by Debra Kaufman
From the beginning, cinematographer John Schwartzman, ASC believed
a digital intermediate (DI) for Seabiscuit was the perfect
solution to a nagging problem. As a self-described "huge proponent" of
anamorphic, he thought that shooting in Super 35mm would enable
him to create more dynamic camera moves, but he was reluctant to
go with Super 35 because he knew the anamorphic blowup would likely
yield a lesser-quality image. But the prospect of taking Seabiscuit to
a DI changed the equation. "We could do the blowup without
an optical," says Schwartzman, who adds that he'd wanted to
do just that with The Rock in 1996, but the technology wasn't
Schwartzman's enthusiasm for a digital finish was matched by that
of Seabiscuit director Gary Ross. Ross and cinematographer
John Lindley, ASC had used nascent DI technology to create the
monochrome-and-color palette of the 1998 film Pleasantville.
Based on that experience, Ross knew a DI would require a much greater
time commitment from Schwartzman than that required by a photochemical
finish. "Gary spent seven months doing the digital work in Pleasantville,
and he knew I would work very hard for three weeks to time Seabiscuit," recalls
Schwartzman. "He asked the studio that I be compensated for
my time - and he was very persuasive."
After conducting tests at several facilities that offered DIs,
the filmmakers decided to go with Technique in Burbank. "All
of these facilities basically do excellent work," he notes. "It
[came down to] a matter of taste. I felt the system at Technique
[was more in line] with the way I like to work. I especially liked
the way their color-correction system works, in real time. At other
facilities, once you get a few power windows going, it's not real
time any more."
According to Stephen Nakamura, senior digital film colorist at
Technique, Seabiscuit's negative was scanned at 4K on a
Northlight scanner. The data resided on the Thomson Spectre, where
it could be moved easily in and out of the digital-grading suite.
The key to success was the da Vinci 2K color corrector, a hardware-based
device that allowed Nakamura and Schwartzman to grade in real time. "Working
in real time is very important for me as a colorist," says
Nakamura. "You can't get a feel for a scene or shot when it's
moving at 6 frames per second; if you're viewing it in real time,
you will see it differently, and maybe you'll change your mind."
Digital post tools are often used to create a dramatic look or
to smoothly integrate digital visual effects, but Seabiscuit required
neither. Instead, the DI gave Schwartzmann more control over the
final look and helped him enhance the feel of the movie. "I
shot it very straight, and if anyone notices we've done a digital
intermediate, then we've failed," says the cinematographer.
Adds Nakamura, "We weren't trying to create a whole different
look that wasn't there. The cinematography was already there. The
control offered by the DI helped us make everything look smoother."
According to Schwartzman, knowing Seabiscuit would be taken
to a DI didn't affect how he viewed dailies. "I screened dailies
on film, because when you're making a movie you have to look at
film," he emphasizes. He went to the lab every morning to
view film dailies, even though both DVD and high-definition (HD)
dailies were provided for Ross. "Ultimately, you have to see
the projected image in order to tell whether there's any problem
with it," says Schwartzman. "You can't judge focus and
the anomalies that happen with film by seeing it on a TV screen
- let alone at [low] Avid resolution.
"Also, a colorist can't tell you what your density is, but
a lab timer can," he continues. "Until HD gets better,
you need to look at projected film to make sure you have what you
think you have."