Thursday, July 14, 2005

The Case of the Data-Processing DP

What do these recent movies have in common?

  • The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001, 2002, 2003)
  • Spider-Man (2002) and Spider-Man 2 (2004)
  • Seabiscuit (2003)
  • The Aviator (2004)
  • A Very Long Engagement (2004)
  • The Passion of the Christ (2004)
  • Collateral (2004)
  • Ray (2004)
  • The Village (2004)

According to "The Color-Space Conundrum," a Douglas Bankston two-parter for American Cinematographer, online here and here, "all went through a digital-intermediate (DI) process." (Some of the above information also came from the Internet Movie Database.)

DI is a way of doing post-production on a film after scanning its negative, frame by frame, into the digital-video realm. Once converted to bits and bytes, the image can be manipulated in numerous ways. Visual effects such as computer-generated imagery (CGI) can be added during the DI process. DI is also useful for adjusting the overall look and feel of the film, manipulating its darkness or lightness, contrast, color saturation, and hue palette via "color grading" or "color timing."

Once DI has been completed, the result is typically returned to the film domain via laser recorders that beam light in three separate colors onto the emulsion of a color print filmstock.

CGI and DI today go hand in hand. Antedating the digital era, though, CGI has been around at least since "the science-fiction thriller Westworld (1973) and its sequel, Futureworld (1976)." Other CGI groundbreakers included Tron (1982) and The Last Starfighter (1984). Of course, one of the most famous early CGI pioneers was the first Star Wars film (1977).

In those days CGI, after being created in a computer, was usually projected on a screen and filmed. Optical tricks were used to combine the projected images with live-action shots. One of the first movies to place digitally composited images directly on film was Flash Gordon (1979), in some of its sequences.

A "turning point" happened in 1998, with Pleasantville. The idea of the film was to place full-color modern-day characters in scenes that evoked black-and-white 1950s television. After the film was shot in color, a computer was used to selectively desaturate just the background on nearly 1,700 individual shots — not the whole film. This proto-DI work was not CGI; it amounted to an extreme form of color grading or timing.

O Brother, Where Art Thou?
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) was reputedly the first film to undergo a full-fledged, no-frame-left-behind DI process. The object was to "achieve a highly selective, hand-painted postcard look for the Depression-era film without every shot being a visual effect." Director of photography Roger Deakins not only shot the movie, but he also spent "10 weeks helping to color-grade the film" during its post-production. In so doing, he may have become the world's first "data-processing DP"!

Cinematographer Robert Richardson shot The Aviator (2004) and then worked with visual effects supervisor Robert Legato during a post-production DI process to match the look of old two-strip and three-strip Technicolor films from the personal library of the film's director, Martin Scorsese — the film was a bio of Howard Hughes, who during Technicolor's heyday in the 1930s was a Hollywood honcho. This was a case of the increasingly common "data-processing DP" striking again!

In the future, it looks as if most big-budget Hollywood films will be doing "the digital-intermediate thing" — even those films with little or no CGI. Crucial to the look of what we will see in theaters will be, of course, the "colorist": the post-production technician who arranges for all those color-grading or color-timing palettes and densities to appear. But looking over the colorist's shoulder, guiding his or her decisions, will inevitably be the "data-processing DP," no longer simply a master of light and lens.

The payoff will be an increasing number of films whose look can only be described as "stunning." But there will be a second advantage for us end users as well. Transfers of movies to HDTV and DVD can now be derived directly from the finished digital intermediate, rather than scanning back in to the digital domain a finished piece of film with all of its analog imperfections. That could result in movie images being nearly as stunning in the home as they are in the cineplex.

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