Staying Ahead of the Curve with Digital Workflows

Staying Ahead of the Curve with Digital Workflows

from: James Thompson,

Today’s digital technology and 4K workflows are creating opportunities for directors, cinematographers and editors to be more imaginative while embracing the challenge of learning new techniques. Established filmmakers know the advantages of using film stock, and they’ve developed great methods for this light-sensitive emulsion over the decades. With the wave of digital content still in its infancy, industry experts are continually meeting to discuss the future of film and TV production.

So where do we start? How about at the end? Are you looking into a theatrical release, television project or streaming on the Internet, which appears to be the way most content is going to be viewed as more televisions become smart TVs. Change is inevitable and viewing options are ill-defined. Movie theaters have already converted to digital but television viewing allows consumers to change settings (for standard, cinema, vivid, THX Cinema, etc.) as they see fit, while younger viewers opt to watch movies on cell phones and tablets. At Paul’s TV in Chatsworth, Calif., a young salesman insisted that Avatar looks much better on a LCD television in vivid, but an older customer argued for watching the film on a plasma television in cinema. Director James Cameron shotAvatar in 3D for theatrical viewing, but today’s consumers have so many other choices. Filmmakers new to 4K workflows will have to deal with the inconsistencies of the delivery system, as irregularities exist from theater to theater.

Does all this new technology mean that the distinctive work of cinematographers is in jeopardy? Not at all. In fact, the digital age is bringing more tools and creative options. Today’s DPs view footage on monitors to determine visual needs during production and postproduction. “The reality is that every monitor is different,” said Cinematographer Peter Levy, ASC, ACS at Cine Gear Expo. “We’re doing what we can to be sure that what’s being done on set is being carried through to post. People are looking at dailies on their iPads, iPhones and laptops. It’s a major problem … of making sure the color and contrast are getting carried through … and we’re really in the baby stage of it.”

StayingAhead SM 2Currently, there’s a movement for more consistency in digital filmmaking. Filmmakers are experimenting and doing things differently to obtain a pristine image. Many believe that if images aren’t viewed as they were intended, the artist’s work is for naught, so there’s now a push for consistency between the camera manufacturers and delivery systems. Levy believes that this consistency should begin during principal photography. “I get involved with it early on and I delegate it as soon as I can,” says Levy, who’s currently shooting “House of Lies” for Showtime. “I get my DIT and A.C. [involved] to be sure the platform works. The more complex digital capture has become, the more it’s made me try to commit to what’s happening at the lens and what’s in front of it. Good lighting is still good lighting, good composition is still good composition, good timing is still good timing.”

Most shooters would agree that capturing content digitally means capturing in RAW and modifying the footage on set. “My sort of way of working, particularly in digital, is to establish the look upfront, particularly, as we start using these formats that have these dynamic ranges and you’re recording this RAW data,” said Cinematographer Dion Beebe, ASC at the Produced By Conference. “Essentially, there is a lot of ways you can manipulate that footage, [and] I know where I’m trying to take this footage. At the end, you’re still going to be in a room with this massive RAW data that you’re going to be turning into something.”

At this year’s National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) convention in Las Vegas, Nev., a DP proclaimed that “digital will never look worse than it does today and film will never look better.” Now that shooting in 4K is a viable option, the focus is shifting to the tools that will help industry artists carry out a director’s vision. “People are starting to feel comfortable [to know] that we’ve not replaced film [and that] we’ve given them something new that can make great work,” said Canon USA Film/TV Advisor Tim Smith. “What else can we do now that we have all this data, all this information, and all this bit depth? We’re going to find out, and people are going to start pushing the envelope.”

Some believe that involving the editor in preproduction will help to streamline the process. Cinematographer Brandon Trost (This Is the End) reported that while shooting the upcoming Zac Efron film Are We Officially Dating?, Director Tom Gormican wanted the editor to be available on set. “We had the editor on the set of this last movie every day,” said Trost. “For us, it was great to actually have him around because it helped us stay on target.” Digital Imaging Technician Kevin Briton (“Dexter”) shares the same outlook. “There is quite a bit more interaction between myself, editorial and post [and] between the producer and UPM,” said Briton at Cine Gear Expo. “I was constantly in communication with all those departments to make sure what we are doing on set is translating properly to what was in editorial to make sure timelines where being met [and] to make sure assets were being tracked.”

Many industry professionals have shared their views on digital filmmaking during recent conferences. Their insights should set some light on what is currently being done to address the digital workflow process.

On the Role of a Cinematographer:

StevePoster SM“Essentially, [working digitally involves] the same process for a cinematographer. We used to choose the film emulsions. Now we choose the camera. Each camera system has its own different look to it. We choose the camera, we choose the lens system, filtration [and] design the lighting. We design the post processing. It’s the same thing we did for film, only we’re doing it digitally now.”

– Cinematographer/ICG Local 600 President Steven Poster, ASC



Rob SM“The cinematographer is the author of the imagery. They’re shooting knowing what tools they will have down the line. I’ve had the privilege of working on a lot of movies and they are never as good as when the DP is actively involved and engaged and running the show. Anyone who is missing that is missing the heart and soul of what will make those images sing.”

– Visual Effects Supervisor Rob Legato



On Digital Workflows:

Crudo SM“We went through quite a lot of hoops technically to get there. At least in the beginning to see what the camera is capable of. Once you got a handle on that, it’s actually a very easy intuitive process. Very much similar to what we did in film for many years.”

– Cinematographer/ASC President Richard Crudo, ASC 



On Working Virtually:

Bebe SM“To take an image and say, ‘Yes, you’re standing in this virtual green/blue space,’ but you can take an image, you can look at this image and people get it. It is a visual medium and when we can basically communicate with this sort of visual, it’s very useful.”

– Cinematographer Dion Beebe, ASC 



On Working on Location:

Stanley SM“If you’re going to have a server with the entire movie on it and you have all the dailies and everything else and you’re somewhere out in the middle of nowhere, very far away from the lab, the editor is not on set but they’re on location. There is definitely going to be a cost savings because the footage is already living on that server, and now that they’re out of that brick and mortar, you’re editing right away.”

– Digital Imaging Technician Kevin Stanley 



On Digital Storytelling:

TimSmith SM“For years it was about resolution. [Now] the industry can focus on the art of filmmaking and not ‘what can we do next?’ If it doesn’t serve the story then let’s not worry about it. Let’s do the next thing to make a better movie.”

  – Canon USA Film/TV Advisor Tim Smith 

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