Earlier this fall, the Association of Independent Creative Editors (AICE) released a short “recommended practices” document about digital dailies, which represents an important milestone that isn’t often discussed in the digital post landscape. Now that digital cinema cameras have begun to dominate film production, it is time for the digital dailies process to step out of adolescence into the adult world.
AICE describes itself as an “international association which represents the interests of independent creative editorial companies and their editors.” Here at Local Hero, we pitch to everyone that today’s DI is far more than color, and creative editing is the same, going far beyond cuts and dissolves. Long before any of those creative image-manipulation happens, however, there are very practical decisions to be made about digital dailies.
Many standard procedures have been overturned with the digital cinema revolution, but we shouldn’t think of them as gone, only as reinvented. One of the most dangerous perceptions is that all of the big-ticket expenses that were traditionally handled by a post house can now be done by a tech-savvy PA with a MacBook Pro.
We’ve seen this perception affect every area of filmmaking: first with introduction of Final Cut Pro, putting expensive film cutters out of business. The visual effects industry saw low-cost tools such as After Effects get more and more powerful, moving much of their business to the garage, and the same has happened with same with audio, as Pro Tools systems get simpler and cheaper. DI is newly struggling with this mentality with the introduction of a free version of DaVinci Resolve, one of the industry’s most popular color correctors.
High-end digital cinema cameras promise a world free of film labs, photochemical processing and telecine sessions. And while it is true that with many cameras you can pull a card out of the camera and walk it over to your editing system, that’s a drastic oversimplification of the needs of a feature film post production process.
The new face of camera negative: hard drives (Photo courtesy Local Hero)
The creation of digital film dailies needs to be executed with the same care as with film rushes. A post professional needs to oversee all aspects of dailies creation and archiving camera digital negative so that the editing and finishing process can be accomplished in an efficient way. Mistakes made in the dailies have far-reaching, expensive consequences down the line.
The most important part of the AICE recommendations is this: “Whether the digital dailies are created by the post facility, a laboratory, on set by a DIT or by another competent vendor, the agency or client must be informed that the cost to prepare digital dailies—a necessary part of the post production process—must be included in either the production company’s or the post facility’s budget. AICE recommends that this responsibility for creating dailies must be assigned and agreed upon during pre-production so that all parties know who is responsible for the work before the first image is recorded.”
There is significant time and technical expertise required in proper digital dailies. It is a line-item to be budgeted and scheduled properly. While the marketing campaigns from the camera manufacturers make the process sound easy, consider these challenges below, all of which we deal with constantly as a DI company.
Many films don’t stick with one digital camera format. Most feature productions require several different cameras to accomplish their shooting goals. Each camera format has a specific way that it should be handled properly in post.
We’ve seen attempts to edit directly from the raw camera source in the NLE, which lead to numerous headaches and slowdowns in the editing, even with expensive systems. Today, the most practical way to achieve reliable, efficient performance in an editing system is to have transcoded proxy files with matching codec, frame rate and resolution.
A high-quality Digital Intermediate (DI) finishing process includes an extensive process of conforming an edit back to the original camera files in order to use the full resolution and color depth of the digital negative. In practicality this means rebuilding the entire edit of the film a second time, this time for the high-end color and VFX process.
Processing dailies and archiving digital negatives can be burdensome for a single DIT to handle, unless you hire a mobile digital lab such as Radar One (Photos Courtesy Local Hero)
“Raw” format dailies such as Red or Alexa, even on a fairly decent system, can take 20 hours of transcoding for every 1 hour of footage, unless expensive graphics cards and Raid arrays are installed. This is not always practical for a DIT that needs to remain mobile as the company moves locations. Add on top of that the web-friendly versions to be uploaded to secure websites, and you have a pile of work to do.
One film used several vendors to create dailies from their various camera sources. The result was that inside their Avid, the dailies metadata had at least 6 different flavors of “Reel ID,” the most common identifier to link back to the original camera file names. Each one of these had to be handled differently when conforming back to the camera original, losing several days to fixing the conform by hand.
Flavors of dailies metadata from a recent feature (Photos Courtesy Local Hero)
Popular smaller format cameras such as GoPro and DSLRs often end up using the same file name a few times over the course of a long shoot, and often start time code at zero for each shot. This can lead to much confusion and hand-fixing shots in the final conform process, unless the formats are properly renamed and timecoded to prepare for dailies.
Most digital footage is captured in a Raw or Log color space, which looks flat and low-contrast to the naked eye. In order for a Director of Photography’s intention to be shown in the edit suite, (where producers and financiers are often seeing footage for the first time), a proper color grade or LUT needs to be applied to the footage. This also is not a one-size-fits-all proposition.
Red Epic footage, graded vs. Raw color space (Photos Courtesy Local Hero)
One DP using the Alexa camera will not want the same color transform as a different DP using that same Alexa. It may depend on the lighting scenario on set, or the intended final color space. The filmmakers may also want to provide the DI colorist with those same LUT color transformations that they decided to use on set and for dailies, and making sure these get handed-off properly can also be tricky.
And last, maintaining at least three reliable copies of your original camera media is essential. On one project it was discovered that of the three (supposedly) identical archives of original files, two of them had an entire day’s shots either missing or unreadable, a near disaster for the film. One day of camera dailies can take 2 to 4 hours for each copy, depending on the external drive and connections used. Dailies should also be archived to LTO tape for long-term protection, as hard drives can fail.
Challenges aside, digital camera acquisition is certainly one of the most game-changing and democratizing forces in filmmaking today. Working with experienced professionals should always be the first way to go, but I wouldn’t dismiss those tech-savvy PA’s with their laptops. Their work on the bleeding edge will continue to keep the industry on its toes.