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Academy aims to tame digital frontier

New standards bring order to formats

For years, filmmakers have been vexed by a chaotic Wild West of digital file formats that caused everything from dramatic falloffs in image quality to vast jumps in cost. Now, a new fix from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences aims to bring order to this untamed frontier.

While the digital revolution has made a lot of things less expensive and more convenient, there was no standard for how digital elements are shared among the many firms and artists on a project. Files have had to be translated to and from dozens of file formats, with images not always translating properly, quality suffering, and time and money wasted fixing the problems.

Enter the Acad’s Image Interchange Framework (IIF) , a new way of gathering, processing and preserving more picture information than has been possible in the past. The Acad’s Science and Technology Council spent five years developing the file format, with an eye toward making it possible for anyone in production, post or preservation to have a standardized way of working with all the digital elements now involved in filmmaking.

So far, the system appears to be a success, marking a key victory for the Acad’s Sci-Tech Council.

The IIF just passed its first real-world test when it was put to use on the second season of FX’s “Justified” by colorist Pankaj Bajpai and cinematographer Francis Kenny.

The two had been frustrated in their attempts to find a system that consistently delivered the rich colors of film rather than the flat look of video. On top of that, Bajpai and Kenny didn’t really have a way to describe how the colors or tones should look in the final version of an episode of “Justified.” After combining the IIF with the Academy Color Encoding Specification (ACES), that problem disappeared.

“It was liberating, because this gave us a common platform to that eliminates ambiguities,” Bajpai says. “You’re capturing information like film negative used to, because there’s a common language put in place. So show by show, there is a very predictable result.”

After half a decade of work, Ray Feeney, co-chair of the Acad’s Sci-Tech Council, believes dedicating the organization’s resources to finding a solution to this file compatibility problem so many years ago was “prescient.”

“It’s a huge win for us to see the IIF used successfully on ‘Justified’ after coming through this process,” Feeney says. “A large group of industry professionals came together to make this possible once the Academy realized filmmakers would have a multitude of challenges ahead of them since digital motion picture elements weren’t standardized.”

The new framework arrives at a critical time. Only recently have digital motion picture cameras had the potential to match the dynamic range and color bit depth of film, according to Curtis Clark, president of the American Society of Cinematographers’ Technology Council. The IIF-ACES workflow, he believes, actually enhances and protects the performance of these cameras.

“Everyone can shoot more confidently, and know they’ll be able to work with the colorist effectively,” Clark says. “So, this frees us up to focus on the creative process instead of worrying about the kinds of fixes we’ll need down the line to correct problems.”

All of the major studios have been asked to test the IIF on a project as part of an evaluation process. During this time, the Academy will make adjustments, if needed.

Though the Science and Technology Council wasn’t established in its current form until 2003, the Acad has been involved in setting technological standards since it was founded in 1927. Some of its first projects included the standardization of film gate apertures and screen illumination and the establishment of a school to teach sound recording and reproduction.

“Projects like this one have always been at the core of the mission of the Academy,” Feeney says. “We’re in the position to gather the resources and the input from many different people throughout our community to help solve problems being faced by filmmakers.”

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