New on-set color grading systems offer cinematographers a sophisticated set of tools for controlling the look of a film and communicating with their colorists. Instead of sending Adobe Photoshop reference stills, suddenly the cinematographer can be giving the colorist useful data in the form of a look-up table (LUT) that can be imported into their color correction system.But on-set color is no minor change in the production process. It’s actually quite radical and it raises a number of issues, beyond the fact that it represents a whole new workflow. Perhaps first and foremost is, do cinematographers really have time for preliminary grading on-set? And what will it do to the creative process?Audio mixers have long been aware of the pitfalls of “temp love,” where the director falls in love with the temporary music track, and then decides he likes the temp track better than the real thing.On-set color has the potential to cause the same kinds of problems, but it can also be a solution if everyone can agree on a look up front.“What we’ve heard from many people from big-budget to small-budget films, is that if you don’t have a way of working on a look up front, you may find that your director or producer, or in the case of advertising, your client, may become quite used to, or even fall in love with an image that is not actually the one that you wanted it to be,” said Iridas communications director Eric Philpott.Iridas has taken a strategy of selling a $199 SpeedGrade On-Set System for cinematographers and a $50,000 SpeedGrade DI system for post houses. In essence, the On-Set version is a bit of a loss leader to drive the system’s adoption in post. It’s will turn out to be good strategy if cinematographers start showing up at post houses and saying, “here are our tapes, and here are our SpeedGrade OnSet Look files.”“The look is everything,” said Philpott. “In traditional film-based workflows, cinematographers had artistic control over the final look of the work, because they controlled the lighting, they controlled the film stock and with a few instructions to the lab, that generally gave the cinematographer control over what the look was going to be.”But with the advent of the DI process, suddenly the look of the film can be entirely altered right up until the last stage of postproduction where the colorist now has the power to change even the lighting of individual elements of the shot.But many cinematographers still look at on-set color as the “next best thing” to a DI, arguing that as long as they can get it written into their contract that they’ll be paid for their work in the DI process, they don’t need on-set color tools. They’ll have their input in the end anyway.“A big name or someone who’s got pull with the producers might be able to get that in his contract, but frankly, that’s still a workaround,” said Philpott. “The only reason that person has to go into that DI suite is that there is no other way of getting the information or even exchanging information.”It’s interesting to see how manufacturers in the space are demonstrating their gear these days. It’s something that has to be seen in its entirety, as a complete workflow, and the demos tend to show the entire process, from acquisition, to the application of a look, the creation of dailies all the way to the colorist’s suite.Those evaluating these systems as complete workflows have to ask themselves some tough questions—how is it going to work in the field? Where is it going to save you time, and where might it just get in the way?In fact, there are so many issues that arise when you start tinkering with a system as complicated as the film production process that everyone seems to have an opinion when it comes to look management.Here at Below the Line we would love to hear your opinions and try to sort through some of these complicated issues. Do you want or need on-set color correction tools? Do you really have time for it, or do think it would be worth it to slow down a bit on set and make time for look management? What does it do to some of the traditional job descriptions? Is it a cheaper alternative to paying a cinematographer for his work in the DI timing sessions? Do you worry that it will hamstring the colorist, or do you prefer to talk it through and then let the colorist run with it? Will it raise creative tensions or help alleviate them?Should cinematographers embrace this technology or is the jury still out?Send your thoughts, comments, rants and raves [email protected], and next month, we’ll do a little “reality check” and try to present some of the different opinions when it comes to look management and workflow.
Written by Scott Lehane