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Wednesday, 15 July 2009 11:36

Digital Intermediates in Postproduction

Written by  Iain Blair
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Just how important is the Digital Intermediate (DI) process to today’s top filmmakers? And what are the most recent developments and latest trends? A quick survey of some key players behind recent Academy Award-nominated films and box-office hits will provide a clear consensus, which is best summed up by Director/Producer Shawn Levy. “I’m a huge DI fan, and there’s no question [that] it’s revolutionized the post process...

The DVS CLIPSTER DI workstation Photo courtesy of DVS

Just how important is the Digital Intermediate (DI) process to today’s top filmmakers? And what are the most recent developments and latest trends? A quick survey of some key players behind recent Academy Award-nominated films and box-office hits will provide a clear consensus, which is best summed up by Director/Producer Shawn Levy. “I’m a huge DI fan, and there’s no question [that] it’s revolutionized the post process and has become a must-have for pretty much every director I know,” he says. “In my early films, we didn’t do DIs, and I got so frustrated by the lack of reliable control in timing sessions.”

Levy is one of the most commercially-successful film directors of the past decade. His films have grossed over a billion dollars worldwide to date, including What Happens in Vegas, The Pink Panther, Cheaper by the Dozen and the blockbuster hit Night at the Museum. For the sequel, Twentieth Century Fox’s Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, Levy returned to EFilm for the DI along with his DP John Schwartzman, who says EFilm is now “the top DI company.”

Acclaimed director Guillermo del Toro, whose films include Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy, Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone and Blade II, is another big DI fan. “Right now the DI is the biggest gift to post, and the trend is towards bringing the director and the DP closer to making film a painterly medium,” he says. “You have a much looser, much more varied color palette, and you can almost do graphic illustration processes. You can play around with the image like never before, and for me it’s the biggest toy in the toolbox.”

The director made good use of DI on his Oscar-nominated visual tour de force Pan’s Labyrinth. “We did it at EFilm in Toronto, and doing a DI was so important to that film because of all the colors and the whole way [DP] Guillermo Navarro and I planned the look and color palette of the film,” he says. “Often we knew that physically we could only push so far into the negative, but then we knew that digitally we could window it and customize shots, and punch up colors and be very specific about the areas and the depth and the hue of every single color on the screen. This is a film that depends so much on its visual language, and a lot of it is told through color.”             

With offices in L.A., Toronto, New York and Sydney, EFilm has worked on hundreds of high-profile films. According to Michael Cooper, VP of business development at the Hollywood facility, the big DI trend is towards “the remote possibilities, potential and demands of the market, and being able to take the DI work to where the filmmakers and creatives are.” As an example, Cooper cites a typical scenario where the director and DP are on a mix stage in London. “They want to work with a place in L.A., so you need to fiber the images over there so they can view them, or take equipment to where they are. So it’s really a matter of breaking free of real estate and location,” he says.

Typically, a DP might already be on another film when it’s finally time to do the DI, and they simply can’t come to Hollywood (or wherever). “We’ve sent out portable color correction systems that can be set up in a hotel room,” Cooper says. “So they can review the work before they head off to shoot their current movie.” EFilm has been dealing with such situations for several years now. “It’s a trend that’s just growing and growing,” he notes. “We do that a lot with top DPs like Roger Deakins, who’s always busy working. We’ve gone to locations like Connecticut and Minnesota, where he’s been shooting, and set up a system so he could work there. In this digital age, where we’re all getting used to accessing files wherever we are, it’s just a logical progression. This is the new approach.”

DI is also growing as a trend internationally. The Hungarian postproduction facility, Colorfront, has integrated a DVS CLIPSTER DI workstation into its workflow. And like Levy and del Toro, a lot of today’s new international filmmakers have really only known a digital world. Louis Leterrier, the French director of The Incredible Hulk and Transporter 2 and the artistic director on The Transporter, reports that he did the Hulk’s DI at EFilm in Hollywood. “I’ve never done a film without a DI,” he says. “I think the first Transporter was just the third film ever to do a DI, so I’ve only ever known DIs, and I’m very comfortable with the process.”

Producer Scott Franklin is a longtime Darren Aronofsky collaborator, and he reports that they spent six months in post for their Oscar-nominated film The Wrestler. “We did our DI and a lot of our visual effects at Technicolor New York, with colorist Tim Stipen, and the DI was crucial to getting the look we wanted,” Franklin notes. And for the award-winning film Frost/Nixon, Todd Hallowell was the executive producer in charge of post. “We did the DI at EFilm Hollywood with digital colorist Steve Bowen, and for Ron Howard, it was a key element in making the film,” he reports.

Another recent high-profile film that made great use of DI is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which was nominated for 13 Academy Awards, including Best Film, Best Director, Best Editing and Best Visual Effects. The film was shot on a Grass Valley Viper FilmStream and a Sony F23 HD camera, as well as with 35mm film. It has hundreds of cutting-edge visual-effects shots created by several top companies, including Digital Domain, Asylum, Matte World, Lola and Hydraulx. “One of our biggest challenges was unifying the visual palette, making it more consistent,” notes Peter Mavromates, the film’s post supervisor. “This film covers eight decades and jumps to different places on the planet, so the goal was not to unify everything; it was more about unifying certain sections of the story.” To this end, after an initial color correction pass at Motion Picture Imaging (MPI) on the Warner Bros. lot, the film was sent to Lowry Digital, the Burbank-based restoration company that employed an automated process that eliminates any noise, flicker or artifacts. “Finally, the files were sent back to MPI, where we did the DI,” says Mavromates. “And [David] Fincher, who’d used a similar process for Zodiac, was very happy with the way the movie looked.”

AtTechnicolor, DI Producer Zahida Bacchus reports that the company has worked on DIs for north of 200 feature films, including high-profile projects for Columbia Pictures, such as Spider-Man 3, Hancock, Seven Pounds and Paul Blart: Mall Cop. “Every major DI facility needs to be up on the latest trends, as the technology for image-capturing and postproduction rapidly evolve,” says Bacchus. “With the improvement of digital technology, many of the shows we now see are shot either partially or fully digitally. More recently, the RED camera has emerged as the latest digital acquisition format, to satisfy the creative and budget-conscious filmmaker. Technicolor has worked on shows, such as Che, [which was] exclusively shot on Red; A Perfect Getaway,a multi-format shoot, and My Bloody Valentine, most of which was shot on Red.”

Bacchus also points to the reemergence of 3-D feature films, which is largely due to newly acquired digital control. “Until recently, color correction for a 3-D finish used to be a time-consuming process,” Bacchus says. “In the past, the colorist would color-correct the left eye, then the right eye separately. However, for the latest 3-D project, Technicolor will employ the use of our most recent purchase: the da Vinci Resolve R-3D system, which will enable the colorist to color-correct both stereoscopic streams in real time, in 2K resolution. This system will also allow the colorist to adjust the convergence on the files for an optimal stereoscopic effect. Past and present 3-D titles Technicolor has worked on include Beowulf, Coraline and My Bloody Valentine. Whatever the key trends, Technicolor will remain at the forefront of the latest technological developments in postproduction and will continue to support the filmmakers by evolving our DI workflow for a streamlined, time-efficient and cost-effective process.” 

Other companies, such as Company 3, Laser Pacific, Digital Jungle, FotoKem and Encore, are all busy with DI work. Encore in Hollywood has long been known for its episodic TV work, but in the last two years the company has been doing more movie work. “I built a theater four years ago and attempted to get into the theatrical world, but found it was difficult with the changing economy,” reports Steven Porter, a DI colorist. “Since then, we’ve done about 20 films, including Post Grad, a Fox [Atomic] release [for] this summer.”

For Porter, the DI world has evolved into a totally data-centric world, with boxes such as Lustre, Baselight and Resolve. “They afford us a lot of latitude to work in a data environment, based off scans or off HD material,” he notes. “I think the DI world is going towards a complete data environment, meaning scans all the way through to final color without even ever going to a tape format, and then straight out to film, which is basically how we’re doing it at Encore now.”

Looking at future trends, Porter says that as technology becomes more sophisticated and as digital shooting increases, the door will open for more software-based color correctors to get involved, without necessarily having to go through a big house to do post. “I see it opening up the smaller side of the business, meaning systems like the [Adobe] Final Cut workflow,” he says. “I’m certainly looking forward to that, not that Encore and the bigger boxes aren’t a great way to go. But a lot of times we do small indie features that don’t have a budget for a big theatrical room to do their color in, so I think that if in the next few years companies like Apple and RED decide to throw more money at it and make it a more viable option, there’s going to be a lot of demand from younger filmmakers making smaller films.”





Company 3

da Vinci

Digital Domain

Digital Jungle



Encore Hollywood


Grass Valley


Laser Pacific Media


Lowry Digital Images

Matte World Digital

Motion Picture Imaging




Warner Bros. Studio Facility

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