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September 2014
Issue: March 1, 2012

The Evolution of the Digital Intermediate

By: Christine Bunish
It may be time for digital intermediates to have a name change. Initially coined to describe a digital approach to a film process (i.e., the digital intermediate between film scanning and film print recording), it has arguably come to mean something different today.

“DI doesn’t just mean digital intermediate anymore,” says Neil Smith, managing director of Hollywood DI. “It’s now a more generic term for digital post production. It’s all about shooting digitally and getting that content into editing, color, VFX and audio in the most efficient way. The whole process of digital acquisition and file-based workflow is modern DI.”

HOLLYWOOD DI

The DI process has undoubtedly evolved and so have its key tools. “The business is changing,” Smith says. “There are still the big boys with [Quantel] Pablos and [FilmLight] Baselights, but there are viable alternatives for indie features, TV shows and the emerging indie stereo 3D market that don’t compromise on function or the talent of the colorists.” 

When Hollywood DI (www.hollywooddi.com) opened in West Hollywood in 2005, it decided to focus on digital acquisition and file-based workflows. The company invested in Assimilate Scratch and Apple Color, which worked well for its client base. Smith admits to being skeptical when Blackmagic bought DaVinci and re-engineered the software for the Mac leveraging Nvidia’s CUDA architecture.



But before long, Hollywood DI was beta testing DaVinci Resolve and was “genuinely surprised” by the experience. “It was obvious that Blackmagic had not only preserved the functionality of DaVinci but also fine tuned it to run on GPU cards. We discovered the PCI expansion box — we use Cyclone — so you’re no longer limited by the architecture of Mac Pro. The software functionality of Resolve combined with the power of GPU gaming cards opened up a whole new world.”

Hollywood DI was still beta testing DaVinci Resolve 8 when colorist Bjorn Myrholt opted to use it to color grade the Kevin Hart feature, Laugh At My Pain, last year. Now, he and colorists Andrew Balis and Aaron Peak have migrated entirely to Resolve.

“To demonstrate the diversity of the system, Andrew graded the Discovery Channel series, Weed Wars, and Aaron did the Bob Goldthwaite feature, God Bless America, which screened at the Toronto Film Festival,” says Smith. “And Bjorn is finishing the company’s first indie stereo 3D film, Static.

“Stereo 3D grading requires a lot more horsepower,” Smith notes. 

“Originally Blackmagic didn’t recommend the Mac version for 3D grading, only the Unix platform, but we tested [the Mac version] using three Nvidia GeForce GTX 480 graphics cards and were able to do 3D. Then, at the end of last year, Blackmagic came out with a PC version of Resolve that runs 3D natively. So we bought a new PC with an expansion box from our local integrator, Globalstor, and moved Static over to the PC version running on three Quadra 6000s.”

Hollywood DI is providing a full package of services for Static, in fact. It was conformed on one of the company’s Avid Media Composer 6 systems. “Using Avid’s own cool 3D tools you can cut in stereo and quickly see the 3D pacing on the stereo monitor,” says Smith. “Then we took Static into Resolve for color grading and stereo sweetening at the same time as enhancing the 3D VFX shots that were delivered from Maya Digital Systems in India. We were able to do the final geometry finessing and color all on one system at high quality with tremendous cost benefits, especially for indie filmmakers.”

To mark the change in the role of DI in post, Smith has even changed the tagline of this company name: The DI in Hollywood DI now stands for “Digital Imagination” — the digital revolution going hand-in-hand with the creative revolution, he explains.

STUCK ON ON

At Austin finishing house Stuck On On (www.stuckonon.com), colorist/partner Parke Gregg observes that, “DI is part of everything today.” But the term itself can be problematic for clients who don’t come from the film world.

“DI has quickly become a legacy term associated with feature films,” he says. “But now it covers the whole post process and the mature tool set that you use whether you’re doing a commercial, a documentary short or a film going into theaters,” a range of work that comprises Stuck On On’s clients.

After locking picture, projects come to Stuck On On for one-stop finishing, says Gregg. “We can do everything from digital lab services — dailies and one-lights — to a spit-and-polish finish, including audio.” The facility is equipped with Assimilate Scratch, its “workhorse” color tool, and DaVinci Resolve.

“We were originally attracted to Scratch for its Swiss army knife set of tools,” he says. “It has a wide variety of capabilities and very efficient processing and performance; we run it on a pretty beefed up computer system so we can crunch quickly through high-resolution imagery like 5K Red footage and DPX scans.”

Last year Stuck On On did all the finishing for the indie film Take Shelter, released by Sony Pictures Classics. “While the production was very traditional 35mm, the post was very modern,” says Gregg. “We brought all the VFX elements and films scans into Scratch for finishing, polishing and making final deliverables.”



The story features some supernatural events although it’s rooted in reality. “There was an effort from the beginning to get into a space where the picture was beautiful but also very realistic so the audience could relate to it,” Gregg explains. “That can be the most difficult kind of color work — there’s nothing to hide behind. The skin tones, ambient light, color of grass all were very important and couldn’t be off or go into a different space. Although we were starting from negative and had a lot of latitude, we had to really work it to get to a place director Jeff Nichols and I felt comfortable with.”

Stuck On On just finished the indie comedy Somebody Up There Likes Me, which was shot with a Sony PMW-F3 camera and has been accepted to SXSW. “Although it had a smaller budget than Take Shelter, because of our toolset and the structure of a boutique finishing house, we could give the same attention to it as to a bigger-budget project,” says Gregg. “We put our all into every project we work on, and Scratch makes it easy to fulfill our promises.”

Somebody Up There Likes Me is a dark comedy, he notes, “so to a certain extent the look was established on the set. We needed to uplift it in some parts; it still looks normal and realistic but the saturation levels were a bit higher. And there were certain thematic elements throughout, like flowers that always needed to be well lit and colorful. In DI you can relight a shot and add focus to help guide the audience to pick up on certain cues.”

DPs using digital cameras have to be careful about protecting highlights and shadows, he says, although they can use the limits of their cameras to their own advantage. “With the F3 there was a good chance that the highlights would be blown out. But director Bob Byington and DP Sean Price Williams built that look into a scene: They backlit it so they’d have a blooming window — it became a style and was quite effective.”

Located in the film capital of Texas, Stuck On On has DIs for two more features on tap. The Taiwan Oyster is a “road trip” film about two expats teaching English in Taiwan; Boneboys, from the writer of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, is a “very stylized” horror story with a DI designed to “heighten the scariness,” says Gregg.

INCENDIO

At eight-month-old post production boutique Incendio (www.incendio.tv) in Venice, CA, a pair of Image Systems’ Nucoda Film Masters with Precision panels is manned by founders/colorists Clark Muller and Adolfo Martinelli.

They agree that the DI nomenclature may be out of date. “We’re hesitant to call it DI,” says Martinelli. “It’s not really an intermediate to anything for us.”

“The telecine or scanner used to be the centerpiece of our process, but these days you don’t need them,” says Muller. “We’re smaller and more compact but offer the same or more power — you don’t need masses of infrastructure. Setting up a nonlinear system without a film scanner isn’t a new model; we’re just a leaner version.”

“We try to be more efficient,” Martinelli adds. “We conformed a whole movie, The First Time, within Film Master in less than two hours with the help of our own custom data management software. We try to use technology where we can instead of manpower.”



For The First Time, a 2011 Sundance selection, after Martinelli and Muller loaded in the EDLs, their data management software “traversed the whole directory structure of the production drives, finding clips and copying only the trims of shots we were using with handles,” Martinelli explains. “That saves a lot of time as well as storage on the SAN.”

Muller had used DaVinci Resolve when he was at Company 3 and Pandora and FilmLight’s Baselight as a founding member of New Hat. Martinelli had prior experience with Film Master at Ringside Creative.

“All systems are limited in one way or another but Film Master is so powerful,” says Muller. “It has so many tools: fantastic noise reduction, stabilization, clean-up. There’s so much you can do within the box.”

Martinelli says Film Master “has features other systems lack. Our clients can walk away from Incendio confident that everything that could be done has been done. We’ve even handled finishing: We delivered The First Time out of Film Master, dropping in all the effects and titles, doing stabilization, clean-up and noise reduction on certain scenes.”

An interesting feature of their facility is the Dolby 42-inch pro reference monitor used as grading monitors in each suite. “They’re superb,” says Muller. “Clients love them.” Martinelli notes that, “we colored our features in DCI P3 and the ability to quickly switch between Rec. 709 and P3 is very powerful.”

The partners already have a variety of work to their credit at Incendio, including a second indie feature, Blaze You Out; Lexus Beast and Suzuki Sled Super Bowl XLVI spots; and IBM’s immersive, 40-screen Think installation at Lincoln Center that required color correcting six streams of media simultaneously with native 4K and 5K files in the timeline.

“Having 48 pictures on the screen at once was a feat — and we could color each image independently with all the power of Film Master,” says Muller.

The colorists did a spot for a foreign financial institution that shot about two hours of 35mm film and over three hours of Canon EOS 5D Mark II footage. “The clients booked six hours to color five hours of footage, which was a bit ambitious, so we had to cut back most of the footage and only color the 35mm film and a small selection of the 5D,” says Martinelli. 

Nevertheless, “We were able to color close to three hours of selects and lay them off to tape in realtime without ever rendering — just in time for the clients to make their flight immediately after the session,” he reports.

So far looks have been set in the room with occasional still photo references from DPs “as a starting point,” says Martinelli. “Typically, we explore the options and find our way with clients.”

“Without a doubt, the process happens in the room,” echoes Muller. “Film Master is fast, so it’s a good collaborative tool.”

Even though Incendio launched less than a year ago, the company quickly saw how the market was changing. “We spec’ed out a SAN with five streams of 2K,” Martinelli recalls. “Then our first job asked for 5K back — we weren’t expecting that! The amount of data we have to move around is only going to get bigger.”

COMPANY 3

When senior colorist Siggy Ferstl of Santa Monica’s Company 3 (www.company3.com) did the DaVinci Resolve color grading for the 2D and stereo 3D versions of Underworld: Awakening, the colorist, who also graded the two previous Underworld installments, helped refresh the look of the popular vampire-themed franchise.

“Underworld has always been synonymous with a cool, blue look,” Ferstl notes of the film,  shot by cinematographer Scott Kevan. “They didn’t want to change that, but they wanted to freshen it up a bit. So we went for a little more separation in the colors when it was appropriate to do so. We added more warmth to images and flesh tones but still kept within the Underworld palette.”

After establishing the color correction for the 2D release, he used LUTs and additional color grading to offset the 3D version. “You can find a close match now between the 2D and 3D, then you have to go in and tweak what hasn’t fallen into place,” says Ferstl. “We had to change the color a bit to help with the dullness of the 3D screen — that hamstrings you in 3D; you’re dealing with a lot less light. So all of a sudden images that looked amazing in 2D can look a little dull in 3D. You have to try to generate brightness and image highlights while dealing with low light levels.”

Underworld: Awakening was shot with the Red Epic, which has a 5K sensor. Normally, a project with a 2K deliverable speed would go through the grading system in the form of 2K DPX files, but Company 3 created 2.5K DPX files, Ferstl says, “to try to maximize the resolution inherent in the original frame. We did deliver the 3D version in the normal 2K format but for the IMAX 3D version we delivered the full 2.5K files because in IMAX, viewers would be able to benefit from the additional resolution.”

Ferstl, who worked concurrently on Gone, another Red Epic-acquired film, says that the footage for Underworld: Awakening “was very clean in terms of noise and grain level.” Past installments of Underworld were shot on 35mm film or with Panavision Genesis. “With film, especially, when you’re adding contrast to images like Underworld’s you have to be mindful of pushing the grain too far. This was the first time I could freely enhance contrast on the image overall or isolate a face and add more texture there and never have to worry about enhancing the noise or grain at the same time.”

Ferstl needed to make sure he made the most of the feature’s rich blacks. “You get a lot of details in blacks in Epic. That allowed me to really darken and shape the images; it was a bit more work for me but great to have all that latitude to work with.”

The colorist says he had early conversations with Scott Kevan about using Red Epic. “He was able to create an Underworld-style LUT on set, but it wasn’t until he and directors Mans Marlind and Bjorn Stein were here that we really sat down and developed the look you see in the film,” Ferstl points out.

A Resolve user since the product made its debut, Ferstl expects to get the color he wants from the system. But it was during his work on the 3D version of Underworld: Awakening that he was most impressed. “Resolve either handled in an automatic or manual process all the color or sizing errors. I was very happy with the way it performed.”

He notes that, “these days, with distribution heading in a more electronic direction, people have a choice whether or not to use film print emulation LUTs or not” on a feature. This type of LUT, designed to keep all grading adjustments within a color space that is completely reproducible on a film print, is not the technical necessity it was when film projection was the way that most movies would be seen. But they can still be used to bring a filmic look to shows destined to be seen digitally.

This is why Ferstl opted for such a LUT for Underworld: Awakening. “It’s something I still like, giving the look and feel of a film; some films definitely benefit by it.” 

CREATIVE POST 

At Toronto’s Creative Post (www.creativepostinc.com), “DI has become more and more part of every job, whether a feature film or A-level TV series,” says president Ken MacNeil. “The process is pretty much the same through all our color suites; you can pick and choose which tools make the most sense — all the rooms, including the theaters, have interchangeable equipment. You just swap the control surface.”

The company has an array of DI solutions: Quantel Pablo for the bulk of 2D work, SGO Mistika for most stereo 3D projects and Autodesk Lustre for the balance. Creative Post just opened a 400-seat DI theater off premises via its Theater D Digital sibling. The restored Art Deco theater in downtown Toronto boasts a 50-foot screen for traditional color grading and RealD stereo 3D viewing, a Christie 4K projector and Dolby 7.1-certified mixing.

“It’s a very unique offering,” says MacNeil of the theater. “In the same room feature clients can do 7.1 Dolby mixing, color and final DI. It’s a true theatrical experience for picture and sound, and the end results are astounding.” A second theater, with 600 seats, 65-foot screen, dual 4K projectors and mixing is slated to open in the second half of 2012 for the company’s many large-screen format clients, including Imax films.



Creative Post has seen a good bit of stereo 3D work recently, including Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance, Desert Superstars 3D, Wild Fires 3D and Irvine Welsh’s Ecstasty. Mistika has proved to be the optimum choice for these jobs, MacNeil points out.

“It’s the most advanced stereo post tool in existence,” he says. “Mistika is realtime all the time from dailies to final DI; it has a very sophisticated color corrector and its stereo correction tools are second to none — the final product is really spectacular. In stereo you need accurate and true 3D, comfortable 3D and spectacular color. This tool is the best of all worlds.”

The only things to equal it, he says, are “individual VFX workstations, but they have a shot-by-shot VFX workflow; they’re not a DI solution.”

At a time when MacNeil has “never seen budgets so tight,” Creative Post’s suites are in demand for their ability to perform DI on time and on budget, he notes. “We focus on efficiencies without sacrificing creative.”

Colorists typically do an unsupervised technical pass to get the balance and come up with the looks discussed with the director or DP. Then the DP arrives for a scene-by-scene pass.

Although the looks developed on set are loaded in or recreated during the tech pass, “80 percent of the time clients end up with an entirely different look,” says MacNeil, discarding the pre-set look or guideline in favor of something else. 

“In the end our primary focus is always on the creative,” he says. “Having technical flexibility allows us an unrestricted flow to that creative.”

EFILM

Steve Scott is VP/supervising digital colorist at Hollywood’s Efilm (www.efilm.com), whose DI history extends from the first full-length DI for We Were Soldiers in 2001 to today’s stereo 3D DIs for a great number of the Marvel features as well as the recent Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Scott himself did the DI for Tree of Life, which earned a 2012 Academy Award nomination for Best Cinematography for its DP, Emmanuel Lubezki. 

Scott recalls that a DI used to start when a finished film moved into the DI suite for timing. “Now, once the boards are drawn up, we start discussing and engaging with the DP, director and VFX supervisor to decide the pipeline as early as possible. This allows for a consistent workflow from monitoring and timing dailies through editorial to timing backplates for VFX and on to the final DI. Ideally, when you get to the DI, a lot of the heavy lifting has already been done, so it’s just a matter of finessing.”

Efilm’s proprietary version of Autodesk Lustre — called Eworks — and Autodesk Flame Premium are key tools in the process.

“We added Flame Premium to the mix in February,” Scott says. “We’re using it in a pretty groundbreaking way — directly in the DI, adding another great toolset that wasn’t part of our DI pipeline before. Increasingly, clients want to see more creative capabilities in the DI, more options for visual exploration. They want everything accessible and adjustable ‘til the last second, and Flame Premium affords us that kind of creative flexibility.” 

He hails Flame Premium’s batch-tree node-based system with its “full set of the most advanced compositing tools and plug-ins imaginable. We’re also working to develop a seamless workflow between it and all our color finishing systems. We are investigating ways that Flame Premium can work with the company’s DaVinci Resolve, for instance,” which Scott says is “great for speed and handling various file formats.”

He gives kudos to Lustre for its “intuitive and straightforward menu hierarchy, its excellent tracking and grouping capabilities, its batch-tree-node handling of multiple shapes, as well as its ability to see whole reels in a global thumbnail view, and the ability to manually group any combination of shots and collapse them for review. It’s a very intuitive toolset, which anyone from a high-end compositing environment will quickly feel comfortable with.”

Efilm has 12 Lustre/Eworks systems installed, mostly in theater-sized environments where Christie, Barco and NEC projectors display content in 2K to mimic the theatrical experience.