Lensers view new post-prod'n process as an integral tool in their paint box

QUICK TAKE
Origins: The Digital Intermediate process has evolved over the last 15 years from advances in digital film file technology from Kodak, as well as Philips’ scanning technology.
Breakthrough films: While Gary Ross’ “Pleasantville” (1998) signaled a DI breakthrough with its mixture of B&W and color, the Coen Bros.’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000) is often cited as the first to use a DI to create a unique look, reducing greens to give the film an old-time feel.
Facils: Deluxe’s Efilm; Technicolor Digital Intermediate, and Kodak’s Laser Pacific (formerly Cinesite). Technicolor DI has announced plans to build a satellite facility at the Sony studios.

Digital intermediate has been called the most revolutionary tool for cinematographers since the advent of color film. If this year’s crop of high-profile films is any indication, the process of putting a big-budget movie through a computerized DI during the post-production phase is becoming an all-but-essential part of the job for the director of photography.

“The DI is not on the way to becoming the wave of the future for cinematographers, it’s already the way,” says Oscar-winning lenser Dion Beebe (“Chicago”), who shot “Collateral” with a combination of digital, high-def video and 35mm film formats.

“Without a digital intermediate, ‘The Aviator’ would not exist in its current form,” declares Robert Richardson, the cinematographer on Martin Scorsese’s epic biopic. “The DI helped us to find the heroic in Howard Hughes.”

The term “digital intermediate” is shorthand for computer-enabled post-production that’s rapidly replacing the traditional photochemical process that cinematographers have used to fine-tune what they’ve shot.

The DI basically does for movies what PhotoShop and similar software can do to enhance still photos, though on a more sophisticated level. “It’s the kind of artistic and emotional control over the image that any cinematographer has ever craved,” says d.p. Steven Poster, a former president of the American Society of Cinematographers.

Of more importance, he sees DI becoming the centerpiece for an end-to-end digitization of the production process.

Not everyone in Hollywood has embraced DI. Clint Eastwood declined to use it for “Million Dollar Baby” because he didn’t think the blacks were as saturated as traditional film processing produces. And some cinematographers worry that their traditional role as keepers of the look of a film can get subverted if someone else decides to change the appearance of images.

But cinematographers who have used DI to complete their work on notable films of the past year have pretty much warmed to the process.

French cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel has started to explore the aesthetic dimensions of the new technology. “We are only at the very beginning of learning how to use this DI process,” he asserts. For “A Very Long Engagement,” he used the DI phase to create subtle paintbox effects, in line with his pioneering work on “Amelie.”

Consoles Replace Chemicals

Digital intermediate, as the name suggests, is a digitized halfway house between what the cinematographer has shot and the finished movie as it appears to viewers at the cineplex. During DI, everything from the smallest color changes on a film to the creation of special effects can be accomplished by changing the settings on a computer.

Two things DI is not: It is not the same as computer graphic imaging, though one of its virtues is in combining CGI effects with live footage. It’s not the same as filming digitally. Any kind of film or tape can be converted to a digital file and then converted back to any format.

The post phase, prior to the arrival of DI and still commonly done today, involves utilizing photochemical baths and other traditional film developing techniques to color or grade footage in order to match different shots for consistency or to achieve special effects. Now this can be done more precisely with computers.

A typical DI starts at a post house where powerful scanners convert the film a cinematographer has shot — usually after a first cut by the editor — into a huge computer file of bits and bytes that is then stored and can be accessed in real time and manipulated by proprietary software. The amount of computing and storage hardware needed is vast. Just to store an average two-hour movie scanned at a 2K resolution is around 35 terrabytes (one terrabyte is 1,000 gigabytes). “Spider-Man 2″ was the first film to go through a 4K DI, requiring nearly 150 terrabytes of storage space, equivalent to 8,000 DVDs.

By changing computer settings, the bits and bytes can be manipulated in real time, altering an image pixel by pixel if so desired. The hue of an object or an actor’s eye color can be changed. Contrast can be adjusted, lighting corrected, sharpness and graininess can be altered with extraordinary precision.

Richardson’s job on “Aviator” was complicated from the start because director Martin Scorsese decided to evoke the passage of time in the progression of Hughes’ early career from the 1920s to the 1940s through visual cues. That required simulating the changing color schemes of movies during those decades as new film stocks were introduced.

At the start of the movie, the goal was to emulate the flatter look of two-strip Technicolor that was used to make movies during the 1920s. The ’30s are visually cued with a more vibrant color scheme that came into existence with the introduction of three-strip Technicolor.

‘Control of detail’

“The most complex element of ‘The Aviator’ was creating and maintaining the purity of the color palette,” declares Richardson. “Essentially the film is made up of two different Technicolor landscapes — two color and three strip. Within those two landscapes it swirls from haggard to flamboyant, sky to starlets, silver wings to crash landings.”

“Control of detail” is what Richardson likes best about using digital intermediate. “Beyond that, I believe that DI is an extremely creative tool for the director and cinematographer today. Shooting can be vastly altered in many ways. Shading of walls or simple variations in color are readily solved in the DI room. Not to mention adjustment to the nuances of facial color.”

“Collateral,” by director Michael Mann, about a hitman who commandeers a taxi to go on a one-night killing spree, has been praised for its edgy look, especially the digital photography that captures the alienating gleam of nighttime Los Angeles and makes the city in effect a third character in the film.

The integrated visual aesthetic would have been hard to accomplish without DI, which wove together the disparate elements involved in the original shoot. For starters, “Collateral” had two cinematographers. Paul Cameron did the prep work on the movie and shot for three weeks before he and Mann parted ways. His replacement, Dion Beebe, had never used a digital camera on a major movie. Nevertheless, Beebe alternated between Thomson’s Grass Valley Viper camera, Sony’s HDW-F900 camcorder and 35mm film.

“The cameras are so sensitive they see more than you can see,” says Beebe. While 80% of the film was digital, the other 20%, mainly indoor sequences, was captured with a film camera.

“In a DI you have more room to manipulate contrasts and color than you do through an optical process,” adds Beebe. “And we were able to wind up with a seamless result which also preserved the digital quality of how the film was shot, and that was very important to Michael.”

At one point in his life, d.p. Delbonnell had aspirations to be a painter. As a cinematographer, he’s now finding that he can use DI not just to enhance the appearance of a film, but use it as a form of narration. For “Very Long Engagement,” he reunited with director Jean-Pierre Jeunet to tell the quixotic tale of a woman who refuses to believe her lover died in battle in World War I.

Exploration through color

“What’s amazing about DI is you are able to get this consistency,” he notes. “It allows you to explore different things in color and saturation that you can’t accomplish through the photochemical process.”

He used the DI phase to elaborate two distinct color schemes. The first was a gun-metal blue-gray for the trench warfare episodes, but he was able to add realistic flesh tones for the soldiers’ faces to emphasize their humanity. Meanwhile, he cast a golden hue over the outdoor scenes in Brittany and elsewhere to symbolize the heroine’s optimism.

In all, Delbonnell spent six weeks with his colorist during the DI phase for “Very Long Engagement.”

He feels that with DI’s capabilities, a further step he would like to take is to advance the camera’s ability to tell a story “by combining several images in the same frame, without having to resort to special effects.”

On “Alexander,” cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto spent 10 weeks on DI, nearly as long as the 94-days of shooting for the three-hour epic directed by Oliver Stone. “The main reason it took so long was that Oliver kept editing, he wasn’t done with the cutting,” says Prieto. “We color graded a scene and then had to regrade it because it was recut.”

For “Alexander,” Prieto found he could put vivid color back into scenes that had become bleached out as he sought to bring out more grain in the film. “With a DI you can take things a little bit further than you can with traditional means — you can alter contrasts, change saturation,” he declares. “But DI effects and lighting are similar in one sense, you don’t want people to notice them.”

Deciding early to use a digital intermediate gives the cinematographer leeway to know that certain elements can be taken care of during the process, according to “Finding Neverland” cinematographer Roberto Schaefer.

Schaefer’s use of DI to create special effects was limited to the film’s final sequence when the “real” Neverland appears. “In almost every single shot as the camera is panning and tilting, the colors of the flowers are all rippling from yellow to blue to orange to pink. We tried to do it conventionally but it wasn’t happening fast enough so the whole thing was done during the DI,” Schaefer says.

“Fortunately our producer Richard Gladstone gave his approval early and with that in mind when I ran into specific problems I knew they could be fixed later in the DI,” he says. “I try not to rely on that too heavily, but it’s nice to know you have that capability in your back pocket.”

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