The digital intermediate process is quickly becoming the workflow of choice in Hollywood and elsewhere around the country and the world. Today, many, if not most, A-list studio features employ DI, as do an increasing number of independent films. DI is also becoming an important factor in posting episodic television shows and commercials, especially those intended for cinema release.
Still, while the digital intermediate process is being used on a great variety of productions, it is not always being used in the same way. Depending on such factors as time, budget and distribution media, key aspects of the DI workflow can vary greatly. Encore Hollywood has used a DI process for dozens of projects - and no two of them have been exactly alike.
For studio features, DI often means scanning 35mm film negative to 2K or 4K data, high resolution color grading and visual effects production, and output back to film. Studios have embraced this workflow because of the creative advantages of color grading in an interactive, realtime environment and because of the flexibility DI allows for producing deliverables. A single color-graded DI master can be used to create film prints, television masters, DVD masters, film marketing media and other items, potentially saving a great deal of time and expense.
At Encore, we have extended this DI workflow by integrating dailies services. Filmmakers who include dailies in their DI workflow derive a number of important benefits. Color grading decisions made at the dailies stage can be retained for further refinement through succeeding stages of post - a time saver and a boon to the creative process. This extended DI workflow also helps in project management. It ensures that dailies elements are properly logged from the start and precisely tracked as the project moves through color grading, editorial and visual effects. That helps to avoid problems at later stages of post in managing lists or versions - again resulting in time and cost savings. Similarly, we have integrated 2D and 3D visual effects services into our DI workflow to form a truly one-stop service.
For independent producers, DI often implies something quite different. Many independent films are now being finished through an HD DI path. For indies, the choice to go DI is typically less about creative flexibility than it is about saving money. DI done via an HD workflow provides filmmakers with a way to finish films that they could not afford to finish via traditional film methods or via a 2K DI - and still end up with a product that can be screened theatrically. It is an especially attractive option for filmmakers who are seeking distribution. It allows them to show potential buyers a "finished" film that only requires the relatively modest expense of preparing a film print prior to theatrical release.
For television producers, DI offers a way to extend the value of their assets. By finishing shows in high resolution via a DI workflow, they can efficiently produce versions for DVD, foreign release and broadcast television. Perhaps most importantly, the DI workflow results in a master that is format agnostic with the maximum picture information to get the most value from the film as it is distributed through future broadcast mediums. This is especially true when the DI workflow employs an HD-RGB 4:4:4 path. Unlike the traditional HD 4:2:2 format, in which half the color data is discarded, the 4:4:4 results in uncompressed color that is the highest standard currently available. That quality may well make DI, via an HD-RGB 4:4:4 workflow, the new standard for TV.
A further DI workflow that is just beginning to emerge is 4K. This workflow entails scanning film and processing changes to those images at 4K resolution. Whether 4K will become a popular format for feature DI remains an open question. Although a 4K image has four times the resolution of a 2K image, the average movie-goer can't perceive much difference. As a 4K DI involves significantly greater expense, it is not certain that studios will choose that path for a marginal improvement in quality. Yet, 4K may turn out to be a viable option for films where image quality is paramount, such as blockbuster titles with a great deal of visual effects.
The term "digital intermediate" means different things to different people. DI is not a specific application; it refers to a variety of workflows and post production processes. Selecting the right DI workflow for a given project is not always obvious. Should it be shot on film or digitally? What is the best scanning medium: 2K, HD, HD-RGB 4:4:4, or perhaps 4K? What's the right output choice? There are many alternatives to consider, many choices to make, and each one will have an impact on time, cost and quality.
Producers, especially those new to DI, are well advised to consult with a DI post house early on, ideally during pre-production. A quality provider can offer a full spectrum of DI solutions and can help producers prepare a DI strategy that best suits their particular project. They can conduct tests, before principal photography has begun, to demonstrate the effects of different alternatives for acquisition, scanning and output, and arrive at a look that meets the producer's creative and budgetary requirements. A well conceived DI workflow is the best way to control costs, avoid difficulties and achieve great results.