been six years since the first feature film color graded on a computer rather than in a photochemical lab, opened the
doors to a new process, a new market for hardware & software vendors, increased creative possibilities for directors & cinematographers, and new careers as colorists for digital artists. “Digital Intermediate” or DI, which describes the digital files used for color grading as well as the process itself, is well on its way toward replacing color correction in a photochemical lab.
While DI once referred to the step between scanning film and recording the digital output on a film recorder, with the advent of HD cameras and digital projectors, the term now describes color grading for feature films regardless of source or destination. The DI becomes the final master. In fact, the relative ease with which digitally color corrected files can be output from a DI master to a variety of media, From DVD to film stock, makes DI irresistible to an increasing number of film productions.
|On the creative side, DI gives film directors and cinematographers the flexibility to interactively adjust color and contrast that has long been available via telecine in the broadcast world. Until recently, there simply wasn’t enough computer power to handle the tons of data required for the higher resolution and broader color range in film. |
And, it seems, color and contrast are only the beginning. “I’ve watched DI, over the last six or seven years, move from a novelty to a streamlined product,” says Technicolor colorist Jill Bogdanowicz.
“It will become almost unheard of for people to use traditional labs, especially with 4K resolution in and out.” 4K resolution is important not only for sharper images now, but for archiving films in anticipation of a future 4K projection standard.
Disney was the first studio to record digital files for an entire feature-length movie onto film. The year was 1990; the files were those for ‘The Rescuers Down Under’, the first Disney animated feature for which all the elements were created in a digital environment. Disney and Pixar developed the software, CAPS (computer aided production system), which ran on Pixar Image Computers.
In 1998, director Gary Ross and cinematographer John Lindley digitally color-corrected portions of New Line Cinema’s film ‘Pleasantville’ to introduce color slowly into a black and white 1950’s small town in America as its people became enlightened. In fact, the filmmakers shot ‘Pleasantville’ in color. They selectively removed the color (desaturated) using systems developed in-house.
| This was developed by the production unit’s visual effects team as well as through the services of such studios as Cinesite and the Computer Film Company (now Framestore CFC). The live action film most often credited with starting the DI revolution, though, was ‘Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?’. Directors Joel & Ethan Coen and cinematographer Roger Deakins had the entire film scanned and digitally color graded at Cinesite in Los Angeles.|
“It was shot in Mississippi in the summer, when it was green and lush,” says Bogdanowicz, “but they wanted a postcard sepia look. They went to a lab and tried to find some sort of process to get the feel they wanted, but they couldn’t achieve it. Color timers in a traditional lab would have used a heavy yellow-red color correction, which would have changed the blue in the sky and the denim jeans. So, the only way to achieve the look was digitally. Cinesite did a chroma-key on the green and turned it to brown gold.”
|Bogdanowicz had been an intern at Eastman Kodak in Rochester, New York learning about film stocks and doing comparisons between HD and film when Cinesite brought her to Los Angeles to assist on Oh Brother. “I didn’t do timing - I took care of all the film and video assist and ran the data management, but I did get to play around with the machine with Roger Deakins,” she says. Following that film, she worked her way up the chain, doing trailers, partial DIs, and soon, full features. |
Her first feature was ‘Hart’s War’ in 2002. More recently, at Technicolor, she handled the DI for ‘Scary Movie 4’, which was shot in HD on Panavision’s Genesis Digital Camera System, and for ‘The Sentinel’, which required mixing and matching film and video.
|Although most people think of Oh Brother as the first film to use DI, Framestore CFC colorist Adam Glasman, also points to ‘Chicken Run’, the first feature film directed by Aardman’s Peter Lord and Nick Park, as in the forefront. People think of ‘Chicken Run’ as an animated film, which it is, of course, so it’s easy to forget that the directors filmed the stop-motion animation - that it’s a live action film; it’s just that the actors are clay figures filmed a step at a time rather than humans. |
David Alex Riddett was the supervising director of photography; Glasman conformed the film at the Computer Film Company (before it joined with Framestore). “There were also some people in Scandinavia involved in doing DI for features taking 35mm in and going back out to 35mm,” he says, “but we were right in there.”
|For those who care about such things, it’s a very close call. ‘Oh Brother’ premiered at Cannes on May 13, 2000, but didn’t roll into theaters until August in France. The film spent the autumn in Europe and finally landed in the US in December. DreamWorks released ‘Chicken Run’ on June 21, 2000 throughout the US. The film raced through some parts of Europe in the summer and autumn, and landed in France in December.)|
“With stop frame animation, when they make errors in the animation, they put a card in front of the camera that says to go back four frames and start again,” Glasman says. “So, if they had gone the traditional route, the negative would have been cut into many pieces. And, of course, there were other aspects to it as well – it takes so long there are problems with the lights aging and changing color - so it was easier to fix everything in one place with DI.”