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Parting the Wizard’s Curtain

Parting the Wizard’s Curtain

Articles - Directing

Richard LaGravenese and Ted Demme’s
A Decade Under the Influence, a documentary on the cinema
of the ’70s, stands out as some of PostWorks’ “best
work,” says COO Billy Baldwin.

As was true of that wizard from Oz, one’s greatest
power comes not from the ability to fool people, but from wisdom
and experience. Although I’ve written many articles over the years
on the subject of digital-to-film transfers and blow-ups, when MM
asked me to go one step further-and talk to the owners of some of
the world’s top transfer houses-it was a very different kind of
assignment for me. As owner of Digital Film Group, a video-to-film
transfer company in Vancouver, BC, the idea of calling up my “competitors”
and asking them how they do it was a daunting task. But it turns
out that we all share a common goal-providing our moviemakers with
the smoothest, most hassle-free experience they can have in getting
their video visions to the celluloid big screen with the highest
quality possible.

Perspective is Everything

Despite what you may have heard about recent technological
advancements, the matter of taking video to film is still not a
simple process. The good news is that the transfer houses have certainly
made the process more refined over the years and thereby more seamless
for moviemakers.


That’s because it’s a “buyer’s market.” The video-to-film
transfer market has become a highly competitive environment, with
all of us scrambling for attention. We’re all advertising the best
processes for the least amount of money, and the nature of this
competition means two things to you, the moviemaker. First, you
have a lot of choices. Second, you’re going to be able to get it
done at the lowest price possible. As always, though, there is a
downside to a buyer’s market.


The final blow-up of your film is arguably the most
important final step in your production process. After all, this
is how your film is actually going to look and sound out there in
the world-on the big screen. You may have spent years casting, scripting,
shooting and editing, but this is where the rubber hits the road.
And transfer houses know that the DV moviemaker has come to expect
the blow-up to happen in the shortest amount of time-for as little
money as possible.


But “little money” is a relative concept. The cost
of a high-quality tape-to-film blow-up of a feature can cost $45,000
or more. I’m a DP and digital moviemaker myself, so I know how easy
it is to forget this fundamental concept: film is still expensive!


The price of silver doesn’t budge. If the transfer
seems like a lot of money, it’s probably because it’s often the
biggest chunk of cash an indie moviemaker has to fork over at one
time. When you consider the cost of the film stock, processing,
optical soundtrack and printing materials transfer houses need to
get the job done, the only room left for negotiation is in our overhead
and the labor involved in finishing your film. That usually means
pulling people or time out of the process-neither of which you want
to lose when you’re trying to maintain high quality standards.


Many of the companies I spoke with have different
ways of trying to achieve the profit margin they need to keep their
doors open, while still getting the job done right. Some achieve
it with large volumes. They advertise-and deliver-fast turnaround
times and use very fast film recorders. The trade-off is
that the fastest machines usually cost the most. Others tend to
take their time with slower, less expensive film recorders, which
require less overhead-but that might mean that you’ll have to wait
your turn to get your job done.

Cost vs. Quality


The concept of “image quality” is fairly nebulous
for most independent digital moviemakers on a limited budget. They
need to weigh the extra “oomph” that a high-resolution recorder
like the Celco, ARRI Laser or Lasergraphics machine can provide
against the probable drag on their bottom line.


“You pretty much get what you pay for,” says
Bruno George of Alpha Cine Seattle. “The best materials and technology
combined with the highest skill are all key to getting consistently
high-quality results.”


Understandably, digital moviemakers hold off on the
big cost of transferring to film until it is absolutely necessary.
That means that by the time they get to the transfer house, they
are usually out of both time and money-the two most important factors
necessary to doing the job right.


“The more time we are given to create a transfer,
the better the results can be. A two-week transfer is kind of rough;
an eight-week transfer is perfect,” says Marcus Van Bavel from DVFilm
in Austin.

Though the complexity of formats
and effects on Damon Dash’s Death of a Dynasty
caused some additional work for Alpha Cine’s Bruno George,
he calls the result “incredible”; Gilbert Yablon
at Filmout Xpress says it’s the content of Mitchell Rose’s
Modern Daydreams that makes it so memorable.

As transfer house owners, we are constantly balancing
the golden triangle of cost, time and quality. It’s simple: rushing
causes less time for quality control. It’s not to say that we haven’t
all turned around amazing quality shows in very little time, but
one thing doesn’t change: the chance for something to go wrong increases
in exponential proportion to the reduction in time allowed for the
work to be done! But perhaps it’s best to hear it from the world’s
top transfer experts directly…


James Tocher (MM): What
are some of the philosophies of your company? What’s your approach
to the footage and your client?


Gilbert Yablon, Filmout Xpress (GY):
We’re happy when our clients are happy. In our experience, each
project is unique and must be treated in a custom manner so that
the best results can be achieved. We ask our clients a lot of questions
up front to ensure that we understand what they are delivering to
us-and what they expect their finished film to look like. The ‘one
size fits all’ approach rarely yields the highest quality filmout.


Alan Bak, Cine-Byte Imaging (AB): Experience
is our greatest asset. We can provide valuable consultation before
shooting begins and continue through the post-production process
to release printing. Filmmakers who come to us can expect very personalized
service-they will deal with a specialist in digital transfer who
will guide their project through the process.


Tom Edmon, HeavyLight Digital (TE):
No two transfers are the same… It’s important, technically,
to look in-depth at every project, its technical needs and the desired
results in order to perfect a transfer to film.

Swiss Effects’ Jerome Poynton calls Pieces
of April
, starring Katie Holmes, a “beautiful”
film. “The DP, Tami Reiker, took great care, had a very
good eye and was surrounded by production staff committed to
and familiar with video-to-film technology.”

MM: What kinds of things
should we expect from your transfer process? Will it be exactly
the same as the original video? What will change? What will stay
the same?


TE: The end result can quite often be
as much a subjective as a technical answer. This is why the quality
of transfers varies between companies with the same equipment.


GY: It’s important for moviemakers to
keep in mind that film and video are very different mediums, each
with their own color space, contrast ratios and viewing systems.
The goal is to translate the video to film as accurately as possible,
given the inherent differences between them.


Billy Baldwin, PostWorks (BB): It’s
important to remember that, in addition to frame rate conversions
and possibly de-interlacing, which could soften the image, you’re
working with two different color spaces (YUV versus RGB)-not to
mention the film stocks’ interpretation of the image with respect
to contrast. The dangerous thing about getting into a lot of shot-to-shot
timing is that you just don’t have the control that you have in
the HD environments with something like the da Vinci.


Jerome Poynton, Swiss Effects (JP):
It’s hard to predict what a client should “expect” from the
transfer process. Various image capture systems will necessarily
transfer to different looks. We can say what Swiss Effects expects
of itself: to handle digital material in a responsible and creative
way in order to acquire the highest quality image for the cinema
screen.


MM: What is the relationship
between cost and quality, from your company’s perspective?


BB: There’s a reason why cheaper formats
are cheaper-you get what you pay for. I personally believe that
the Mini DV wave hit the beach and has already washed out to shore.
The accessibility of HD and 24p formats have opened up incredibly
in the last few years and there is very little reason for filmmakers
not to pursue those options.


JP: There’s little relationship between
cost and quality. Many competing companies are working with the
same machines-the same set of golf clubs-and cost is determined
by what it costs to own and operate the machine, i.e. the ARRI Laser.
Meanwhile, the experience level behind the golf clubs varies widely.


AB: Every aspect of filmmaking is expensive.
You’re dealing with 8,000 to 10,000 feet of film and getting anything
done costs money. But test with your transfer house, plan ahead,
have a realistic idea of the costs involved and you can minimize
the cost of your project.


MM: What are some of the sound
considerations moviemakers working in the digital medium need to
remember?

DVFilm’s Marcus Van Bavel
doesn’t believe that documentaries like Gaza Strip
would ever be made on film.

Marcus Van Bavel, DVFilm (MVB): Clean
and undistorted dialogue seems rare in low-budget films, but is
a must-have for theatrical release. Get someone experienced in sound
to record your dialogue.


GY: The importance of good audio is
so often underestimated by independent filmmakers. We’ve found that
great audio is even more important to an audience than great visuals!
Our ears seem to be less adaptable and forgiving than our eyes.


Bruno George, Alpha Cine Labs (BG): Remember
that the dynamic range of a film soundtrack is less than a CD. So
if you’re trying to mix in a studio, or with volumes that are not
in line with how film audio will be experienced, you may have different
than anticipated results. The sound will be compressed and the highs
will either clip, or be rolled off.


MM: How long should clients
allow for the process to happen? What are the variables that affect
the time involved?


GY: Sometimes a project has a lot of
hidden complexities that the filmmaker may not even be aware of,
or the filmout facility may already be booked up… It’s always
a good idea to budget as much time as possible in order to deal
with unexpected issues which almost always show up during the transfer
process.

A photo collage of scenes from Jenny Stein’s
The Witness
, the story of New York contractor-turned-animal
advocate Eddie Lama, transferred by DVFilm.

AB: Cine-Byte’s turnaround time for a
90-minute feature transfer can literally vary from four days to
two weeks, depending on the client’s deadline.


JP: Generally speaking, [it takes] two
to three weeks to make the negative and a week to 10 days to print
the negative and complete sound. This is variable on many things
and the time schedule can be truncated with proper preparation and
sample tests.


BG: We generally project two to three
weeks for a full turnaround.

A film with many scenes that require extra attention for artifact
removal, sharpening, noise reduction or title recreation can take
longer.


MM: What kind of footage
lends itself well to a transfer?


BG: Well-lit and properly focused material.
After that, the higher the original resolution the better the output.


MVB: I think anything that looks good
on a large, high-quality monitor will look good on a movie screen-with
the exception of high shutter-speed shots-which can seem fine on
tape but are problematic on film.


GY: Professional color correction really
adds a lot to the quality of the filmout, as well. Our favorite
standard definition footage to work with is well-lit Digi Beta that
has been carefully color corrected on a da Vinci.


JP: Adjustments to the look can be made
once the crew understands what is obtainable with the equipment
they are using. The time spent researching technology would be much
better spent using some technology-taking it tape to film. Then
the filmmakers’ questions would be based on experience.


MM: Which projects are
most proud of and why?


MVB: Films I’m proud of are Gaza
Strip
and The Witness, both of which are really disturbing
and eye-opening documentaries that would never have been shot on
film.


BG: Death of a Dynasty, Damon
Dash’s directorial debut, was a complex film with multiple formats,
composite titles and effects. It took a lot of extra work to deal
with grain, noise and compression artifacts, but the transfer turned
out really incredible.


BB: We recently finished Errol Morris’
new documentaray Fog of War, which is showing at Cannes.
In addition, we completed a retrospective of the films of the ’70s
feature documentary, A Decade Under the Influence, for IFC.
These films stand out as some of our best work.


AB: The Baroness and the Pig.
The producers of this HD 1080i project chose Cine-Byte after extensive
comparison testing for a superior 1080i to 24p conversion. The result
was a gorgeous blow-up retaining all the subtleties of the original
HD material.


JP: Our most recent project, Pieces
of April
, directed by Peter Hedges, looks beautiful. It was
shot on the Sony PD-150 in PAL. The DP, Tami Reiker, took great
care, had a very good eye and was surrounded by production staff
committed to and familiar with video-to-film.

A scene from one of James Tocher’s Digital
Film Group’s latest feature projects, Nathaniel Geary’s
On the Corner.

GY: Conversations with Nickle
by Lorette Bayle, a documentary about a young woman’s struggle with
ALS; Curtain Call, by Chuck Braverman; and The Gatekeeper
by John Carlos Frey. Another film I love is Modern Daydreams
by Mitchell Rose, which is a completely whimsical mix of modern
dance and overactive imagination. Their content is what made them
great, memorable films.


MM: What kind of film
recorder do you use and why?


AB: We use the ARRI Laser and record
onto polyester-based intermediate stock for all of our feature film
projects… ARRI’s new Color Management software was developed
specifically to provide film output that matches a broadcast monitor
by using sophisticated gamut remapping. Image sharpness and speed
are also features that make the Laser attractive.


JP: Swiss Effects has two different
CRT film recorders designed by our team. We also have an ARRI Laser
film recorder. All three machines are good and have specific strengths
and weaknesses. The CRT system is generally less expensive for the
filmmaker, and can be the best system for a specific job…
[But] the technology employed is only part of the story. The people
behind the machine are more important than the machine.

“As transfer house owners, we are constantly balancing
the golden triangle of cost, time and quality. It’s simple:
rushing causes
less time for
quality control…
And short production
schedules for technically-challenged projects is a formula for
life in hell.”

TE: We prefer to use Cinematrix film
recorders due to their superior resolution, color space and natural
imaging abilities.


MVB: We use 2K CRT film recorders, recording
to regular movie camera stock. It only looks like film to me if
it’s shot through a lens, with a gate and claw just like a real
movie camera, and with the natural grain and diffusion that is (unnaturally)
absent in a laser scan.


BB: We have both the ARRI Laser and
the Lasergraphics film recorders. The ARRI uses an inter-negative
stock while the Lasergraphics uses a camera negative stock. We’ve
found that some of our clients actually prefer the Lasergraphics
to the ARRI because of the additional grain structure of the 5245
(as it gives the image an overall more “filmic” quality).


MM: Finally, what’s the
one thing that makes your transfer company’s life a living hell?


GY: Short production schedules for technically-challenged
projects is a formula for life in hell. Once we have committed to
a project, it’s hard for us to let technical flaws get by if we
know there is a way to repair them, which leads to late nights,
little sleep and very happy clients.


BG: I hate losing jobs without an opportunity
to give the filmmaker what they want to see on the screen; I like
to work with filmmakers in a collaborative way… So if I don’t
get enough time to demonstrate our ability to give our clients what
they want, that’s living hell to me


AB: Not being given enough time to do
our work!


BB: I think the most hellacious thing
is when a client reads an article or talks with a friend about how
they went though the process of video-to-film and assumes that that
is the only-or best-way.


MVB: Recently a filmmaker put her check
into the U.S. mail just days before the world premiere. Please don’t
do that! Also, we hate Mini DV dropouts. Someone’s making a killing
on really cheap tape. Here’s another thing: sure, that lab in South
America can make release prints for $800, but do you really want
your actors to look like purple rubber? MM


James Tocher is an award-winning cinematographer
with 15-plus years of experience. As the owner of Digital Film Group,
his knowledge and consultation has helped facilitate such video
to film transfers as Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner), On
the Corner
and See Grace Fly. As a moderator, writer
and digital moviemaking consultant, Tocher has traveled to more
than 45 different festivals around the globe. His credits as a DP
include the Dogma Film Festival opener Noroc, the Kodak Cinematography-awarded
Evirati and the 24p HD MOW Croon.

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Alpha Cine Labs
1001 Lenora Street
Seattle, WA 98121
206/682-8230
www.alphacine.com

Cine-Byte Imaging
543 Richmond St. West, #126
P.O. Box 107
Toronto, Ontario
Canada M5V 1Y6
416/504-1010
www.cinebyte.com

Cineric
630 Ninth Ave., Room 508
New York, NY 10036
212/586-4822
www.cineric.com

Digital Film Group
316 E. 1st Ave, 2nd Floor
Vancouver, BC
Canada V5T 1A9
604/879-5800
www.digitalfilmgroup.com

DVFilm
2317 Spring Wagon Lane
Austin, Texas 78728
512/310-8802
www.dvfilm.com

Filmout Xpress
1632 Flower Street
Glendale, CA 91201
818/956-1185
www.filmout.com

HeavyLight Digital
115 West 27th St., 12th Floor
New York, NY 10001
212/645-8216
www.heavylightdigital.com

Metropolis Film Labs
115 W. 30th St., Suite 302
New York, NY 10001
212/563-9388
www.metropolisfilmlab.com

PostWorks
35 E. 21st St.
New York, NY 10010
212/388-0900
25 W. 20th St.
New York, NY 10011
212/352-1100
www.pwny.com

Swiss Effects
212/727-3695
www.swisseffects.ch