Welcome to the Digital Intermediate Revolution

March 6, 2004

Digital Intermediates aren't just the mastering tool of the big budget feature. With thoughtful planning – and skillful filmmaking – they can be a creative, cost-effective tool for the low budget feature, as well.

On Saturday, March 6, DGA Special Projects presented "The Digital Intermediate Revolution – Never Die Alone: An Indie Case Study." The seminar focused on the use of the digital intermediate (DI) by director Ernest Dickerson for his recent Fox Seachlight release, Never Die Alone, starring DMX and David Arquette. Panelists included the director, DP Matthew Libatique, Cinesite Senior Colorist Jill Bogdanowicz, Visionbox Media Group Post Production Producer Chris Miller, and Lulu Zezza, the film's Post Supervisor.

Never Die Alone tells the story of a drug dealer (DMX) and a reporter (Arquette) studying his life. "With an 18-day shooting schedule, we decided to shoot Super 16, with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio," explains Dickerson, himself a noted cinematographer (Malcolm X, Do the Right Thing). "We briefly toyed with the idea of shooting it digitally. But for the film noir look we were looking for, we wanted grain. You can't get real photochemical grain when you shoot digitally." The filmmakers took care to produce the high-grain look they were seeking in-camera, smartly reducing the "fix it in post" time later.

The choice of a DI was made in pre-production, Dickerson first convincing his producers that the method was a good idea. "When we first heard that Matty and Ernest wanted to shoot 2.35, and were shooting 16, the test was really to prove to the producers that they weren't going to have grain the size of baseballs on the screen," notes Zezza.

Careful planning by Dickerson and Libatique enabled them to use DI to its greatest advantage. The cinematographer shot and lit the film as if a DI was not going to be used. "In preparing it in my mind, I felt to accomplish the film in camera, it had to be able to exist in a photochemical setting, in case the money wasn't there to go DI." Libatique shot using high speed film stocks, specifically to bring out grain. "We were never afraid of grain – it was part of the look," he says.

Selects were scanned in at Cinesite at 2k resolution – the highest one typically can go with 16mm. The director and DP then worked with Bogdanowicz over a period of five days – one day per reel – for color correction. Bogdanowicz's system uses a POGLE Pandora color corrector, accompanied by a 2k digital projector. "We have a virtual datacine, so that we can play these 2k files in real time on our digital projector," the colorist explains.

"The degree of control is phenomenal," says Dickerson. "You can do what you could only previously have done in still photography." Adds his DP, "being able to see a change or an adjustment happen instantaneously made all the difference. Not having to wait for something to render was great. We could just say, 'That's too dark,' and with the push of a button, she could change it, and we could see the results immediately." Notes Dickerson, "Again, because we had created the look in camera, we went fairly quickly with Jill. It was really taking what we did and just amplifying it."

An important element of the process was the use of "power windows" – the ability to isolate specific parts of the frame or specific colors and affect changes. For one scene, a bleach bypass look was desired, though, at the time of photography, which had yet to be decided upon. Notes Miller, "Often times on lower budget pictures, executives want to see the look right off the bat, so they end up bleaching the negative right out of the camera, and they've married themselves to that look. These guys didn't have to do that."

By creating that look during color correction, the look could be adjusted to whatever look was desired. Plus, as Bogdanowicz adds, "We did a kind of blue/cyan wash, with some greens in the shadows. Those kinds of little palette decisions probably wouldn't have been able to be done in the lab."

The technique became part of the creative process for Dickerson and Libatique. "Matty and I were always saying, 'Can't wait to get into the room,'" recalls Dickerson. "Can't wait to get in there and really work at it."

Visual effects were easily added, simply "dropped in" to the digital timeline at Cinesite. In addition, effects such as the removal of a scar from the face of an actor - because the scene in which he received the injury had been eliminated from the film – were achieved with remarkable turnaround. The scar was painted out of 37 shots in just four days.

The autoconforming step added great flexibility to the process. "We simply take the Avid data file into our virtual datacine, and it pulls out the pieces from what we've scanned and puts it all in order for us," explains Bogdanowicz. Simple opticals, such as two-layer dissolves, fades to black, etc., could be performed during autoconform. Three or more layers, she notes, put the optical into the visual effects realm, adding cost. "In the film world, you'd be counting opticals, wondering how many you could actually afford," notes Zezza. "That wasn't the case here."

Zezza also explained the various costs and options available to filmmakers – choices of resolution for scanning dailies, as well as scanning for the DI, filmout choices, and the costs of the DI itself. Miller noted that DI costs can vary from picture to picture, and are very much dependent on the deal a producer is able to make with a post house. "It's up to the producers to take advantage of the competition between facilities."

Footage from another film, Frank Pierson's Conspiracy, was also screened. That film, made three years earlier, was also shot on Super 16 at 2.35:1, but used the DI process to decrease grain, successfully creating a smoother, higher-quality look. In a short time, the panelists noted, the technology has advanced. "It's remarkable how far this process has come," says Libatique.

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