Logo Rob Buckley – Freelance Journalist and Editor

Digital Domain

Digital Domain

The ubiquitous computer has made it to parts of the film business previously untouched Rob Buckley asks if video cameras, film-free projectors and digital film labs will change the experience

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It comes to something when an entire industry might have to change its name. The “film” business has done very well under that title for the last one hundred years, but now that the 21st century has arrived the name itself is in jeopardy. Because film is on its way out - or, at least, that's what the alpha geeks would have you believe.

As Star Wars-supremo George Lucas exerts his influence on the hardware Digital film lab guinea-pig Pleasantville had to be completely regraded for a 50s look industry which is now scampering around to fulfil his every need, everywhere the industry is starting to ring to the digital mantra - high-definition video cameras to shoot your movie, completely digital post-production, then distribution via the internet or satellite to cinemas with digital projectors to show your “film.”

Except, of course, it won't be like that for a very long time. In the meantime, before we get digital whether we like it or not, the industry is free to pick and choose the best bits of the technology. Which is where the digital film lab comes in.

Originally pioneered by Cinesite on Pleasantville, the every-day tale of two present-day teenagers trapped inside the re-run of a 1950s television show, the digital film lab allowed the director and DoP to control every frame of a film in the same way as their counterparts in the commercials world do.

“Originally, the idea was to scan in the whole movie for use on DVD, CDs or VHS instead of having film in the archives gradually deteriorating,” explains Pete Williams, display imaging manager at Cinesite Europe. “Then they thought 'if we digitise the whole movie, we can do what we like with it afterwards.' The DOP has freedom to do with the image what he likes. Previously, you'd have to do that in the laboratory.”

With DVD production now almost mandatory for any film aiming for life after a theatrical release, the production of a digital intermediate is a matter of course. But, normally, it's done by telecineing a release print. The digital lab offers an end-to-end system with the rushes scanned or telecined initially, the film edited and composited digitally, and then release prints made by recording out from the digital intermediate (or from an interpositive made in a similar way). The same intermediate can also be used for all the various other formats needed.

“If you're making a feature for a big network like NBC,” says Men in White Coats' head of production Simon Frayne, “you could well be looking at a theatrical release if it's successful. But before you do a deal with them, you have to agree to provide them with countless delivery formats - DVD, VHS, NTSC, PAL, HD, dubbed, the inflight movie version... If you have a digital intermediate, you don't have to worry about that. And if you do all your fx work at 2k resolution, if it does get a theatrical release, it'll be ready.”

But scanning or telecineing an entire feature costs money (scanning particularly), so do you gain enough initially? Digital Lab proponent Paul Collard, deputy md of Soho Images, says that's for the producer to decide. “If you're not going to be doing many fx, you might not even think about it. But, if you are, it's cost-effective.” Collard points out that as soon as you start having to scan in material for any effects, your post budget shoots up. On a 35mm film with 25 hours of fx work or less, digital is more expensive, but when you reach50 hours, it's about £20k cheaper. And if you want a new look for the whole film with only basic fx work, he suggests it can be a third of the price.

A former Kodak employee who helped develop the bleach-bypass development process, Collard also emphasises the additional flexibility of the digital route. “If you wanted to do a bleach-bypass effect” for its dark subdues tones, “you could only do it on a whole stretch of film and not just a single frame or part of a frame like you can digitally.”

Williams agrees. “The quality of what a lab produces varies from day to day, but you still have to match it up. And with a film effect like that, you'd have to do it to the master neg. Once it's developed, there's no going back except by reshooting. One of the reasons producers like digital so much is because it gives them safety. You just develop the rushes, scan them in and then put them into a can. You never even have to see them again.”

CFC's Digital Lab boss Jan Høgevold also emphasises the additional creativity a digital lab can provide. “We're discovering all the very interesting things that can be done -dynamic grading to increase the drama, darken a scene, imitate cloud going over a dramatic moment. That's not new to telecine, but it's new to someone using the old route. It's not something you can do in your lab as an afterthought. It's real-time, too, whereas with the lab, it's always an overnight process.”

Of course, things can go wrong with digital too. When Michael Riley gave Soho Images the neg from Lava to run through its digital film lab, not only did he have to face the horror of a neg cutter that had already scratched his film, but a telecine without a wetgate. Fortunately, he'd agreed a deal whereby Soho Images would deliver a clean, digitised intermediate for a fixed price, so the cost of cleaning up the dust and scratches in Inferno was passed down to them. Says Riley, “once all the glitches are ironed out, I think everyone will be doing it this way. I can't think of any real disadvantages to the process.”

It's this initial scan that determines the quality of the final output. Soho Images has a closed loop system for taking rushes, telecineing them, recording them out then projecting them to see if it came out identical to the original. Men in White Coats does the same thing when it uses sister company Complete's C-Reality (although it prefers its Domino film scanners). That at least ensures everything is calibrated to give you unaltered output.

But think again if you're aiming for Imax, says CFC's Høgevold, or even if you're got plenty of fx shots: the telecine is just not up to the job. “2k just isn't good enough for the things we do. You really need to use a film scanner so that you can go up to 4k. Even if you end up going back down to 2k, it will still look better.” Cinesite's Williams agrees up to a point. Although he feels Philips' Datacine is great for most things (particularly if you just want to grade the film to give it a certain look), “if you've got a lot of matte work, you'll need to scan the film or else you'll lose the fine detail.” But he warns against mix-and-matching. “You can't drop in scans with telecine work since the resolution difference shows. But you can do it on different sections of the film.”

The concept of the digital lab is now taking a firm hold in the minds of facilities that deal with features work. But producers and directors are being converted as well. Says Soho Images' Collard, “we've always assumed that directors would see the benefits instantly, but we've discovered that as soon as producers hear about it, they like it too.” Just make sure your facility has a wetgate.

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