What is a Digital Imaging Technician - Interview with a DIT

Griff Thomas

If you work in production or post you have probably heard the term DIT mentioned. The DIT is a new job that that is on the rise with the popularity of digital filmmaking with RED & ARRI cameras. It is a hybrid of production and post production (part camera department, part post). The DIT ingests the media, consults with the DOP, and does onset color correction as the footage is usually shot in Log and appears flat.

Wikipedia defines a DIT as: A digital imaging technician (DIT) works in collaboration with a cinematographer on work flow, systemization, signal integrity and image manipulation to achieve the highest image quality and creative goals of cinematography in the digital realm. (Jonny Elwyn has a nice read on how to become a DIT.)

I interviewed Griff Thomas (owner of Small Axe Media), a DIT in Atlanta, GA that specializes in commercials and working with the Arri Alexa. This is what he said about his experience as a DIT.

What is a DIT’s job?

A DIT is essentially the liaison between production and post production. I typically work with digital cinema cameras and support the camera department, helping the first camera assistant and the director of photography get the most out of the camera. This includes helping set exposure, knowing the optimal ISO settings for the camera, getting the most dynamic range the camera can offer and making sure that you're not clipping, losing any information.

So ultimately, I’m like the backstop for the camera department. Basically I ensure that we are getting the most out of the camera and that post is not going to have any issues with the files that we are generating. We check all the the data that’s coming off the camera, make sure that the digital negatives are fine, and make safe and accurate copies of information to deliver to post production.

Redundancy (Backing up the Media)

In the typical workflow, I get the magazines from the camera. I’ll ingest them to RAID 5 (if one drive fails you are ok) storage on my my cart, and I'll make a disk image (clone) of the camera masters. From that point, I'll use terminal scripts to do backups to the production drives, and then I'll use the disk images on my RAID storage to do any sort of transcode, and any “one lights” to additional file format for Post.

The first or one light Color correction originated in the day of film production when there were often two stages to color correction. The first, known as the one light, happened during the telecine transfer of film to video tape and the second pass once the film was finished. The overall goal of the first light is to balance the image, paying special attention to contrast and color balance and not clip and highlight or shadow values. With the digital cinema cameras and recorders in use today, the goal is increased latitude. To achieve this added latitude (up to 14 stops in some cases), camera makers are flattening the gamma curve to protect highlight and shadow values on the files and output signals. The result is an image that is flat and washed out looking straight from the camera.

I will often correct the live output from camera for video village and the DP/Director's monitor. I also am responsible for monitoring exposure during the process as I am shaping the video levels and monitoring the raw or Log signals. The DP and I will work together to craft a look he is happy with and insure his vision is translated to Post. Depending on the goals of production or upon request of Post I can transcode work files with the corrections baked in or simply send along CDLs or 3D Luts with the look we saw on set (so they can use with their grading systems).

On the Mac there is an app that allows you to send commands to the OS much like old MS DOS prompts in the early days of PCs, called Terminal. It is handy for making changes to drives and files below the operating system. I am not one who crafts his own code, but know folks who do. I borrow scripts from these unix guys to come up with robust and free solutions to everyday tasks. Instead of keeping up with the latest versions of R3D Data Manager, Al3xa Data Manager or ShotPut Pro I utilize a terminal script "rsync" for making fast and exact copies of camera magazines.

It works like this: Open Terminal, copy and paste rsync -rptWv --stats into the box. Next drag your source directory into the box followed by your destination folder, hit enter. Terminal builds a list and executes the copy all while creating a checksum report which you can copy and paste into a text doc. Pretty simple really and very reliable. There are lots for command scripts out there. Friend someone who knows how to code unix, and challenge them with script requests

Digital Imaging Assistant 1

Gear

I have two carts, and the one I'm using the most now is a Macbook Pro laptop (Thunderbolt), with a Thunderbolt connection to an AJA IO XT. The cart also has a Thunderbolt PCI expansion chassis that is connected to a rack mounted 4 bay RAID. I use the AJA card for configuring my RAIDS.

I typically use 3cP for onset image management and generating Dailies. I use a broadcast monitor (TV Logic) for monitoring and for doing my first lights.

Working on Commercial Shoots

Mostly for commercials we’re shooting with the Alexa to SxS cards. A standard workflow is to shoot 12 bit QuickTimes In Log C. I monitor the camera’s built in REC 709 look up table, then I’ll take those camera masters, the log C and the ProRes files and then do a primary color correction and generate deliverables for post.

It depends on the job, but often I’ll deliver ProRes files with a baked in look that the DP has approved. I’ve got an upcoming job where I’ll be transcoding to DNX36 for an AVID offline.

Data Wrangling vs DIT

Managing data is definitely part of my job as DIT, but it’s more than just copying and pasting the information from the magazines. I feel like if I don’t have a conversation with the post house before I get on set I’m really doing post a disservice because, I think part of my job with handling the media is to make sure that it’s safe and protected, but also so that I’m setting the assistant editor or the editor up at post with exactly what they need to get started. Hopefully I’m saving them a day in edit by having the material transcoded and organized in a way that makes sense to production as well as post production.

What department hires you?

I typically am hired by the production managers. So it’s definitely production. Sometimes it’s the production manager themselves, sometimes it’s the first camera assistants put me on, you know, so that I’m part of the actual camera crew. Other times you forge relationships with DP’s.

Digital Imaging Assistant 2

What is your role in working with the DP?

Essentially the DIT is an extension of the DP. You really are there to have their back. You’re monitoring what he’s capturing, so you want to have conversations with the DP. The conversation is generally “hey, I’m seeing this, is that what you’re intention is? I’m seeing that these fluorescents are getting a little green or the exposures is a little down and you’re getting some flaring”. It’s difficult, you never want to question them, but at the same you just want to make sure you are on the same page.

There are some DP’s I work with where I’m very hands on, where they want me right in their back pocket and a lot of critical exposure and color temperature decisions are left up to me. Other times I just sort of back into the shadows, process media and only come out is if there is some sort of problem.

It’s rewarding when you get to work with DP’s who value and understand your role on set and that you’re not challenging them, you’re not there, you know, to tell them how to do their job, you’re there to support them.

Are DIT’s in the Union?

I’m in the 600 Local Camera Union. Some jobs require you to be union. Living in Atlanta, you know, we’re a right to work state, so some jobs are signatory and some aren’t. It got to be where I was working on more national commercial spots which were union jobs and I felt like not being part of the union could cost me work.

I know that if I’m on a union job I’m never going to have a problem with payment, I’m never going to have a problem working with incompetent crew. I mean everyone is always top notch and you get training from the Union which is good.

What’s your relationship with post houses?

Well typically with post, the producers will call and I’ll find out what the job is/where we’re shooting. I’ll usually have a conversation with the camera assistant and/or the DP and I’ll find out a little bit more about the type of job that we’re shooting. Whether it’s an Effects, Green Screen, or high frame rate shoot.

Once I find out what the overall goal of production is, I contact the post house and find out what their post specs are and make sure that we’re going to deliver everything they need. So as far as speaking with post, we’re basically preparing the files that post is going to offline.

I’m the liaison between production and post production as I’m creating the material that they edit with. They’re going to edit with my offline files, they’re gonna online from the camera masters so we need to make sure that there is an appropriate relationship between those files and there’s not going to be any issues when they go to do their final conform and move on to grading and post sound.

What kind of skill set would you recommend to people who are interested in this kind of work?

Other DIT’s that I work with in town, came from a production with a camera department background. Maybe they were second assistant camera then they moved from there on to being DIT.

My background is in post production background. I did post for about 12 years before I became interested in doing on set work, and it was really because of the move to digital, digital cinematography (Red Camera). There was some confusion in the traditional camera department because a lot of these guys were film guys and they didn’t like or trust the digital world and it was a bumpy transition.

Being in post, I was the person that had to translate what was going wrong with the files and answer a lot of questions about what’s the best way, workflow wise, for the Red cameras, to get these files in to Post from the camera to offline through online. So that’s where I moved into the role of being on set.

What other gear is essential?

You’ve got to have a good monitor. You’ve got to have good charts. I use DSC lab cards, and gray cards are always nice to have to help set exposure. I don’t use a light meter, typically the gaffers and DP’s are using light meters. I’m typically using waveform monitors, Vectorscopes, & the RGB parade.

Essentially I am looking at the image post sensor. I do want to know as much about the cameras as possible, but I’m not usually touching the camera. Typically the camera assistants are responsible for the camera, so, you know, you have a good relationship with the camera assistants and they will execute any sort of changes to the camera that were deemed necessary. Whether that’s changing color temperature, exposure, that sort of thing, we leave that to the camera assistant.

I was actually on a job not too long ago where there were 3 DSLR’s (Canon 7 D) and we had lots of duplicate file names, which we know we can’t have.

I discovered a $10 app called Name-Mangler and it allowed me to go in and basically batch process changes to the file names. I fell in love with that thing quick. As you can imagine we had the better part of a thousand files between the three cameras for two days and making unique real names is super important.

What sort of situations do you troubleshoot?

If you were going to do a green screen shot with the Red 1, that the sensor wants to shoot daylight, so if you shoot Tungsten you’re going to make a noisier image.

You make sure your DP knows that so he can talk to his gaffer and you can be prepared for that.. Whether you’re bringing in gels or you’re gonna use a filter or, you’re gonna use daylight on set.

If you are shooting Alexa for a typical commercial workflow, where you’re recording to QuickTime’s or to DNX, you need to set color temperature and you need to be pretty accurate with getting the right color temperature and then even correcting for green or magenta.

Knowing how to use your test equipment, knowing how to use your charts and knowing how to use your scopes. It’s critical, because you have to make sure that you’re capturing all the huge dynamic range (14 stops) that the Alexa offers.

If you’re gonna shoot over 60 frames with the Alexa, you need to make sure the camera houses unlock the camera for high speed. The Alexa will do up to 120 frames, but you have to have the high speed enabled on the camera and you also have to have the right SxS cards.

Digital Imaging Assistant 3

What do you enjoy the most about DIT work?

Coming from post, often times you’re stuck in the same room, it’s dark , you’re alone, and it seems like the days are longer.

Being on set it can be super-hot, or you’re in the rain and it can be miserable. But at the same time, it’s fun to be in the moment. In production, sometimes the creativity just happens in a moment. There’s so much collaboration between all the departments on set. Everybody’s just always thinking on their feet, and it’s fun to be a part of that team element.

It's definitely fun to take their image directly from the camera, load it onto my cart and within moments, you know, show the DP, the Director, the agency people, what they’ve captured and what sort of range and flexibility we have with manipulating the image. It’s fun and it’s powerful, and you have basically moved the film lab from miles away to being on set.

Do you have a process for approaching DIT work?

You’re often working consecutive long days with short turnarounds and you get fatigued. At the end of the day, when they call Wrap, you have to finish your transcodes and finish getting the material archived and safe. You and everybody wants to get the hell out of there and it’s hard to focus.

For that reason, I have a routine. On my card reader I’ve got multiple card slots, so for odd number magazines when the black tape comes off it goes in front of that slot, and I typically always put odd number cards in the left, and put even cards on the right.

So at the end of your third 14 hour day, when you get distracted and somebody’s asking you a question, you know if it came out of that side it’s there.

Paperwork wise I do a log which indicates what’s on each magazine. I’ll typically include the check sum, and then a quick summation, like A 14 had this many clips, they ran this long and they were scenes 101 through 104.