Wading into Feature DIs

It’s easy to think of a digital intermediate (DI) as an expensive process available only to big-budget projects, but boutique post houses such as iO Film are making it possible for small independent films to take advantage of the technology. The facility is now finishing bigger pictures, too, but by basing its workflow on a collection of proprietary tools, it has been able to keep its prices in a range that lower-budget productions can afford. “For independent films, it’s ideal,” says cinematographer Alex Buono, who recently completed a DI for the feature Hooligans at iO Film. “I didn’t feel like our relatively small film was buried amidst a bunch of $100-million films.”

When iO Film opened in North Hollywood four years ago, the facility’s chief services were titles and digital opticals, but the list quickly expanded. In 2002, it started doing high-definition DIs, beginning with a short film called Delusion, then jumping into features with DysFunktional Family, a documentary shot by Theo Van de Sande, ASC. The next step was 2K DIs. After testing that pipeline with a few short films, the company began finishing features, the first of which were Crash, shot by James Muro, and Hooligans.

On Hooligans, Buono wanted a gritty, desaturated palette with boosted contrast, but he didn’t want the look to be as extreme as a bleach bypass. “I also had to drain the saturated blue out of skies to maintain the gray, overcast look of East London — something I couldn’t do photochemically,” he adds. He also knew the Super 35mm project would have to be output to an anamorphic negative and preferred a digital squeeze to an optical one.

Buono, who also co-produced the film, initially didn’t think a DI would be affordable, but figures gathered by postproduction consultant Joe Fineman indicated that it would be only slightly more expensive than a traditional finish. “We got estimates from three houses,” says Buono, “and in the end, iO Film’s bid was about $15,000 more than a photochemical finish. I was lucky to have co-producers who could see the value in what the DI would afford us visually.”

Because no package of DI tools covers every technical aspect of the process, each post house must create its own pipeline. Whereas many facilities assemble and customize off-the-shelf products, iO Film has structured its pipeline around in-house applications designed and written largely by chief technical officer Kevin Mullican. These include a database system, color chain and matching tools, some image-processing and compositing applications, and almost all of the company’s assembly tools.

In addition to this software, iO Film uses a custom film scanner built by Academy Award-winning chief scientist Les Dittert. Mullican says the scanner is tightly integrated into the facility’s pipeline, and with a simple camera swap, it offers a low-cost upgrade to a 4K workflow.

The facility also uses some key nonproprietary products, including a Cintel DSX for additional scanning, an Arrilaser for recording, and Nucoda Film Master for color correction. IO Film senior colorist Adam Hawkey explains that he and his colleagues found Nucoda’s approach to grading better suited to film work than some other color-correction systems; in addition, they liked the openness of the system’s architecture and Nucoda’s staff and previous products.

One key aspect of iO Film’s workflow is that film is initially scanned into the company’s own proprietary image format, which operates in CIE XYZ color space, the same color space adopted by the Digital Cinema Initiative studio consortium as the standard for digital-cinema distribution. The files can later be used directly in the company’s proprietary applications, or converted into DPX files.

Although iO Film has done tests at 4K, Mullican says that for the moment, the company is emphasizing high color-bit depth over higher resolution. “Our experience is that more bit depth gives you more range, and this is a game of ranges,” he says. “We will, however, continue to introduce more 4K components into our workflow in a manner that allows us to keep offering a cost-effective solution to our client base.”

Mullican says the company is currently focusing on eliminating inconsistencies and improving efficiency — something that Buono particularly appreciated while he was working there. “They’d ask us how things were working, and ask if there was anything they could engineer that would be better,” he recalls. “I’d say, ‘This would be cool,’ and it would usually happen. The attitude wasn’t, ‘Sorry, the machine doesn’t do that,’ but, ‘Okay, we can write a piece of code to make that happen.’”

Buono also appreciated the diverse abilities of iO Film personnel, particularly Hawkey, who has worked as a compositor as well as a colorist. At one point during the Hooligans color correction, a producer noticed a problem in makeup continuity: a character with a bruise suddenly turned up without one. Buono recalls, “Adam grabbed the media files and moved them into a visual-effects suite, and while we were color-correcting, he was simultaneously mapping a 3-D bruise onto the character’s forehead. It was amazing.”

This fall, iO Film will move into a new building at 1415 Cahuenga Boulevard in Hollywood. According to company president Tim Krubsack, the staff will expand from 14 to 23. “It’s been interesting to watch the company evolve,” he says. “We’re working on great films with great filmmakers. We’re passionate about films.”

More important, says Buono, “They’re interested in making films better, and in building relationships with filmmakers.”

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© 2005 American Cinematographer.