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A Flexible Finish
American Cinematographer Magazine
New methods of compiling and tracking digital information about moving images may help cinematographers preserve the creative integrity of their work.

by Debra Kaufman

Metadata can most simply be defined as "detailed information about content." Though the term is relatively new, the concept is as old as film itself. Whether it's Post-it Notes stuck on film canisters, a cinematographer's diary or scribblings in the margins of a script, filmmakers have always found ways to convey information about the artistic intent of the captured images and sounds.

Nevertheless, this longstanding, informal metadata system has failed on more than one occasion to preserve the original intent of the director or cinematographer. Take Fritz Lang's Metropolis. It's well known that an "Americanized" version of the film so butchered Lang's original vision that he was moved to declare that the film no longer existed. At least nine truncated versions continue to float around the world, only a few of which were taken from the original film. "Unless there's a major discovery of film canisters in what was Grandma Lang's attic, that will probably be the case forever," says David Cunningham of Snell & Wilcox, a manufacturer of postproduction equipment and technologies. "Twenty-five percent or more is now thought to be lost."

Concerns about the abuse of artistic intent persist, and the ante is about to be upped. The adoption of digital processes and the advent of a hybrid film-digital workflow have increased dramatically the need for metadata that reliably conveys - and preserves - the creative intent of cinematographers. "When you disconnect the image from a known medium like film and go into the digital world, you end up with integers in a computer that mean nothing," explains Jim Sullivan, chief technology officer of Kodak Entertainment Imaging Services. "They're just storage locations. They don't carry any interpretation with them about how [the footage] was captured or is meant to be displayed. One thing that people learn quickly when they do digital image processing is that they have to carry definitional data along with the stored numbers in the computer."

The hybrid film-digital workflow has also changed a familiar postproduction workflow. Even if they're acquired on film, images are now handled and manipulated by numerous digital devices that convert, compress and translate color space, resolution and every other factor that makes up an image. In a perfect world, metadata will keep track of what happens to each image at each stage of the process. In turn, this makes it possible to track changes, end up with a filmout or digital projection that looks the way the cinematographer meant it to look, and to archive the finished product with a permanent record of the artistic intent.

As it stands today, however, the industry is nowhere close to this goal. "We're at a worse level of interoperability than we were 15 years ago," says Mark Horton, market development manager for Quantel. "Now you have so many different acquisition formats, so many different postproduction possibilities and so many delivery formats that you don't have the clear baseline understanding that was previously the case. Digital has opened up all of these new possibilities, but it has also thrown up new workflow issues."

Until now, cinematographers have had no voice in determining the kinds of information that will be contained in metadata, as standardizing bodies create definitions of metadata based on feedback from a membership largely composed of engineers, manufacturers, broadcasters and, to some degree, the motion-picture studios. If cinematographers' concerns are to be addressed, the time is now, while the metadata standard is still in the process of being created.

The ASC Technology Committee is doing just that. Chairman Curtis Clark, ASC points out that the committee (which includes representatives from Disney, Paramount, Universal and Warner Bros. studios) is examining a variety of issues related to digital imaging, from cameras to the digital-intermediate process, and is working with both the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) and the studio-led Digital Cinema Initiative (DCI) to ensure that cinematographer's concerns are addressed. Metadata is one of those issues. "We are playing a role in the development of metadata," says Clark. "We're critically aware of the issues. Metadata is a significant part of the much bigger challenge, which is understanding the management of images within the hybrid process, and we need to be able to make recommendations for the best practices."

At its July meeting, the Technology Committee formed a sub-committee focusing on metadata. This group is headed by Isaac V. Kerlow, director of digital production and talent in the Corporate New Technology and Development group of the Walt Disney Company.

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© 2003 American Cinematographer.