As Post has noted recently, the digital intermediate industry’s specific niche on the wider digital filmmaking landscape has radically veered away from the original meaning of the term itself, since the “intermediate” stage involving working in the digital realm and then returning to film is no longer the industry’s preferred methodology. Now that all-data workflows throughout the post chain from dailies onward, regardless of the original image capture format, are becoming increasingly sophisticated and yet more accessible at virtually all levels of filmmaking, it is growing increasingly difficult to view the term “DI” anymore as anything but a generic umbrella term for a wide range of digital mastering and data management services that facilities are offering movie and broadcast clients in various combinations, depending on their particular creative needs and resources.
Today, a wide range of companies are finding innovative ways to liberally intermingle these DI offerings with other services that used to be separate entities, such as digital dailies and other on-set solutions, film restoration services, editorial and VFX work, re-mastering, and more. Lines have blurred, in other words, and what was once considered a specialized service in which material shot on film was scanned into the digital realm to be digitally color corrected and conformed before being printed back out to film for distribution and exhibition is now part of a larger, constantly evolving digital paradigm shift, albeit an extremely important part.
“I think ‘DI’ today should really be called more generally ‘mastering,’” says Bill Baggelaar, senior VP of technology for Sony Colorworks, the digital intermediate and restoration facility on the lot at Sony Pictures Studios. “There is a lot more than just coloring pictures going on today. At Colorworks, we have built an integrated digital pipeline for the studio, and color just happens to be at the end of that chain.”
Colorworks is an example of a major studio-owned facility that also offers services to industry clients outside of Sony. As such, its business model may differ from some others, as it continually upgrades and expands a highly sophisticated data foundation that is permanently linked to the larger Sony empire, as we will discuss below.
But other major, well-known industry players are also evolving in their own ways, with major announcements from some major names likely by NAB this year. Growth, change, and evolution, in fact, are now constants at facilities of all levels of size and scope, as they work strategically to keep up with continually-shifting ground on issues like 4K, on-set services, higher frame rates and dynamic range, stereoscopic imagery, color data management, combining services, amortizing expensive equipment, and much more. The following is a look at four different types of facilities and what they are up to on this new industry landscape in advance of NAB 2014.
Bill Baggelaar describes Colorworks as having been “built from the ground up” to handle 4K from acquisition through mastering, and emphasizes the company has strategically dedicated itself to building a large-scale storage infrastructure for secure sharing of digital assets for production, post, visual effects, and digital intermediate work alike. The company offers clients the ability to coordinate digital dailies, deliverables, storage, and image security during production, along with remote access to data by all relevant departments from what Baggelaar calls “a single repository” that he suggests should be thought of “as a digital lab.”
In this sense, there is no attempt to distinguish DI, per se, as something separate or unique — Colorworks views the service as part of a larger paradigm.
“We are continually developing our integration with the wider Sony Pictures Production Backbone,” he says. “This is where we keep the pieces of data that we collect, whether up front from the set, or from the dailies process, from all camera sources, all metadata, the actual dailies themselves, visual effects — we keep and link them together in the repository so that everyone can see and reference them, and pull and send frames, whether in house at Sony or out of house. Streamlining the whole process has been a big part of what we have been trying to do in terms of transitioning from the traditional DI role.”
In keeping with the theme of integrating DI into larger programs, Sony’s ongoing 4K/UHD initiative, which began in 2012 with an agenda to have Colorworks remaster 80 to 100 library titles in 4K in the first year in order to front-load Sony’s 4K Video Unlimited service, and to generally help feed 4K content into the consumer marketplace now that hardware manufacturers are pushing ahead with production of UHD consumer televisions, has led Colorworks to improve its technological foundation and workflow methods for mastering assets not just in 4K, but as 4K IMF (Interoperable Mastering Format) data. So far, the company has delivered over 150 feature and TV episodes mastered as 4K IMF product.
Baggelaar views this as an important development that strengthens the company’s digital intermediate capabilities generally, and its color management tools specifically. That’s because as the industry moves toward making 4K mastering commonplace, Colorworks will have a stable IMF path for all metadata, including color, to travel for new DI projects, in addition to its remastered projects, for features and broadcast alike — data that can safely take up less storage space due to the efficiencies of the new IMF architecture for neatly packaging content together.
“We are looking at a 90-plus percent reduction in storage space for delivering an IMF project, versus uncompressed,” Baggelaar says. “That is obviously a tremendous amount of savings, with a high quality bit rate for the files and a high-quality picture. I’m excited about this development, because the framework we are establishing with IMF can accommodate all other changes for the long-term, like higher frame rates, high dynamic range, and much more.
“And with this kind of workflow, we are using the same tools for television that we are using for finishing work on new features and remasters, because we always have a way to keep everything safe in the central repository. And that is what a digital intermediate really is today — a way of assembling and coloring pictures, finishing sound, putting it all together, delivering it, and keeping everything safe. That is what we now mean when we say ‘digital intermediate’ — we mean it is the digital process that creates a color-corrected, finished intermediate master, and we can create all of the necessary deliverables from there, whether it is a DCP, a film element, or a video package to go to IMF — it will all come from the same system.”
Hollywood-based MTI is a different kind of post production company, having spun its post services unit just over three years ago out of its long-standing, core R&D business that yielded software products such as Control Dailies, an innovative data-centric dailies workflow technology when it was released in 2003, and Correct DRS, a digital film restoration tool widely used by facilities across the globe. With both sides of its related businesses combined, the company is pursuing an agenda based on the belief that the modern, file-based, post environment requires filmmakers to find stable and comprehensive solutions for “the avalanche of media” coming their way during the production, editorial, and mastering processes, in the words of industry veteran Larry Chernoff, CEO of MTI Film. And so, MTI has been working on tools and methodologies for “institutionalizing the process” to give artists hope for corralling and controlling these daily avalanches.
He says the strategy is built around the notion of “bringing coherence from production to post production,” and therefore, the company has focused on doing this with the addition of its Cortex Dailies software product that contains copying, color correction, sound synchronization, transcoding, and asset management tools that MTI rolled out over the last two and a half years. This year, at NAB, MTI will debut a new variation on this theme with its CarryOn appliance — an even more portable form of the Cortex Dailies platform, designed to manufacture dailies and track media assets and color on-set, and then allow filmmakers to plug that data into any number of post workflows. Chernoff says MTI will debut the initial CarryOn “set to post” set-up for the new season of the AMC crime-drama, Longmire, which returns to production in mid-March.
Among the beneficiaries of this approach, Chernoff suggests, will be the DI process, which will more efficiently receive organized media files for visual effects, finishing pulls, and dailies color metadata to factor into the finishing equation.
“We want to make sure that both the creative color process and the mechanical aspect of copying media are accurately reconciled when production sends post production all its assets,” he explains. “The point of these initiatives, the main thrust of the entire company right now, is about developing technology that makes a difference in how the set and post interact. Since DPs are very concerned about color, and producers are concerned that their assets are protected and accounted for, our software is designed to track all assets and color metadata, allowing productions to exactly reproduce them in any post environment with Cortex Dailies, reporting back instantly if any asset is missing. On any given production, a tremendous amount of media is generated on a daily basis, and there are occasions where lack of harmony between production and post production causes irritating and costly mistakes. During production, Cortex Dailies generates what we call a ‘Cortex Manifest’ that accounts for all media and metadata — picture and sound, LUTs, and so on, and when imported into another Cortex system, reconciles it against the delivered media. This ensures the cinematographer that what he saw on-set will be faithfully reproduced in the post environment, and for the producer, it provides peace of mind that his file assets have been accounted for. This is obviously important during the dailies stage, but also provides the potential for more options for the final DI.”
Chernoff adds that, at NAB, MTI will introduce, as part of Cortex Dailies, “a special algorithm for up-res’ing from any frame-based format to any other frame-based format, which will have applications for the advent of UHDTV as producers look to re-purpose existing content.”
On the facility side of its business, Chernoff says MTI has had the advantage of weaving these kind of solutions into its data-centric infrastructure since, after all, “we only began our facility construction about three years ago, and so we had no legacy infrastructure to remove. We built the entire plant for data from the beginning, so it was a big advantage.”
Chernoff says the result has been “an entrepreneurial technology company” that has sold its software to many other post production companies even as it has launched a facility business using that same technology to do restoration work and provide services for a variety of major TV shows, such as Longmire, The Walking Dead, Dallas, Hell on Wheels, and many others.
“Post is a niche business, with lots of sea changes,” he adds. “We are kind of unique because we produce technology, share it, and also compete for work. It can be a bit of a delicate balancing act, but customers on both sides of our business are finding the industry to be very challenging, so you have to think in new ways to make it all work. I’m happy to report that our products have helped many companies do just that.”
Six-year-old Cinelicious, with locations in Hollywood and Santa Monica, has recently grown its suite of services from its longtime film scanning, restoration, and commercial telecine base into the DI world. In the last year the company opened a 4K DI theater with a Barco 4K-P Series 2 DLP projector, and promptly started expanding into HD, 2K, and 4K color grading work for both broadcast projects in Rec.709 color space and long-form indie feature work in P3 DCI color space, in addition to its ongoing work on commercials and music videos, while maintaining its long-standing scanning and restoration business.
Ironically, according to Paul Korver, the company’s president/CEO, Cinelicious’ path into the DI realm was made easier by its film scanning and restoration success — a capability he suggests that has now made the company an attractive destination for independent filmmakers who continue to shoot film. For example, this past year, Cinelicious worked on three high-profile movies acquired on film that were well received at the Sundance Film Festival: Michael Tully’s Ping Pong Summer, a Super 16mm project; Jeff Preiss’ Low Down, another Super 16mm project which earned cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt the Dramatic Cinematography Award at the festival; and Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, a project acquired mainly on 35mm over many years, which Cinelicious and Texas boutique Stuck On On both had a hand in. Cinelicious provided different mixtures of DI-related services on the three projects, depending on the filmmaker’s needs, including final DI scanning for all three films, and some timed sound-synced dailies, dust busting, scratch removal, film grain optimization, DI color grading, and final mastering work.
Korver argues the industry’s move to terminate film prints and distribution has not triggered the end of all film acquisition for modestly budgeted indie films, as some have suggested. Rather, he points to the fact that Kodak has emerged from bankruptcy with an open-ended commitment to continue to offer acquisition and preservation film stock for such filmmakers, while companies like Cinelicious and others continue to provide high-end scanning services and innovative workflows for handling DI work on such shows in order to maintain high resolution celluloid quality in the imagery.
“We have new file-based workflows for film to decrease costs with no sacrifice in image quality,” Korver explains. “Those filmmakers can achieve a more filmic image by shooting film, capturing all the image on the negative with HDR scanning, and putting that pure, high resolution celluloid image straight up on-screen minus all the artifacts and resolution loss introduced in the old photo chemical film duplication process.
“Low Down is a perfect case study of this idea. The producers had budgeted about 60 content hours, and we proposed a scan-once workflow to scan everything that they shot — pin-registered, high dynamic range imagery using our [DFT] Scanity 4K film scanner so that all frames would be usable at DI quality. It would normally be expensive to store approximately 50 terabytes of uncompressed DPX frames during their editorial process that way, so we proposed a 2K, ProRes 4:4:4 Log master, similar in quality to an Alexa ProRes Log master, but with the organic qualities of film. That saved them a lot of money in data storage, and it obviously looked great, as the Cinematography Award at Sundance illustrates.”
Korver therefore insists his company’s capital investment dollars to purchase its Scanity scanner, which includes both 16mm and 35mm gates, plus the cost of building the 4K DI theater in recent years, are paying off between the steady film restoration work coming to Cinelicious, and a growing business offering DI services for broadcast projects and modestly budgeted theatrical projects like Low Down. Two staff colorists perform all grading and conforming work using Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve.
“Now, we are also mastering and making digital cinema packages [DCPs] using a DCI spec 4K authoring and 4K playback system,” he explains. “A little known fact about 4K DCPs is that the DCI specifies that they have to be authored at a maximum bit rate of 200mbps, so that they will play back in all legacy 2K servers installed around the world. Hopefully, this lowest common denominator spec will change soon, because 200mbps was intended for 2K resolution and 4K really should be authored at 500mbps-plus. Until the DCI spec changes, we create two versions for our clients — a 200mbps DCI spec ‘wide-release’ master that is guaranteed to meet the studio deliverable spec, as well as a 4K, high-bit rate 500mbps version that we have dubbed the ‘4K digital showprint.’ A digital showprint is for producers to keep in their back pocket for special screenings where they know the D-Cinema equipment is certified 4K, and they want their 4K content to really shine.
“These kinds of offerings from the mastering side are pretty unique for companies our size, so you can see the opportunities that are out there. It’s a pretty exciting time.”
STUCK ON ON
Parke Gregg refers to Austin, TX-based boutique Stuck On On as an “audio and visual finishing house” that largely focuses on long-form indie films and documentaries in a market that is more known for its commercial work. In the six years since the company started, he has not only seen an evolution in the role that digital intermediate services are playing in the industry, but also an evolution in the role some within the industry can potentially play within the digital intermediate paradigm. In other words, now that smaller facilities like Stuck On On are able to offer 4K delivery and 4K workflows for independent films, and play more widely in the DI arena in areas that used to be out of their technological or financial wheelhouse, artists at such facilities are able to have a greater influence on the creative side of the work, a development that excites Gregg greatly.
“Advances in the tool set have significantly increased the role of the DI artist in controlling and perfecting the flow of perception in a movie,” he suggests. “The job is now a great mix of technical engineering and artistic or creative work, and that enables a guy like me to be a key member of the storytelling team. I can really have an impact on the way that the story is delivered to audiences. I call that ‘the flow of perception’ because we can address the end-to-end experience from a holistic perspective. How will the audience perceive a particular performance or location? How is the flow going? Is it being interrupted in any way, and if so, is that a good or a bad thing? And how are such things impacting the audience’s perception of what they are seeing from a storytelling aspect?
“A few years ago, maybe I could only influence these things with color. Today, that is still the most significant component, but not the only trick in our bag. Now we can manipulate the color more surgically, and we can also manipulate many other elements, like the ability to reframe shots, animate grades, composite elements, re-light scenes, paint out mistakes, and address any elements that might disrupt the flow. So our tool belt is now a little bigger.”
Gregg and his team rely heavily on Assimilate’s DI workflow software Scratch for color grading, conforming, painting, effects, and mastering work. As mentioned, Stuck On On recently worked on Linklater’s Boyhood project, handling final color correction, and also performed DI services for several independent films, such as Before Midnight, Lumberjack Man (pictured), Red on Yella, Kill a Fella, and Believe Me, among others.
Gregg likes to call such work “Photoshop for movies” in the sense of being able to re-frame images, paint realistically, change content, or otherwise completely manipulate all aspects of an image, if necessary — a major change from just a few years ago.
“One of the great things about the industry right now is there are fewer limitations,” he adds. “Solutions are readily available. But, of course, as the tool sets grow and mature, and we get used to them, the expectations of the filmmakers grow, as well. Directors and producers are now expecting these things, and in realtime. If we are in a session, and the director says, ‘I wish that thing on the floor wasn’t there,’ I can often instantly act on that request without having to go outside to a visual effects house. It’s all part of the DI.”