Defining DIT: What You Need to Get Hired
This is part 2 of 3 of our Defining DIT interview series. In part 1 we discussed the biggest misconceptions surrounding the work of the contemporary Digital Imaging Technician. This week we're talking about getting hired, the DIT's working relationship with the DP and other insights into the trade. Hit the jump to hear it directly from some of the country's leading professionals in this field from both L.A. and New York.
"The DIT performs a critical role on set in ensuring the integrity of the workflow."
NFS: Because of the high demand of skills it seems like a hard job to jump into. Are DITs undertrained out there?
Ben Schwartz: Aspiring DITs should understand that if they are downloading footage on set, that doesn't automatically make them a DIT. The job requires years of experience, study, and practice to develop a level of comfort with video technology before you can truly call yourself a digital imaging technician. I consider myself fortunate, because I came of age in the tail-end of what I call the hardware era, when the job of a DIT was pure video engineering. I'm very thankful that I have that background because I think newer DITs are coming at it from an entirely computer-based perspective.
They may be proficient with a Mac, but lack the requisite understanding of video technology and of on-set etiquette. Even with the shift toward computers in production, a DIT remains first and foremost a video engineer, and any aspiring DIT should first familiarize themselves with the basics of HD video technology. You should learn how to read a waveform monitor and learn every professional camera system out there. You need to develop an eye for color-correction. It's not something that can be picked up overnight.
Abby Levine: Clearly there are some that are under-qualified. There's training available, but there's some foundational elements missing for some of these people. There's room in this business for functionaries, people who are not as talented as others, but are delivering an acceptable product. But, I certainly think that there are some people who are still stymied by simple issues.
For practically no money you can shoot and post a 4k show with very inexpensive equipment on your laptop. Sure there's personal sacrifice involved, but there's no issue of creating a product of virtually perfect technically quality. So creating a successful film depends on the creativity and content. Frankly, people are watching on mobile devices, the idea of needing 4K and perfect technical quality pale in comparison to the storytelling and the things you really need to do to make a good product. Personality, storytelling, those kinds are the things are what are in shorter supply than technical competence.
Ben Cain: There are many skilled DITs out there working all over the country. Recently there have also been a lot of newcomers and they’re welcome of course but it’s really up to them to find their own training. After working for several years and getting a handle on the principles of video engineering for both Standard Definition and High Definition, in 2008 I took an intensive course at the Maine Workshops with Lewis Rothenberg, one of the most experienced DITs working in the east coast market and the national Vice President of our union. This provided a lot of clean up for me and helped advance my skill set. I highly recommend seeking out intensive, advanced training for anyone who feels they could benefit from it. Also our union, International Cinematographer’s Guild Local 600, is now offering more training for DITs but membership is prerequisite for participation of course.
There are a lot of other ways to seek training, independent online research being the cheapest and most accessible. With the proliferation of affordable camera technology, there are now so many more great online resources available than there were even a few short years ago. I personally have been running a blog on the topic since 2007 and have used it as a repository for my own research and exploration of on-set workflows and technologies. The resulting information is now available to anyone who seeks it.
If you really want to do this, there are plenty of ways to learn the fundamentals and DITs are finally figuring out that we are better off when we’re working together. There’s a real community forming among people doing this work so it has never been easier to ask questions and get answers. If the thought of spending hours pouring over a Sony camera manual sounds miserable, then being a DIT is probably not be the right job for you. When you’re hired, the main expectation is that you know what to do when cameras, equipment, and software aren’t working the way they should. Any qualified technician needs to be able to troubleshoot problems as quickly as they arise because production simply can’t afford to slow down for technical reasons. When everything is working perfectly, it’s a beautiful thing. Unfortunately production only notices when things aren’t going well so don’t expect much gratitude or recognition for a job well done. That’s the nature of the position.
Elhanan Matos: There's no real training. You've gotta know how to use your computer -- that's the main thing right now. You'll be spending 80% of your day in front of your computer. You need to understand how video works. You need a good understanding of photography and cinematography. If you're gonna comment on exposure you've gotta know just as much as your DP does. You've gotta know color, basic color theory, how light works. The more you understand the easier your job is, and if the job is easier, then it gives you more confidence, and the more confident you are the more the DP will trust you.
Ben Schwartz at work.
NFS: What's one simple tip you can give to people looking to get hired as a DIT?
Ben Schwartz: All DITs should strive for a high level of technical proficiency as well as a certain humility in their approach. The DIT has to stay humble, because sometimes your input is going to be roundly ignored. A true professional has fully internalized the technical aspects of the job so he or she can provide whatever is asked of them. You have to be able to roll with any set of circumstances that may occur on a job. The most important thing for a DIT is to a maintain quiet, reliable professionalism. Have all the answers, but none of the ego. Be someone who producers and DPs trust wholeheartedly.
Abby Levine: I've been shown to be wrong here and there, so when I get questioned about something I'm 100% certain about, I'll say I'm 100% certain. But If I'm only 99% certain, I'll go and check on it. I've developed a healthy unattachement with my color corrections on set. For example, some guys say, "We wanna create a moonlight look." Some guys want blue, some guys want sodium vapor -- I'm not gonna impose my impression of what a night-time look is on a DP. We get a lot of work, because we can work interpersonally in this collaborative medium, which is frankly almost as valuable as having the technical skills.
Ben Cain: I learned a lot on the job and continue to do so and that’s what I love about this: endless opportunities for learning and improving your skill set. I certainly was no expert on many aspects of this craft when I started taking professional work but I didn’t let that stop me. What I have is some passion for this so I’ve spent a lot of time reading, researching, and collaborating with others in the field. There’s an enormous amount of information out there so if you want to learn, you can learn.
The best thing you can do is just get on set. If you’re starting completely from scratch, taking work as a Camera PA is a great opportunity to get in the mix. For technicians, go to the lab with the DP anytime you’re invited or your presence is requested. Working closely with our colleagues in post-production can offer a lot of insight, new information, and occasionally a great deal of frustration! But it’s always a great opportunity.
Spending time building your skill set and knowledge base is one thing but what’s equally if not even more important is bringing the right tools to the job. If you don’t have the right tools, you will only struggle and possibly cause unresolvable problems. If it’s a data-heavy job with a lot of deliverables, make sure you bring enough computer firepower to stay on top of it. If it’s a video-heavy job with multiple cameras, make sure you have enough inputs and outputs on your cart to color correct and/or convert as many signals as necessary. Always be prepared for more than was asked of you. Things happen at the speed of production so you never know what’s going to happen until it’s happening. Don’t be surprised when they change the camera body at the last minute or bring in additional cameras without warning. In other words, have the right tools in your arsenal and you’ll always be prepared for whatever is thrown at you.
Elhanan Matos: You need to know what everybody on set is doing so you're not interfering with their job. And you only get hired because you know somebody -- for example you met a camera assistant and they hire you just because they know your reputation. I haven't interviewed for a job in years; that's mostly TV and features thing. In commercials, nobody ever interviews.
"Take jobs that you're scared to do."
DIT Station from Steve Harnell
NFS: How can you tell the fakers apart? What's one thing that if you see a DIT doing it, you know they aren't professional?
Ben Schwartz: You should not tell a DP how to expose an image or color an image. You give input when it's asked for, but I don't believe that a DIT should ever impose their view of how things should go on the cinematographer.
Abby Levine: Most of the stuff I would consider unprofessional has to do with what I consider "setiquette." Just not having any concept of how to deal with people or behave on set. And on the technical side, some people are inflexible. They do things one way and they don't know how to do it another way or not willing to do it in another way. There's a fundamental understanding and security about providing the support that you're getting paid to provide.
Ben Cain: “Fakers” has a bit of a condescending, negative connotation that I don’t like. Anyone that wants to do this work, I personally welcome them to our growing community. I don’t think anyone is really “faking” anything per say but what we now have is more filmmakers, more camera owners, and more camera people than we’ve ever had before in the history of motion pictures. When professional equipment is priced so affordably, an outcome like this is totally unavoidable. As it relates to DIT’s, we are now dealing with a lot of people who are new to the business and don’t have the historical context of where our position came from, what the expectations are, and what the tools are we need to do the job.
Elhanan Matos: The number one clue is when someone asks, "Where's the DIT," and nobody knows, because he's -- wherever. He's just in the truck with a laptop just copying cards and nothing else. Essentially he's a data manager that's being called a DIT. And half the time that's just what production expects from him because they don't know any better. It's not as common as it used to be, but you still run in to this. I think in LA it's not that big of an issue anymore, because a lot of people have seen what good DITs do, and when they see someone doing something different it's a red flag.
"A true professional is able to roll with any set of circumstances that may occur on set."
NFS: How do you prefer to work with a DP?
Ben Schwartz: I enjoy working with a DP who seeks a more collaborative relationship with me on set. Of course I'm biased, but I feel that the DIT has a lot to offer the cinematographer in terms of creating the look of an image. The DIT is the first pass colorist on a shoot. Often on commercial productions the DP will not have the chance to be present at the final color. So the DIT represents a DP's best chance to fully implement their creative vision over the final color. I think a cinematographer who doesn't take full advantage of that relationship is missing out on an opportunity. A good DIT is always be ready to offer something that a DP didn't expect or think of, and I hope DPs are receptive to that input.
Abby Levine: DPs who have come up through digital frankly have fewer questions, but they have some wrong facts. Like a misunderstanding of what's actually being recorded, what they call RAW vs what they call Log. And listen, it's a personality-based business; you'll get a sense if they want to be corrected or not. You'll correct them as far as you need to, and if they insist their position is correct, I won't let them dig themselves into a deep hole, but I won't try to correct their misimpression.
Ben Cain: My approach has evolved to one where I work closely with the cinematographer to get it right in the photography instead of leaning too heavily on digital tools to fix problems that could have easily been resolved with lighting and exposure. We still do a good deal of on-set grading and color correction, but after doing a lot of this in the past few years, I’m now taking more of a minimalist approach as a simplified workflow speeds up dailies considerably.
More than anything, I am an agent of my DP and I’m only there to help facilitate their vision and protect the integrity of their work. Some DPs don’t understand that working with a DIT is an opportunity for them to ensure that the first product from the set, the dailies, look exactly as they should. This is incredibly important. Everyone that really matters — executive producers, post-production supervisors, studio or network producers — these people watch every frame that comes from the set and base their opinion on how well the DP and the production is doing based on what they see. Any DP who really cares about their work should realize that those dailies better look as good as they possibly can.
Elhanan Matos: I prefer to color on-set. I prefer to take the harder, more challenging jobs. The more cameras the better, the more formats the better -- I just think it's fun.
"It's important to not expect every production to utilize 100% of what you can offer."
NFS: Any tips for developing good communication with your camera department or DP?
Ben Schwartz: A DP has so much on their mind there might be something technical that they are not thinking of. A good DIT should always be ready with suggestions and ideas. Sometimes that means having a DP say, "Thanks but no thanks." The best DIT/DP relationships are collaborative. You should never tell a DP how to expose or color an image. You give input when it's asked for, but I don't believe that DIT should ever impose their view of how things should go on the cinematographer. And I believe strongly that a DP should at least try to involve the DIT creatively whenever they can. The DIT offers a level of control over the color, exposure, and the final delivered image in a way that the DP might not ever have the chance to get again.
I strive to work in concert with the camera department, offering them whatever assistance they may need. For a 1st AC it might be giving feedback on focus. For the second AC that means helping set up focus monitors. As a DIT, it's important to never forcibly implement your own concept about what everyone should be asking from you, or to pretend like you're a department of one. And I think it's important to not expect every production to utilize 100% of what you can offer. The DIT should be adaptable and prepared to offer as much or as little as is asked of them from a camera department or cinematographer.
Abby Levine: It's like any other relationship: you meet, you figure out where you're on the same page and then you find out of you can work together in the context of that relationship. I think it's necessary to talk at length about your philosophies on how to do things. Do they want their hand held for every decision they make technically or do they want you to fulfill what they think they want to do, and do they want to talk about that? You wanna know going in if it's gonna be a collaborative environment or if you're just gonna be doing what they tell you to do.
Ben Cain: As members of the camera department, it doesn’t hurt to get involved with the assistants and operators. As the DIT, you’re the technician tasked with quality control so you can help them do their best work and they will usually be very appreciative. In my experience, many focus pullers love having a second set of eyes on their focus. They have one of the hardest jobs on the set and sometimes even with their modern tools; it can be difficult for them to tell if they’re getting it in focus. A little note from the DIT over the radio during the take can be helpful to nudge them into perfect focus when they need it.
Digital is all about real-time – real-time color correction, real-time focus and operating, real-time feedback. It’s an opportunity for everybody to get it right, but it requires an objective set of eyes scrutinizing the take. Some Directors of Photography are very involved with this whereas others are not and heavily lean on their DIT to help manage the department and catch mistakes.
Elhanan Matos: I get all my work from DPs. It's really important to know the DP, know their style; know how they work so you can compliment it. And that's if they trust you enough. When I work with a new DP I'll ask a lot of questions. I'll ask "What do you wanna do with the coloring on this scene?" And they say "Nothing." And then a few jobs later they ask "Can you add some contrast to this?" And it's like "Yeah. I can do whatever you want." And then we get into it. One DP I work with will just give me random feelings, like "make it warm and red" or "Make it look like chocolate." And then I make 5 or 6 looks and he chooses between the looks.
NFS: Why would a DP be worried about 'handing their images over' to a DIT?
Ben Schwartz: Let's be clear: a DP doesn't hand over their images to a DIT. Among certain misinformed and paranoid people there is this persistent and fallacious idea that the DIT is there to usurp control of the image from the cinematographer, when nothing could be further from the truth. The DIT is there to help the cinematographer. I think that if a DP understands what a DIT can offer besides just data management then they are going to be in a better position to achieve their creative vision.
Ben Cain: The relationship between the cinematographer and DIT is one based on a great deal of trust. It’s really not much different than their relationship with a colorist at a facility or with any other third-party tasked with facilitating their vision. It takes time to develop this kind of professional rapport but any DP who has a good relationship with a DIT knows that working with them is an effective way to ensure their vision is correctly implemented.
Abby Levine: When recording LOG and RAW, unless the stuff is way under or way overexposed, the DP will be able to get to where he wanted to get. You shouldn't put yourself in a situation where you have fear of them.
Elhanan Matos: You have to remember, it's their picture, not yours. You're there to translate, not to add anything. The same way the gaffer is there to translate what the DP wants with lights. It's really about making sure the DP's vision for the picture is translated to the editor, because if we don't do it on set they'll have to out-source it. And if that's the case, then they're just gonna apply a generic linearizing LUT onto the Log-C image and that's it. The editor will just start cutting with the Log-C image. The director and DP never go to coloring sessions in commercials -- they rarely go to the edit. So if you're not doing that work for them, they don't have their dailies colorist anymore. Now you've got editorial companies doing the transcoding. The DP has no idea who is color correcting his work now.
NFS: What's an example of a situation where you'd comment on exposure or focus?
Ben Schwartz: That depends entirely on the DP or AC. Some DPs will go so far as to hand me wireless iris control. Others will bypass my input entirely. Certain ACs really appreciate a second set of eyes at the monitor, giving them quiet feedback through the walkie about their focus after each take. Other ACs prefer to go it alone. I'm happy to offer as much or as little input as is requested.
Abby Levine: I've worked with some top of the A-list assistant camera people and they'll wear a walkie and I'll talk to them during a shot and give them a little feedback on focus if they're having issues. And those that are confident and secure really appreciate the feedback and we'll discuss it and we'll talk about a shot. And I'm not nitpicking, I'm looking at it on a 23" monitor compared to the tiny one he has. It's not my main responsibility, but I am there to eyeball the picture. I'm not there to wait until the shot was over and then yell "Your shot's out of focus!"
Ben Cain: If a DP is having exposure issues or prefers images that are technically problematic in terms of color or exposure, the best approach is to objectively show them the issue and frame it the solution as a choice. For example, “You’re picking up a lot of noise here in the low light areas of the shot or the fill side of this face. If you’re ok with it, great. If not, here’s what we can do.” At that point, you then use the tools at your disposal to offer up the best solution.
Elhanan Matos: That's a thing a lot of young DITs don't get: when something is clipping, the DP probably knows it's clipping -- and most of the time they want it to clip. So, it's always a question: "Do you want to do that? How about this?" You definitely don't want to push anything on the DP.
NFS: What are you learning about right now? What skill have you recently put under your belt?
Ben Schwartz: Due to the change in nature of the job, I've had to develop more of a deep understanding about how computers work over the last couple of years whereas a few years ago my understanding was fairly cursory. I recently designed a Hackintosh for on-set use, which is something I could not have done two or three years ago.
But even though the job has largely gone the way of software, the fundamental video engineering background that I have continues to serve me well. I'm also a vocal proponent of 3D, and I've tried to develop as much experience with it as possible. I've worked as a 3D DIT and rig technician, and I'm slowly developing proficiency as a stereographer. Obviously, the 3D boom has receded, but I still believe it will occupy a significant portion of future production. I always find it astonishing when people belittle 3D as stupid or gimmicky; to me, it's a fascinating new layer of aesthetic and technical concerns. Used properly and with suitable material, it adds a tremendous amount of visual and emotional impact to a shoot.
Abby Levine: I'm learning to let go of a lot of stuff. It's not life and death. We're making television commercials, we're making television shows, we're making movies. It's not worth a lot of the aggravation and stress that gets carried and distributed by certain people. So, just from an emotional standpoint, from a maturity level, y'know, I'm an old guy and I'm still learning that stuff.
As far as technical stuff, I never wanted to own gear, then little by little a lot of newer DITs came into the business and people bought gear. I'm a little slow about acquiring the latest and greatest stuff, but I got dragged kicking and screaming into owning gear.
Ben Cain: There’s always more to learn. We have to keep up with the speed of technology, but that’s what keeps the job so interesting. I’m currently learning more about ACES because I love the idea of a universal colorspace – anything coming in, but one thing coming out. It has a lot of potential.
Elhanan Matos: What I've been trying to do now is to get better and faster at color correcting. Faster really -- better is kinda subjective. I'm preparing for DaVinci 10. When that comes out we're gonna have live primaries, secondaries, power windows, all that stuff. I'd like to be just as fast as possible getting those down.
NFS: Will your job ever be replaced by a machine? What do you see as the next evolution of the DIT?
Ben Schwartz: It's possible that in coming years cameras will no longer record to external media, but will directly upload to cloud-based or remote storage. At that point, will the DIT become irrelevant? I don't think so. When I started in 2006, I was already being told that the DIT was a temporary and transitional position. The old refrain was that DITs would become extraneous once camera departments became comfortable with digital acquisition.
The problem with that is HD camera systems are always changing. New cameras are released every year. I believe there is always going to be a need for someone on set who is familiar with the latest firmware, the smartest workflows, the newest cameras. There's always going to be a need for a technical expert on set.
Abby Levine: I'm very anti-3D and I have mixed feelings about 4k, but I could buy it. People talking about 6k and 8k -- if that becomes mainstream for production, that's the stupidest thing I've ever heard of. Okay, maybe for a special venue or if everything is gonna be panned and scanned and cropped -- which by the way is a mistake, because when you're making creative decisions you need to know what your final frame looks like. So 6k? 8k? 4k is pushing it. That's another capitalist industrial society type of thing.
Ben Cain: The fact is that this is a task and someone will always have to do it. Their level of involvement might change, but this will always be something that needs doing. Even systems that have some automated components such as Codex’ new Vault system still require an operator who has received the correct training. Currently the work we’re hired to do happens on the set, or at the lab, or both. And as of late, more and more of the traditional “Lab” tasks, such as color correction, audio syncing, and dailies generation have been happening on or near the set and this is becoming more and more universal.
Where is the DIT position ultimately going? Only time will tell. Cameras are only becoming more “film-like” in that the files they output are for all intents and purposes, color negative film. And just like film, this camera media must be processed and a “look” applied. Modern Raw Bayer Data capture and / or Log Encoded Video is at its core, really not much different than shooting on celluloid and then printing video dailies. Because of this, I don’t see the “human” component of it ever disappearing completely.
Elhanan Matos: I think that post is going away; it's a dying business. I think it's all gonna be mixed into editorial. I live in Santa Monica right now and I'm surrounded by post-houses and every couple of months you see one shut down or get consolidated. Ascent media owns just about every post-house in LA and now they're all one building. Doing a film out here is really difficult; it takes multiple passes and there's a lot that can go wrong. That's their bread and butter, and especially once everything has gone fully digital, it will take a giant chunk of post-production business away.
Another huge thanks to Ben Schwartz, Abby Levine, Ben Cain and Elhanan Matos for their time. Thoughts, questions? Join the discussion in the comments below and keep an eye out for the third and final part of this series where we discuss in more detail the technologies and tools of the trade.