred and on-set requirements become more demanding and significant.
The latest step in the evolution of the camera department is the addition of the DIT, or digital imaging technician, a role not be confused with that of data wrangler.
The role of data wrangler is a limited one, restricted to copying and backing up data, managing data, and deleting camera cards and hard drives. Ask your data wrangler to perform any evaluation of the captured footage beyond verification of the backed up data and you are asking too much of them, which leaves them without much to do and more often than not results in the job is being passed off to 2nd assistant cameraman.
Enter the DIT, who – on top doing everything a data wrangles does – offers an array of skills related to evaluating and finessing an image. Colour correction, look creation, exposure evaluation, focus assessment, technical analysis, one light rushes, editorial generation, stills and post reports, and basic editing and compositing can all be part of the DIT’s job description.
A DIT’s skill starts with good IT skills and adds good post-production skills, extending to some of the more arcane areas of digital capture, like recognising good and bad De-Bayer for example. This sort of in-depth analysis of the data can head off problems that may manifest further down the post path.
On-set image manipulation is one of the great advantages of digital cinematography, and by employing a DIT there is the opportunity to set up sophisticated image control and tightly integrated workflows from day one, simply and consistently.
In fact, given that a DIT has a far greater understanding of the digital production process than most (including producers and DPs), they can offer independent advice regarding tailored workflows for your particular project before you start shooting, advice that can save significant pain and money later.
For cinematographers it’s an ideal set-up. Look management, LUT creation and one light colour corrected rushes are all possible by way of calibrated monitoring and grading software, and those worried about complicated time consuming onset colour correction need not be concerned – it’s a simple process.
Look management allows a consistency of vision from rushes through editorial to final grade, eliminating the fight many of us have had in getting a look re-established when months later the footage on the Avid has become the look of the film in everybody's eyes except the DP’s. The DIT can also check clipping, focus and recording errors as the footage comes off the camera, and create stills and reports for the post house.
For producers, hiring a DIT is money in the bank. One light rushes can be produced during the day and be available for viewing before the last truck leaves set. Rushes clearance can be given for a set or location minutes after the last shot is in the can. Any problems with footage can be sighted during the day and camera problems can be sorted with the minimum of fuss. The detailed technical checks and verifications that a DIT can perform are serious examinations of the data and represent relatively inexpensive neg insurance. Add to this delivery of footage for editorial, select takes and syncing of sound and you are talking major savings in time, and therefore money.
For directors, a DIT on set represents clarity and consistency of vision: accurate images throughout production and post-production, full resolution playback on-set that doesn’t tie up the camera, ands even rough edits of sequences and quick composites if required.
The value a DIT can represent to a production has been demonstrated on the most recent project I’ve worked on, a Screentime show called Bloodlines that will screen as part of TV One’s Sunday Theatre series.
Up until now we have been trying to shoe horn cameras like the RED ONE into existing production and post-production work flows and, while it all works, it’s far from ideal.
One of my issues with the RED camera has been the accurate transcoding of the RAW files for rushes viewing and the bottleneck caused by creating rushes.
The images the camera creates for on-set monitoring and the subsequent rushes are at best a proxy – a very good proxy, granted, but still a proxy, which means the final images are usually quite different.
Now, when I shoot film the process of transferring the film to tape via telecine is controlled via a grayscale that enables the colourist running the telecine to see where I am placing my exposure and the sort of colour correction and filtration I might be using in-camera. It’s a consistent way of getting what I am capturing on the negative on to video tape or into the digital realm, and works very well, especially if you are not going back to the negative once the initial transfer has been made, as is often the case.
For the past six or seven years I have been using a greyscale system called Picscan developed by cinematographer James Bartle (The Quiet Earth, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys). It’s a simple and elegant system: a greyscale chart is photographed during prep and then applied to all subsequent rushes, delivering consistent and accurate results.
If you think of the RAW image produced by cameras like the RED ONE as a negative, then there is no reason why you can’t apply greyscales to rushes creation, transferring them to a viewable format with a ‘virtual’ telecine.
Which is where the DIT comes in – in the case of Bloodlines, Chris Rudkin from Imagezone.
As already mentioned, control and consistency are the two overriding factors for the cinematographer using cameras like the RED ONE. With information like ISO and colour temperature being stored as metadata and being able to be changed at any time by anyone it is crucial that the DP’s intent is clear and laid down as early in the process as possible. The addition of the DIT gives the DP back that control and consistency, as well as eliminating any rushes bottle neck at the end of the day.
How it works is simple. We treat the SD cards the camera records on to like film rolls. Once we have ‘exposed a roll’, we give the card to the DIT and reload with a new card.
While the shoot continues, the DIT copies and verifies the ‘exposed’ card to three separate hard drives in their ‘data lab’, which is set up in the camera truck or in a standalone vehicle. Once this is done, the card can be reformatted and reused straight away if necessary.
The footage then has a first light grade applied to it using the Picscan greyscale and is transcoded to Quicktime rushes and DNX files for Avid editorial in the case of my present project.
Rushes are delivered on USB sticks and the editorial transcodes are delivered on hard drive, along with a copy of the sound files and RAW ‘negative’ files for later conform and final colour grade.
All rushes and editorial remain in HD and as data, avoiding any tape or SD down converting.
Master backup and archive is created on LTO tape.
Remember, too, that the original RAW file from the camera is never changed from capture. All information is stored as meta data and any changes are non destructive.
All this happens in real time and on set, so when wrap is called I walk away with the day’s graded rushes.
It works brilliantly.