The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents September 2006 Return to Table of Contents
Black Dahlia
Digi Printer Lights
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DVD Playback
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A cinematographer’s suggestions for better, more precise image control in the digital age.

One of the most frustrating obstacles that continue to plague cinematographers in this hybrid era is the absence of a way to accurately and consistently dictate the look of our work during film-to-digital transfer of our dailies. For decades, those of us shooting for theatrical release have used the Hazeltine printer light as a simple, consistent measure of what we’ve put on the negative, both technically and creatively. With nothing comparable to call upon in the telecine suite, we find that despite all best efforts, we’re not just flying blind, we’re working without a net. Every time out it’s a new adventure, and the results are never precise. Right now, short of sitting at the colorist’s elbow, there exists no industry-wide method for us to properly judge what we’re doing digitally, let alone protect our vision. Fair or not, a lot of what we do is judged by an unforgiving “first impressions are lasting impressions” ethic. With print dailies now the exception rather than the rule, a large portion of our time is spent reassuring nervous directors and producers that the movie won’t ultimately look the way it does in the electronic dailies. Through the application of existing technology, however, it’s now possible for us to quickly and easily regain full control over our work.

What follows is a step-by-step analysis of why and how we should do it.

On the Print Side: The Genius of the Hazeltine

The Hazeltine console is an analyzer used for determining what grade of color and density should be applied to the printing of a distinct length of negative.

Hazeltine workflow begins with a basic calibration tailored to the demands of a particular emulsion or desired effect as measured against the laboratory’s standard practices.

Drawing from a lab roll of up to 2,000', a color timer scrolls the developed film across a scanning head, stopping to address a single still frame from each shot that has been executed by the cinematographer. Simultaneously, a positive representation of that negative image is relayed to an onboard cathode-ray tube.

Also built into the console and subject to the additive system are three separate dials, one governing the amount of red (R) that will make up the image, one governing the amount of green (G) and one governing the amount of blue (B). Each of these dials is incrementally marked to render a measurement of 1 point through 50 points. A fourth dial governs overall density, also designated to a scale of 1 through 50 points.

Working by virtue of an experienced eye or from the cinematographer’s written or verbal instructions, the timer refers to the CRT’s positive still-picture representation of the negative frame and uses these density and R-G-B controls to “dial in” an acceptable image. Under clinical conditions, for example, a mid-range R-G-B Hazeltine setting (the printer light) for a properly exposed and developed negative would be 25-25-25. What this means on a practical level is that a sunny day exterior will look “normal” when given that specific amount of red, green, blue and density. In other words, when projected onscreen, the sky will appear blue, grass will appear green, the brightness level will replicate that of a clear day, and so on.

Keep in mind that the success of color timing (noted, as always, in the subjective quality of the resulting print) is wholly subservient to the potential or limitation set by the combination of exposure and the lab’s processing controls. Nonetheless, a certain amount of latitude is inherent to the system’s design.

Variations in color can be realized by shifting the R-G-B printer light values up or down, either individually or in combination within the established 50-point range. On the other hand, density corrections are generally made in an amount that is identical across the board. Thus, equally increasing the value of the overall printer light will result in a darker print; decreasing it will render a lighter print. It is also important to note that density as measured in printer points has a direct relationship to exposure at the lens. For example, in most labs, 8 points of density on the Hazeltine represents the equivalent of 1 T-stop of density during actual exposure of the action on set. Fractional modifications apply in kind.

The complete catalog of printer-light information (as assigned to each shot by the timer) is ultimately relayed by computer to the contact printer in order to create the positive. During the screening of dailies, a hard copy of this information is delivered to the cinematographer for reference and approval.

Hazeltine Advantages
a. has predictable, quantifiably repeatable results
b. enables exact communication among many different parties
c. provides the option of removing the timer’s opinion from the process
d. printer lights help determine/personalize precise film-speed rating
e. makes anomalies easy to isolate/correct
f. time-tested, established standard
g. simple, reliable, easy to use
h. 6-stop range of correction
i. printer lights tell all you need to know about color, density and lab controls

Hazeltine Limitations
a. no immediate feedback
b. lack of secondary correction
c. no gamma, gain, lift, luminance or chroma control
d. corrections are general; no Power Windows or specific treatments available

Although it’s considered somewhat primitive in certain quarters, the Hazeltine remains a standard part of the process by which photochemically based projects marked for theatrical release are printed. Don’t be misled by complaints about a mature technology. The simple three-number coordinate it generates empowers cinematographers to control the final appearance of their images with boldness and exactitude.

The One-Light Print

The use of a single, predetermined set of Hazeltine numbers takes the guesswork out of the lab’s dailies-printing protocol and places total control of the film’s look where it belongs: in the hands of the cinematographer.

Each night, dailies timers scroll an incredible amount of negative through their Hazeltines. These tens of thousands of feet are culled from a wide range of productions shot under a variety of circumstances. Very often, the timer’s only guidance in determining what information gets sent to the contact printer is a barely legible scrawl at the bottom of a camera report: print cool … print warm … day for night … dawn effect, and so on. Though lab technicians can be surprisingly good at extracting meaning from the indefinable, using a single printer-light setting (arrived at through the cinematographer’s own testing and choosing) eliminates the problems caused by relying on vague, highly personal and subjective written or verbal descriptions. In addition, working in this manner allows the cinematographer to introduce any amount of variation in color and density to the image in a quantifiable and repeatable way. Whether these changes are effected through filtration used on the lens, gels over the lamps, or a well-considered shift in the printer light is a matter of taste and experience.

Assuming the cinematographer’s working method and the lab’s chemistry are both up to code, the immediate payoff from using a single printer light is a day-to-day image consistency on par with that of the still photographer’s vaunted “previsualization.” For the long term, answer- and release-printing procedures are much simpler affairs because corrections to color and density become a matter of fine-tuning rather than a complete re-balancing of the entire film.

But remember that the one-light print designated by the cinematographer’s choice is markedly different in concept from what dailies personnel commonly refer to using the same words. Left to its own devices, any lab can deliver a one-light print every day. The difference is that because the dailies timer is making color and density decisions using his or her judgment, the lab’s version will inevitably change its R-G-B Hazeltine values from negative roll to negative roll, or even among different shots and setups within the same roll. The printer light that ultimately results from the cinematographer’s testing procedure is something peculiar to that cinematographer, and is meant for use in printing negative from situations that match the lighting conditions under which the test was performed. Thus, it is possible — indeed preferable — to shoot an entire feature film on the same printer light. That said, it is also viable to establish printer lights for defined situations or effects, i.e., day/exterior, night/exterior, night/interior, etc. When that is done, the positive looks exactly the way the cinematographer wants it to look, not the way the Hazeltine timer (or anyone else, for that matter) interprets it to look.


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