By Carl Marziali
Previous installments in this series have addressed the limitations of postproduction. Here we deal with something that actually extends it: DI, or digital intermediates. DI software did not start out as a compositing tool—Discreet’s Inferno and other systems already filled that niche—but that is what it is about to become.
Already popular for its convenience as a single master for releases in all media formats, digital intermediate is becoming a one-stop process for postproduction fixes that go well beyond standard color correction. Leading post houses are deploying proprietary software to accomplish fixes that were once possible only by using Discreet’s Inferno software.
“It’s more akin to compositing than it is to telecine or traditional color timing,” says Steve Scott, digital intermediate colorist at Efilm in Hollywood (which is jointly owned by Panavision and Deluxe). He lists several advantages of the software he uses, such as the ability to draw irregular masks, to track masks as they move across the frame, to combine masks with color-selecting keys for specific, local correction (a portion of the sky, for instance), and to import complicated masks from other visual effects houses working on the same film—not to mention standard software tools like a sharpening filter that can smooth out an actor’s splotchy makeup while preserving the sharpness of eyelid hairs and pupil borders.
“You can be very subtle and very focused,” he says. On one job, Scott was asked to eliminate shadows that looked like bags under an actor’s eyes. The software allowed him to draw a mask that covered the shadowy skin exactly. He then tracked the mask as the actor moved and corrected the shadows within that area.
“You can solve a lot of these issues with this system—issues and problems that you would only have been able to solve with compositing before,” says Scott, who won an Emmy in 2000 for his work on X-Files. Compositing is always an option and is still necessary for complicated problems, but it involves transferring the digital file to a different machine and incurring extra expense, delays and potential data glitches.
But there is one problem that no digital intermediate system has been able to solve completely. Even though DPs and directors view color changes on a big screen during the digital intermediate process, the colors on the film release print are sometimes noticeably different. Scott admits this is an issue, but he says the color variation is less than standard laboratory tolerances for release prints. And, Scott adds, he has yet to run across a cinematographer who is not willing to put up with small color variations in exchange for the large and growing bag of tools available with digital intermediate.
It is ironic, says Scott, that just as people are saying that film is dead, along comes a process able to take advantage of “the whole wealth of information that’s inherent in film.” How much could you accomplish, he asks, if you applied the process to some of those old, glorious black-and-white film negatives?
Someday soon, someone is bound to try.
By Carl Marziali