Local 600 President Steven Poster, ASC, outlines the Guild’s vision for the Holy Grail of Color Management systems at HPA Tech Retreat
During opening remarks that kicked off an ICG on-set workflow panel at the recent Hollywood Post Alliance Technology Retreat (Grand Hyatt Resort, Indian Wells, CA), ICG President Steven Poster once again articulated his long-held desire to find an end-to-end device independent color management system for film and television professionals. Also at the session, which was chaired by Sony Pictures Television Senior Vice President Phil Squyres, were ICG National Vice President Lewis Rothenberg, a New York-based D.I.T., and Local 600 Head of Training Mark Weingartner, a visual effects cinematographer with credits that include The Dark Knight and Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn.
“Without standardized procedures and protocols, the complexity of [digital workflows] leaves us wide open to various failures with some errors resulting in catastrophic data loss,” Poster warned, adding that “within the ICG, our members have pooled their experience and developed answers that are shared with other members in workshops across the country.”
Poster suggested that joint industry efforts must expand more quickly, aiming toward creating a new digital specification ala the Digital Cinema Initiatives. Poster emphasized the need for Digital Asset Management & Protection, or D.A.M.P., an acronym he coined and used during his talk. “As an industry we need to develop a process to truly define what it takes as a business model to deliver from the set those components that we all need to make the movies, television shows and TV commercials that are the life blood of our industry,” he explained. “Many of you will recall that some twenty years ago I called for end-to-end device independent color management. All this time I’ve believed that was the Holy Grail, and it’s exciting to see that now it is a real possibility.”
“Snowflake workflows,” a term used to indicate how each pipeline is different depending on an individual project, was a major topic throughout the retreat. During his presentation, Poster outlined the various factors that require consideration in determining a best fit for each show.
Volume of visual data: “That’s determined by the story, actors and director’s style. Volume is also influenced by the image depth required for VFX, editorial and final delivery.”
Diversity in the range of image-capture devices used to tell the story: “That might be a combination of Arri, Canon, Sony, Panavision, high speed, mobile, aerial, crash cams, stunt cams, spy cams and DSLRs, or Red … some might even expose film. Whatever the source, there’s a point where everything must lose its identity to become part of one unified data stream.”
Access: “This is about who needs the image or metadata, at what level of refinement, in what format and at what point in time.”
Velocity: The production’s pace and mobility. “Some workflow options are cumbersome with frequent moves or fast data flows. And the more I’m pushed for time, the more I’m likely to be fully occupied with the set and then, I’ll be dependent on technology to communicate our color decisions to postproduction.”
Scale: The size, complexity and cost of the on-set work. It also includes how close the cinematographer will be to the postproduction process.
Aesthetics: “That question is wide open for every production.”
Poster wryly noted that Local 600 camera teams “don’t like surprises.”
“Arriving at the best solutions, or compromises, requires planning between production, director, cinematographer, lab, VFX and postproduction, well in advance,” he stated. “In these conversations I rely on my D.I.T. to be a native guide to the latest in color management, display technology, file handling systems and procedures as well as understanding the data plan for our partnership with labs, VFX and postproduction. For a workflow to be successful, it has to be transparent to the creative process.
Ideally, an ASC CDL enables our on-set decisions to be carried all the way through post to DI or final timing without change. It’s also a non-destructive set of metadata. That means all options are kept on the table until the final timing pass, side stepping the risk of backing ourselves into a corner by discarding original image data. ASC CDLs work, if and only if the system is calibrated properly from the very beginning.”
One limitation of an ASC CDL, ICG panelists noted, is its “blindness” to the context of the DP’s color decisions on-set. “Its successful use relies upon starting from and maintaining known calibrated standards that we can communicate to everyone down the line,” Rothenberg explained. “This requirement grows from ‘really important’ to ‘absolutely essential’ in RAW workflows. This type of calibration is not just twisting dials, but a dynamic process of observation and measurement, compensating for a list of technical and environmental variables.”
Such CDL workflows, like IIF-ACES, rely on standardized color profiles at both ends of the color management pipeline, creating a defined area for creative LUTs to live in. “ACES allows for the visual subtitles captured by wide-gamut high bit-depth sensors to be maintained through the entire imaging chain,” Poster remarked. “The system is designed to contain the full range of human vision, even though we can’t capture that right now.”
The presentation also emphasized the importance of proper on-set monitoring.
“Color management for RAW, Log/Linear and Rec. 709 workflows are all very similar,” said Rothenberg. “And that begins with a quality on-set monitor and understanding how to calibrate that monitor correctly.”
Poster agreed, insisting the on-set evaluation monitor is where his color decisions are made.
“I depend upon the D.I.T. to set-up a proper viewing environment, ensure calibration and keep an eye on the technical details,” he described. “Having a D.I.T. alleviates any chance for producers or other executives misunderstanding the actual intended ‘look.’ That will enhance confidence in the director and DP’s work.”
Other color management tools were discussed, including the “lab-in-a-box” model,” although Poster said such systems don’t actually represent a change in on-set color management schemes.
“We still need to recognize the fact that proper data management requires camera files to be logged, visually checked, color and camera metadata attached,” he emphasized, “with files being duplicated for safety and often archived before the camera media is wiped clean for reuse.”
Weingartner, who relies heavily on camera data in his visual effects plate work, urged all the filmmakers in the room “to be as specific as possible with metadata. Incorrect metatdata is worse than no metadata.” The VFX DP encouraged productions to leave a paper trail, citing the value of utilizing traditional ways of tracking information and equipment on set, adding that, “paper doesn’t crash,” and “data is not data unless it is in at least two different places. Data must be copied to multiple drives and verified.”
In this, and other related areas, Weingartner added, ICG has developed a set of best practices and has trained over 700 Guild members across the country.
Color management was also part of a wider conversation throughout the HPA Retreat that included various industry trends, including the impact of higher frame rates.
“With all of the talk surrounding the 3D discussion to get more of a sense of reality,” consultant George Joblove observed in a session about developments in the visual effects industry, “ I think a higher frame rate is the way to do that. I think once we have HFRs, you’ll see less of a demand for 3D.”
Other speakers insisted the VFX industry was moving toward global collaboration. But Jablove said, “Bandwidth costs remain an impediment to opening things up on a global scale.”
Like in the ICG session, standardization came into view on panelists’ radars. “In order to collaborate around the world we need the same tools; so how much can we standardize?” asked Peter Litwinowicz of RE: Vision Effects, Inc. Joblove said open source standardization will help and cited Alembic as an example of an open source CG interchange format. He also believes IIF-ACES will be a plus.
Litwinowicz pointed out that the VFX industry will continue to explore the promise of the Cloud. “But it is not happening tomorrow,” he smiled. “For storage it is near. For collaboration on shots, I’m not so sure.”
By Carolyn Giardina. All photos courtesy of HPA.