Message in a Bottle

I’d like to begin and end this column with a pair of clichés, which, after all, only ripple so deeply through popular culture because they contain an element of truth. In the case of the most popular topic in our industry right now – workflow – I have seen the future, and the future is now.

As witnessed on the set of my last project, that future includes the ability to calibrate a system so accurately that the representation of the shot at hand, during or immediately after capture, is exactly how I previsualized it in my mind. To be able to communicate that representation – to the director, actors, production designer, gaffer and anyone else who has a vested interest in making a great movie – before the data leaves the set, is a new kind of blessing for the production community.

Once upon a time a cinematographer finished the day’s work and woke up early (usually around 4:00) the next morning to call the timer at the lab to talk about yesterday’s footage. But those days are gone forever. So we as image-makers needed to replace that traditional DP/lab timer workflow to ensure that what we were shooting would fit, technologically and artistically, into the telling of the story.

What does that portend if the future is now? Today’s workflows must begin with superb calibration throughout the pipeline: from the camera to the DIT station, to the editorial room and postproduction facility, calibration is a huge key to ensuring the image is consistent from capture to final display. And it all starts in preproduction with the people who have the necessary skills and knowledge. Once this “collaborative workflow” is clarified and secure, and the camera team knows that what we are looking at on the set is a mirror image of the final product, the creative floodgates are opened.

I’ve compared this new future to a bygone era, dominated by the likes of John Alcott (BSC), who used black-and-white Polaroid stills to create a close representation of the shot he was about to capture and how it would ultimately look on the big screen. It’s really just another form of image control (courtesy of new technology) that has always been, and always will be, the purview of the cinematographer.

On my last project it worked this way: the chip was taken out of the camera and sent to the coloring station. Using a full digital intermediate tool, we were able to see what the master would be, providing us with the tone and feeling of how the shot would play.

And that took no time at all. I had my “digital Polaroids” before the actress arrived on the set, often during a tech and blocking rehearsal. Once we had the master colored, the on-set DIT had the skill to match what I was doing in subsequent takes. The director and his cast would come over to see the image, sparking a real sense of creative community. “This is what we are doing, guys. This is what it is going to look like.”

As for that ending cliché I mentioned, let me point out that once we, as image-makers, have experienced this way of filmmaking, the genie is forever out of the bottle.

Creative progress, like new technology, should never be held back.


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

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