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A Flexible Finish
American Cinematographer Magazine

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Though he began Seabiscuit's post work without strong expectations, Schwartzmann says he was pleasantly surprised by the hands-on involvement the DI required. "In a traditional color-timing scenario, the cinematographer makes comments, and the timer goes away and does his version of what you said," he explains. "When you're working with film, there's always the issue of how many times you want to put the negative up on the printer. But when the information is stored as data, you can do as many versions of the scene as you can think of, and you're not putting wear and tear on anything. You can look at five or six versions of what you might want to do and see them immediately."

The ability to change highlights, midtones and shadows independently was a huge boon, he adds. "Seabiscuit has a lot of day exteriors, and I had to match scenes that were shot at different times of day," he says. At Technique, he was able to warm up the highlights without affecting the midtones or shadows. "I couldn't have done that in a photochemical lab - it would have warmed up the entire scene. In the DI suite, you have more refined tools." Nakamura points out that with secondary color control - power windows - he could isolate certain areas to make the skies match from scene to scene quite easily. "If they had timed this traditionally, the grass on the infield would have been changing from green to lime green to yellow to orange, based on the massive color correction they would've had to do to match scenes shot at noon and 5 p.m.," says Nakamura. "But because we did it electronically, we were able to latch onto an individual color vector and make it match from shot to shot to shot." He adds that even if shadow details change, the fact that the hue stays consistent tricks the eye into thinking the scenes match.

In one scene, Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire) is in a Mexican brothel filled with candles. Schwartzman defocused the highlights, making all the little candles glow and flicker. "The image is still sharp; only the highlights are soft," he says. Nakamura defocused the scene based on color channels: "It gives the candlelight an ethereal feel, but it's not like [putting] a diffusion filter over the whole thing. It only affects certain colors in the shot and creates a romantic feel."

Early on in the movie, there's a scene in which Seabiscuit's owner (Jeff Bridges) had to look 10 years younger. "I suggested we soften up his highlights, because it's the brighter spots on the faces where you see all the wrinkles," says Nakamura. "I did a luminance key on the face, took the key channel and defocused it, blending it with the rest of the image, so only that part of his face was defocused. It succeeded in making him look younger."

Nakamura also used color-correction tools to enhance color in scenes that needed to stand out for dramatic reasons. "For beauty shots when Pollard and Seabiscuit are taking off in the field, we added saturation," he says. "That way, the colors pop up vibrantly with increased contrast."

Many of the film's horse races were filmed in overcast conditions, which made the light flat. "Inside the suite, we could really stretch the whites out and crush the blacks to get contrast," says Nakamura. "That would have been very difficult to do photochemically. Also, when you increase contrast, it increases the saturation of the colors, which would have made everyone's faces go red [in a photochemical world]. But by latching onto that area, we could keep the faces from becoming too saturated." 

Schwartzman says his experience with shooting commercials had given him familiarity with telecine tools, making it an easy switch to the tools found in the DI suite. One minor challenge, however, was adjusting to the characteristics of the digital projector: "Your film will have more contrast than the digitally projected image. The digital projectors can't create a very rich black. But obviously, that's going to change. Film projectors aren't getting any better, and digital projectors are as bad as they're going to be. With digital projectors, every iteration is a step forward in terms of image quality.

"The DI process put me in the driver's seat, and that was fantastic," he concludes. "It surpassed my expectations, and when we went out to film, we were always blown away."

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© 2003 American Cinematographer.