Richard Crudo: Video Dailies

From American Cinematographer, Penny-Wise, Image-Foolish? by Richard Crudo, ASC

{Misc. Excerpts}

Until recently, viewing a previous day's work onscreen in the form of print dailies was the industry standard for theater-bound film projects. Remarkably, throughout the entire history of the movie business, no one had ever flinched at this prospect. No line producers screamed about the cost, no directors complained that they couldn't watch dailies at home, and no editors balked because the cutting process was too slow. It simply was the way things were done. Nowadays, instances in which every circled take on a camera report is printed on film are becoming frighteningly less common particularly in the low-budget world, but even on some surprisingly high-end shows.

...Even though certain members of the production hierarchy may be satisfied to review performance or other key elements of a motion picture on tape, for a cinematographer engaged in shooting a feature, not being able to see printed film within a timely basis is the equivalent of flying blind.

...Some would claim this might reflect a purist or anti-progress attitude, but as anyone long involved in the industry would know, cinematographers have always led the charge into the technological future, and herein lies the weakness for much of the pro-video dailies sentiment. In a world in which directing and producing are continually proving to be entry-level positions, key management and creative slots above the cinematographer are often occupied by people whose knowledge of the job's requirements and experience with implementing them are to put it kindly limited. With the debate over film versus tape dailies, this inevitably invites a comparison of two processes which don't have anything in common.

...No matter what the format or how good the transfer, the current state of video technology quantifiably discounts precise judgment of every factor regarding lighting, exposure, filtration or scope as it relates to the big screen. In simpler terms, video dailies are useless to the feature cinematographer.

...If that's not enough, the digitizing process essential to computerized editing guarantees that even the most closely supervised video dailies will show a strange, Prozac-like veneer in the photography: all of the highs and lows are obliterated, and there's no real engagement with the emotion of the movie. It's almost like recording a breathtaking symphony only to play it back on a transistor radio. Video dailies also exhibit a more insidious ability to cover up any number of real or potential technical glitches, whether they're related to focus, registration or other factors. Tales of disastrous mishaps are legion and affect not only the cinematographer but everyone involved in the creative chain, from the producer and director on down.

...Early in my career I shot a feature during which I didn't see a frame of film onscreen until the answer-print stage. Despite my regular communication with the telecine operator, Super VHS, a beautifully balanced Sony 1910 monitor, innumerable gray cards and the strict attention we paid to exposure and color balance, I still wound up looking at a literal but totally uninspiring video image after wrap every evening. Little did I know that my problems had just begun. Eight months later, while making a check print at the same L.A. facility which processed and transferred the dailies, I found that my negative had been improperly treated at some point in its development. The damage was substantial, irreparable and very noticeable on the prints. Of course, at no time during the five-week shoot did the video dailies show any indication of irregularity. Instead of spotting and immediately correcting the problem by screening print film on the second morning of production, I was forced to spend six weeks and all the money saved by the producer's decision to use only video dailies forging an acceptable interpositive. What ultimately went out to festival and theater screens was an inferior product that cheapened the contributions of everyone involved. Plainly, the absence of print dailies ruined the movie, but in a twisted sense the ordeal was a blessing. The dissatisfaction and stress it caused were all I needed to decide that I'd never work that way again.

...One solution that will prevent similar debacles for productions that insist on video dailies is to negotiate for the Print Roll method. It's simple, fast and economical enough for all but the very lowest of low-budget shows, and while not the ideal way to do things, this method at least gives you a fighting chance to protect yourself. Assume you have four 1000' magazines assigned to your job, labeled A through D. Right off the bat each morning, Mag A is designated to be carrying the Print Roll. As such, it will be held back from recording any of the principal photography and used exclusively to shoot an MOS rehearsal with the actors or a run-through with the stand-ins, once the lighting is set. After this silent, non-official take is completed, Mag A is replaced on the camera by the appropriate Mag B, C or D, which is then used to film the actual scene. With Mag A the Print Roll established as the only roll to be printed, Mags B, C and D are now essentially the video roll mags since they're destined for video transfer only. The process is not at all cumbersome, and since you shoot your Print Roll without sound, it can be handled very quickly, provided the time is taken for rehearsal. Besides severely restricting the amount of footage actually printed, projected footage can be seen on an as-needed basis, whether it be a wide master alone, a single close-up or a short burst of every shot of the day.

...Why the occasional struggle, then? Perhaps on one side there's a lack of understanding as to the need of film dailies, along with inexperience and a false grasp of the economics involved. On the other side is an intense desire on the part of directors of photography to do the finest job possible. For the majority of cinematographers, shooting a film a labor of love. While long hours are standard for every person associated with a production, no member of the team works harder or has a greater sincerity in attaining the best possible look for the story.

- Richard Crudo, ASC

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