By Karen Moltenbrey
The DIT, or digital imaging technician, can best be described as that important link between on-set photography and post production. Part of the camera crew, the DIT works with the cinematographer and post production on the workflow, camera settings, signal integrity and image acquisition. Much more than a data wrangler, a DIT ensures the technical quality control, devises creative solutions involving photography technology and sees that the original camera data and metadata are backed up regularly.
Years ago, the DIT’s job was to solve issues as the industry transitioned from film to digital. But today, with digital being so complex and involving many different formats, this job is more vital than ever, sweating the technical stuff so that the DP and others can focus on their work for a successful production. In fact, one DIT interviewed for this piece notes that the job today focuses less on fine-tuning the live look than it did in the past. One reason for that is the many available tools that enable the files to be shaped more carefully in post.
The DITs interviewed here note that the workflow usually changes from production to production. “If you ask 10 different DITs what they do, they would probably give you 10 different answers,” says one. Still, the focus remains the same: to assist the DP and others, ensuring that everyone and everything is working in concert.
And while some may question whether a production needs the added expense of a DIT, perhaps a better question would be whether they can afford not to have one.
Here, two DITs discuss their ever-changing workflows for this important job.
Veteran DIT Michele deLorimier describes the role of a digital imaging technician as a problem solver. “It’s like doing puzzles — multiple, different-size puzzles that have to be sorted out,” she says. “It always involves problem solving, from trying to fix the director’s iPhone to the tech parameter settings in the cameras to the whole computer having to be torn apart and put back together. All the while, shooting has not stopped and footage is accumulating.”
There are often multiple cameras, and the footage needs to be downloaded and QC’d, and cards erased and sent back into rotation in order to continue shooting. “So, I guess the greatest tool on the cart is the complete computer workstation, and if it is having a problem, it requires high-gear, intense problem solving,” she adds.
And through it all, deLorimier and her fellow DITs must keep their cool and come up with a solution — and fast.
deLorimier has been working as a DIT for many years now. She honed her problem-solving skills working at live concerts, where she had to be fast on her feet while working with live control of multiple cameras through remote control units and paint boxes. “I’d sit at a switcher, with a stack of monitors and one big monitor, and keep the look consistent — black levels, paint controls — on all cameras, live.”
Later, this segued into setting up and controlling on- and off-board videotape and data-recorder digital cinema cameras on set for commercial film production.
“I just kind of fell into [DIT work] because of what I had done, and then it just continued to evolve,” says deLorimier. With the introduction of digital cinema cameras, DITs with a film and video background were needed during the transition period — spawning the term “digital imaging technician.”
“It went from being tape-based, where you’re creating and baking in a look while you’re shooting, to tape-based where you’re shooting sort of a flat pass and creating a timeline of looks you’re delivering alongside the videotape. And then to data recording, delivering files and additionally honing the look after the footage is ingested,” she says.
Among the equipment deLorimier uses is a reference grade monitor “that must be calibrated properly,” she says, a way to objectively assess exposure, such as with a waveform monitor, and some method of objectively assessing color, so a type of vectorscope. That is the base-level equipment. For commercials, efficient hardware and software are needed for downloading, manipulating and QC’ing the footage, color correcting it and creating deliverables for post.”
deLorimier prefers Flanders Scientific monitors — she has six for various tasks: a pair of 25 inch, a 24 inch, a pair of 21 inch and a 17 inch — as well as a Leader waveform monitor/vectorscope.
“We’re using wireless video a lot these days so we can move around freely and the cables aren’t all over the ground to trip on,” she says. “That part of the chain can have the incorrect setting, so it’s important to ensure that everything is [set at] baseline and that what you are adding to it — usually some form of a LUT to the livestream — is baseline too.” This starts with settings in the camera and then anything the video signal chain might touch.
Then there is various software, drivers, readers, cables and power management, which change and get updated regularly. Thus, deLorimier stresses that any software change should be tested and updated during prep, to ensure compatibility. “There are unexpected things that you can’t prep for. There are times when you show up at a shoot and will be told, ‘We shot some drone footage yesterday,’ and it’s with a camera that you had no control over the settings,” she says. “So, the more you can prep for, the higher the rate of success you will have.”
Over the years, deLorimier has worked on a variety of productions, from features to TV commercials, with each type of project requiring a different setup. Preparing for a commercial usually entails physically prepping equipment and putting pieces together, as well as checking its end-to-end signal chain, from camera settings, through distribution of the video signal, to the final destination for monitoring and data delivery.
A day before this interview, deLorimier finished a Subaru commercial, shooting in Sequoia National Forest for the first few days, then Griffith Park and some areas around LA. Before that was a multi-unit job for a Nike spot that was filmed in numerous cities over the course of five days. For that project, each of the DITs for the A, B and C units had to coordinate with one another for consistency, ensuring that the cameras would be set up the same way, that they had the same specs and were delivering a similar look. “We were shooting with big projectors onto buildings and screens, and the cameras needed to sync to the projectors in some instances,” deLorimier explains.
According to deLorimier, it is unusual for the work of a DIT not to be physical. “We’re on the move a lot,” she says, crediting her past concert experience for her ability to adjust to adverse and unexpected conditions. “And we are not working in a controlled environment, but we do our best under the constraints we have and always try to keep post in mind.”
She recalls one physically demanding job that required three consecutive nights of shooting in the rain near Santa Barbara, to film a train coming down the tracks. Part of the crew was on one side of the tracks, and part on the other. And deLorimier was in a cornfield with her carts, computer system and monitors, inside a tent to keep dry. “They kept calling me to come to B camera. But I was also remotely setting up live looks inside my tent.
“I had a headlamp on because I had to deal with cables and stuff in my tent, and at one point illuminated by my headlamp, I could see that there were at least 45 snails crawling up the inside of my tent and cart. I was getting mud on my glasses and in my eyes. Then my whole cart, which was pretty heavy, started tipping and tilting, and I was bracing myself and my feet were starting to get sucked into the mud in the mole holes that were filling with rainwater. I couldn’t even call for help because it took both of my hands to hold up the cart, and the snails were everywhere! And, through it all, they kept calling on the walkie-talkie, ‘Michele, B camera needs you. The train’s coming.’”
Insofar as acquisition formats are concerned, deLorimier says that it’s higher resolution and almost always raw files for commercials these days. “A minimum of 4K is almost mandatory across the board,” she notes. And if the project is shooting with Red Digital Cinema cameras, it is between 6K and 8K, as the team she works with mostly use Red Monstros or ARRIRAW. She also works with Phantom Cine raw files.
“The higher data rates have definitely given me more gray hairs,” says deLorimier with a smile. “There’s no downtime. There’s always six or seven balls in the air, and there’s very little room for error or any fixing on set. This is also why the prep day is vital; so much can be worked out and pre-run during the prep, and this pays off for production during the shoot.”
Francesco Luigi Giardiello
Francesco Luigi Giardiello defines his role as that of an on-set workflow supervisor, as opposed to a traditional DIT. “Over the last five to 10 years, I have been designing a workflow that basically extends from set to post production, focusing on the whole pipeline so we don’t have to throw away what has been done on set,” he says.
Giardiello has been designing a pipeline based on a white balance match, which he says is quite unusual in the business because everything gets done through a simplified and more standardized color grading. “We designed something that goes a bit deeper into the color science and works with the Academy’s ACES workflow, trying to establish a common working colorspace, common color pipeline and a common method to control and manipulate colors. This — across any possible camera or source media used in production — is to provide balanced and consistent footage to the DI and visual effects teams. This allows the CG to be applied without having to spend time on balancing and tweaking the color of the shots.”
This is important, especially today, where people are shooting with different digital systems. Or maybe even film and digital cameras, plus different lenses, so the shots look very different, even with the same lighting conditions. To this end, Giardiello’s role as DIT would be to grade or match everything so it all looks the same.
“Normally this gets done by using color tools, some of which are more sophisticated than others. When the tools are too sophisticated, they are intractable in the workflow and, therefore, become useless after leaving the set. When they are too ‘simple,’ like CDLs, often they are insufficient in correctly balancing the shots. And, because they are applied during a stage of the pipeline where the cinematographer’s look is introduced, they end up lost or often convolute the pipeline,” he notes. “We designed a system where the color balance occurs before any other color grading, and then the color grading is applied just as a look.”
Giardiello is currently in production on Marvel Studios’ Spider-Man: Far from Home, scheduled for release July 5, 2019. Not his first trip into the Marvel universe, he has worked on Thor: The Dark World, in addition to a number of episodic TV series and other big VFX productions, including Jurassic World and Aladdin. “You are the ambassador of the post production and VFX work,” he explains. “You have to foresee any technical issue and establish a workflow that will facilitate them. So, doing my job without being on set would be a complete waste of time. Sure, I can work in the studios and post production facilities to design workflows that will work without a DIT, but the problem is that things happen on set because that’s where decisions get made.”
As Giardiello points out, the other departments, such as camera and VFX, even the cinematographers, have different priorities and different jobs to fulfill. So, they’re not necessarily spending the time to ensure that every camera, every lens and every setting is in line with a consistent workflow to match the others. “They tend to shoot with whatever camera or medium they think is best and then expect that VFX or post will be able to fit that into an existing workflow.”
On average, Giardiello spends a few weeks of prep to design a project’s workflow, probably longer than producers and production companies would like. But, he believes that the more you plan, the less you have to deal with on set and in post production. When a shoot is finished, he will spend a week or two with the post facility, more to facilitate the handoff than to fix major issues.
Jurassic World was shot with 6K Arri Alexa 65s and the 8K Red Digital Cinema Helium camera, but the issue with high-resolution cameras is the amount of data they generate. “When you start shooting 4, 5, 6 or 8 terabytes a day, you have to make sure you are on set as a data point and that post production is capable of handling all this incoming data,” Giardiello advises. To this end, he had been working with Pinewood Digital to streamline a workflow for moving the data from set to post, whereby rather than sending the original mags to post, his group packaged up the data into very fast, very secure Codex Digital SLEDs.
The most important challenge on a VFX-oriented film, Giardiello says, is the color pipeline, as large studios, like Marvel, Disney, Warner Bros. and Universal, are focused on making sure that the so-called “digital negatives,” or raw footage, that arrive to post and VFX is well balanced and doesn’t require a lot of fixing before those departments can begin their work. “So, having balanced footage has been, and still is, one of the biggest concerns for any major studio when it comes to managing color from set to post production,” he notes.
So, for the last few years, this issue has been handled through the in-camera white balance with a system developed by Giardiello. “We changed the white balance on every single camera, using that to match every single shot before it gets to post production. So when it arrives in front of a VFX compositor and the DI suite, the average color and density of every single shot is consistent,” he adds.
Giardiello’s workflow is one that he has designed and developed over a five-year period and shines particularly when it comes to facilitating VFX interaction with action footage. “If you have to spend weeks fixing things in VFX on a big job like Jurassic World, Aladdin or Spider-Man, we’re talking about losing thousands of dollars every day,” he points out.
The work entails using a range of tools, some of which are designed for each new job. One tool that has been used on Giardiello’s last few films modifies the metadata for Red cameras to match them with that of the Alexa camera. Meanwhile, on set he uses Filmlight’s Prelight for light grading or to design CDLs. Probably the most important tool for dealing with RAW footage, he maintains, is Codex Digital’s Codex Production Suite. “It allows us to streamline the cloning and backup processes, to perform a visual QC near set and to access the metadata of raw footage and change it (when it is not changed in-camera).
“When those files get to post production in [Filmlight’s] Daylight, which is mostly used these days to process rushes, Daylight doesn’t recognize that change as an actual change, but as something that the DIT does on set in-camera,” Giardiello says.
In addition, he also uses the new SSD SLED designed by Codex, which offers encryption — an important feature for studios like Marvel or Sony. Then, on set, he uses BoxIOs, a LUT box from Flanders Scientific, as well as Flanders monitors, either DM240s (LCDs) or DM250s (OLEDs), depending on the type of project.
Over the years, Giardiello has often worked with the same DPs, but in the past three years, his major clients instead have been studios: Universal, Marvel and Warner Bros. “But my boss is still the DP,” he adds.
During the past 12 years, Giardiello has witnessed an evolution in the role of DIT and expects this to continue, particularly as media continues to converge and merge — from cinema or television to mobile devices. “So yeah, I would say our job has changed and is going to change, but I think it’s more important now than it was 10 years ago, and obviously it’s going to be even more important in the next 10 years.”
Karen Moltenbrey is a longtime writer and editor in the CG and post industries.