Growing in popularity, the digital intermediate provides a digital bridge from film to the digital environment and then back out to film, giving directors and DPs greater creative latitude and control over the look and quality of their film projects than ever before.
Once in the DI environment, filmmakers can now enjoy a world of creative options and tools that can change their imagery for the better. But this world of options is also posing financial pressures for DI facilities because client expectations are high while their budgets are increasingly tight.
Adding a little effect or doing light dust busting sounds minor to clients, but it comes at a cost to DI facilities. Yet if these facilities try to charge for every bell and whistle they provide, they risk exceeding the bids and budgets their clients are working under. And if they throw in a lot of extras, they're doing that work for free.
The swelling ranks of post facilities adding DI services have also been putting downward pressure on rates because of the need to be super competitive. And even though revenue streams are reduced, the overhead of maintaining a DI pipeline remains one of the highest in the business. DI facilities typically need ample storage and realtime processing power to handle the terabytes of data related to a single movie; a DI mastering suite capable of realtime color grading, dust busting, mastering of film resolution imagery; DLP Cinema-grade digital projection; as well as scanning, recording, and film to video color space conversion. So we asked top DI facilities how they offer competitive, affordable rates and produce results that meet clients' expectations, while still realizing a healthy profit margin.
THE DEMANDS OF DI
"Keeping prices low for our clients while still making a profit is one of the biggest challenges we face in the DI business," says Kenny Locsmandi, owner of Filmworks/FX (www.filmworksfx.com) in Santa Monica. "When clients compare bids from different DI facilities, it's not always clear to them exactly what services will be included for those prices."
In today's competitive DI market, Locsmandi has lost DI business to larger facilities that bid jobs at far lower prices just to get them in the door. "But by the time they were done, their DI price was four times what my bid was, he says. "There can be a lot of hidden costs and surprises once the project is in their DI pipeline — and the customer faces a costly 'I/O charge' should he decide to take his project elsewhere.
"My bids rarely waiver, and if they do, it's because the client asked for some
thing new," continues Locsmandi. "And while many places will charge for everything their artists do, we often throw in many extras, such as visual effects, that make the projects turn out better. Even that distinction is hard to convey to customers."
Locsmandi says that overall, the profit margin on his DI business is one-fifth what it used to be due to bidding and budgeting pressures. However, his lab processing business is up 50 percent in just a few years and his visual effects service is also very busy right now. Plus, efforts to co-produce independent film projects will keep his facility on an even keel.
Among the projects done recently at Filmworks/FX was Splinter, a film produced by Darkhorse Independent, a division of Darkhorse comics. The film, which stars Edward James Olmos and Tom Sizemore, was shot on Super 16mm and mastered onto Panasonic D5-HD with 5.1 channel surround sound. The film is going to be printed to 35mm film for screening at film festivals and ultimately theaters.
"Our main DI tool is Assimilate Scratch, integrated with GlobalStor RAID storage, for color grading, conform and unlimited image manipulation and restoration," says Locsmandi. "After testing virtually every DI system available, I chose Scratch because it proved to be the most stable, solid solution on the market."
SHOOTING FOR LESS
"A very big trend in the DI business is Fuji 3-perf 35mm film. Fuji 3-perf allows filmmakers to shoot a quarter less film than they use with 4-perf, and this makes the medium significantly more cost effective," says Matt McFarland, owner of Cranium Filmworks LA, (www.craniumfilmworks.com) which is located at Raleigh Studios in Hollywood.
Perhaps the only drawback to 3-perf is that you're limited to the 16x9 aspect ratio, so it's necessary to pan and scan for the 4x3 deliverable. But McFarland says that since most of the projects are destined for the cinema or HDTV, being limited to just widescreen is not really a problem. Also, those shooting 3-perf are also limited to a DI or HD finish because the film negative cannot be cut.
"Compared to shooting in HD, 3-perf film gives artists greater resolution, greater density range and richer detail to work with, and that is beneficial to the DI process," McFarland says. "Just about every film we've done the DI for in the last year has been 3-perf Fuji. It's a significant trend."
Two of these films were Throwing Stars, a black comedy directed by Todd Breau, and Hatchet, a horror film that was well received at the Tribeca Film Festival, among others. For both films, Cranium did the 2K color grading in its Barco digital-projector-equipped screening room.
Cranium Filmworks also uses an Oxberry Cinescan 6400 scanner, which has a gate for 3-perf. They also have the Silicon Color Final Touch 2K DI Mac G5-based solution (just purchasd by Apple), which is relatively low-cost software that helps make the DI process more affordable for independent filmmakers.
DIVERSITY BY DESIGN
Besides 3D and film restoration work, "DI represents one of the strongest growth areas in post production today," says Justin Bergeron, COO of HD Pictures & Post (www.hdpicturesandpost.com) in Santa Monica. He co-founded the company with his wife Cher Helina, who is now the CEO.
"But the margins in post production have been shrinking for a long time," he says. "And as resolutions climb to HD, 2K and beyond, our equipment has become much more expensive, but studios and networks don't want to pay more for their DI and editorial projects."
As a relative newcomer, HD Pictures & Post is busy right out of the gate. Besides targeting the DI and digital cinema markets, this facility also caters to HD, broadcast and commercial clients. This diversity ensures that the facility can weather the ups and down in any market segment. "We don't want to rely on any one market or revenue stream too much," Bergeron says.
Even the DI pipeline was created with diversification in mind. The main DI mastering suite features a Quantel iQ Pablo 4K system that can handle all the demands of DI color grading and conforming, as well as visual effects compositing, graphics and multiformat editing of both short- and longform projects. There's an Avid DS Nitris HD for resolution independent offline editing, as well as Digidesign Pro Tools for audio mixing and surround sound. And Bergeron says they're looking into adding a Sony 4K digital projector as part of the quest for the best equipment and services they can provide.
"Studios and networks like a one-stop shop with everything they need under one roof because moving a project from place to place introduces possible breeches in security and inefficiency," says Bergeron. "We also designed this facility so that we would be totally self sufficient in producing our own feature film projects. Our goal is to produce three or four digital HD movies per year budgeted at between $1 and $5 million a piece."
Among the first DI projects completed at HD Pictures & Post was a :90 trailer for Duck, an independent film by Nic Bettauer. This art house film tells the story of an elderly man and a duck, both of whom are displaced from their homes and searching for the meaning of life. HD Pictures & Post contributed offline editing, audio mixing, HD and 2K finishing, color grading, among other DI services to the completion of the Duck trailer. Also completed was a package of logo animations for CheckMark Films in NYC that are intended to run prior to feature films in theaters. HD Pictures & Post also completed the 2K conform of the cinematic trailer for Oliver Stone's World Trade Center, which premiered in August 2006. Among the tasks involved with the trailer, HD Pictures & Post handled the online editorial and coordinated the versioning of 22 international versions, 14 of which were conformed at HD Pictures & Post. For those versions, the Avid DS Nitris was used to add subtitles, replace shots and conform the trailer in 2K, turning them around in just one day to meet worldwide deadlines.
A TREASURE FOR TREKKIES
Sunset Digital (www.sunsetdigital.net) in Glendale, CA, recently completed the full DI post production, restoration and mastering of all 79 episodes of the 1960's classic television series Star Trek.
The objective was to restore the programs for re-broadcast in HDTV and SDTV without changing the character or icons, such as the beaming transport effect that "Trekkies" have come to cherish. Created by Gene Roddenberry, the original Star Trek television series was unique for its day because it was shot on film and it was rich with many visual effects, which had to be created using the now-antiquated, time-consuming film opticals method.
"We were given all of the 35mm A/B film negatives and an impossible deadline of three months to complete all 79 one-hour episodes. That meant completing an episode per day. The key to meeting this deadline was that we employed a well-honed, nonlinear, DI-HD workflow where scanning, color grading, editing, audio conform, QC and restoration all proceeded at once on different shows, scenes and elements," explains Ron Burdett, president of Sunset Digital. "At any one time, there were two dozen episodes in various stages of completion, and we were working in a very fast, efficient manner."
Adding to the complexity of the mission was the fact that CBS Paramount Television intended to re-master and distribute the newly restored series out of its original broadcast sequence. In other words, Burdett says, "the first 40 episodes to be distributed were ones that CBS Paramount Television felt would be most endearing to Star Trek fans. This presented many challenges with respect to media asset tracking and management, which was accomplished by the people on our team through a culture of cooperation and collaboration."
The nonlinear DI-HD workflow process, which Burdett says was elevated to an art form, started with 2K oversampled scans on the facility's Cintel C-Reality DSX telecine producing 10-bit log HD files, with color grading accomplished on a da Vinci 2K color corrector. Cintel's Oliver optical negative dust buster was used to restore the negative images as they were scanned at high-speed.
Once onto Sony HDCAM-SR 4:4:4 RGB tape machines, the images were further restored using the MTI DSR system. Since the tape deck supports 12 channels of audio, Sunset Digital recorded all 5.1 channels of surround sound, plus the stereo mix, original dialogue, music and effects (DME) tracks and Spanish language tracks.
"The restored Star Trek series also incorporated faithful recreations of the Starship Enterprise and the visual effects, which were produced by the 3D artists working at CBS Digital Studios, a division of CBS Paramount Television," says Burdett. "The finished 1080/24p HD master features the Star Trek series with phenomenal, pristine images that preserve this classic television series for generations to come."
"The main way to make DI affordable for clients while still making a profit is to choose the correct equipment and then build a workflow that's as efficient as possible," reports Mick Vincent, head of DI at The Mill (www.the-mill.com) in London.
"It's possible to install slow but cheap suites if there is a long lead time. But even low budget films aren't cheap, just cheaper, and they are probably the ones that need the most support. Also, since changes are always made, the methods should be flexible enough to cater to this when required."
With its Thomson Spirit 4K high-speed scanner, The Mill is able to scan film in realtime, 25fps, which produces a quality scan at a much cheaper cost per frame. Film for a feature could be scanned in a day or two, compared to traditional pin-registered scanning, which could take a week or two. The facility also uses a Filmlight Baselight as a color grading system because it has a powerful toolset; it comes with integrated industry standard film calibration software and is flexible enough to allow for changes.
The Spirit and Baselight were used for the DI of Gone, a film directed by Ringan Ledwidge and shot by DP Ben Serisin. "The color grading needed to be done on short notice but required lots of subtle detailed grading," says Vincent. "It also had to fit into the director's and DP's busy schedules, so for this reason, the speed and efficiency of our DI workflow was an asset."
The Mill also provided DI for the spinoff of Dr. Who called Torchwood for the UK's BBC.
A POST PARTNER
"At Post Digital, we see ourselves as a collaborative partner with independent filmmakers," says Ed Winfield, president of the Las Vegas-based company. Post Digital, along with Stella Productions, is part of the Vegas Media Group.
"We also look at films on a project basis, meaning that we do not typically charge by the hour or day, but rather by the scope of the work. This approach makes the DI process more affordable for independent filmmakers and other clients working within a tight budget," Winfield adds. "But, since post is the last step in the filmmaking process, it is usually underestimated. So we try to assist filmmakers in translating their creative concepts into an action plan that addresses the scope and schedule requirements of their work. And since we are typically not on the clock, but rather working on a project basis, we share in the responsibility of defining that scope."
Post Digital's DI service is based upon a Quantel eQ for editing, effects, color grading and mastering, which has TimeMagic no-wait hardware for greater processing speed. The eQ was used on the DI for The Ghosts of Goldfield, a 2006 independent horror movie produced by 18th Avenue Productions in Las Vegas.
Winfield says, "It's important to sit down with clients up-front and fully plan the post so it can proceed as efficiently as possible."