Got My Back!

Rodrigo Prieto, ASC & Hector Moreno

The critical partnership between the DP and DIT explained…  By Pauline Rogers

Before last year’s feature State of Play, Rodrigo Prieto, ASC (Academy Award nominee for Brokeback Mountain) had done only one digital feature (Ten Tiny Love Stories with director Rodrigo Garcia), comprised of a series of monologues that were shot with a single angle per scene. “The digital part of State of Play (directed by Kevin MacDonald) required many lighting situations and environments,” recounts the Oscar-nominated cinematographer. “And I was concerned that additional cables, monitors, and workstations would be a burden in comparison with the rest of our movie, which was done with hand-held cameras in a very free fashion.”

Prieto says it was DIT Hector Moreno who relieved him of such a “huge burden,” and made the shoot flow. “What I liked about digital was the possibility of grading on the set,” Prieto continues. “So, Hector worked closely with Yuri Neyman to get the Gamma and Density system working properly with the Genesis. By transferring my grading to tape, we had dailies that were very close to what we intended. With Hector there, I always knew things would be ready for me when I needed them, even if there were the inevitable glitches we all face.”

One of those glitches was when the Steadicam rig malfunctioned, recalls Moreno. “While Rodrigo was concentrating on what he does best, we immediately rerouted cables and redirected the video source to an HD on-board monitor in place of the down-converted signal,” he shares.

And then there was the added challenge of providing an image in a timely manner, shooting on a Washington D.C. train filled with extras. “While Rodrigo and director Kevin Macdonald were mapping out the shot,” Moreno adds, “the challenge became power related to generators. A simple switch to battery and neither of them knew we’d had a glitch.’”

What is it about train sequences that always seem to create challenges for the HD team? New York-based DIT Barry Minnerly references a similarly challenging moment on Hachiko: A Dog’s Story, directed by Lasse Hallström and shot by Ron Fortunato, ASC.

“We were running out of time and Lasse wanted to set one camera up 1,000 feet away, shooting down toward the train, and another Steadicam with the train coming through the shot,” Minnerly explains. “As Lasse and Ron mapped out the shot, I had to provide them an image. In other situations, the usual thing would be to break off the camera and put a deck on the back.” Knowing video tap doesn’t cut it with most DPs, Minnerly’s solution was to run fiber optic cable 1,000 feet, under the railroad track, instead of moving gear on gravel and stones.

“Barry allowed us to see the full resolution picture and stay where we were, shooting off a central monitor,” recounts Fortunato. “I don’t understand how anyone who shoots HD can even consider not having a DIT. Hachiko was a perfect example of the value of both of my DITs, Abby Levine and Barry Minnerly. It was much more than the challenges we experienced with the train sequence. We had a tremendous amount of exteriors, some of which were covered with snow, so exposure in the highlights was critical. Working with Barry and Abby was extremely helpful in determining exactly when detail would be lost. Some people say you can just read the scope, but as a DP I’d rather be concentrating on the lighting than be glued to a waveform (monitor).”

Observes Abby Levine: “Ron is one of the most vocal proponents of the DP/DIT partnership in the industry. On both Hachiko and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, it was far more than setting up the camera and making a LUT table for the Genesis that would carry into post. I’ve gotten to know his likes and dislikes, so there are things that I pay attention to and, when we look at a scene together, I’m ready to give him what he wants. Ron welcomes the input, because sometimes I make a suggestion he hadn’t thought of.”

Minnerly, who began his TV partnership with Fortunato on 100 Centre Street, and is now working with him on the CW series Gossip Girl agrees, saying, “Ron relies on the (DP/DIT) partnership because he wants the best image he can get from the monitor. He always has his hands on the control, often doing the iris pulls himself. He is constantly trying something new and will turn to me to ask what I can give him to accomplish his new concept.”

The Art and Soul of the Team

“Our DITs are artists,” insists cinematographer Frank Prinzi, ASC, who rotated on Mercy with Dejan Georgevich, ASC for the first part of season one of the New York-based series. “And I simply couldn’t do Mercy without Lewis Rothenberg. Like a DP works to get into the head of his director, a good DIT like Lewis will get into the DP’s head – my head – and interpret what I want, weighing emotional content, logistics, and technical challenges. He or she is ready to weigh everything together, and give me even more than I am looking for.”

Georgevich agrees, describing his collaboration (with Rothenberg on Mercy) as, “a joy that allows me to create a look in the moment …much like having the color timer on the set. It’s great to have that extra set of eyes contributing to the highest possible production values in visual story-telling.”

Rothenberg says the key to his success on the show has been because the DIT is considered a key collaborator, as important as the gaffer or key grip. “Frank knows that he doesn’t have to think about the technical,” Rothenberg explains. “And that I have his back – first on Cashmere Mafia, then several pilots, and now on our back-breaking schedule for Mercy.”

“One of the most important parts of my job,” the DIT continues, “is creating an appropriate workflow that will give post as finished a product as possible. It is a challenge to make sure what was created on the set is followed in post, especially when (post) is either 3,000 miles away, or when we have to relinquish the material, knowing that we simply don’t have time to be there.”

Lewis Rothenberg and Frank Prinzi, ASC, Gene Engels and Kurt Rimmel

Rothenberg’s words echo those of every DIT and DP working in the hyper-paced world of episodic television. There is an obligation on the D.I.T.’s part to keep the creativity in the image in the hands of the camera team, often a struggle when some post houses are either not familiar with what the DP (and DIT) see as they are shooting, or take it upon themselves to lend their own creativity, at times going in a different direction than originally intended. For a DP to relinquish his/her image to post without the details a DIT can provide, opens up the possibility for misinterpretations when the final product airs.

“Part of my partnership with (cinematographer) Paul (Maibaum) is to be the technical authority, especially in post,” says West Coast-based DIT Andy Lemon, who worked with Maibaum on two TV projects in 2009, My Boys (a half-hour romantic comedy) and Sons of Anarchy (a one hour drama). “Post questions come directly to me, which allows Paul to keep from getting bogged down in the small day-to-day things that pop up. This also holds true with technical issues with the camera equipment. If there is a problem, Paul will look to my recommendations on whether a piece should be downed for a short time for me to fix or to replace it all together. Keeping that line of communication allows him to adjust his schedule.”

Maibaum concurs, adding that when you are shooting a one-hour show in seven days you simply can’t afford any down time. “In one of last year’s episodes of Sons, we had a giant biker party,” the DP relates. “We noticed a bad pixel in the A-camera on the 24-inch monitor, and ran the camera’s pixel masking software, which usually fixes the problem, in essence replacing the dead pixel. At some time during the two-minute process, a herd of background extras kicked out the power to the cameras. And after scrambling to repower, the camera had no image!”

With the first team coming in, Lemon had to reset the eight or so parameters thrown off by the power outage. He managed to get the last setting fixed and the image up just as the AD called roll. “Without him there, we would probably have had to send the camera back to Panavision,” Maibaum says. “But, because he was there and knew the electronic process, Andy could get it up and running so I could make the day.”

Lemon points out that working in episodic television is all about finishing the required number of pages within the shooting day. “It is my job to help Paul achieve that,” he insists. “From creating efficient onset signal distribution to post workflow, I work toward eliminating any technical distractions so that Paul can get down to the creative task at hand.”

Digital Glue

Keeping a production on-track is key to any DIT/DP partnership. Or as Frank Prinzi wonders: “Can you imagine the time we would lose if a camera goes down and either we don’t know it or we can’t fix it?” Prinzi says DITs are always on top of their equipment, and their focus is always to make sure that their gear works smoothly – to catch it if something happens – and to fix it, before irretrievable time is wasted on-set.

“We are the digital glue that bonds the multitude of technical, creative and workflow requirements,” reiterates DIT Tony Salgado, who partners with cinematographer Flor Collins on many high-profile commercials. “The proliferation of constantly evolving cameras, formats and standards has made (our roles) critical, because DITs are not only a technical liaison with all aspects of production, post production, workflow and delivery, we are a conduit to various production personnel (from camera to client) and rental houses, especially when multi-format is often the norm in the commercial world,” Salgado emphasizes.

Cinematographer Collins backs this up, noting that even before a commercial awards he’s in touch with Salgado about sensor sizes, lens mounts, recording formats, post paths and overall camera selection for the spot. “We don’t get a lot of time on commercials, so it’s essential to have carefully thought out the right piece of gear for each shot,” Collins adds.

Tony Salgado

In fact, the cinematographer says that Salgado’s blackout tent is the on-set sanctuary for viewing the image in the best conditions. “On a recent job, we were shooting quickly at an airport concourse with a lot of sunlight bouncing around,” Collins recalls. “The grips were busy and didn’t have time to flag the on-set monitors. One of the agency-creatives was wondering just how much detail was going to be in the shadow areas and in the hot windows. I was able to reassure him by taking him into the tent and showing him what we were going to get. And, also, in that case, Tony had done a rough grade to show the look we were going for.”

Such examples are one of the unappreciated benefits of having a DIT on a commercial, which even without much budgeted shooting time in the example Collins cites, enjoyed the luxury of showing the client an image that will be very close to the finished, graded look. “It’s one of those little things that can help a director get repeat business,” Collins concludes. “Yet, it’s not something you can put a number on when making a budget and deciding if there is money for a DIT.”

On that last point every cinematographer polled for this article agrees: there is an inherent flaw in thinking that eliminating the DIT saves money. The ledger may appear lighter on the front end. However, any cost savings vanish when technical delays come in to play, thus curbing the on-set workflow between the DP, director, and all other key creative heads. Salgado puts it best when he describes the crucial partnership between DP and DIT to that of a medical team, where the cinematographer is the surgeon, the DIT the anesthesiologist, and the production the patient. Would you want to go into a challenging, time-constrained “operation,” he asks, without a key member of the medical team present?” I sure wouldn’t.”