A DIT Tells All
CreativeCOW presents A DIT Tells All -- ARRI Feature

Los Angeles, California USA
CreativeCOW.net. All rights reserved.

Welcome to my world. I serve as the Digital Image Technician (DIT) on feature films, TV shows, TV commercials and music videos.

The type of projects I work on vary from TV series like Undercovers on NBC; to Britney Spears' music video "I Wanna Go" (seen in the title graphic above), commercials, spots for the CW's Hart of Dixie, Hot in Cleveland; to feature releases Atlas Shrugged, Insidious, Fred 2 (Night of the Living Fred), and three not-yet-released features: Sparks, K-11, and Maniac.

The job of a DIT is on the move. In years past, a DIT was a camera engineer (managed the cameras) and color timer (set looks). Today, we perform a host of pre-post tasks: such as manage and backup of on-set data, QC footage for problems, assist the DP with exposure settings, make exposure correction, develop looks with the DP that will be applied to dailies, creation of dailies for computer, iPad/iPhone and cloud delivery, perform primary color grading -- and even troubleshoot the camera when necessary.

The tools needed to accomplish these tasks are constantly evolving, and after much research and experimenting, I've come up with my own set of on-set tools.

To begin, the core of any DIT cart system is the computer. I chose the Mac Pro 2.4Ghz Quad-Core Xeon with "Westmere" processors. I suggest that you not buy additional RAM when ordering your Mac Pro, because Apple RAM is more expensive. I have 20GB, four from the original 8GB included with the Mac purchase, and 16GB from Crucial.com, my choice for reliable aftermarket RAM for several years.

In outfitting the Mac Pro, I started with a robust video card, an ATI Radeon 5870, which provides decent performance. At the time I purchased my last tower, I had no idea I would be evolving into a full-fledged on-set colorist. Now that I am using DaVinci Resolve, I should have at least one NVIDIA Quadro 4000 (you can have as many as 3 when using an expansion chassis). The NVIDIA uses CUDA technology to enhance productivity. In the case of Resolve, it uses the GPU to allow real time playback with multiple nodes.

My hard drive choices are equally scrutinized. All drives have the capacity to fail. I've seen my share, and I advise you not to shop at BestBuy for your system drives or client drives -- maybe your iTunes collection, but not your precious footage.

I tend to purchase Hitachi enterprise drives, as not only do they come with a 5-year warranty, but they are rated for 24/7 use. Not that my machines are on for that length of time, but to know the drives are built to withstand that type of load gives me a bit more assurance.

I typically try to populate all 4 HDD slots in the tower. That way I have two cloned boot drives (you never know when one might pose a problem), and two extra storage drives. Part of my job is to get my system going and keep it going, no matter what, so having a full clone, in case of a catastrophic event, is crucial to the survival of the DIT -- and his/her work.

Click on individual images to zoom. Above, in the cart's interior, a closer look at the REDmag SSD card reader for Epic, Scarlet and RED MX; the Maxx Digital Evo Mini rackmount 12TB RAID; and the APC RT 1500 Smart UPS. Outside the cart on the right: Cart-spresso!

My workstation was set up primarily as a RED DIT cart, and while that is the majority of my jobs, the cart can also handle ARRI Alexa, Sony PMW-F3, Canon 5D MKII, Silicon Imaging SI-2K, and many other cameras.

To ingest RED footage, I have the RED Station REDmag SSD Card reader to use with newer EPICs, and SCARLETs and the RED MX. For older REDs, I use the RED Station Compact Flash card reader, and FW800 cables for the RED RAM and RED Drives. Caution: these drives require a power cable.

The great thing about using the RED Stations is that they all have eSATA ports, so your transfer speeds to off-load are high. Another caution: if you are shooting to CF cards on the older REDs, never use the less expensive card readers, as they have a tendency to overheat. When they overheat, the transferred data will come in corrupted. Trust me -- I've seen it.

In handling RED footage, one quickly learns that you cannot play back or work with full resolution 4K files without a little help. Help in this case comes in the form of a PCI card, aptly named RED Rocket.

RED Rocket PCI card
RED Rocket PCI card.

Before RED Rocket, playback was only possible at 1/4 or lower quality, and if you wanted to transcode your R3D RAW footage, it took forever. I think the ratio was about 20:1 (depending on what computer you use), so me process you long time.

Then along came the RED Rocket, and now you are able to playback in real time at 4K/5K, and transcode at real time or better. The Rocket is an invaluable tool, and although it's pricey ($4750), it pays for itself in short time.

With all the file processing that goes on during an average day, storing those files can be a challenge. My solution is a Maxx Digital Evo Mini 12TB RAID.

Because I'm transferring a lot of data between drives, I've also installed a Maxx Digital 4 port eSATA PCI card. This gives me faster transfer than FW800, about 300MB/s. I also have installed an ATTO R680 mini SAS PCI card, and depending on how many drives I have in the RAID, it can give me up to 600MB/s.

Above, ColorEdge CG232W 22.5" (57 cm)
Hardware Calibration LCD Monitor
EVO Mini
Above, Maxx Digital Evo Mini 12TB.
ProEdit M RAID
Above, ProEdit M RAID by Maxx Digital.
It's a simple system, and has excellent transfer time. I can typically hold an entire feature's worth of data (R3Ds and transcodes), before I have to swap out and exchange the drives. My unit is rack mounted, but the Evo Mini also comes in a desktop version.

The desktop EvoVR/Mini (which has two I/O options: eSATA on the VR or SAS connection on the Mini) is my choice for client master drives on shoots over two weeks. These drives come in configurations of 4TB, 8TB or 12TB.

For smaller jobs, I encourage my clients to purchase Maxx Digital Edit Vault (up to 3TB), or Maxx Digital ProEdit M RAID (up to 6TB). I always suggest that the client buy two identical drives, one serving as a backup to the other. Having a total of three backups (client has two, I have one) makes the producers feel safe. Also, having my own copy allows the editorial team to make requests for additional transcoding after the show has wrapped, without having to messenger me the master drives.

That brings me to my monitor. This is where I get totally stoked, as I have the EIZO 232W monitor.

The 232W is one of EIZO's best monitors (and one of the best overall), as it is an ideal monitor for both on-set referencing (connected directly to camera), and editing or color grading in post. It has DVI input and 2-SD/HDI or dual-link SDI inputs for transferring uncompressed video signals. It has 3D LUT which allows for previewing how colors will be reproduced on final deliverables. It features 10 bit simultaneous display, which means more that one billion colors can be shown on-screen at once, thus virtually eliminating color and grayscale banding.

The EIZO also comes with its own calibration software, Color Navigator, which when used with a calibration device such as X-Rite ColorMunki, can quickly calibrate brightness, white point, and gamma. The 232W also has preset color modes, including REC 709, that can be implemented with the push of a button.

On occasion, the production needs quick proxy files for view, or to send to the editor. When this need arises, I use a Teradek Cube. It's an amazing little device, about the size of an iPhone 4. It can be set up to stream video to iPad to be used in place of client monitor, and can broadcast live to the Internet, such as via Livestream. It can even capture HD files to a computer.

With apps like LivePlay, Cube turns your iPad into a video village -- all captured clips are completely organized by roll and take. In order to use the Cube in this manner, you need to have a strong WiFi router to connect both your Cube and your laptop -- I recommend the D-Link DIR 825. I have to say, there is a bit of configuring you have to do before you are streaming data, but once you have it locked in, you're good to go.

Teradek has also updated their product line to include Case, a Cube-enabled device that does not require the setup and configuration that the basic Cube does, so you are up and running from the start.

Holding all of these components together is my cart.

I have a custom-built BigFoot Mobile Cart made by Doug Solis in Northern California. Doug can configure a cart to meet your needs. The one I own can hold all the components listed above, plus a second Mac Pro. With the large maintenance-free wheels, these carts glide easily over cables, giant cracks, rough and uneven roadways, while cushioning and protecting your expensive gear.

My cart also sports a strong articulating arm, which allows the monitor to be swung wide in any direction, and can be adjusted for sitting or standing positions. The arm also rotates, so I can adjust the monitor in a vertical (portrait) orientation.

Click on individual images to zoom. The custom made BigFoot Mobile Cart. Notice the articulating arm in the image to the right.

To keep me powered up, I have the APC RT 1500 Smart UPS battery backup system. With all the gear on my cart, the unit will keep me powered up for just over 30 minutes should some over-zealous gaffer, PA, or locations manager pull my properly taped-off plug. This is bound to happen to a DIT from time to time, so make sure you have this in between your power outlet and your computer and hard drives. It just might save your files and your job.

For ingesting RED files, Von uses the R3D Data Manager
When it comes to my job on set, I use the following software. For ingesting RED files, R3D Data Manager. This is checksum verification software, and allows me to copy and verify each roll of footage.

If I'm working an ARRI Alexa, Canon 5D MKII or Sony F3, I use ShotPut Pro, or Al3xa Data Manager with the same verification process. These programs all share one nice feature -- they all have the ability to transfer (backup) to multiple destinations. I can transfer footage to four different hard drives if needed, with one action.

Warning! Unverified drag and drop to transfer your files is like having unprotected sex. You are rolling the dice that all will go well. RED has a proprietary software for converting Redcode raw data: REDCine-X. REDCine is a full-bodied program where you can view all your footage, make exposure and color changes, sync audio, crop, and export out to various formats for editing. Think of REDCine-X as the Adobe Lightroom equivalent for RED files. I start by making sure the exposure is proper for the scene, and make an adjustment, if needed. Next, I establish a look (LUT) with the DP. But if the DP can't spend the time, I'll do a very general look of my own. Most important, I want the skin tones proper (this is why I have the AC shoot a gray card), and I will desaturate, add a little contrast, and apply an S-curve. The nice thing about RCX is that once I create a look, I can save it as a preset. Now I have the opportunity to apply that look to any file I desire.

If the job is Alexa, I have the DP shoot in Log-C. Once I transfer the footage from the shooting media, I'll open up Davinci Resolve, begin a new project, create a LUT (I rarely use the canned LUT), tweak the adjustment, and export. I find Resolve is excellent, and you can make quick work of one light very easily. I've pre-graded many features, TV shows, and music videos using this method, and the results are always stunning.

Once the file looks good, I sync the audio. I've had the fortune to work with Zsolt Magyar, a brilliant sound mixer. Zsolt labels each sound take with the scene and take info. This is genius. With RCX, you have the ability to sync sound based on TC, but if by chance TC is off or missing, you can manually link (slip) an audio file with the RED file -- especially if your mixer has labeled it with the proper scene and take name like Zsolt does.

At this point, I'm ready to export (transcode) my file. In order to render out ProRes or Avid (or DPX) files from the RED RAW R3D file in real time, you need the RED Rocket card I spoke of earlier. In RCX, I can also create an export preset, so if I have many ProRes or Avid files to output, I can just select that preset, click and I'm done.

On most jobs, I have to output to both Apple ProRes and Avid DNxHD. The reason for this is that the Avid files go to the editor, and the ProRes files get turned into dailies (for iPad or Cloud). The Avid workflow is pretty straight forward, and I QC each file in Avid Media Composer.

The dailies workflow is a bit more complicated. I first produce ProRes 422 (LT) files, then turn that file into an H.264 using Compressor. This is where a Matrox Compress HD card comes in handy, since it speeds up the process. You want the H.264 files to be small in size, yet with good visual quality, and Compressor with Matrox Max does a fantastic job at this.

Once the H.264 files are complete, they are uploaded to Wiredrive server. Wiredrive is an excellent way to deliver dailies. Dailies on Wiredrive can be viewed on laptop, computer, iPod or iPad over the Internet. The interface is secure, clean, and very intuitive. The people over at Wiredrive are very hands-on, and will do everything to make your project their priority.

Wiredrive web page screenshot

At this point you might be asking the question, "How do you upload to Wiredrive from the field?" I have small portable WiFi hotspot. This hotspot gives me 4G data speeds, as much as 15Mbps down, and 1.5Mbps up. It fits in my pocket, and works as my home and travel connection to the Internet. There are faster services out there, and you can get as much as 20Mbps down, and 20Mbps up -- but expect to pay more.

My cart and gear are great for current work, but depending on my role as a DIT on future jobs, my equipment and software and skills will always be evolving.

Von Thomas

Von Thomas
Los Angeles, California USA

Von carved out a career as an advertising, fashion and beauty photographer before founding Digital Tech NYC in New York. With the advent of digital cinema, he returned to Los Angeles and quickly became a bi-coastal "go to guy" for his skills both on the set, and as a trainer.

Von now leads DIT workshops worldwide as he continues his work as a DIT and dailies colorist on feature films, episodic TV, webisodes, music videos, and commercials. And as he reminds us, "It's pronounced D.I.T., not 'dit' as in 'sit.'"