Defining DIT: The Big Misconception
Ben Cain performing an iris pull during a take.
It's easy to put an idea in someone's mind -- yet incredibly difficult to bore it out. Somewhere along the line, perhaps in the film industry's switch from analog to digital, major misconceptions about the Digital Imaging Technician's place on set have arisen. We're here to set the record straight. A DIT is an agent of the cinematographer, and is served by a video engineering background for image quality control, troubleshooting, on-set color correction, and managing the workflow of a production. Some of the industry's top working DITs from both New York and L.A. took time out of their schedules to talk with No Film School about the state of the DIT and to help clarify the effect they can have on any production -- large or small. Read on for part 1 of this 3-part series.
"With the release of the RED ONE we saw a complete paradigm shift towards RAW capture and towards color correction in post-production as opposed to live on set."
NFS: Tell us about your background.
Ben Schwartz: I started off as a shooter and editor of television news. My introduction to professional video was through Beta SP cameras; on the job, I learned about exposure and white balance, internal menu structures, recording media formats, and the intricacies of an analog video signal. After a brief detour in film school, I ended up working for a video production company that owned a Sony HDC-950, which at the time was the pinnacle of HD video cameras. At first, we hired outside DITs, but I saw an opportunity to build on my background in video and develop a skill set that very few people had at the time.
I went out to Burbank and took a course on working as a DIT with Jeff Cree, who was and still is one of the absolute leading figures in HD video technology. When I first started as a DIT in 2006, the dominant cameras were the Sony F900 and the Panasonic Varicam. The job was all hardware, pure video engineering; there was never a computer involved at any stage until post. The cameras were hooked up to remote controls, what we in the business call "paint boxes." The internal color matrix of the camera was manipulated remotely via these boxes, and the color corrected master was recorded directly to HDCAM SR tape or P2 cards or something like that.
Abby Levine: I would like to think I was one of the first two DITs, but maybe I was just in the first batch of DITs. The first group of guys had much more of an engineering background. In 1986, I was with a little production company called Rebo Studio. Barry Rebo who ran the place was a forward-thinking guy and he was interested in this new "high-definition thing." And at the end of '86 a truck pulled up with a bunch of 1st generation analog high-definition cameras, and they came off the truck with no instruction manuals.
So we had to learn this stuff -- and we did. We figured out a way to make this brutally heavy equipment functional in portable environments. It took years to get any traction, but we spent from '86 on to the next decade on what was essentially experimental production. You had to be a little bit forward-thinking to get involved, to do it for the future's sake as opposed to just shooting film and using the existing workflows. But I tell people we started shooting HD in '86-'87 and they are astonished. And it was a blast -- it was always a science project.
Ben Cain: My background is in ENG /EFP video shooting non-fiction television shows for various cable networks. On these projects the crew was limited and we didn’t have a DIT. Left to my own devices and tasked with matching multiple cameras, I had to learn how to use a paint box and read the vectorscope and waveforms. It turned out to be a great crash course in HD video engineering and I ended up finding a growing demand for this skill set on larger budget, higher end production, so transitioned from a shooter to a full-time DIT. I started as a camera guy and I still consider myself a camera guy more than anything else.
Elhanan Matos: My first job as a DIT was in 2005. For the past 4 years I've been doing only commercials, but I'll day-play on a movie sometimes if I know the camera crew or the cinematographer.
The Sony RMB-750, the paintbox that controls the Cinealta line of cameras.
NFS: How did the transition to file-based capture change the role of the DIT?
Ben Schwartz: With the release of the RED ONE, we saw a complete paradigm shift towards raw capture and color correction in post as opposed to live on set. 2009, as I remember it, the vast majority of the jobs I did that year were shot on the RED ONE. It was a wake up call for me, and I know for other DITs, because now there was this shift away from classical video engineering towards more software-centric workflows. And it forced us all to become much more proficient with computers.
I also had to redefine in my own mind what my job responsibilities were as a DIT. Pre-2009 I sat next to the DP at a monitor and color corrected live according to their specifications and matched multiple cameras on the fly. That color went to tape and became more or less the final color. With the RED, the job became more about handling data and applying color non-destructively, either to a live video signal or after download using software like RedCine or SpeedGrade. That was the year for me that really shifted the entire focus of the profession, and the repercussions are still being felt.
Abby Levine: More than anything it changed the responsibilities. Back in the day, you'd shoot tape; you didn't make clones of the tape. There was one copy that would go to post and they'd be responsible for handling it. When it became file-based everything needed to be verified and you needed to make copies. So, it fell to the DIT to be responsible for this data and these copies. Also, the expectations for finishing things immediately has risen. I can't tell you how many times they are editing things we just shot that morning. Everything is urgent; they've compressed the timeline of production.
Ben Cain: In my opinion the camera that planted the seed that grew into an industry wide paradigm shift was the Panasonic DVX-100, the world’s first affordable 24p digital camcorder. For the first time, just about anyone could make images that kind of looked like a movie. And with this, the digital revolution was born. But what really sealed the deal was Panasonic’s next offering, the HVX200, which was both the first file based camera and the first HD camera at a price with massive sales in mind.
But as everyone on the front lines of the revolution quickly learned, the problem with these cameras was that the imager was so tiny it was nearly impossible to create selective focus, one of the signature qualities of the elusive “film look”. This led to a cottage industry of camera modifiers and depth of field adapters used to create a more cinematic look on these small sensor camcorders. Now there was a realistic alternative to shooting motion picture film, albeit a cumbersome and unwieldy one.
At this same time, there were of course numerous large sensor cameras available such as the Arri D-21, Sony F35, and Panavision Genesis. Because these systems were prohibitively expensive, they did not impact the industry nearly as much as the RED One, which really changed everything when it became available in late 2007. Before where there was tape and paint boxes, now there were computer systems where the look was created in post production. It was a whole new way of working and forever changed the role of the DIT on the film set.
Elhanan Matos: When the RED ONE first came out, it never really took off, at least in commercials. It did at first and then the Alexa came out and took its place. I prefer file-based capture, I've always been a computer nerd, so for me it was great. I enjoyed it. I knew a lot of other DITs who could do their job really well, but couldn't use a computer. And those guys are still working, but I remember going to a seminar when the codecs first came out and half the room couldn't really grasp the concept of what it was.
And they showed us how to change settings, you networked it to a computer and then went into your terminal and essentially SSH'd into the codecs and change your settings from there. And everybody was sitting there and writing down all the specific little commands to type in. And I remember thinking: "Wow, if they have to memorize every keystroke in terminal they're gonna have a hard time with this." They were hoping for drag and drop, so it made the jobs a lot harder for them, and they wouldn't change their workflow; they were stuck with one workflow that they memorized, but didn't fully understand.
"Workflows are like snowflakes, they're all different."
Thomas Wong's DIT station on No Film School founder Ryan Koo's AMATEUR.
NFS: Do you consider your job a creative one?
Ben Schwartz: Some DPs have no interaction with me at all on a job. Other DPs are sitting next to me the whole time, looking at my monitor, consulting with me on issues of exposure, color, and scene-to-scene LUTs. In the years before raw and log recording, the job was always at least partially creative because you were responsible for manipulating the camera's internal color matrix.
So, there was always some collaboration with the DP on the finished look of the image. I think indisputably the job has become less of a creative position and more of a technical one in recent years, but that said, I still believe the DIT can contribute to the creative process if the workflow and the cinematographer encourage that.
Abby Levine: My ultimate responsibility is to the DP, and in that context my contribution creatively has much more to do with my relationship with the DP and the DP's desire for input. There are DP's that I work with that love to work with me and you develop a relationship with people who enjoy picking your brain and vice versa, and maybe on those jobs you tend to have more creative input. I'm not a drone -- I have input to provide. I'm interested in the content of the show and the creative look of the show as well as it being technically in the can.
I like a complex technical challenge too. In the early days we used to laugh about every HD production being a science project; you had to piece together a lot of stuff that didn't necessarily work together. Frankly, creative input and technical input used to be a lot more inter-related, but it's a high responsibility quality control job and a lot of that is on a creative level.
Ben Cain: The DIT position is one that’s very much up to the individual to sell themselves and their skill-set. There is potential for an enormous variety of specialization. Some technicians excel at the video component of the craft such as live grading, matching multiple cameras, and setting up complicated video paths. On the other hand, some really understand the in’s and out’s of safely moving massive quantities of data and creating the production’s file deliverables with the greatest speed and efficiency.
Some very skilled DIT’s are adept at any task and can effortlessly jump back and forth between doing a live color correct for four cameras one day and then handling Codex deliverables on a workstation on another. It’s really up to the individual to decide what kind of projects you want to be involved in. Some are very technical and others are very creative. At its core, this position is quite a nice marriage between the two.
Elhanan Matos: It depends on the DP. There are certain DPs who don't want to delineate from that REC 709 look, and in that sense I don't think it's creative at all. But other DPs want your opinion and want you to create looks to choose from. Or they'll sit down and work on the look with you.
NFS: How are the needs of commercial productions different from TV and features?
Ben Schwartz: Commercial productions tend to come together very quickly. Sometimes I'm hired a day or two before the shoot. For that reason, there usually isn't time to finesse the workflow as you would on a feature or television series. Production looks to the DIT to define and oversee the workflow on a commercial shoot. Ideally, you strive to streamline the workflow without dumbing it down. You're basically paving the road between set and post, maintaining quality control and shot-to-shot consistency, and nearly always managing the data.
Abby Levine: There's a fairly standard workflow for commercial productions. For television shows and features the workflows vary a little bit more -- you wanna be involved and making sure the dailies get created that are very reflective of what the DP thinks he created on set. There's always a lot of back and forth in the first couple of weeks of a TV or movie production to finesse the workflow a little bit.
On a commercial that doesn't happen, because an agency is gonna come in and beat the thing to death after the fact anyways. What happens in movies is people develop what is called "temp love." If they're editing dailies that have a certain color correction, they're gonna get used to that and they're gonna start to like it. And then maybe the DP is gonna come in and say "That's not what I had in mind at all." So, on longer duration shows you want the editorial materials to be more confident.
Ben Cain: In the commercial world, DITs have a crucial role to play. The post-production paradigm has dramatically changed in this segment of the industry as there’s now rarely a lab involved until finishing. Because labs aren’t doing dallies for commercials, the business of creating the production’s file deliverables has really come to be owned by the DIT. While every project is unique and has very specific criteria, the work we do in episodic television and feature films tends quite a bit different.
My main project for the past few years has been the show Girls for HBO and what I’m doing as a DIT on a project like this couldn’t be more different than when I’m working in commercials. Here, the challenge is to devise a workflow that is agreeable to all parties involved, establish standards and best practices, and then through rigorous quality control, maintain the exposure and color baseline throughout the season and keep the show “looking like the show.” Quality control extends to helping the assistants evaluate focus, watching for boom shadows, unwanted reflections, lens flares, etc. and making sure that what everyone on the set is seeing on monitors is what they’ll see in dailies.
Another valuable service a DIT typically provides on these longer projects is iris pulling. Just as the 1st AC is smoothly pulling focus and hiding the transitions, the DIT can remotely do the same thing on the iris and help to correct imbalanced exposures and maintain consistency when shooting in constantly changing available daylight.
Elhanan Matos: In the feature world everything is different, it's like the wild west. You've got a lot of DITs who are sticking to the old traditional way of working, where all they'll handle is the signal. So they'll have their monitors and their waveform monitors and that's it -- they won't touch anything else. Then you have your guys who will color correct live on set, but they don't want to touch dailies.
I haven't met a single DIT who does dailies on features yet. I've heard that it exists, but I don't think it's as common as it is in commercials. In commercials you have to make dailies. Dailies in TV and features -- they expect more; they expect to have DVD dailies. Nobody watches dailies in commercials. It's for the editor -- nobody else.
Image courtesy of DIT Christian Dressler
NFS: Where do you see the role of the DIT in independent production?
Ben Schwartz: Do I think that every single job in production requires a DIT? No. I get that in the world of independent film when budgets are tight, there is simply not room for a DIT. That said, I think every production would benefit from having a DIT on set if for no other reason than a DIT on set equals peace of mind. They are the most experienced person with the safe duplication of data and the person who is most familiar with the inner-workings of a particular camera system.
So I think having a DIT on set is a kind of insurance policy. I've heard of more jobs that I can count where footage was lost when a production hired someone who wasn't qualified to manage the data. A good DIT means a producer and a DP never have to worry about any lost data or about any improper implementation of a workflow. Workflows are like snowflakes, they're all different.
Abby Levine: Some productions require a DIT and some do not. Generally the equipment has gotten easier to use. It's a real "what you get is what you see" environment -- or it can be set up that way -- so there's a real security there that you didn't have back in the days of film. And that can happen with or without a DIT. People are quick to say that we're a cheap insurance policy, in others words, when we're on set things do not go wrong. If things go wrong, we don't shoot all day with that wrong thing going wrong. We see it, recognize it and we know what to do. And on a big show that's a major comfort factor.
A conversation I had with a DP today: "The light outside the door was warm, now the light looks like daylight. Do you care? Do you wanna fix it? Do you not?" I'm staring at the best monitor on set -- I know what's going into the can. It's worthwhile having a very qualified guy eyeballing that. That being said there's plenty of productions that don't have technical complexities that might need to be addressed by a DIT.
If you're shooting a once in a lifetime thing you probably want a guy there. If you're shooting a thing you could come back and shoot tomorrow for no expense or no money, then it's a different story. But there's a couple of things you can't fix -- I don't care how RAW your picture is: out of focus, over-exposure and under-exposure.
Ben Cain: The thing about the DIT position is that it’s not what is known as a “must-hire”. A Director of Photography is a must hire. On anything but a commercial, a Camera Operator and 2nd AC is a must-hire. A 1st AC is always a must-hire. A DIT is never a must hire, so if you’re there, it’s because someone wants you there. Someone who understands that you’re there to facilitate the DP’s vision and protect the production’s data.
This service shouldn’t be limited to larger budget productions and if anything, a DIT can make themselves even more valuable on smaller shows where there are opportunities for them to provide services that are usually the domain of expensive outside vendors. However in my opinion, the first service a DIT should offer any production regardless of size is image integrity. It’s in the name after all, Digital Imaging Technician. Own the imaging component of it.
Elhanan Matos: For an independent filmmaker it's more about the assurance that nothing is gonna go wrong. It depends on what you're shooting on and how comfortable the DP is with the camera. No matter how comfortable he is with a camera, it can be really hard to keep track of everything. If you're shooting 12-13 pages a day, it can be tough. And if his 1st AC isn't really good with computers then there's a lot that can go wrong: you could lose files, cameras settings could be changed or not set-up right. But if you're really comfortable with it and your camera assistants are really good at multitasking, then no, there probably isn't a need to hire another person.
NFS: What would you like to change about the way the role of the DIT is perceived?
Ben Schwartz: I want producers and DPs to see the DIT as an essential ally to production, not as a luxury expense. I think most see us as allies, and I think the ones that don't would, if they clearly understood what a DIT does. It remains a mysterious position to a lot of people and it doesn't have to be. Our role differs from job to job, and that level of uncertainty has led to suspicion about what the DIT is providing.
I also think the term "DIT" has been diluted by people whose expertise is limited to computers or data management yet still call themselves a DIT. Just like an AC or a cinematographer you find DITs with vastly different levels of experience and ability. When a producer or DP has a negative experience with one DIT, it can negatively color their perception of DITs in general.
And I think that's unfortunate, because a good DIT is a true friend and ally of both the cinematographer and the production creatively, technically, and financially. I think we're an investment worth making and I hope to see DITs really proliferate and come to be regarded as an indispensable position on set by everyone.
Abby Levine: Misinformation is a big issue. Some producers, I think, are largely less knowledgable than they should be and it's a big problem when they don't admit it. When they do admit it, you can give them help and it's easy. I'd love to sit down the top 20 DITs with the top 2,000 producers and say, "This is what you need to know about us."
Ben Cain: There have been some major paradigm shifts in the past few years that have created a lot of confusion about what it is we do, who we are, and how we fit into the camera department. The number one misconception out there is that the DIT is little more than a glorified loader. This is an unfortunate side effect of the sheer volume of file based cameras out there now and users who through ignorance, are calling whoever is downloading their files, the DIT.
As tape based cameras fell out of use, DITs had no choice but to get into file based systems and it proved to be a logical and exciting evolution of the position. If it were possible to clear up any misconception about what it is we do, I would say that anyone who is working with the Director of Photography to establish the look of a project or is applying any color correction is a DIT. Anyone who is both working for the camera assistants and only downloading and backing up files is a Loader. This distinction continues to be problematic for both DIT’s and the union representing our interests.
Elhanan Matos: I've had production managers come out my trailer and they see me color correcting, applying LUTs, and saying, "Oh wow, I didn't know you did all that." It's like, "Well, yeah." The biggest misconception right now is, at least in the commercial industry, is that all we do is copy files. I've had producers that thought transcoding meant literally copying files. I'd say that the majority of production coordinators and managers that have been around for the last 5-6 years get it, but you still get some people who've just moved up and they still don't know what most people do on set.
Big thanks to Ben Schwartz, Abby Levine, Ben Cain, and Elhanan Matos.
What do you think? What is your experience working as/with a DIT? Let us know in the comments.