Ellen Wolff looks at the use of digital intermediate technology on the Coen brothers new film, The Ladykillers.
The new Buena Vista release of The Ladykillers (opening March 26) starring Tom Hanks marks the eighth collaboration between cinematographer Roger Deakins and the writing/directing team of Ethan and Joel Coen. The Ladykillers joins a notable list that includes Barton Fink (1991), The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998), O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), The Man Who Wasnt There(2001) and Intolerable Cruelty (2003). The unique looks that Deakins has brought to the Coen brothers films has earned him multiple honors, including three of his five Oscar nominations for best cinematography.
The collaboration with the Coens has also kept Deakins on the leading edge in the evolution of the digital intermediate. The painterly look achieved with the D.I. for O Brother (which was done at Cinesite) helped put the then-fledgling technology on the Hollywood map. Deakins has subsequently worked with EFILM on the digital intermediates for Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, and hes seen first-hand how the technology has progressed and where the challenges still remain.
Then and Now
It has improved greatly since O Brother, says Deakins. Theres no question about that. When we did O Brother, it was before the (Phillips) DataCine was available. We were actually scanning the negative as we were coloring. While he acknowledges that this seems like a Flinstones-era approach compared to what he now gets from EFILMs Imagica Imager XE scanner, he also sees some virtues in the old ways of just five years ago. Coming off the original negative, there was less room for a mistake because you werent scanning the negative and then altering the files. In fact, that was one way to maintain the quality. The thing is, the more complicated these systems become, the more opportunity there is for something to go wrong.
In the year between doing the digital intermediates for Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, Deakins notes that the process has continued to evolve. There have been changes in the way that you can view small images of each sequence together. You can group shots so that you can time them the same.
This is useful, because Deakins admits that timing a film digitally can be difficult. Its very hard, I find, because Im still so used to the idea that you go in a lab and see the film all the way through, non-stop. And as youre watching it, you talk to the timer and say No, that feels a bit red or a bit dark or a bit cold. And then a few days later you go back and see it again and the colorist has made the corrections.
Contrast that with the digital approach, observes Deakins, when youre sitting day after day timing the same scene or the same reel of film. You can get trapped in a scene, and think: I like that color, but maybe we should make it more saturated. But youre not actually watching it in reference to anything. So its very easy to go too far in one direction, or not far enough. You get very blinkered. We watched The Ladykillers straight through at one point and there were some scenes that I thought didnt really make sense because I hadnt seen them in context of the before-and-after scenes. When youve finally got the rough timing, then you can watch the whole thing as a piece. Thats when you really start doing the work. Its a very different way of timing a film. Im really not used to it yet.
The Art of the Scan
Deakins experience on The Ladykillers underscored the crucial role that scanning plays in the D.I. process. He recalls, We were seeing some film-outs and I wasnt happy with them, and we found that we had to re-scan some stuff because the scans werent quite right. Some of them didnt seem to be balanced properly. EFILM did a number of tests, and we found that theres actually very little tolerance in terms of how you scan a negative. If the scan is biased against what that negative is meant to represent, you can bring it back. Youve got a lot of latitude to bring it back, but its not without some loss of quality. You can see a distinct difference in our tests between a final image off a scan that was truly on the negative, and an image from a scan that is slightly biased one way or the other, and not reflective of the negative.
For instance, we had some scans that were sort of magenta cyan, and in order to get them back to the warm brownish tones that I had originally photographed, there was quality loss. There was no doubt that there was some definition loss. So, although it is a very powerful tool, it is also one where you have to be as accurate as you would be in the lab, if not more so.
The pin-registered 4K scans done at EFILM are actually oversampled, where the image is scanned at 4K, held in memory temporarily and then saved as a 2K file. Deakins says, They immediately down-res it to 2K. Its prohibitive to work at 4K, because of time. The rendering of each shot would take quite some time. You wouldnt be able to work in realtime. But the 2K resolution image that youre dealing with is not film resolution. They reckon that film resolution, if its a low-speed, daylight stock, is probably more like 5K or 6K. I think if we had a 4K system all the way through, there would be no question that would be a better image than were getting at the moment.
The trade-off of working with these scanned images, however, is that filmmakers can selectively work in precise parts of a frame; a capability that provides increased creative control. In terms of what you can do with coloring, says Deakins, the windows are getting a little bit more powerful and a little easier to track if you want to alter a particular part of a frame.
This capability has led some to suggest that the D.I. process offers cinematographers a way to extend their work during post. To my mind, offers Deakins, it is an extension of cinematography in that you can do these very small things that maybe dont add a great deal to the look of the film, but theyre subtle things that I think are worth doing. That could be shading the corner of a room or taking down a sky or de-saturating a shot.
Citing as an example the planned digital intermediate on director M. Night Shaymalans The Village, Deakins says, There are some sequences in which we want to maybe take the saturation down as the film progresses, which is actually very hard to do in a lab. This picture has an enormous number of day exteriors, and sequences that are meant to be happening over a short space of time. We shot it in Pennsylvania in October, November, December, so we had very short days. I really wanted the option to be able to help the light continuity of the skies. Thats something very subtle that you can have very immediate control of with a digital intermediate. When I talked to Night about doing this, he was actually quite anti-D.I. But I said I thought it would really be an advantageous thing to do, so he went with it.
While Deakins played with the lighting somewhat in The Ladykillers, he says, Its nothing that we couldnt do in the lab, apart from bringing down a few skies and intensifying a few colors. A key reason for doing a D.I. on this film, explains Deakins, was because theres quite a large sequence that takes place on a bridge in the fog at night. Its a combination of a large set piece and computer-generated images. We didnt want to do these effects and then go back out to film and have a loss of quality to the image.
Knowing hed be doing a D.I. in advance of shooting The Ladykillers didnt really influence Deakins choices on set, although he notes, Now and again, I must say, Id be shooting an interior, and Id think, Id love to shadow that wall a little bit up there in the corner of the frame. Then Id think, I can actually do that (with a D.I.) so I wont spend the time doing it now. But thats very, very minor. The thing I dont tend to do so much is use grads on skies and stuff like that. I always find that putting a grad on a camera is kind of dangerous if the camera is moving. Youve got to be very careful you dont actually see the grad and it doesnt draw attention to itself. If youre doing a D.I., quite an easy thing to do is to bring down the sky in a much more subtle way than you can actually do with filtration.
Deakins also notes the advantage of making these creative choices within the context of the directors cut of a film. You can shape things selectively. You do it on a certain part of the sky, or a section at a time, which you really cant do in camera.
This power can be used quite dramatically, observes Deakins. I was talking to the guy who shot City of God, Cesar Charlone. He said he spent hours and hours manipulating that whole film. He shot it hand-held, dead straight, a mixture of 16 and 35. He knew that he was going to manipulate it and get the image he wanted afterwards. Basically, he was shooting almost a template for what he really wanted.
But Deakins adds, It really does depend on the kind of picture youre doing. I think youre still going to lose image quality if youre actually pushing the negative away from what you originally exposed at. The more you push it, the more you lose quality. I would still argue for getting as close as you can on the camera negative. If you dont know what youre after before you start shooting, and while youre shooting, then thats a bad situation to be in. Its even worse if youve got something that youve shot and you dont really know what you want it to look like. If you go to do a Digital Intermediate not knowing where you want to go with this piece of film, thats a recipe for chaos. Its very expensive and very time-consuming. But it is a very powerful tool on particular movies.
The Test of Appropriateness
Whether a D.I. is appropriate for a given film is a question Deakins considers carefully. On Intolerable Cruelty, the process let him saturate the colors far more than he could have done photochemically to achieve the glossy look that reflected the films high-stakes theme. Yet for the Coens black-and-white film, The Man Who Wasnt There, Deakins believes, We wouldnt have gotten that look digitally.
Deakins recalls testing the D.I. technology in preparation for shooting director Ron Howards 2001 multi-Oscar-winner, A Beautiful Mind. I really wanted to do one, but Ron was quite against it. We did do tests for a D.I. and quite honestly, they werent as good as we wanted. I dont think the technology was really quite there then.
Though at that time O Brother had already broken ground for digital intermediates, Deakins says, We were going for such a striking look on O Brother. Because it was more painterly, you accepted a sort of texture of the grain on a film like that. A Beautiful Mind needed to be as sharp and crisp as possible. I didnt feel the technology was at the point where I could argue that much for it. But now I would. Ironically, Deakins recalls talking with Howard after the director did a D.I. on his last film, The Missing. He said, It was so great! We did all these things digitally! I said, I wish I could have convinced you on A Beautiful Mind!
The Tools at Hand
While a cinematographers ultimate goal is to produce the best looking images at film-out, they obviously have to rely heavily on digital projection to monitor their work-in-progress during the D.I. process. For Deakins recent work at EFILM, the tools at hand included a cinema-size Stewart Filmscreen and a BARCO D-Cine DLP projector. Youve got a big screen there and you can quite quickly see if an image is falling apart, and what the noise level is and if theres too much grain. It is much easier to check the image, says Deakins,
Compared to the look of film, he thinks, Its very, very close now. When we did Intolerable Cruelty, we did have to re-do some sequences. They didnt come up quite the same (during film-out). And then we re-calibrated the film-out actually adding some saturation and a little bit of contrast in the highlights to truly reflect what we wanted on film.
Deakins argues that the way your eye perceives an image thats digitally projected as opposed to being projected on film is different. Your eye perceives the difference between the steady image that a digital projector gives you and the flicker of a film projector. though I dont know how you quantify that!
The Human Factor
While hardware and software continue to improve, Deakins stresses the importance of the human factor in the D.I. process. The chap I worked with at EFILM on Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, Steve Scott, has a background in painting and graphic arts. Hes very competent with the technology, but hes not from computer science. His eye is trained to look at the quality and the color of the image in an artistic sense, more than in a purely technical sense. Sometimes I find it hard talking to people who are computer experts. In talking about an image, you may say, I dont like this. Whats happening here? Is that electronic noise up in this corner? For some strange reason, the people who are totally into the technology dont actually see the same thing! Its very hard to convince them that there is something happening thats unexpected.
But dealing with someone like Steve Scott, Im going through a buffer zone, adds Deakins. Hes my bridge between the purely visual reference and the technical reference. I think thats really important. Ive been in effects houses overseeing computer effects shots at times and its a highly specialized world where theres a different way of looking at things. I look at things much more instinctively and trust my eye, whereas technical people are looking at it from a scientific perspective.
The End Results
Since few theaters use digital projection, most audiences see movies projected on film, and Deakins is naturally concerned with the crucial film-out stage of the D.I. process. If youre printing off a negative thats rendered out from a 2K image, its not as good as an answer print straight off the original camera negative a show print. But then how many audiences actually see a show print? In fact, the prints that the general audience sees will be better than if theyd gone through a traditional lab process. Theres no doubt about that. But there is room for things to improve, no question.
Producing a single negative from a D.I. and using that to strike many release prints is certainly one key advantage of using this process. Another is the way the D.I. process facilitates the creation of various forms of a film from airline versions to DVDs. Deakins remarks, You can color time one version of the movie and then its just a matter of changing look-up tables in order to produce a master for different outlets. Its a much more efficient way of going about it.
Time and Money
The killer twins of moviemaking time and money loom large over the adoption of the D.I. process. Deakins notes, Digital intermediaries are still very expensive. Theyre actually more expensive now than when we did O Brother because we had a bit of a deal on that. I dont understand why prices arent starting to come down, although you have to consider the amount of investment that has to be made in upgrading equipment. Its an enormous outlay.
By the time I do the D.I. on The Village in May, reveals Deakins, EFILM will have a whole new series of 4K scanners. Theyre also going to have a new 2K projection system and theyll be able to do realtime rendering at 2K. Today, if youre viewing a window, you usually have to watch it at slow speed. But in a few months youll be able to render it straight away and watch it in real time. While these improvements in technology make the process more efficient and interactive for people like Deakins, he acknowledges the necessary investment is a huge amount of money thats turning over every few years.
For thrifty filmmakers such as the Coen brothers, however, Deakins believes the D.I. process has been a money-saver. The time commitment has also shrunk noticeably. While it took Deakins 12 weeks to get the complex look for O Brother, he says, If we were doing O Brother today, it would take about half that time. The less complicated D.I. on The Ladykillers even including the re-scans took about three weeks.
Deakins admits that the biggest personal drawback with digital intermediates is that he finds himself waiting around in L.A. Ive turned down shooting work because I want to be available to do the D.I. for The Village in May, even though Im finishing The Ladykillers in March. If youre color timing a film with a lab, the timer can fly to wherever youre shooting with a print, and you watch it together and make comments. You can safely do it that way. But if youre doing a D.I., youve got to be there in the machine room with the colorist. They dont have a monitor that they can bring with them to show you the rough color timing that theyve done.
Deakins believes that broader acceptance of digital intermediates will accelerate, especially once they become cheaper. But he thinks that there are still obstacles to overcome. Whats missing right now is the capacity to work in full 4K space all the way through the process. But until most people are doing it, there isnt quite that push to go to a 4K system.
I think that for a lot of people, the digital intermediate is an unknown quantity. A lot of people dont understand it, but then a lot of people dont understand lab work and the whole post-production side of photography.
Until digital projection in theaters becomes more widespread, cinematographers such as Deakins will continue to grapple with the challenges of moving from film to digital and back to film. Its at those interfaces where it goes right or wrong, he says, although he adds, cheerily, Its funny, but if you dont get the little hiccups or glitches, somehow you dont learn much!
Deakins experience with digital intermediates has left him completely certain of one thing: The whole digital technology wave is changing the way we make films, and weve just scratched the surface of how much its going to change.
Ellen Wolff is a Southern California-based writer whose articles have appeared in publications such as Daily Variety, Millimeter, Animation Magazine, Video Systems and the Website CreativePlanet.com. Her areas of special interest are computer animation and digital visual effects.