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
ASC Close-Up
A detailed explanation of the procedure used to determine a specific printer light for dailies can be found in the eighth edition of the American Cinematographer Manual, in the chapter “Finding Your Own Printer Light” (pp. 112-120).

On the Digital Side

An industry-wide equivalent of the Hazeltine printer light, an ironclad indicator of both technical standards and specific artistic vision, does not currently exist in any form in the electronic realm. The rationale for developing this capability is as follows:

The Hazeltine process gives us the option of excluding the arbitrary judgment of the timer in rendering the look of our dailies. The film-to-digital process creates a barrier by requiring the colorist to make independent creative decisions.

This is no knock on colorists. They are a necessary part of our process, and every one I’ve known has done his or her job amazingly well. But the fact remains that we best realize our digitally transferred images only when we’re able to provide immediate guidance while physically present in the telecine suite. Unfortunately, this can’t always be the case. I also know that many cinematographers are satisfied by their long-term relationships with specific timers and colorists. During the finishing stages of a show, the input of a talented timer or colorist provides an indispensable contribution that goes a long way toward making us all look like heroes. However, to a great degree, a sacrifice of control is inherent to what goes on in the digital suite.

An Example, Part 1

Rather than restate the familiar film-to-digital workflow, a simple but disturbingly common scenario illustrates my point:

You compose, light and expose a shot of your lead actress for a not-quite-silhouette effect in which she is kept in the dark, but only so dark that you’ll still be able to see her eyes onscreen. Technical details are as follows:

Key exposure at the lens: T2.8
Backlight: +1 stop
Front fill: -2 stops
Printer light: 29-31-26

The next day, you view the print of this shot in dailies, rendered at the very same printer light you chose during preproduction testing (29-31-26). The lead actress is indeed dark, and her eyes are definitely readable. The result is exactly what you intended.

Later, though, it’s an entirely different story in the digital dailies. Despite regular and vigorous communication, the colorist was ultimately forced to make a decision that he thought would suit your eye. This choice is not necessarily a bad one, it’s just not your own. And the colorist’s error is compounded by inefficient or incorrect calibration of the displays used to watch the digital dailies. Thus, the electronic effect is one of no silhouette at all. You see the actress’s eyes, but you see a lot of other things, too. The overall image quality is too bright, flat, washed-out and devoid of the strong graphic texture apparent in the print. Now explanations are in order for everyone who was not able to see the projected film in the screening room.

An overly simplified hypothetical? Sure. But this sort of thing goes on in one form or another all the time! Every cinematographer has suffered a similar situation; some have even experienced catastrophic consequences. Keep in mind also that this example only addresses the issue of density, a much simpler conceit than that of color. Now transpose the number of places at which the digital-dailies process can go wrong, and you’ll begin to understand the urgency of this argument.

The Failure of Current “Solutions”

Written descriptions on camera reports … verbal descriptions on minicassettes … Polaroids sent in with the negative … special gray cards … telecine-analysis films … referencing of still stores … computer or Web-based previsualization systems …. Some cinematographers are pleased with what they get from one or another of these techniques for relaying information about their work to the colorist. But each will also admit that these methods fall far short of the consistency that would be enabled by a measured, printer light-like system. Then there’s ease of use. Existing previz systems are cumbersome and intrusive to employ on set. They also require a substantial investment of time and effort after wrap if you want to communicate your wishes for the treatment of what you’ve just shot. What could be less complicated than providing a series of numbers that lock in the look from the get-go?

An Example, Part 2

After a few weeks of living with the print of the nearly silhouetted actress, the director tells you he’d now prefer to see her in total silhouette. Armed with the knowledge of what your negative and lab can deliver, you dutifully call the timer and order a reprint of the shot. You then designate a pass that is 12 Hazeltine points (11?2 lens stops) darker than the original. Witness the math:

Original printer light: 29-31-26
New printer light: 41-43-38

Simple, reliable, quantifiably repeatable — and easy to communicate. No visit to the lab is required. In fact, you didn’t even have to see the second version to know you’d get exactly what you wanted.

Doing the same thing electronically is impossible. Somehow, calling in from location and saying, “Give me 1?16 of an inch more of a spin to the northeast on the density tracking ball” just doesn’t have the same precision.

Digital Telecine Advantages
a. immediate feedback
b. an essentially infinite number of choices for the look
c. primary and secondary color correction
d. ability to effect gamma, gain, lift, luminance and saturation
e. easy access to a variety of effects; Power Windows capability

Digital Telecine Limitations
a. cinematographer must be physically present to get exactly what is desired
b. no option to measure color, density, gamma, gain, lift, luminance or saturation
c. no precise means of communication with colorist, especially with so many choices at hand

You can see that by using the Hazeltine theory as a model, it’s imperative that we develop and implement the equivalent of a digital printer light (DPL) on the electronic side.


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