Right Today, Wrong Tomorrow?

I’m beginning to really dislike the term: workflow. Everyone assumes it’s something brand new. But, in fact, it’s been around for a long time, albeit in different guises.

These days “workflow” is associated with large-scale technological changes in digital capture and postproduction. But consider that the first dramatic “workflow” shift came in the 1920s with the introduction of sound. Up until that time, the “workflow” was clearly defined: you shot on film using hand-cranked cameras. You sent the many different negatives used on a single shoot (the negative could not be copied, and each territory of distribution required it’s own separate negative for prints) to a laboratory and got back your footage, which was projected, silently, before editing. Much like the impact of digital capture, our industry was spun on its heels by the advent of sound, which altered the working relationships of everyone in front of and behind the camera.

“It was really chaotic because everything changed so fast,” cinematographer (and amateur film historian) John Hora, ASC, told me. “There were at least four different systems for recording and playing back sound. Warner Bros.’ had Vitaphone, where the sound was played back on 33 1/3 rpm discs, while Fox’s Movietone recorded sound onto the negative, which altered the aspect ratio of the picture! Because there was no way to layer the tracks in those days, when the music came in, the dialogue cut out.”

Thanks to the ASC, IATSE, and AMPAS, standardization was ultimately achieved, and from the camera department’s perspective, the resulting “workflow” that settled in for the next eight decades was a mostly transparent process. We ensured the negative was not light-struck before it arrived at the lab, where all of the front-end work was completed while production kept shooting. We sent continuity and technical reports along with the exposed footage – “metadata” that supported a smooth and seamless workflow.

Ironically (now that the front-end lab work has come to the set), the parallels between the first great “workflow” change and today are stronger than ever. Again, Guild members must protect the material captured on-set (which increasingly is giving over to digital as opposed to solid media) from catastrophic data loss, just like we once had to safeguard so many cans of exposed negative from light, hairs in the gate, camera scratches and processing failures once the footage reached the lab.

And, like a century ago, when phone company reps would show up on movie sets to try and iron out sound procedures, today’s new digital processes have brought in technology firms with little understanding of the film industry. Most pertinent to camera is: are we getting every bit of information off that digital chip and what kind of container will it go into? I’ve talked about IFF/ACES being the new container and what that reveals, to my mind, is that the “K-wars” are over. Today’s professional digital cameras create large enough file sizes to satisfy all our resolution requirements, and those coming down the pike will capture even greater amounts of information. The dialogue now centers on bit depth and color space; what’s maddening about “workflow” circa 2011 is that all the answers we find today may be completely wrong tomorrow!

The most important thing we can do as an organization is to continue to study, train, and define the processes that will best protect the integrity and quality of the captured image, from capture through finished product. The skills of our members ensure the quality of these new workflows: the director of photography, who is responsible for the image, must rely on the digital imaging technician to accurately set up and calibrate monitors that will confirm the data postproduction needs down the line. The D.I.T. position offers critical protection to any production, large or small, and must remain flexible to account for the many new technologies. The loader is another crucial part of the team, and combined with the DP, operators, assistants, and D.I.T., is helping our Guild define best workflow practices for decades to come.

Here we are, at the beginning again, experiencing an upheaval in “workflow” not seen since the dawn of our industry. When will an intrinsically efficient and accepted new “workflow” settle in place, as it did with sound on film processes so many years ago? No one can say for sure. But as I’ve said time and again, once this industry can solidify an end-to-end, device-independent, color management system, the Holy Grail if you will of digital filmmaking, than we will have arrived at a point, much like after the introduction of sound, where we don’t have to think about that unsettling term. It will be seamless and transparent as it once was. Until that time, we will continue to stay at the forefront of technological change and education, in the best tradition of this union.


Steven Poster, ASC
National President
International Cinematographers Guild
IATSE Local 600

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