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October 2014
Issue: July 1, 2004

DIGITAL INTERMEDIATES

By: By Claudia Kienzle

Ultra-high-end post facilities working on major motion pictures for Hollywood movie studios have discovered that the digital intermediate process is a vibrant new profit center for their businesses. With resolutions ranging from HD to 4K, the digital intermediate is the electronic bridge between film that's been shot and the final film version for release. The appeal of this electronic finishing environment is the unprecedented creative latitude and control it gives filmmakers to change, fix and improve the look of their film.

While the digital intermediate has been growing rapidly in popularity, it's been dominated by large, prominent facilities catering to well-heeled major studio clientele largely because of the cost associated with supporting an infrastructure that's powerful enough to process near-film resolution images in realtime or near realtime.


Technicolor provided a range of DI services on Looking for Kitty, which was shot with a Panasonic DV camera.
But, there's evidence to suggest that things are starting to change dramatically. As equipment prices come down, mid-sized facilities are finding that they can now jump into this arena and begin serving a group that has generally been priced out of digital intermediates - the independent filmmaker. And, the facilities we spoke with - Karma Bank, The Digital Conform Group and Technicolor Creative Services NY - say they expect that digital intermediate business from the independent film market will grow substantially due to strong, untapped demand.

GOOD KARMA

"Over the next five years, the biggest growth potential in the digital intermediate business will be in the independent market," says Preston Kuntz, owner of Karma Bank (www.karmabank.biz/) in Los Angeles. "Because I don't have the high overheard of a much bigger facility, I can offer competitive rates that are very attractive to the independent filmmaker." With a client list that includes mini-major studios, such as Fox Searchlight, Paramount Classics and New Market Films, Karma Bank has posted trailers for Whale Rider, Bend It Like Beckham and The Singing Detective, and is now expanding its digital intermediate service to include full-length movies.

"Independent filmmakers have come to believe that they cannot afford digital intermediate services," adds Kuntz," but when they see the bids I put together for them, they realize that it's not as much as they thought, and the digital intermediate can actually save them money."

With a rich film editorial background, Kuntz knows how to bring the best out of film. With his Nucoda Film Master, a resolution independent PC-based system that harnesses the power of an ATI graphics card for realtime finishing, he's able to offer independent filmmakers far more creative latitude over the look of the film than is possible using traditional lab color timing or film opticals.

By entering the digital intermediate market this year, Karma Bank can take advantage of the relatively new Nucoda Film Master, which is capable of color grading, conforming and mastering from 2K 10-bit log files (including Cineon or DPX) for about $150,000, combined with 4TB of fully-redundant storage for $60,000 - for a powerful platform tempered by a manageable overhead.

For Mimbreland Films, an independent studio in Hollywood, Kuntz is providing digital intermediate services for Last Night, a 30-minute short film written by James Salter and starring Francis McDormand. The work will span 35mm film scanning, color correction, conforming and film recording, as well as main titles and credits.

Compared to bigger facilities, where 20 or 30 people might handle several digital intermediates simultaneously, Kuntz says, " A boutique like Karma Bank can better manage all of the logistics involved with finishing a movie, delivering high - quality results while catering to the artists and their creative vision ."

INDIE FILMMAKERS

"Our digital intermediate business is growing dramatically," says Christian Zak, technical director and post producer for Technicolor Creative Services, NY(www.thomson.net/). "Year to date, we've done seven digital intermediate projects, and a day doesn't go by where we're not in a conversation about yet another movie project."


Karma Bank's DI work for Last Night spans 35mm film scanning, color correction, conforming and film recording. Owner Preston Kuntz is inset.
The New York market differs from Hollywood in that most of the films made there are by independent filmmakers, says Zak. "Because independent film budgets are tight, our filmmakers tend to shoot Super16 film and even native DV video, rather than more costly 35mm film. While the purist's definition of a digital intermediate is electronic processing of material shot on 35mm film for recording back to 35mm film, we're seeing independent filmmakers turning to the digital intermediate to give lower cost formats like Super16 and DV a filmic look, and getting great results."

As festivals like Sundance increasingly present movies shot on unconventional formats, filmmakers don't have the pressure to generate a 35mm film master before they've secured a distribution deal. This is the case with Looking for Kitty, an independent film that premiered last May at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York and that is now in negotiations for a distribution deal.

Written, directed and produced by Ed Burns, Looking for Kitty was shot on (a Panasonic DVX100a) DV at 24fps in the 4:3 aspect ratio, and this low-cost acquisition medium enabled Burns to make the entire movie for under $2 million. To give this romantic comedy a film look, DP William Rexer II used a P&S Technik adapter and 35mm lenses. At TCS/NY, Discreet's Fire was used to interpolate the data into an HD color space at HD resolution, and then colorist John Dowdell III used the da Vinci 2K for realtime color correction of the HD data files. The data then went back into Fire for titling and final output on both D-5 at 24fps and HDCAM 30fps for festival screenings.

For those shooting Super16, Zak says, "The new Kodak Vision II film stocks, which minimize grain, can be further improved using Thomson's Spirit DataCine's Scream grain reducer. In our 4:4:4 uncompressed HD digital intermediate pipeline, we can now take a Super16-originated project, manipulate it and output it to 35mm with remarkable results."

DIGITAL CONFORM & ASSET MANAGEMENT

"When it comes to digital intermediates, independent filmmakers can't afford not to work this way," says Marc Kolbe, co-owner of The Digital Conform Group (www.vfxpc.Com/) in LA. "While there's pretty much one way to work with film, in the electronic environment there are many different variables that can get you into quite a bit of trouble."


Digital Conform's Craig Mumma and Mark Kolbe (L-R): thanks to the portability of their Nucoda Film Master they often work on-site and focus on the editorial conform and asset management of the project.
Kolbe co-owns The Digital Conform Group and VPXPC, the LA-based visual effects production company, with his partner Craig Mumma. Prior to launching The Digital Conform Group in January of this year, Kolbe and Mumma worked on visual effects for such movies as Independence Day, Godzilla, Dr. Doolittle 2 and the first Spy Kids . Among the projects currently using The Digital Conform Group's digital intermediate process for finishing is Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, starring Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow, which is an independent film that will be released by Paramount in September. An all-digital production, the movie combines live action with 3D CG backgrounds.

"There's a big misconception with digital intermediates that you just scan in the film frames, do color correction and it all comes together automatically," says Kolbe. "In reality, the project consists of hundreds of thousands of massive digital assets that must be tracked, coordinated and managed. The file nomenclature, color space, file directories and other data must be handled consistently from the outset, or the problems that result can be costly."

With the power and portability of their Nucoda Film Master, Kolbe says they often work on-site and focus on the editorial conform and asset management of the project. "Top facilities such as Technicolor Digital Intermediate and Efilm have invested millions in their color correction theaters, and we're able to help them move more projects through their facilities by providing critical digital conform and asset management services," says Kolbe. The Digital Conform Group works in a complementary, non-competitive fashion with film labs, production companies and major post houses, helping everyone minimize bottlenecks and maintain efficiency for a more streamlined digital intermediate pipeline.

FULLY INVESTED IN DI

"The digital intermediate is a very compelling proposition. I think that, in the near future, more than 75 percent of films will be posted this way," says Kevin Phelan, head of post for Lip Sync Post in London.

Located in London's prestigious, trendy Soho section, Lip Sync Post has invested over two million pounds in digital intermediate technology over the last two years. Today, the facility has a wide range of gear, including Northlight film scanners from Filmlight, which are housed in a clean room with air-lock doors and climate control. One of the scanners is equipped to handle both 16mm and 35mm film.

Lip Sync Post also has a Quantel iQ resolution independent grading and compositing suite with two Filmlight Truelight color management systems, enabling the colorist to accurately replicate the final film look at any stage in the post process. The colorist, as well as the directors and DPs, can refer to the HD monitor, as well as a 10-foot digital projection screen right in the grading suite. The facility also includes Arrilaser recorders with high-speed output options. Lip Sync Post's scanning and recording services were used on the film Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban .

Currently in the digital intermediate pipeline is Ladies in Lavender, a Scala Productions film starring Maggie Smith and Judi Dench, which is slated for release later this year. The digital intermediate tasks for this movie included scanning of the effects shots, color grading by in-house colorist Stuart Fyvie ( Band of Brothers) and final output to film. "A number of sequences in the film were shot as 'day-for-night.' The colors were then suitably adjusted, tree lines extended, lights in houses were created, modern cars were removed - all to create a 'nighttime look' [appropriate for the 1936 period setting]," says Alasdair MacCuish, head of Lip Sync Post's digital lab.

The Truelight color management system, used with iQ, "helped match-grade key sequences integrating visual effects shots and background plates," adds MacCuish. "It was also used to digitally paint out dirt and scratches, as well as to create complicated opticals, dozens of subtitles, and even some effects work."

Among the digital intermediate projects recently completed at Lip Sync Post is Touching the Void, about two mountain climbers' harrowing ascent up the sheer face of an Andean mountain in 1985. Seamlessly combining 35mm film, 16mm film and HDCAM.

Phelan notes, "Both major studios and independent filmmakers can benefit from the increased creative and technical control afforded by digital intermediates. This level of control is simply unattainable using traditional lab routes digital intermediate."

Phelan adds, "The digital intermediate is not a 'cheap' alternative [gear-wise]. And it's much more than just about the kit itself. You need to invest in experienced creative and technical staff to produce the kind of work that keeps clients returning."