Digital Films: Notes on Tools and Process

Part 3 - After the Camerawork

There is another critical choice that can elevate or even salvage a film and the resultant print. I am speaking of the on-line, or conform, or finish, or mastering... the final edit, that you may eventually ship off to some strange city where they will transfer it to film. This is the wrong place to economize. You need color correction. You need contrast control. You need an impartial set of very well trained eyes and very lithe fingers to make your intentions read true. Just think about it, your master is by far the most significant document of your visual intentions... what else is there?

Why did you go to the trouble of even a single image tweak if not to further your intentions (and who knows how far you may yet go?)

This may be an appropriate time to point out that this is all your transfer facility has to go on. Fidelity to the video master is a very real consideration in evaluating a transfer facility. If you want rich chroma or pastel tones or pale skies or shadows rich in detail and contrast, put it in your video master. Your master will soon be film, and film is just different in so many indefinable (and definable) ways from video that it will certainly have been transformed, but it should still reflect your expectations... you made those decisions with great care, didn’t you?

Do get them to do a test, or try to find someone else’s test. Look at the video source material before you evaluate the transfer. Try to be as methodical as possible or at least understand which variables are beyond your control. (The choice among print stocks and timing can be controlled if you insist on receiving the test negative... you may also want to possess and control the negative from your eventual transfer but this is not so easy at every house, be forewarned).

Try to compare on a scene by scene basis rather than sequentially viewing tests composed of many scenes. It is very difficult to evaluate from memory. Keep in mind how they treated you, the flow of information back and forth. If they have not impressed you with their care of you and your image during the testing (read “sales”) process, how much more effort will they put in once they have your money? The motivation to excel can be influenced by the proximity of film maker to laboratory, particularly when one has problems to resolve.

One last caveat to the testing process. You will be blown away the first time you get a test back. Sitting in that screening room, seeing your little 4:3 video blown up to the size of a room is going to cause your jaw to drop. Take that experience with a grain of salt. There is limited information in one test, and if you are shopping laboratories, you really owe it to yourself to try at least two facilities. You will be amazed at the differences.

What else to look for in your tests? Shadows! Do they block up into masses of indistinct darkness or reveal subtle detail? Highlights and their thresholds with darker material should not display aliasing (blocky) artifacts or streaks and should have the same delicacy of tones as your original video.

Harsh outlines? If they were on your video original, they were caused by your own camera’s enhancement circuitry and in most cases you will now have to live with them. If not on your original, they were probably the result of the up-rez and enhancement processing at the transfer house prior to film recording. A definite no-no. Misaligned chroma and luminance (a grayish uncolored area at the one side of colored objects) is another common problem to be aware of.. By the way, why not invite your DP to evaluate these tests?

Please note, I haven’t even discussed resolution or motion interpolation or sound issues.. isn’t your head hurting already? I hope to expand this article soon, so check back.

One more suggestion for now, try not to wait until the week of Sundance to arrange your transfer.

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