35mm filmThe film laboratory is still very much alive in the movie industry, albeit a completely different beast from five years ago. Drew Turney speaks to three Australian post houses to investigate the state of play.

If you’d fallen asleep sometime in the mid nineties and just woken up, you’d think the film industry was in a state of anarchy. Suddenly the term ‘filmmaker’ can describe anyone with a digital camera in their hand and a computer on their desk.

The consequence has been a shift in the film processing industry and the rise of the new post house. Accepting projects on everything from traditional film to CD ROMs full of Final Cut pro data, they still have to deliver cans of film reels to distributors and cinemas, so how do they transform our mishmash of data and images onto the reels that end up on a cinema projector?

It Takes All Types

John Fleming, General Manager of Melbourne’s Digital Pictures, explains the preferred method of supplying masters to your post house, and how you can save a lot of time and expense down the track.

‘Anything on VHS is going to provide an inferior result transferred to film,’ he says, ‘Realistically the minimum we would accept is a digital Betacam master. Even if someone’s shot on VHS, put it through editing software and then outputted it to DV betacam the image is going to be pretty wrecked anyway.’

Something else you might not have taken into account is the differences between shooting and projection themselves, like screen ratios. While you might simply think ‘I’ll shoot with a camera that supports the 1.85:1 cinema screen format’, it’s not always that simple. What if you’re shooting a commercial that’s playing across several media, for instance?

‘[Some clients] need everything done to the nth degree,’ says Steve Dunn, managing director of Frame Set & Match in Sydney, ‘they’ve graded every shot and run it out, then they have to go back and do it again for 4:3 television, so they have to move and reposition each shot. The time it takes is quite dramatic.’

And if you have indeed shot using a different format than 35mm film, there’s a lot of work to be done to make your film fit on a movie screen.

‘The good thing is most people are now shooting wide screen,’ says Digital Pictures’ Fleming. ‘The relative aspect ratio between 16:9 and cinema is pretty similar. But in 4:3 we get into an edit suite and we’re concerned with vertical placement of the image. If there’s something in the image that’s important to the narrative you don’t want to lose it when the picture gets chopped.’

Seeing Spots

Treating your colour and image quality is also very much a consideration even if you use a completely digital workflow. It might look great on the Avid in the editing room — and even when you send it to your post house and look at it on their accurately calibrated monitors — but the tiniest glitches will be blown up a hundredfold in front of your harshest critic — a cinema audience.

I asked John Fleming if he’s always reminding directors of that. ‘All the time,’ he says with a little exasperation, ‘and that’s a challenge because there’s obviously a lot of people who shoot a film on DV cam, and then we have to try and get a sense of what look is important to them as a filmmaker.

‘Obviously the story and the idea is fundamental, which is why low image quality films like Blair Witch are successes, but many more films don’t succeed because of poor quality.’

Much More Than a Movie

Long gone are the days when you stuck bits of film together in the editing room, gave it to the lab and they printed a copy. Commenting on Japanese Story, producer Sue Maslin rattled off quite a list of what she had to oversee from digital master of the projects’ assets.

‘There are more delivery formats than ever before,’ she said, ‘D2, HDTV, DVD, Digital beta, all in both PAL and NTSC, new DVD requirements such as 5.1 sound mixes, CD soundtrack — very few of which existed in the past.’

Steve Dunn is even more emphatic about what will be asked of you as a producer. ‘I could show you a deliverables list that producers have to allow for that would make your hair curl,’ he says, ’50 or 60 thousand is the least you should budget for post deliverables.’

Send Your Film Out

If there’s one piece of advice everyone agreed on, it’s to get involved with your post house early. When you’ve shot and fully treated your digital master, you don’t want the nasty surprise of outputted film looking completely different.

‘We recommend working with our clients up front before they even shoot,’ Fleming says, ‘we often shoot tests out to film with their DOP. A DOP who’s used to film has an expectation of what they’re going to see on screen. Going through a video environment will take away some of the detail, and it’s really important for DOPs to do a little cause and effect in the latitude of their images.’

Dominic Case, director of communications for Atlab Australia, agrees. ‘Usually we’ll do a film out test just at a few critical spots so everyone’s comfortable with what they want to see,’ he says, ‘The sooner in the piece they come to us the better.’

Don’t Supersize Me

Keep in mind that post production houses can’t work miracles. You can’t make a proverbial silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Watch your formats throughout filming and editing, and keep them closely aligned instead of going from compressed video to in-camera film and back again.

‘You’ve got to manage the workflow,’ is Dominic Case’s advice. ‘We see a lot of work done on digital, and the problem is when nothing matches and you shift from one format to the other. It’s crucial you manage calibrating in the digital realm well so what you see on film is exactly what you’re expecting to see when you do digital versions.

Data: The New Film?

Steve Dunn neatly sums up the changes wrought by digital filmmaking and post production. ‘The power you’ve got underneath your fingers in colour grading and digital manipulation is immense,’ he says. ‘When you finish the film in a normal film laboratory you don’t have anything like that, you have 5% of those powers.

But as John Fleming points out, there are still hurdles to get around even when you’ve completely digitised your project. ‘You’ve shot video at 25 frames a second,’ he explains. ‘When it’s projected in a cinema it’s projected at 24 frames a second, so the images will be moving 4% slower. That’s not a major issue until you come to the sound, which will also be running slower.

‘The issue is because voices and music will pitch down. The dialogue can be dealt with by pitch correction, but with music you’re usually changing the key when you correct the pitch.’

In fact, Fleming suggests that holding off on the musical score until after the film output is a good idea, so as to align it to the film rather than video frame rate.

The Future

So what about the future of full digital image capture, post production, transmission and projection? Will post houses with no SPFX production departments die off without film processing?

‘Digital post is here to stay,’ John Fleming agrees, ‘it’s definitely confronting the way films are being made in film laboratories. Grading and other image processing is still there, it’s just happening with digital tools. Instead of cutting a negative, we have to scan and conform it.’

Dominic Case adds that DV is not only here to stay, it’s still evolving, and we’re collectively learning all the time.

‘Just about everything’s changed over the last five years,’ he thinks. ‘It’s a lot faster and easier. Everything we get needs a different approach, so more people are getting wise to the pitfalls. If you go somewhere reputable, they’ve probably seen the traps people have fallen for.’