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Turning Negatives Into Positives

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Before DV and HD exploded onto the scene, independent filmmakers had few choices when it came to shooting and finishing their final creations. As had been done for years, they would shoot on film—either 35mm or 16mm—strike "work prints" to physically edit or transfer their films to video via expensive film-to-tape "telecine" process, and finish their films by cutting the original camera negative and striking an "answer print." Video technology, including telecine, is a newer and more expensive addition to the filmmakers' toolkit. To make matters more confusing for the up-and-coming filmmakers, most film schools had scarcely begun to teach students how to operate in a world shifting to a digital paradigm, including the ever-evolving telecine process.

At the beginning of his career as a director and DP, Frazer Bradshaw found the technology intimidating and exciting. "My first experience in telecine was straight out of college," recalls Bradshaw, now a veteran DP of more than 150 narrative and experimental projects, as well as music videos for bands such as OK Go, and Machine Head. "It was like a candy shop. I was overwhelmed by how neat it was to change the look of the film right there." He adds, however, "I'm not sure that I really had that much to say."

His first experience with the high-end telecine technology set Bradshaw on a path that most filmmakers have to walk as they move into the professional realm. He sees being overwhelmed by the technology as a rite of passage for many filmmakers. He says, "I think it's symptomatic of being a new filmmaker, a new DP, as well as new to the telecine suite. If you're so overwhelmed by how cool it all is, the colorist will do something, and your response will be 'Wow, that looks great, that's cool,' instead of the more veteran response, which might be, 'Looks good, but let's bring the mids up a little bit and put some warmth in the highlights,' which is what I might say now."

Changing the Workflow

Exposure and acclimation to increasingly complicated technology is every filmmaker's right, responsibility, and burden. The good news is: With each new innovation in image capture and output comes an array of new visual choices for filmmakers at every budget level.

Today, as never before, filmmakers have a wide array of choices in workflow. Not just to edit on film or video—techniques in how entire films are finished have also changed. Though the traditional techniques are still widely used, other methods are on the rise. Some films use no film at all; they are originated on DV or HD and are released on DVD or digitally projected at film festivals. Some are created digitally and output to 35mm print film when they're released theatrically. Some are shot traditionally on 35mm or 16mm film and scanned into a computer at high resolution to create a "Digital Intermediate" (DI), which is then manipulated on state-of-the-art machines before being output to film or video. As the independent filmmaker races to the finish line, many of these processes hold great promise for higher production value at a lower price than ever before.

Film to Tape

Though it's been a crucial part of most projects, telecine can be a stumbling block for filmmakers just starting out. "Telecine is something that isn't taught," explains telecine colorist Shane Jatho, a veteran of dozens of independent features and music videos. Working at TEDS in Hollywood, Jatho has learned to do more than transfer images from a strip of film to videotape. "It's a very technical as well as a creative job," says Jatho. "I need to make sure that all the keycodes and timecodes are all in sync when I'm laying stuff down, as well as making sure that all the color correction is to broadcast standards."

Bradshaw cannot emphasize enough the value of a great post facility. "In the world of telecine, you really get what you pay for," he says. "I've been on shoots where they've tried to cut corners and use the $125-an-hour telecine suite, and it really looks like you only spent $125 an hour instead of $500." The premium look, according to Bradshaw, generally comes with a premium price tag. "The machines that are newer, the Spirit [Datacine], the [ITC] Millennium, or the [Cintel] C-Reality are much newer technology with a much more contemporary look, and they'll cost you five times as much, but your product will look five times better."

The machine alone, explains Bradshaw, is not the only thing to consider. He says, "The importance of the colorist cannot be underestimated. I've seen dailies come out of decent telecines colored by terrible colorists that were terrible and embarrassing for me to show people. I've seen material come out of mediocre telecine suites colored by great colorists that looks quite fantastic."

Digital Intermediate

It was inevitable that filmmakers would strive to take the control that telecine offers them to the next level: back to film. In the early 1990s, Hollywood-based EFilm (www.efilm.com) decided to steer filmmaking down this path. "About 12 years ago we started an idea that we wanted to have what we called a digital laboratory," says EFilm founder and Executive Producer David Hays. "Initially we developed a newer way to take digital images and go back out to film."

During the last 10 years, EFilm has become one of the leaders in digital intermediates, working on everything from low-budget indie fare to the current releases of Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic and the Matt Damon actioner The Bourne Supremacy. Hays explains that the power of the DI goes far beyond the traditional "photochemical" process. He recalls, "We did a show called Blue Crush that was out in the water, and they wanted a little bit more depth to the water. Because of the way it was exposed on film, we had all that dynamic range to work with, so we could create this beautiful 'stained glass' blue look for the water. If a surfer's coming at us, we could highlight the face and brighten it up. It can isolate all parts of the frame and manipulate those several different ways."

Sky's the Limit

Unable to foot the high bills for a DI, filmmakers can use the technology to maximize the smallest budgets. Even for those working exclusively on digital, the telecine bay offers a lot of power they cannot find on their home computers. Bradshaw explains, "One of the biggest mistakes I see filmmakers working in digital formats make is, they ignore the color-correction step. When I shoot film, there's no way to not have the color-correction step, because you have to go through telecine to get video dailies. Something coming straight out of a video camera might look pretty good, but it doesn't look nearly as good as it can."

Though DV and HD today offer better visual punch than ever before, Bradshaw believes that color correction still makes a huge difference. He says, "A lot of people ruin the looks of their films by not ever getting to the look of their films. They shoot a digital format, and they think that whatever came out of the camera is good enough. The quality that their project could have is never fully realized."

Jatho encourages lower-budget filmmakers to explore the color correction that might be sitting on their desktop already. "I would probably get shot for saying this, but I have messed around with Final Cut [Pro], and it's actually a pretty damn good color corrector," says Jatho. "If you're making a film for a film festival audience or an audience that's going to be more forgiving, and you're strapped for money, it's not a bad way to go."

Bradshaw encourages lower-budget filmmakers to use the technology unconventionally to get the highest quality possible. He says, "The 'poor man's' digital intermediate, which is something that makes a lot of sense for indie filmmakers, is to not scan but transfer everything to a high-def format, preferably a better high-def format like D5, do your online, color-correct in that HD space, and then record the HD back to film." Bradshaw is currently working on a project following this exact workflow. He says, "We should be able to get something really great that isn't much of a sacrifice for a lot less money."

Wrap

Pioneering indie filmmakers may be surprised to find that a DI will soon be within their budgetary grasp. EFilm's Hays says, "EFilm will be launching a digital intermediate that's aimed at independent filmmakers. It's going to cost less than what a traditional DI is known to cost, but you'll get a lot of the power." More than just a finishing tool, EFilm wants to be a creative partner in the entire process. Hays says, "We have so many different tools here that we can apply to a film and help a filmmaker that it really makes sense for them to keep us involved all the way through."

Jatho reminds filmmakers that these things are just tools and only work to support the storytelling. He says, "Every good film starts with a good story. I've seen DV films that technically weren't as beautifully shot as certain films [shot on film], but they were still great films. My advice is that, if you have a great story, you should shoot it by any means necessary and then try to make it as beautiful as possible." BSW

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