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A Flexible Finish
American Cinematographer Magazine
More and more cinematographers are experimenting
with digital intermediates, which can be used to
create infinite variations in a project's final look.


After years of hopeful talk about the "convergence" of film and video, the digital-intermediate (DI) process is bringing filmmakers closer to that dream than ever before. Proponents of the process argue that it offers significantly greater control over the look of the final image. "You're manipulating much more than color values," notes Peter Mavromates, postproduction supervisor on Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, which was digitally graded at Technique. "Dangerous Mind has a few different looks, and some are quite extreme. To accomplish it in the lab wouldn't have been possible. With a digital intermediate, you can combine many different elements to come up with a unique look."

Dangerous Mind cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, ASC concurs: "The digital intermediate is a tremendous opportunity to have yet more control [over the image]. You're continuing the process of cinematography when you color-correct your film, and you can have an impact almost as great as when you did your original photography. With contrast, power windows, recomposing and primary or secondary color correction, you can really reshoot your film in post."

Another enthusiast is director of photography Rodrigo Prieto, ASC, AMC, who put the ASC Award-nominated Frida through a DI at EFilm. "Ninety percent of Frida didn't need digital correction, but some of the looks [director] Julie [Taymor] wanted would've been very difficult to achieve photochemically," he says. "In addition, the film spans so many years, so many places and so many events that I thought we needed a way to control it all, to give it a unity but also differentiate the particular looks."

Although fewer than 30 motion pictures have been put through a DI in their entirety, the buzz over the process is steadily increasing. Says EFilm president Joe Matza, "The marketplace is beginning to accept this as a viable tool, certainly creatively." In Europe, the DI process has been implemented to a much greater degree. For example, Digital Film Lab in London did its first complete DI in 1998, on the Swedish feature Zingo, and has since completed 41 features and 30 shorts, according to CEO and former cinematographer Kris Kolodziejski.

Factors that have made Hollywood reluctant to fully embrace digital mastering are both technological and financial. For the facilities that provide the services, the risks are very high. "The biggest challenges were, are and will continue to be the large capital expenditures required to get into this rapidly changing technical area," says Larry Birstock, executive vice president of Post Logic Studios.

The first step in the DI process is to scan or transfer film into the digital realm. Doing that at high-enough resolution and with enough color information to make digital grading a possibility has been a consistent challenge. Another is the time-expense ratio; because high-resolution scanning has historically been very time-consuming, it was long reserved for short visual-effects sequences. The introduction of the Spirit DataCine, a joint project of Eastman Kodak and Philips, was a huge step forward. Indeed, the Spirit was used to scan some of the first features that were digitally graded, including Pleasantville (see AC Nov. '98) and O Brother, Where Art Thou? (AC Oct. '00), both of which were finished at Cinesite.

With 200 units installed worldwide, the Spirit is one of the most ubiquitous scanners used for digital grading. One popular configuration involves use of the Philips Spectre Virtual DataCine (VDC), in use at Cinesite, Technique and France's Éclair Labs. "Using the VDC means you don't have to rock 'n' roll the negative to redo a scene," explains Randy Starr, Cinesite's vice president of business development. "It's a disk-to-disk color corrector. The VDC allows us to do a 'best light' scan of the negative once and then give it back to the production company. It also has software that allows us to do optical effects such as fades and dissolves, and digital conforming." Adds Technique senior digital-film colorist Stephan Nakamura, "We use the Spectre to move the data around in color correction. It's like a 2K-resolution digital disk recorder."

Another solution is the Cintel C-Reality, which can be found at Post Logic Studios and iO Film. IO Film, which provides digital intermediates using its customized Cinema-HD Color Transformation Process, relies on another facility, HTV, to provide the scanning on a C-Reality.

But many disagree about whether the transfer provided by the HD-resolution Spirit and C-Reality is sufficient for a DI, in terms of both picture resolution and colorspace. Critics point out that the output of an HD scanner - at 1920x1028 pixels - isn't true 2K. "A lot of people who have scanned on the Spirit and tried to do some compositing afterward have found themselves in a bit of trouble," notes Colin Ritchie, a former 5D executive who recently formed the industry consulting firm Armadillo. "They've had to do some restabilizing because it's not pin-registered. You have to do some second-guessing if it comes off the Spirit."

The Imagica Imager XE is the scanner of choice for many offering DI services, but the trade-off is speed. Capable of processing 2K scans in 4 seconds per frame and 4K scans in 8 seconds per frame, the Imagica Imager XE also provides 10-bit full RGB colorspace, precision pin-registered movement and proprietary film-gate transport, with a film-reel capacity of 2,000'. EFilm, one of the digital-lab pioneers (now owned by Panavision and Deluxe Labs), uses the Imagica Imager XE (as well as a proprietary scanner) to scan at 2K resolution or higher. FotoKem also recently purchased an Imagica Imager XE.



© 2003 American Cinematographer.