(From old blog of 2016)
As the 10th anniversary of the Red One Cinema camera approaches, I thought it would be a good time for an overview of the changing roles of the DIT and Cinematographer in 2016.
The purpose, other than an overview of the recent changes in technology and practice is to bring more awareness to the current application of the DIT and to aid the progression of cinematography today.
The role of the DIT (Digital Imaging Technician) is one of the most ill-defined roles in cinematography, which is as equally surprising as it is unsurprising. It’s surprising as the role has been around (in current present form) for roughly 10 years – essentially since the introduction of the Red One Cinema camera in 2006. It is unsurprising as the nature of technology and budgets have developed at such an alarming rate that dramatic changes to duties and expectations have arisen. Really, the role has been in flux since its earliest days and continues to do so, making it very hard to define.
My first introduction to the Red camera was in very early 2007. It had not been officially released then but a lot had been written about its potential on the internet. At that time I’d been working between being a 2nd AC and Video Assist Operator on 35mm commercials and feature films. Very early days for my career and being very enthusiastic, I would scour the internet for information on all camera formats. I was surprised that not many of the people I was working with had heard about this new camera, or those who had just dismissed it as ‘vapourware’. In 2007 film was still the gold standard, though things were changing.
I’d worked as a daily 2nd AC on a shoot in 2007 that had shot on the Viper Filmstream. The Viper was a pioneering digital camera but dismissed by most as an unworkable novelty as it was tethered to a very large series of hard drives. Very restrictive. The less restrictive Red camera however gradually began to be used on productions throughout America and word soon spread over here, mostly in hushed tones of an industry changing camera/silly toy depending on your stance. As an aside, Marc Dando owned that Viper camera and would soon go on to dominate the industry as the creator of Codex.
By chance two simultaneous productions occured which would change my career path in early 2008. One, was a short film that a friend directed. This friend had received a small amount of funding (there actually were such things at the time) and managed to persuade the very talented Robbie Ryan to DP. He also suggested that Robbie shoot on the Red, which was obviously very exciting to me on both counts. I was hired as the 2nd AC (though ended up being the 1st part way through). Unlike other shoots I’d been on, a technician came with the camera. This was strange to me but as it transpired, completely necessary. Although we had spent a lot of time looking at Red manuals and tutorials, in the heat of a shoot it was very easy to forget where menus were (Red never being good for menus) and actually no idea what to do with the Red Drives once they had been shot out. Our technician would copy these drives onto computer drives overnight (this seemed very scary and technical). Everything being new I would spend every spare opportunity memorising the menus, asking questions about downloading the data and reading about every new firmware update (which Red would release to make the camera work properly). I believe we were on firmware 13 at the time.
Production two happened the week after. A commercials production company I worked for as a 2nd AC had decided they’d had enough of shooting 35mm and wanted to try the Red instead. By chance they had a shoot lined using the Red and they were wondering if I would be interested in helping. This allowed me even more experience working with Red in a short space of time.
Throughout the year and into next I’d moved from being an average/not great 35mm AC to an in demand AC/Technician working with digital cameras. Ironically this gave me more experience on larger 35mm shoots where I became a little better as digital cameras were being used for certain shots, and by then, not just Red. I distinctly remember the laughter (myself included) when a director wanted to use his newly bought Canon 5D2 for a shot as it shot video (30FPS HARD at that time) – little did everyone know.
Then something unexpected happened. A union strike in America had the unintended result of nearly everyone switching to digital productions for TV overnight. This would change the way films were made forever. Nobody expected a change to happen so quickly, least of all Kodak and feature DP’s. Over a very small period of just two/three years 95% of productions had switched to shooting digitally – crazy to think as 35mm had been used for 95% of cinemas 100 years. 35mm Productions would ‘step down’ and S16/HDCam productions would ‘step up’. A perfect storm had happened.
Steven Soderbergh, early adopter.
Obviously there was complete chaos. Producers, some cinematographers and AC’s and especially post production companies were struggling to make headway into this new digital world. The 35mm workflow was essentially universal but the digital workflow would change for every production. And that uncertainty was confusing for everyone.
And this is where part of the confusion as to what a DIT does is arises from.
Generally a DIT then would be a technician for a camera – mostly as AC’s were more used to film or ENG Style Video Cameras – and importantly download the data. AC’s are smart people and very quickly they would come to operate the camera menus/set-ups themselves. Only the copying of data cards/mags was now left to the DIT. Backed up data would be sent of to large post houses, and really dealt with in a similar way to film being sent to a lab. Not all post houses however had the same set of skills, which caused issues which will be discussed later.
The first DIT confusion for producers/production managers was that certain DPs expected the DIT to have a good understanding of how the camera worked on a sensor level and be able to offer advice on ASA settings, colour temperature, exposure etc – things the DP did not need to think about too much themselves as they had so many other things to do. Other DP’s or AC’s were more technically aware of how cameras operated so a DITs knowledge of finer technicalities was not needed so much in those cases. Confusion would occur between a need for a data wrangler and a DIT, but mostly DIT was still a catch-all term.
Classic early DIT set-up
As the downloading of data very quickly changed from a dark art to ‘pretty much anyone with a laptop can do it’ the role of the DIT started to become more cause for concern. Producers did not really have the time to spend hours working out what a DIT really did. Like every other crew position they relied on CV, or word of mouth to ascertain someone’s suitability. By this time everything had turned a bit ‘wild west’. Runners or Trainees were given roles as DITs on some productions. This would be fine for one job but cause all sorts of problems on others where more technical knowledge was expected. Soon lots of horror stories would appear such as cameras not working (in a lot of cases down to user error), rushes going missing or some DITs thinking their job was a bit more important than it was. But as operations quickly became simpler and clearer; cameras easier to use and workflows more generalised productions inevitably (and rightly) started to employ less experienced DITs with good results in general.
And this is where Post Houses come in and the DIT was reborn.
The role develops
It’s a myth that shooting film resulted in a perfect floor to post workflow. From the popularity of Telecine, dailies were always interpreted by operators. From a personal perspective, as a 2nd AC I recall a DP having stern words with me after forgetting to write ‘Night/Int’ on a particular shot. The TK operator had interpreted this scene as ‘DAY/INT’ and graded appropriately. Most instructions were written on Neg Report sheets but were very vague – ‘Good, Strong Blacks’, ‘Make Warm’, ‘Cool Morning’ etc. Discussions and tests were shot before hand but Telecine Operators were very experienced, DP’s tended to shoot ‘in camera’ so results were usually consistently good. For features most DPs were used to shooting pre-DI where they pretty much got the intended look on the day.
Initially many of the filmlabs (like Kodak) did not want to enter the ‘video’ market, so pre-existing boutique, general or new operations dealt with the data from Digital Cameras. With very inconsistent results. Like the DIT Wild-West there was a Post Wild-West. Some of the top-end houses produced excellent results, some of the brand new operations produced excellent results but many produced very poor results. There were a lot of very poor results which caused DPs skills to be questioned more than post house inadequacies. What was so frustrating about the situation was that very early on, Red had clearly seen the future and actually (via Assimilate initially) implemented some very clever methods for maintaining a consistent look from the camera floor to the edit suite. Unfortunately this look information was not always successfully passed on, and ironically one of the main reasons for this confusion was REDs forward thinking. In thinking so far ahead, they had stubbornly pushed their custom workflow, which was not compatible with what existed in most production houses. This would be their Achilles heel and the main reason that to this day people associate Red with a difficult workflow. In making the camera itself cheap for the end user, they had licensed many of-the-shelf components to make this possible and it became clear that this was actually a unique new way to shoot cinema. The Red was a camera which was 50% onset cinematography and 50% post cinematography. This would be where the next revolution in cinematography would be – and currently is now.
The original Redcine (before X), which was pretty much Scratch!
What Red had done was produce a camera that shot raw data ie. data/images that would be finalised after shooting. In real terms this meant that unlike film which can only be developed once, Red Raw data can be developed again and again – even years after when the algorithms to do so have improved. But to do this caused a MASSIVE amount of processing power. A standard computer from 2007 could take weeks to process this data into useable images. As a result, only large companies with expensive computers could turn around dailies quickly enough to please customers. So for a while, Red processing existed only in the realms of large post houses. The Red Meta Data sent was often ignored, and to keep later post costs down, the raw data was transferred to various DPX (some linear, some log) files for editing/grading. The power of raw was lost in many cases and results were very variable.
As previously mentioned Red licensed some technology to help them keep costs down, one of these products was Red Rocket, a GPU that accelerated the raw data processing. It was very expensive and it also meant that for years Red were tied into using it alone, long after computer processing had caught up (they opened up GPU processing a couple of years ago). But what it did do then was allow the processing of rushes to be taken out of Post Houses and onto Set. This would a) give DITs a new lease of life but more importantly b) further cinematography by giving control back to the DP. The DP could now authorise rushes before they were sent to editorial.
Obviously this did not go down too well with post houses, as they were losing a good chunk of income. For a while there existed a mix of DITs backing up and transcoding rushes, syncing sound and delivering dailies. There were also experiments between continuing as before, or some cases where all rushes were sent of to a post house. Both outcomes were good. DITs had re-invented themselves and post houses produced better quality dailies. Rather than laptops for downloading Red CF cards, 12-Core Mac Pro Towers were needed. But the lab had arrived onset for the first time. And that brought about a new set of creative possibilities.
Arrival of new systems
Around then the Alexa arrived. The Red was suddenly old hat. Arri was known to most cinematographers, especially in Europe through their range of film cameras. It was well built, the menus and buttons were in the correct places (being German), its specs were way ahead of the Red (pre MX) and more importantly it had been designed to fit into existing workflows. Almost. It initially shot Log encoded ProRes only (raw to come later). Nearly everyone could edit straight away with the files it created (well the 422HQ iteration at least, 4444 being trickier) except for the fact that everything looked washed out. That was because the camera encoded the linear sensor as LogC. Log had been developed for DI technology so was only known within a small field. To view the images properly as was seen onset a LUT (look up table) was required in post and a new set of terminology was suddenly introduced into wider cinematography. Along with Rec709. Now everyone knows what LUTs are, then it was a mystery. Very few pieces of software could work with them, usually only very high end finishing packages like Iridas and Baselight. For the first few months very convoluted methods were utilised to apply a LUT to dailies: importing into Final Cut, applying the Nick Shaw LUT, exporting as ProRes again, importing into Avid then exporting as DnxHD36 etc. As well as Gluetools, AlexICC etc
Kodak Cineon Log Files for DI
The Great Progression
Original Davinci 2K Plus
A year later one of the greatest progressions in cinematography arrived (again). Davinci was a very high end finishing hardware/software package for 35mm productions. As the Film world (Labs and Kodak/Fuji) had been decimated by digital Davinci was essentially about to enter bankruptcy. A small Australian ‘converter box’ company, Black Magic Design bought them and then released Resolve as software for £1000, and to be run on an Apple Mac! This allowed everyone access to a proper super-high end grading package for the first time. This was something way beyond the limitations of Apple Color and incredibly exciting. Other than allowing independent filmmakers using 5Ds and other DSLRs the ability to use serious post tools, it allowed DITs to significantly improve the quality (and ease of use) of making daily deliverables. Everyone was happy.
Davinci Resolve on a Laptop!
In a very short space of time Black Magic would release a free version of Davinci Resolve and Apple would concurrently release the Macbook Retina. This combination made it possible again for anyone really to back-up and create dailies for commercials and medium budget features on a cheap laptop. Technology had again expanded the possibilities of cinematography and allowed into the hands of all.
Very large features were slightly different. The big Post Houses or the very smart indie operations had created very powerful datalabs. Essentially they went back to the concept of overnight dailies. At the end of a shooting day original camera cards (in some cases drives when a copy was made onset) were sent away, dailies created and returned the next. Unlike at the beginning of the digital revolution there was an important difference. The DIT had a very different role, one very like the real origins (onset video broadcast engineers). They would sit next to the DP and manipulate the sensor signal, they would not back-up cards or transcode rushes (though this would sometimes happen, especially as drives/ports are becoming so fast). The technology to do this was incredibly expensive; so expensive in fact, that only the very largest of Hollywood features could afford to work this way. They would, to all intents be ‘Live Grading’. The equipment to facilitate this would be expensive LUT boxes made by Truelight/Filmlight/Baselight or Pluto and very expensive software by Colorfront or Iridas Onset. It’s certainly nothing new, 3CP by Gamma Density had developed their system years ago for using stills camera images for passing colour information to Telecine Operators for 35mm shoots.http://www.eetimes.com/document.asp?doc_id=1300609
Livegrade For All.
As with everything in the development of Digital Cinema equipment progression has made prices significantly cheaper for everyone to access. The latest technology has allowed the current role of all DITs to develop even further by significantly assisting DP’s to have significant amounts of control over their images. Namely, through cheap access to Livegrading. Blackmagic were unsurprisingly involved, but not directly. In 2012 a German company called Pomfort hacked a very cheap BlackMagic conversion box – the HDLink.
They created software, which surprisingly had not been named this before – Livegrade. All this could be used with any Macbook computer for around £500. Its genius was to bypass any capture devices and rely on simple, previously developed technology.
What does a current DIT set-up look like?
As we are discussing current DIT and Cinematography equipment and conventions it makes sense to explain one of the current working practices of this set-up in a little more depth.
As the Alexa is by far the most used Digital Camera on features and commercials it makes sense to use it as an example.
Firstly, the kit and set-up, in simplified form:
Non Livegrade set-ups would use an HDSDI output from the Alexa straight to the monitor. This would either show standard Rec709 signal, or an Alexa Look File (still in Rec709). If you changed the Gamma setting in the Alexa to Log C the monitor would display the LogC image. Great for displaying the recorded signal, not so good for anyone else.
In order to apply a LUT to the monitor there are various options. For our purposes we will use a Black Magic HDLink Pro – these cost around £300. To fit this into our current chain we have it between the camera and monitor. So, Camera>HDLINK>Monitor.
The HDLINK is not a capture device, all it does is to alter the signal between the camera output and the monitor input. In order to manipulate the image you need to connect it to a computer, any Macbook will do. The free software allows you to add a single LUT. It connects to your laptop by USB2 (very little processing) which enables you to change values between the HDSDI signal.
This software is clunky and slow, and not really useable other than burning a LUT into the box.
To manipulate the signal live you need software such as Livegrade. The current version is Livegrade Pro 3. You can connect any grading panel to the laptop (again by USB2), I use Tangent Wave’s though it’s a bit big.
You can now alter Lift, Gamma, Gain, Saturation and Curve non destructively. Grading from Log is a massive leap forward from working with Rec709, doing this live massively increases the options a cinematographer has available to them. A new tool. But a livegrading system can offer up far more creative possibilities which were more difficult to achieve in the past.
One of the greatest benefits is an option which was very common with film, but less so until recently with digital (for various reasons, one being onset monitoring). The DIT/DP in a Livegrade system will always have a remote iris control.
In combination with Livegrade you are offered the ability to ‘print up’ or ‘print down’. In practice this means you can control where 18% grey lies on your curve. And this can bring out a new possibility for skintones. To illustrate this imagine your log skin tones being 30%, you can open up your physical iris 0.9 stops to roughly 40% and in Livegrade non destructively stop down.
Your Lutted image will pretty much look the same but you have changed where your skintones lie on the recorded log signal. This is amazing for various reasons, for creativity (skin tones do look different at different points on the curve) and also great for dealing with noise in shadows. Or vice-versa for adding texture.
Not a great example to be fair. Sorry!
With Lift, Gamma, Gain you have greater flexibility with colour control. Rather than tint/white balance which changes the overall image you can change parts of a scene. Highlights can have warmth added, or taken away while shadows remain the same.
Early versions of Livegrade pretty much allowed only this flexibility, with the benefit of saving LUTs/Loading LUTs for various post packages. But there was little metadata other than CDLs.
Livegrade Pro allows a capture card to be used. This has two advantages. One is the timecode is referenced to onset tweaks. Referencing timecode means that other software – specifically Silverstack XT can read these tweaks. This means that you have a great guarantee that what you are seeing onset will be seen in the colourists suite.
The capture card also allows you to refer a previous take with a current take. It’s difficult to understate how big a deal this is. Whole projects can be built up around a film. To illustrate this think of the film Colour Palettes that appear on various film blogs (colour schemes that various named films use – http://www.digitaltrends.com/photography/cinema-palettes-twitter-account-color/). Greater control can be used to achieve these, and maintain consistent skintones throughout. On shoot day 23 you can immediately bring up a directly cutting scene from day 4 and wipe it across your live screen etc. Or even shots from the same day, matching two or three cameras or mis-matching IRNDs (different casts always occur) or throughout weather changes. Combined with your iris control you have a serious amount of creativity at your fingertips, all seen live.
This can then all be put into a single document for referring to in post, cdl and 3D LUT. It’s staggering how much control the DP has lost to Post and some options for taking back this control are essential. So many people shoot and leave it to the grade. This is no longer enough. By the time your footage has gone to the cutting room, or even the dailies – if your look is not stamped in people will forget your intended look. And by that time it is very difficult to convince people to return to your intended look. Remember the early days of LogC? That is why so many commercials had that washed out look – because directors and producers could not see it any other way after the cut.
How does a DIT facilitate this system for a DP?
Unsurprisingly every production requires different methodologies. The reasons for this are usually down to budget, location logistics, camera system used but principally to fitting within a DPs method of working. At it’s heart, a DIT is just another tool to help a DP. And like other tools available they are used in very different ways to achieve the most suitable photography for the story being told. Because of this a DIT in addition to understanding the technical aspects of their job have to understand the political, and in many instances this is far more difficult. Every DP has a different way of working and every DP has a different personality. Previous working relationships help enormously – especially with new technology and thus different approaches to using that but you have to very quickly adapt to defining boundaries. It is imperative to understand that you are being hired to assist the DP. Some DP’s like feedback, suggestions and initiative while others prefer you to do as you are told. It is important to be impartial and work within the boundaries presented and understand neither approach is better than another. With experience it quickly becomes apparent how to approach a single production.
In general, on a production using Livegrade – like most other productions a DP will light to a certain T-stop. Often this would be around 2.8/4 at 800 ASA. Though this can change, especially for low light scenes and depending on lenses used so can change throughout the shoot.
Sometimes a DP will be with you for the entire shoot, sometimes they will spend a percentage with the director and sometimes they will operate and spend very little time with you. Responsibilities and expectations will change depending on how they wish to work.
A simple, one camera setup. A DIT blackout tent would be used in most cases (but it gets very dark in there for photos).
For DITs not used to working with Livegrade one of the surprising differences is that you will mostly be in control of the exposure. You will be in charge of a remote iris for each camera and it is your duty to set and maintain the t-stop. This is fairly simple if the DP is lighting to a defined stop with the gaffer in a studio situation. Your duty is to provide the DP with a good negative, so use of a waveform monitor is essential, as well as a properly calibrated grade 1 monitor. Some DP’s, if not at your monitor, will allow you to liaise with the lighting department – usually the gaffer who will often be at the monitor with you. You can work with them to ensure highlights are not burning out and to fill any any areas of the image that have no light on them. Unlike on film, black areas have no information and allow the introduction of noise. A simple fill can be ‘graded down’ with a curve to make the image appear black but still record code values. Quite often you will print down with Livegrade to maintain a thicker negative if stop allows.
Some DP’s prefer to deal with this themselves but passing on these small tweaks to a DIT, rather than loosing any creative control really just frees them to concentrate on other aspects of the photography.
Exposure filters are also handed over to the DIT to deal with in most cases. At this point it’s appropriate to mention that you will be in radio contact with the camera assistants – passing on instructions from the DP, or exposure/colour/menu instructions from yourself. Mostly your discussions will be the introduction or removal of ND filters, and it’s vital you understand how these effect the image very quickly. If shooting outside you still want to maintain a consistent shooting stop, so if you are shooting at around a 2.8/4 you want to ND up to achieve this. Again you have Livegrade to print up or down with. It becomes trickier with constantly changing light conditions, and even trickier when different lenses are being used.
You have to be aware of the size and type of lens being used in certain set-ups. If A-Camera is shooting on a 25mm lens at 2.8 with a 1.8 ND it’s not appropriate to have the same stop on a B-Camera shooting 48fps on a 300mm lens. So you will have to change your ND and stop to give the focus puller a chance.
Also, if one camera is using a brand new Leica lens and another is using a 20 year old zoom lens it’s probably not appropriate to have both wide open as the old lens will not work to its best ability. This can become hectic so detailed notes have to be taken otherwise you will end up with a very sore head. To give you an even bigger headache, some cameras have different base ASA ratings so making calculations to match multiple cameras can be very tricky (ASA, stop, shutter Angle, FPS, ND, lens size, lens type all need to be taken into consideration). Other than for artistic reasons it’s not necessary to burden a DP with these as a DIT can do them – in much the same way a DP does not have to pull focus, operate a camera, move a light, mark a clapperboard, write negative report sheets.
USE APPS LIKE P-CAM!
Colour theory is important to understand. Some DP’s keep things simple, others have very elaborate ways to achieve different skintones. A DP recently wanted to eliminate magenta from the spectrum as he thought it looked too ‘video-ish’. To achieve this he placed colour filters on the camera, with the opposite filters on the lights. This created a very green image which he would, in Livegrade time to a ‘normal’ image. The image before the colour filters and the end result looked very similar but on close inspection on a Vector-scope you would notice that magenta had mostly disappeared and it did look subtly nicer. It was an elaborate process involving complicated stop and white balance calculations but the end result looked fantastic. Achieving this without Livegrade, and the ability to bring up previous shots to grade to – essentially maintaining a consistent skintone throughout the film would be very difficult if not impossible without having producers question the dailies.
Livegrade has freed up DP’s time and allowed a greater flexibility in onset control, and as importantly a greater quality control on the rushes sent to editorial from set.
What is next?
Who knows. Already most cameras are integrating Livegrade into their onboard software. The process can only get smaller, faster and better. The software can be controlled with WiFi, WiFi that works unlike other manufacturers earlier attempts.
ASC CDLs, LiveGrade and LUTs should all form part of a cinematographers toolkit. Control must be given back to the cinematographer and the ‘lab’ should return to their world. DPs don’t necessarily have to have in depth knowledge of bit-rates, codecs or file formats – DITs can do that for them but maintaining control of an image can be achieved with new tools. So much damage has already happened but pushing for these options on shoots, stamping your authorship on images is more important now than it ever has been. The irony with cameras with so much latitude and deep bit-depth is that they offer up options for post and producers long after a DP has left a project. The final grade is not always the place for offering up your original intentions. Often, long before final colouring takes place others have made decisions often based on what they saw in the edit and this should not continue. The great thing is this actually is now starting to happen but only for the DPs who push for this. The equipment is now so inexpensive that looks can be set, onset in most situations now.
Obviously this article does not cover every aspect of what a DIT does, it’s written from a singular perspective and many productions, DITs and DPs work and operate very successfully in different ways. This is good as cinema is meant to full of diversity, that’s what creates great images.`