This is part three of a 3-part series on the evolving role and responsibilities of the contemporary Digital Imaging Technician. No Film School interviewed 4 working DITs from New York and L.A. to help contextualize the role they play and offer insights into the business. Part 1 went into misconceptions about DITs, part 2 offers information about getting hired -- now this one is for the gear-head in all of us. Read on for a look into some tools and practices behind the job.
"The earlier you adopt, the quicker you'll make your return."
NFS: It seems like a large burden of the DIT is to stay current with technology. How long does your cart stay relevant these days?
Ben Schwartz: Every year I'm continuously spending a significant amount of money to upgrade and add on to my cart. I don't see that ever stopping. I purchased a Sony BVM-F250 OLED late last year, only to see it replaced by the A-series OLEDs with improved viewing angle. As computers and monitors improve it's beholden on the DIT to purchase the most current equipment. Thankfully that's all tax-deductible, because it's a considerable expense.
My cart is always evolving for the sake of efficiency and speed and for the demands of present-day data flows. For example, I just built a custom Hackintosh. Lately, with the increase in data flows on raw-recording cameras, it's simply not possible to move and transcode data fast enough using a laptop. High-end data management requires a fast desktop computer, a fast RAID, and a fast GPU.
Abby Levine: Bits and pieces can stay relevant for a couple of years, if you hold out and buy the right items. HD-SDI switchers, routers, and processors have generally had a pretty good life span. There are limitations to "how good" on-set monitoring can, or needs to, get. The transition to 2K and 4K will demand some upgrading, in many cases, but, in general, it's not as if the entire load of gear will ever need to be replaced in one fell swoop. All of these transitions evolve kind of gradually. You don't want to jump in to new stuff too early, or, of course too late.
Historically, DPs and operators and assistants have invested in lenses, many of which have a specific character they like, and almost all of which have an extremely long life span. Those items provide the luxury of being generally immune to the technological advancements we are saddled with. And they offer a personal stamp and comfort level. There are few items, save for choices in some software and hardware, in which we have similar options.
And, computers having become a bigger part of all this, certainly demand an upgrade path. The conventional wisdom in that area, is to buy the fastest, most capacious, powerful computer available, and it will last as long as could be hoped for. Then, as with all technological obsolescence, it becomes time to move on.
Ben Cain: To provide the right tools for the job you’ve got to stay technologically up to date and this is quite a large financial burden. It seems like every time I start a new long-term project such as a TV show or feature, I can count on parting with 10-20 grand or more. This is why DITs need to work together, be honest with each other, and establish standard rates for equipment rentals and services. Our equipment is extremely expensive and it's getting harder to get a return, because there are now so many more people doing this who are unaware of what the going rate is on many of the tools and services we provide.
Elhanan Matos: I'm constantly upgrading my cart. Whenever something new and good comes out I'm buying it. You can't waste your time. The earlier you adopt, the quicker you'll make your return. And the other thing is: buy two of them, because you're competing with a rental house so you've gotta be just as reliable as they are. I usually have a backup of whatever I know isn't reliable. For instance, anything made by Blackmagic I'll own two of in my cart just in case, because of my experience with their products. As for monitors I've got doubles of everything.
Image Courtesy of DIT Steve Harnell
NFS: What's in your cart?
Ben Schwartz: The core of any DIT's cart is their monitor. I use a Sony BVM-F250 OLED. It's a true reference monitor, regularly calibrated with a probe, and it more than any other monitor on set reflects what is truly being recorded. A DP should, whenever possible, work from a DIT's monitor; it's always disappointing when they don't make the trip over at least once in a while.
I also have a waveform monitor/vectorscope, which has been the key technical tool in my arsenal since I began. A waveform is the best way for evaluating exposure, highlight clipping, shadow crushing and color balance. It's an objective measurement of the recorded signal, and learning to read a waveform/vectorscope is one of the central skills of being a DIT. I use a hardware model, a Leader LV 5330, although there are now very good software options such as ScopeBox. I have a Blackmagic Smarthub for routing the video signal both for myself and around the set. I use Blackmagic HDLink Pros, in combination with software such as LiveGrade or LinkColor, to create LUTs over live log video streams.
And then there's the whole computer side of things: Hackintosh, Macbook Pro Retina, Thunderbolt PCI expanders, an array of PCIe cards, peripherals, card readers, color control surface, fast RAID, etc. Each of my computers is stacked with software, including Resolve, Scratch Lab, Avid, Glue Tools plugins, and a variety of file-management programs.
Abby Levine: Mainstay is a Sony OLED PVM 2541 monitor. Leader Waveform Monitor. MacBook Pro Retina. AJA 16x16 Switcher. Sonnet QiO and Miscellaneous Thunderbolt adapters. AJA ioExpress.
Ben Cain: The first real piece of engineering gear I bought and built my cart around is my scope (aka Leader 5330 waveform monitor / vectorscope). It’s the most important tool in my arsenal as it is the one thing that does not lie to me. Eyes get tired and sometimes on the 14th or 15th hour and after the third company move, you just can’t be sure of what you’re seeing on your monitor anymore. A waveform is always an objective, scientific measurement and having that available is very reassuring. You will also use your scope for everything from identifying imaging problems, matching cameras and shots within the scene, image continuity, testing and identifying video signals, and countless other tasks.
The second most important piece on your cart is a decent 24” monitor. 17” displays are just too small to objectively evaluate what you’re seeing. They also tend to sharpen things up a bit, so it’s harder to gauge focus on them. “Reference Grade” monitors are the most signal accurate so are by far the best tools for DITs. There are a handful of quality Reference Grade Panels available from different manufacturers but the Sony BVM series OLED’s have emerged as the top choice for many DITs. The less expensive Sony PVM series OLED’s are also widely used and with correct calibration have proven to be sufficient. Ideally, the DIT should bring the best set of “eyes” to the set and your DP will thank you for it. What’s just as important as having the monitor though is making sure that it’s calibrated correctly.
Elhanan Matos: One of the most important is monitors. You wanna make sure you have the best monitor on set for sure. I prefer Sony monitors; I feel like they're built to last as opposed to FSI monitors or TVLogics. It's all about reliability but also picture quality, and I felt that Sony has outperformed everybody else.
Next would be a waveform monitor and there's only one choice: a Leader monitor, something like a Leader 5330. I like that one because it's real small and portable, you can throw a battery on it when you're going real run & gun. I think it's the only waveform monitor to own. It's pricey, but it's a great tool. And once you're comfortable with a waveform monitor you don't need to rely on anything else, because you can't rely on your eyes a lot of the time.
And then you obviously you need a computer. I prefer laptops, they're quick. The top lid on my Macbook Pro retina is just covered in velcro, 'cause if we're doing a car commercial and I need to hop in a passenger van I need to be able to just stick it all on so I can be creating dailies and downloading at the same time. I use bus powered hard-drives. I refuse to do ArriRAW dailies at the moment, because I can't do it on laptops. We have so many shots to do, it just slows everybody down if you're trying to push a big heavy cart everywhere you go for every job.
Image Courtesy of DIT Steve Harnell
Ben Schwartz: GPU performance is automatically throttled in high external temperatures. Carry a portable air conditioner with you during the summer to keep your computer transcoding at peak efficiency.
Elhanan Matos: A lot of DITs like to use tents to give you a pitch black area, and my issue with that is you're constantly going in and out of this tent, and you never give your eyes any chance to adapt. It takes your eyes 30 minutes to adjust to the dark, so if you're going into a pitch black room just to color and you're just trusting your eyes, everything is going to be wrong. Short of wearing an eyepatch there's no way to adjust. I prefer to cover my monitor with a flag and rely on my waveform monitor. I use my monitor mostly for checking focus or showing people on set. In commercials, the DPs don't come to the cart as often.
Ben Cain: The tent is an unfortunate necessity of the job. It goes by many names: “The Isolation Tank”, “The Den of Anxiety”, “The Black Hole”, and many more! Crews love to have a little fun at the tent’s expense. In my opinion it’s preferable to work in ambient light and have the grips set you a few flags to keep direct light off your monitors. However this isn’t always practical and on very bright day exteriors where you need critical viewing, a black out tent is really the fastest and easiest way to make that happen.
The closest thing to a “Pro Tip” that I could relay is know where to set up shop. This is crucial to your success and longevity on a project. Ideally you would stage your cart in a place that is easily accessible to the Director of Photography, out of the way of lighting equipment working in the scene, and most importantly out of the shot and out of reflections. There’s an art to this and the best way to figure out where to land your cart is to watch the marking rehearsal. See the camera positions and in which direction(s) they’ll be looking. Having to move your cart or re-cable the cameras at the last minute because you’re in picture is something to be avoided at all costs.
Abby Levine: I also hate tents. They are isolating and no one watches TV or movies in a tent. There are far more things that affect your response to a picture than being in a dark room. Are you walking on and off a tungsten lit set, or in and out from a daylight environment? It is somewhat naive to think that a tent is really a controlled environment.
Having said that, it is important to be able to QC an image, and that demands some level of reflection and ambient light control. A tent is not always the most efficient or effective way to do that. My other tip would be to not obsess so much over nitpicking small color differences. Today's workflow is so conservative that any of those subtleties are better dealt with in a scene by scene correcting environment than in live production where time is big money. It is far more important to be overly attentive to the things that may not be able to be fixed later, focus and poor exposure being at the top of that list, other camera settings being on the list, too.
NFS: Are you using Thunderbolt yet?
Ben Schwartz: My Hackintosh motherboard doesn't have any Thunderbolt ports, but my laptop setup is Thunderbolt-based. I use a Macbook Pro Retina with Thunderbolt PCIe expansion to connect to external drives and to my RAID, as well as for video I/O cards and the Red Rocket. I don't use Thunderbolt storage because Thunderbolt has yet to be adopted by post. That may change with the release of the new Mac Pro.
Elhanan Matos: Thunderbolt and USB 3.0, I wouldn't know what to do any more without those two. I know some DITs have problems with USB 3.0, but I need it, because I use bus-powered hard-drives as often as possible.
Ben Cain: My main set cart is built around Thunderbolt. On most of my projects, I’m working with post-production facilities, so am not doing heavy file processing on the set. Most of the services I’m hired to provide are more video and color correction based so Thunderbolt has been a great technology that’s allowed me to reduce my equipment footprint.
I run two Thunderbolt links from a Retina MacBook Pro directly into the my rack where they connect to a Blackmagic Designs Ultrastudio for Still and Reference Video capture and an external chassis containing a Host Bus Adapter card and RAID controller card which then connects to a 4 Bay external RAID via MiniSAS. All of this happens over Thunderbolt. There are of course practical limits to the technology as the ports tend to get saturated very quickly but it’s remarkable how much you can accomplish with a simple laptop because of it.
Abby Levine: Thunderbolt for eSata and PCiE adaptation and monitoring from the Retina.
NFS: Thoughts on the new Mac Pro?
Ben Schwartz: It's a fantastic piece of gear for desks and it represents a radical rethink of what a desktop computer is. That said, I think a DIT's cart has to be efficient and compact as possible, and I just don't think having an array of peripherals connected via multiple thunderbolt cables represents the most efficient use of space on a DIT cart. I've chosen to go the way of a custom tower, but other DITs might choose to go with the new Mac Pro setup.
Abby Levine: Been dragging my feet on upgrading, didn't want to get the enormous/heavy/power-hungry tower, but I'm looking forward to this Pro.
Ben Cain: I may be one of the few DITs in this camp, but I’m actually kind of excited about it. It’s great size despite the odd form factor. I think I’ll just wrap it in Velcro and wedge it behind my monitors. I predict it will be just right for single camera ArriRAW data management and rendering. Multi-cam, maybe not so much.
Elhanan Matos: The new Mac Pro coming out is gonna change everything; it's a fantastic piece of hardware. It looks silly, and I think people are angry that you can't upgrade it, but really it's a Mac -- it's not like there's any accessories for it anyways. I'll probably get several of them. It's small. I'll probably find a way to stick a handle on it and make it really mobile.
NFS: How often do you calibrate your equipment?
Ben Schwartz: I own an X-Rite I1 Pro, which is a probe used to calibrate displays. I probe my Sony OLED once every few months. Ensuring the absolute reference quality of my monitor is essential.
Abby Levine: My monitor is calibrated simply with an X-Rite i1 Display Pro probe. That in addition to my eyes and my brain and my good taste and extensive experience.
Ben Cain: I calibrate my own displays all the time. When I’m starting a new long-term project, I like to have the lab I’m working with take a look at my displays and match them to theirs if needed. If you're working with the Sony OLED’s you can buy one of several X-Rite probes and download free software from Sony that can automatically or manually calibrate your monitor.
Correct calibration hinges around white and grayscale being displayed as chroma free. If a 100% white video signal being fed into your monitor is displayed as pure white, that is white with no color contamination, then the monitor is calibrated. There are a few additional steps beyond this but it is the most important component. Some displays require an additional adjustment of dark gray tones in the form of Bias but the process of aligning this step is virtually identical to that of White. Granted there are nuances from monitor brand to brand, but White Balance and Bias is at the heart of display calibration. I’ve written numerous articles on this topic.
Elhanan Matos: The waveform monitors rarely need any calibration. Short of you dropping it, it rarely needs to go in for service. The monitors need more calibration. Monitors I check every prep against color bars. The nice thing about the Sony monitors is you can just the X-Rite probes that are like $200, you plug it into the computer and the monitor and it's a quick simple process to calibrate.
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So there you have it. For those of you out there wondering about the equipment and workflows of DITs, I hope this helps. Remember to check out Ben Cain's site NegativeSpaces, which has a lot of really interesting technical information. Also worth checking out is Abby Levine's affordable color correction LUT solution LinkColor for field previewing using Blackmagic HDLinks. A big thanks to Ben, Abby, Ben and Elhanan for making this series possible. Join the discussion below.
[Cover photo by Christian Dressler DIT]
[MacPro image from CNET]