Even all-digital, file-based films are still shown mostly on film. That's why Mike Lehman is helping indie filmmakers get their work onto the worldwide standard for theatrical exhibition.
The report of my death is an exaggeration," wrote Mark Twain, and the same could be said for motion picture film. As digital capture supplants the use of conventional motion picture cameras and film stock, and we race toward digital cinema, the usage of motion picture film will diminish - but it certainly will not be eliminated.
A digital negative (DN) finish is still a common end result of digital intermediate workflows. Big studios typically strike multiple DNs, then make a limited number of prints from the negative, to finish an order of perhaps thousands of release prints for a major feature.
Whatever medium they shoot with, independent producers still distribute the majority of their films on film. Once they leave major cities, indie producers simply don't have the same kind of access to theaters with digital projectors. This is even more true outside the US, where only a very small number of digital screens is available even for major studios. Having a 35mm print in hand allows distributors greater flexibility in choosing the venues for the film, without having to find a digital projector equipped theater, or renting digital projection equipment.
Shooting high-resolution video is becoming simple enough, but turning that into high-quality 35mm film prints still is not. It can also be quite time-consuming.
The most common digital film printer, the ARRILaser, will complete a typical 2K resolution, 20-minute film reel negative on intermediate stock, an ultra-fine grain, low-speed emulsion, in about 20 hours. ARRI has announced the ARRILaser2, which is twice as fast: the 20-minute same reel, printed in 10 hours.
This is a far cry from when a single 35mm cine FRAME could take upwards of one hour to expose on the first generation of film recording devices, using 100 speed camera emulsion. However, in a typical film lab, a single reel might be completed in five minutes or less. So much for "antique" analog equipment.
The digital world is now catching up. The Cinevator Five from Norway's Cinevation can shoot 2K material in real time, at 24 frames per second. It exposes a 20-minute reel in 20 minutes - rather than 20 hours, as with the ArriLaser - to traditional intermediate negative for a digital negative or interpositive; or to release print stock as "direct to print."
CG, VFX, AND FILM PROCESSING
My first experience with digital film recording was in the early 80s, at the New York Institute of Technology's seminal Computer Graphics Lab on Long Island. I handled all digital transfer to both cine and still film. I assembled imagery for a number of art shows, including the 1982 and 1983 Siggraph Art Shows, a couple of record albums, demo reels, and cine filmouts for the legendary CGL "Works" project.
After CGL, I did a stint on the traditional analog visual effects team for "Ghostbusters" and "2010." I later worked as a laboratory technician at the majority of Hollywood's large motion picture labs.
There was a five-year detour into aerospace, where I worked on film-image measurement projects, on tooling for space-bound hardware.
In 1994, I was one of two lead coordinators on the digital visual effects team on "Terminal Velocity," ending up as the liaison between the VFX facility and the film's producers. I also handled a majority of the business end of the VFX office.
The Cinevator Five film recorder. Film is threaded onto the reels, where it is exposed by DLV. The print job is controlled via the touchscreen, at right. See title graphic for Cinevator in use at Tunnel Post.
When that film wrapped, I moved on to Walt Disney Feature Animation, where I spent five years handling the film recording, as well as some scanning, for newly-released animated features including "Pocahontas," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and "Fantasia 2000," and the theatrical re-release of "Beauty and the Beast."
After Disney, I put together an ArriLaser-based output environment at Picture Mill, a VFX, trailer and title boutique, before moving on to the DFILM department at CFI, which later was incorporated into Technicolor.
DFILM also used CRT-based Celco film recorders for 70mm IMAX output, including James Cameron's "Ghosts of the Abyss" and "Aliens of the Deep," and Tom Hanks' "Magnificent Desolation."
Given this experience in DI and film post, in September 2008, Tunnel Post in Santa Monica asked me to come on board to manage their Cinevator Five film printer, the required digital, sound, and film elements, and the resulting deliverables. This unit is one of only two in North America. The other is in the Technicolor lab facility in North Hollywood.
(Other installations worldwide include Giza, Mumbai, Moscow, Madrid, Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm, and Rome.)
DIRECT TO PRINT
The Cinevator is designed around the concept of "direct to print," imaging directly to release print stock, bypassing the digital negative process altogether. This allows the client who needs just a few prints (say, fewer than 100) to get them for a significantly lower cost; usually less than the cost of obtaining the digital negative by itself.
There are also potentially several fewer steps for processing, making for a much higher-quality print.
Laboratory stocks are ultra-fine grained stocks, whose very slow speed produces detailed images. Intermediate stocks have the familiar orange base, and are used to make intermediate negatives or intermediate positive prints, which are often referred to as "inter positives."
The intermediate or negative stocks from Kodak are 5242, which can be easily spliced back into acetate camera stocks; and 2242, which is coated onto an estar (a Kodak trade name for polyester) stock, which is more durable and has a longer preservation lifespan.
Print stocks are designed to be projected, and have a clear base. The print emulsions from Eastman Kodak are typically Vision 2383, which is a normal contrast fine grained print stock, and Vision Premier 2393, which has a bit more contrast with deeper blacks.
Since soundtrack is exposed onto the print as well, the Cinevator can print a traditional stereo analog sound track (with Dolby SR), a Dolby Digital soundtrack, and DTS soundtrack, SIMULTANEOUSLY, at the 24 frame per second real-time recording speed.
The Cinevator can also simultaneously expose subtitle text onto the image; resulting in an extraordinary high-quality subtitled film print, without the degradation often introduced with other subtitling methods.
The design of the Cinevator is quite similar to the film printers known as panel printers. These have the original or intermediate negative coming in contact with the duplicating negative or print stock, and printed with a calibrated light source.
Instead, the Cinevator uses calibrated LED (light emitting diode) illumination technology to project light through an assembly of DLP chips, similar to the DLP projectors used for digital cinema or home theater projection.
Rather than projecting the image across a room to a screen, the Cinevator image is projected only a few inches, into a motion picture film movement holding the laboratory negative or print emulsion.
Above, inside the Cinevator Five. Below, some of the touchscreen controls.
One resulting requirement from this design is that the Cinevator, like most production film printers, has to be operated in a darkroom environment. Laboratory film stock is loaded onto the Cinevator in that darkroom environment. The Cinevator is then controlled from a touchscreen that has been filtered to be darkroom safe.
The Cinevator is controlled by an integrated PC running Red Hat Linux, with the data organization being handled by a MySQL database. Image files are served from a 2K real-time media server running on a DVS Pronto RAID. Its Windowsbased software synchronizes playback of the image and analog sound as needed.
(Dolby Digital or DTS sound tracks are handled with external equipment.) The Pronto can be loaded with DPX digital image files and .wav files for sound. It can also capture image and sound from HD video, using either a DVI or HD-SDI interface.
The bulk of the work at Tunnel Post has been on the DVI interface, just about equally split between DPX files that have been transferred from the Tunnel coloring suite, or from client data drives. The remaining half originates in one of the HD video formats, captured to the Pronto as DPX files.
INDIE FILM AND DIRECT TO PRINT
Direct to print finish is an ideal alternative for independent filmmakers who, whether they shoot digital or film, need to deliver 35mm prints: it costs much less than the digital negative/traditional print workflow. By eliminating the expense of making a digital negative, prints can be delivered for a fraction of the cost.
We have used this unique direct to print capability to output prints for a variety of independent features, including "The English Surgeon," 'Herb and Dorothy', and "Mary Pickford, Muse of the Movies," all with analog sound tracks.
We have also done a number of projects with Digital Dolby sound tracks, including the short, "Bakeshop Ghost," which premiered at the Seattle Film Festival, and a feature length documentary on the Oaxacan artist, Francisco Toledo. Both required outputs on Eastman Kodak Vision Premier Print film, a stock that produces deeper blacks and richer color, and which required specially-tailored exposure setups.
The Toledo project was unique in that Tunnel did both a digital negative without subtitles, and three direct to print outputs on the Premier stock with subtitles.
One print was shot with an English set of subtitles, and the remaining two prints were shot with both English and Spanish subtitles. The two subtitle languages were required because principals in the documentary speak Spanish, English, and a much older indigenous language. This combination of subtitles makes the film accessible to the main audience of Spanish and English speakers. Among our next projects is a direct to print finish for a short shot on the Nikon D90 by a Brazilian filmmaker.
Cinevation will soon be adding support for black and white intermediate stock. While this may sound like a step backward in the world of digital color imaging, it will be a great step forward in the preservation of the moving image.
Motion picture film, and the workflows that surround it have been in place and refined for over 100 years. They still have an advantage or two over the digital. Don't forget: the earth's magnetic field is trying to erase all the data on magnetic media - including your computer's hard drive - from the moment it is recorded. Film can maintain its integrity for many, many decades.
The film stock with the longest lifespan is panchromatic dupe emulsion on polyester base, currently used to make color separations. These are the red, green and blue extractions of the color image, printed to black and white - much the same way that Photoshop displays RGB channels as three black and white images. The three extractions of the film can be reconstituted either through optical printing, or, more recently, digital scanning and recomposition back into the color image.
The digital process to make these separation masters takes as long as a color negative output for three separate outputs: one for red, one for green, and one for blue. The current preservation workflow requires either three recorders to accomplish this task simultaneously, or using a single recorder, and taking three times as long to create the complete set of preservation masters. Using the Cinevator to output the three separation masters at a rate of roughly one 20-minute master every hour would be a breakthrough in the current preservation workflow.
As it has been in the past, film will remain the primary medium for worldwide theatrical exhibition for quite a long time, even for filmmakers who shoot digitally. Direct to print is the fastest and most economical route for filmmakers on the road to high-quality 35mm delivery.
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Santa Monica, California USA
Mike has been involved with digital imaging and film for over 20 years, responsible for a number of 35mm and 65mm digital negatives and post production, including those in the 3D stereoscopic IMAX format. He is a member of the Cinematographers Guild, the Art Directors Guild, SMPTE, and the British Kinematograph Sound & Television Society. And as he told us, "I've been coming to the Cow pretty much since it first began."