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A Flexible Finish
American Cinematographer Magazine
The Case for Film Dailies

by Bob Fisher

A story published in the Los Angeles Times on July 11, 2002, noted the following: "Frugality ... is pushing studios and filmmakers to consider digital tools. Advocates insist that the technology cuts costs, partly by eliminating key parts of the moviemaking process. For example, there's the time-honored and time-consuming ritual of handling [film] dailies. When a day of shooting wraps, the crew sends the footage to a processing lab. After the film negatives have been developed, the reel is returned to the set. The director and often the crew gather inside a screening room. Then, they cross their fingers. What they want to see up on the screen - and what the camera actually captured - aren't always the same. Perhaps the spotlights burned too brightly and washed out the image. Maybe the director didn't spot the catering truck parked in the background. If someone loaded the film in the camera incorrectly, the reel might be blank."

In truth, film dailies serve multiple purposes, mainly involving aesthetic decisions that affect how a story will resonate with audiences. Nuances in contrast, subtleties in colors and critical focus all speak to the audience, frequently on a subliminal level, in the same way that an actor's variations in voice or body language can accentuate emotion.

At the recent Hollywood Film Festival, ASC president Richard Crudo moderated a panel that included fellow Society members John Toll, Allen Daviau and Jack Green. The topic was ambitious: the future of the art and craft of cinematography. But one of the main topics the group addressed was the pressure they were under to view dailies in HD and other digital formats rather than on film.

Their reactions were unanimous and unambiguous. Green noted that he and director Tim McCanlies were equally adamant about projecting dailies on film while they were shooting Secondhand Lions (see AC Nov. '03) for New Line Cinema at practical locations around Austin, Texas. Most days they had open dailies that were attended, at least in the beginning, by the production designer, hair and makeup personnel, producers, the editor, camera operators and assistants. Eventually, the crowd thinned out to include Green, McCanlies, the editor, members of the camera crew and an occasional producer. "One of the most important advantages of film dailies is focus," Green says. "Every film I have seen with focus problems can be traced to viewing dailies and editing without seeing film projected. Contrast is also a nightmare for cinematographers with DVD dailies, because in the beginning of production you need information that only film dailies can provide. You need film dailies as a reference for making adjustments."

Toll noted that "the reason we watch dailies is to evaluate, on a day-to-day basis, the status of our work. Seeing it in a form that most closely resembles the finished product is absolutely essential. From a creative point of view, nothing else makes sense to me. Watching dailies originated on film, but transferred to video, HD or otherwise, misrepresents the quality and characteristics of the images."

Toll's comments run against the tide of reporting on this issue in the trade press. For example, the cover of the June 2002 issue of Film & Video highlighted an article headlined, "Cost-Effective Digital Dailies Offer New Options." The six-page article spotlighted a JVC system for displaying "high-quality" HD dailies. It quoted Bruce Markoe, MGM senior vice president of feature postproduction, who said that the idea was to save money for the studio by eliminating film-printing costs and editing time. Markoe estimated savings of $125,000 per picture. The journalists who wrote this story identified their sources, which were primarily hardware and software vendors and executives of post houses that offer HD-dailies services. The story didn't include comments by a single cinematographer or director.

To be fair, Markoe and the same cast of advocates have been saying virtually the same things in articles published by many other magazines, including this one. They have also been speakers at film festivals and industry conferences, including at least two seminars targeting members of the Directors Guild of America. During most of these dialogues, the opinions of cinematographers have either been missing or marginalized. This article is an attempt to tell the other side of the story.

"I believe that as long as we use film to shoot movies that will be finished and projected on film in theaters, we should be watching film dailies to see our work in progress," maintains Toll. "All of the creative visual departments, not just cinematographers, rely on accurately reproduced dailies as a check on their work. Without them, the quality of that work suffers. Arguing that film dailies should be eliminated on the basis of cost is like arguing that the quality of images has become an expendable budget item. I can think of several items in the budgets of the last couple of pictures I have been on that I would consider eliminating before doing away with watchable dailies."

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© 2004 American Cinematographer.