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Digital Intermediate: Inner Workings

Here's the industry guru telling us how DI really works in the film industry today -- and tomorrow

DMN: So now all those frames are sitting there, they've been scanned by a Northlight scanner which is the scanner du jour?

Wright: They're now conformed, that means the shots are in the proper order, and now in walks the almighty colorist.

DMN: The eyes of the industry.

Wright: Indeed they are. The deal is, the colorist is considered one of the key artistic contributors to the feature film. You have movie directors and DPs who will only let their movie be color timed by this colorist here. So it's a big artistic component of the finished product.

DMN: It's a big atmospheric consideration, isn't it?

Wright: Absolutely. So colorists get followings, colorists get names and reputations, colorists are very well paid.

DMN: Gosh, I wish I were a colorist.

Wright: The point is, the colorist does the actual ? we call it color timing because that's the traditional term from the wet process. But really, we're color correcting, if you were to put it into a modern terminology.

DMN: What do these guys use to do the color correcting?

Wright: There are two broad directions you can take. There's a fork in the road -- the hardware color correctors, and the software color correctors. The hardware color correctors are typically a [Thomson] Specter Datacine with a Pogle 2K color corrector attached. That's one typical setup. What that means is, you can pump 2K frames through that system and color correct them in real time up to a big video projector which throws the picture up onto a big screen. And the client gets to feel like he's in a feature film screening room. The key is, the machine runs in real time. Method two is the software color corrector. A representative example of that would be the Lustre system by Discreet. Lustre cannot run 2K frames through it in real time, so typically the colorist will work with proxies, or maybe the client is there while they're looking at 1K versions of the film. Then the high-rez version is rendered in the background and it can then be played out in real time. It's a different workflow; it's a batch processing method, less client-attended. With a hardware color corrector running in real time, the client may be sitting at your elbow all day because the work is being done in real time. With a software color corrector, the colorist may work offline for the day and then the client might come in for a couple of hours and review it later, sometime during the day. Because it's not real-time, the client is usually not willing to just sit there hour after hour.  

DMN: Now the color correction is done after all the special effects are done, right? It's at the end of the process.

Wright: Yes, it's done after. It's the final process.

DMN: Meanwhile, after all these frames are scanned, then any special effects or editing or things like that are done before the color correction happens.

Wright: Yes. Every movie today has special effects. We've done digital intermediates on movies, such as Blade 3 right now, where there are five hundred visual effects shots.

DMN: Man, that's good for business, isn't it?

Wright: That's a side loop, and it goes like this: The live action plates for the visual effects shots are selected early on. They are digitized at 2K resolution, same rez as the finished movie will be. This is done as early as possible. The 2K scans go to the visual effects house. They will color correct those background plates to a ballpark, normalized state, not the final, this is just so they're not ugly; this is one of the conundrums in the business. You really want to put your visual effects on a color-timed plate, but at the time the visual effects are being done, the movie's not been color timed. It's kind of a catch-22.

DMN: So there might be matching issues?

Wright: The visual effects house will give the background plates a ballpark, plausible color correction. You do your visual effects matched to that. You add your space ships, your monsters, your whatevers, matched to that background and you composite it all together, and then you send it to the DI house as a digital file, typically on a FireWire drive (a portable disk drive with 200-400GB of storage space that everybody in the industry uses now), a 2K Cineon or DPX file. We load the data from the FireWire disk on, and we drop it into the movie in the place it belongs along with all the other digitized frames. The visual effects house will put 20 shots on a FireWire drive and then FedEx the drives to us. After we have loaded the data we send the FireWire back to the visual effects house. As you can see, the colorist color times all of it together. It is the last step in the process. 

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Related Keywords:Steve Wright, industry veteran, digital effects, feature films, broadcast television commercials, feature film digital intermediate, contribute articles, DMN, Charlie White

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