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A Flexible Finish
American Cinematographer Magazine
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Nevertheless, the perception that HD dailies are a cost-effective replacement for film is taking root. Beverly Wood, vice president of Deluxe Laboratories, reports a steady erosion of film dailies during the past three to five years. She says that this trend has been driven mainly by cost-conscious producers who claim savings as high as several hundred thousand dollars per film.

Many other cinematographers also have a different view of this issue, however. While discussing his work on The Italian Job (AC June '03), Wally Pfister, ASC asserted that "it was incredibly important to see exactly how the film played on a movie screen. That helps you push the envelope and explore the boundaries of creating different looks. There are times when I would experiment with lighting [some of the actors], especially Mark [Wahlberg] and Charlize [Theron], a little differently. You can only see the effects of those nuances on film. The producer, director, editor and gaffer came to dailies. [Steadicam/camera operator] Scott Sakamoto was there most of the time, along with my first AC, gaffer and other operators. The focus pullers and camera operators came to see how their work played on a big screen. Film dailies also kept everyone excited about the project."

Stephen Burum, ASC, who recently wrapped Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen, adds, "As far as I am concerned, if you are shooting a film that is going to be seen on a big screen in theaters, you've got to have dailies projected on film rather than a dumbed-down image in any video format. You are looking for subtleties in contrast and focus, and it isn't just technical. Maybe a character's lips are tremoring in an emotional scene and you want to see how that plays. You just aren't going to get sufficient resolution with digital dailies. I honestly don't think you save any money by using video dailies. All it takes [to lose any potential savings] is having to reshoot one scene because you didn't notice a problem that could have been easily fixed until you got to work prints."

John Schwartzman, ASC spoke about his experiences during the production of Seabiscuit (AC Aug. '03), which recently won the ASC Award for outstanding feature-film cinematography.  He was limited to HD dailies during the first two weeks of production. "There was a major problem with consistency," he says, "and we had no sense of where the lab standard was. If you're going to do a digital intermediate, you need to know where your printer lights are, and how the physical image looks related to that. Some days they were great, but on other days, you'd wonder who turned up the magenta, or why the grass looked a fluorescent shade of green. I told [producers] Kathy Kennedy and Frank Marshall, 'This is no way to judge our work. You can get beautiful images with HD dailies, but it doesn't always represent what you have on the film.'" Schwartzman began getting MOS film dailies during the third week. He screened them at the lab each morning while he was shooting in Los Angeles. When Seabiscuit was filming on location, the cinematographer began each day with a phone call to Technicolor's John Bickford, who gave him a verbal report. The lab sent weekly "selects," which Schwartzman screened at a local cinema.

Laszlo Kovacs, ASC had his first experience with digital dailies in 2000 when he shot Return to Me, an MGM film with a $20 million budget, mainly at practical locations in Chicago (AC May '00). The director was Bonnie Hunt, an actress taking her first turn at the helm. During the first week to 10 days, the negative was processed at Astro Labs in Chicago, which provided film dailies by 7:30 the next morning. "That's when we established the look," Kovacs says. "Afterwards, we shipped the negative to Deluxe in Los Angeles, and a postproduction house then transferred the film to hi-def video. I did everything by the book. We used an 18-percent gray-scale card, correctly lit and exposed. We had a video projector and a large screen. The first day of HD dailies was horrendous; they looked washed-out and lacked textures. Even the gray card looked a bit light. There were no colors and no blacks."

Kovacs told Hunt that he wasn't going to watch dailies anymore because they were not representative of the filmmakers' work, and they would give her the wrong idea. "I was also worried about the continuity of scene-to-scene matching," he says. "I set up a system with Deluxe where I selected the two most important shots each day. They put them on a Hazeltine and told me what I needed to know about printing lights."

When he shot Two Weeks Notice in New York with another first-time director, Marc Lawrence, Kovacs appealed to producer Sandra Bullock, who also starred in the film, and asked for film dailies. She supported him, and he got film dailies. Kovacs explains that he felt it was important for Lawrence to see nuances like the backlight playing on Bullock's hair and the glint in her eyes. These subtleties provided visual clues that the character and her employer (played by Hugh Grant) were falling in love, long before their feelings were revealed by dialogue or action on the screen.

During every day of production on Two Weeks Notice, a 40' trailer containing a screening room traveled with the company, making it convenient for the filmmakers to view dailies projected on a big screen. Kovacs points out that in a comedy, physical timing and the undercurrent of emotion can be a totally different type of challenge. In many comedic scenes, audiences are expected to read between the lines, since characters don't always mean exactly what they say. Kovacs stresses that it was essential to see how those shadings played when they were projected with film on a big screen. "The cast and crew were also energized by the experience of viewing film dailies together," he adds. "Sometimes I'd see an electrician in the trailer, and he'd leave with a smile on his face, more determined than ever to do his best."

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© 2004 American Cinematographer.