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Thursday, 30 December 2010 22:58

D.I. for Independents

Written by  Debra Kaufman
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Gone are the days when the Digital Intermediate (D.I.) was a process reserved for Hollywood blockbusters. While Los Angeles, New York, Toronto, London and many other major cities offer high-end D.I. facilities with top talent and gear, the independent filmmaker now has more options than ever to finish his or her film with a D.I. that won’t break the bank.

Feat_DI_LocalHero_TheatreprintP3 looked at a handful of boutique D.I. facilities specializing in color correction for the lower-budget indie feature. According to Leandro Marini, head of Local Hero Post in Santa Monica, Calif., the D.I. boutique services films budgeted between $500,000 and $2 million. “[A] less than $500,000 [budget] film probably isn’t getting a professional finish,” he says. “And the $3 to $5 million film is going to tax-incentive post houses in Canada or a state like Louisiana.”

In Los Angeles, the D.I. boutiques in that indie sweet spot include LIGHTIRON Digital, Next Element by Deluxe, iO Film and Hollywood-D.I. as well as a handful of others. Here’s a closer look at three independent film/DI case studies.

Films: The Space Between (which premiered at 2010 Tribeca Film Festival); Standing Ovation (2010)
D.I. Boutique: Local Hero Post
Colorist: Leandro Marini

Leandro Marini at Local Hero Post says that D.I. is now a part of every film’s reality. “The output of digital cameras that indie films are using is designed to be color corrected,” he explains. “And a lot of indie filmmakers come from a music video background, so they have high-end color correction baked into their memories.”

Although Local Hero’s Santa Monica facility targets the indie film, Marini notes that even some $7 to $15 million films opt for a D.I. finish in a boutique to have “A-list” colorists and attention. “And they’ll get the B-list team at a bigger house that puts its A-list resources on the big blockbusters,” he adds. One example of that kind of ine film is Standing Ovation, budgeted between $5 and $8 million and set open on 1,200 screens in July. “The true indie has some sort of budget, shoots digitally and opts for an all-digital finish at a boutique,” says Marini.

What makes D.I. possible for indies is the use of less-expensive gear. Local Hero Post has partnered with ASSIMILATE, whose SCRATCH D.I. solution is reportedly one-third the cost of a traditional D.I. system. “It’s not cheap but it’s in the sweet spot where we can afford to have three of them instead of one da Vinci,” Marini says. In fact, Local Hero helps develop and beta-test SCRATCH, which puts them on the cutting edge of the platform’s new developments. Marini is a big believer that these powerful but less-expensive systems are the future of postproduction. “The $1,200 [per] hour heavy-iron solutions will eventually be exclusive to the Alice in Wonderlands and Avatars,” he says. “Even at that level, I’m not sure if that will be sustainable. Everything else will be done at a midrange facility.”

This kind of a model has also enabled Local Hero to handle even smaller films. The Space Between, an indie by Filmmaker Travis Fine and starring Melissa Leo, is just the kind of film Local Hero loves to work on. “It was shot digitally on the RED, and instead of a film finish it opted for an all-digital finish,” says Marini, who says 1,200 digital copies cost approximately $3 per copy. “That’s an interesting niche market for boutique post houses. We did a Digital Cinema Package where the print is digital. It’s very affordable for the post house and the filmmakers — and it can play on servers around the country.”

Film: Frozen (2010)
D.I. Boutique: Lit Post
Colorists: Tyler Hawes, senior colorist; Eliot Milbourn, junior coloristFeat_DI_LitPost_Frozen_Screen_Shot_After

Imagine three skiers stranded high on a chair lift in a blinding blizzard. That’s the premise of Frozen, an independent thriller. But what does an indie production do when the weather refuses to cooperate by not providing a snow storm? Budgeted at $3 million, Frozen’s production team didn’t anticipate having to create all the visual effects of the film’s 270 shots –– 130 of which were weather shots –– that had to be delivered in less than four days, not including the D.I.

No blizzard? No problem. Lit Post, a boutique D.I. facility and VFX company, had the solution. “The Director [Adam Green] needed 20 minutes of blizzard and hail and wind, and also needed to be able to go back and forth to get it to look just right and get a performance like he would from an actor,” says Tyler Hawes, Lit Post co-owner, VFX supervisor and colorist.

Ordinarily the work would go between the D.I. facility and the VFX house, a process that takes a lot of back-and-forth time. Instead Hawes says his facility was able to use the Nucoda Film Master to do the VFX and color grading in the same box. “A typical shot that a VFX could devote an entire day to might take me 15 or 20 minutes in our D.I. system,” explains Hawes, noting that he and Colorist Eliot Milbourn both have their roots in VFX. “Until recently, the D.I. tools out there didn’t take advantage of our skills. I always felt like I was grading with one hand behind my back. What I saw with Nucoda Film Master was that they extended some of the most useful compositing tools to me.”

With dozens of snow shots at the ready, Milbourn chose up to six plates of snow, picking ones falling at different rates of intensity to create each shot. “While we added layers, we had the option to change the skin shading of an actor, do a window, or shape or change the exposure to create his visibility,” says Hawes. “Since these choices are all interactive elements, it’s intuitive to do it in the D.I. mode.”

Film: Skiing Everest (2009)
D.I. Boutique: West Post DigitalFeat_DI_WestPostDigial_comp
Colorist: Paul Roman

West Post Digital has handled post duties for many independent films. President Kenny Fields notes that indie filmmakers know to put their limited budgets towards what makes the biggest difference: the D.I. “Very often, it tends to be a Final Cut Pro workflow,” Fields explains. “They may come to us with it exported as an uncompressed QuickTime and we get it out to tape for them. Sometimes we do color timing and add titles. Often, they’re working in an Apple Pro Res format, we output to tape and do a tape-to-tape color correction on the da Vinci in HD, and then bring it back into Avid or FCP for titles and graphics.

“Indie filmmakers come to us because we do the color correction and make it look great,” Fields continues. “They’re being smart by taking care of the assembly/conform part of it themselves, so they don’t have to pay us to recapture and re-conform it all. They save a bunch of money, and that is what helps them to pay for the color correction.”

With such an intimate knowledge of the indie filmmaking process, perhaps it was just a matter of time before West Post Digital got involved in making its own production.

Skiing Everest is a documentary by Les Guthman, an adventure film producer, about high-altitude ski mountaineers. “About three years ago, they went up Everest with HD cameras and shot as they came down,” recalls Fields. “They brought in what was more of a 40-minute vanity piece, trying to be a Warren Miller-type of movie.” But Fields soon saw that the film could be much more. “This was a real expedition with cool documentary aspects,” he says. “I saw the raw footage and said, ‘You really have a documentary on your hands.’”

When the filmmakers agreed, West Post Digital did what they do best. “We went back into all their old archival footage they’d shot over 15 years,” says Fields. “We up-res-ed material SD footage to HD, and did the color correction on the entire film with the da Vinci.”  The resulting 82-minute film had its Los Angeles premiere at the Beverly Center, and a theatrical roll-out is being finalized for this fall with DVD distribution to follow in the winter.

“We’ve been a traditional finishing facility,” says Fields, who notes that they have production offices, a full range of gear in audio and video editing, and a stage. “We have this beautiful machine we’ve built that’s quite capable of finishing films. A lot of productions are going into the post business. We’re a post company that is going into production.”

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