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A Flexible Finish
American Cinematographer Magazine
A Digital Finish for Seabiscuit
John Schwartzman, ASC uses a digital intermediate to fine-tune the look of Seabiscuit


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 in place.

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."

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© 2003 American Cinematographer.