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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: Is there a downside to that?

Wright: Well, it's new.. It's expensive, and it has some issues. But, clearly, eventually the issues will be solved. We will have machines that will digitize your feature film in real time, or near real time. Okay, so we do a two-hour movie in four hours. Big deal. But whenever you can change a process by an order of magnitude -- a power of ten -- you have made a paradigm shift. At any rate, one thing I wanted to make clear was, we talked about digitizing your frames, conforming them, color timing them and then filming them out. It is not necessarily true that the movie is done from the first reel to the last in order. You might be color timing reel 5 while you're digitizing reel 2, at the same time you're filming out reel 1. Say reel 5 was the first one that was conformed. So we put that on the scanner, scan that in, start color timing reel 5. So reel 5 was finished and reel 2 was the next one that was conformed. So reel 5 goes to the film recorder while reel 2 drops on the film scanners. As a result the reels do not necessarily march in sequential order. Now here's the punch line: Right now, like I said, it might take five machine/days to film out your feature film. But you might have two, three, four, five film recorders. Maybe I could have it in a day or two.

DMN: That's if you run every machine in the house.

Wright: Right. Nevertheless, the fact that it takes five or six machine/days is what controls the cost of filming out your movie. So it costs perhaps $50,000 to film out your negative – just one negative. Now you take that neg to your laboratory, you make yourself a couple of IPs (interpositives), and from those, you strike some more INs (internegatives). Those few interpositives become a couple of dozen internegatives. Those internegatives look just like the digital negative that came off the film recorder, except they're down two generations. From those internegatives, we will strike the thousands of prints to go to the theaters. Now, someday soon the film recorders will be fast and cheap enough, that I can afford to film out my movie ten times. I will have ten digital negatives to strike all my theater prints.

DMN: Ah, save a generation or two.

Wright: Exactly, instead of third generation. That's the punch line.

DMN: So not only is this technology going to speed things up, in so doing it will facilitate better quality.

Wright: Bingo. You gotta love that. It's a win/win.

DMN: And then, as soon as this is all perfected, then there won't be any need for film out any more because it'll all be digital.

Wright: Yes. 

DMN: But that's not necessarily a good thing for business for LaserPacific, though, because you guys have invested in all these sophisticated bridges between analog and digital.

Wright: Well, ture. Don't forget, though, the DI process, when you finish doing your digital intermediate, you have a digital negative -- by the way, that piece of negative that comes off the film recorder, that is the digital intermediate. It's inherited the term because the film stock used is called an intermediate film stock. You see, you have camera negatives, which go into your camera to shoot your principal photography. You have your print stock which goes into theaters to screen. In between the two, the film industry has what are called intermediate film stock, which you make your IPs and INs from.

DMN: How its that different?

Wright: The contrast ratios, the stock, the responses are very different from those intermediate film stocks, compared to a camera negative, compared to a print stock. They're a completely different class of film stocks that are designed for making “intermediate” versions of the movie that can be color timed in the lab which is how most films are still done today. So the term Intermediate refers to that class of film stocks. What comes off the film recorder is a digitally-generated piece of intermediate film, and that's your digital intermediate -- that piece of film is where the process gets its name.

DMN: Now you're saying that most films' color correction is still done as a physical process. What is the percentage of films that are using this digital intermediate process?

Wright: I think this year the industry plans to do about 70 to 90 films as a digital intermediate. The industry is going to release a couple of hundred films.

DMN: So maybe half?

Wright: Well, I wouldn't go that far, no. I don't have the numbers at my fingertips.

DMN: But would you say it's grown quite a bit in the past few years?

Wright: The number of films that are being done as a digital intermediate have roughly doubled every year for the last four years. In round numbers there will probably be 70 to 90 digital intermediates done this year, but there will be 200-300 movies released.

DMN: Most of them end up being projected by analog projectors, too.

Wright: Even so, don't forget, no matter how many digital cinemas you set up in America and Europe, there will be tens of thousands of 35mm projectors in India, and China and the Third World.

DMN: And those things last forever, it seems like.

Wright: That's one of the problems for digital cinema. Say I'm a theater owner. I'm not going to spend any money on anything that increases my overhead.  

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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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