2018 was an insanely busy year for me. My normal work was consistent, but on top of that, I was tasked with the responsibility of coloring dailies for three large productions (a 35 day shoot feature, a 55 day shoot episodic, and a 25 day shoot pilot). That’s about half of the year. Most facilities that handle dailies have dedicated colorists, but Boston is a relatively small town, so I had to do double duty with my everyday work and dailies. It was extremely challenging, but very rewarding. I figured I’d share some of my experiences for those of you who are unfamiliar with the process or just curious as to what goes on behind the scenes.
The dailies process starts a couple of weeks before principal photography. It normally involves meeting with the Director, DP, and DIT as they test lenses and scout locations. At this point, everyone discusses the overall look of the film and LUTs are created. Depending on the DP, the LUTs are either created by the finishing colorist, DIT, or dallies colorist. Every job is different. At this point in the process, everyone should be on the same page with the overall look of the film.
Once production begins you’re kind of on your own. You may have a little communication with the DP from time to time, but not much. For the most part, no news is good news. They are so busy with the production that there is little time to worry about dailies.
In order to work through a production effectively and efficiently you need to surround yourself with a team that can support you. It’s critical. Having a dailies operator, producer, and assistant all play an incredibly important role. Understanding the process is by far the most important thing. If you’re just pressing buttons in a repetitive manner without actually understanding why, you’re going to get in a lot of trouble down the road in terms of workflow.
So let’s run through a typical day. You should make sure that you’re on the call sheet and any other email list that may pertain to you. That way you know when production will start for the day and can plan accordingly. The start of the the week normally has early call times and towards the end of the week the call times are later. That allows for everyone on the production to get rest as the week goes on. Anyone who has been on set before knows it’s a grueling process. Once the production wraps for the day, the footage is backed up and transferred onto a shuttle drive that is transported to the dailies facility. The footage is then ingested using some sort of software that can generate checksums. Shotput has worked quite well for us. These generate a report that verifies the footage is copied correctly and in it’s entirety. Another thing to keep in mind is that you need a significant amount of storage in order to accommodate all the footage involved in a high end production. The last thing you want to be dealing with is running out of storage halfway through the job. It’s shortsighted, dangerous and could put the footage in jeopardy. Which is the last thing you want as a dailies vendor. You’re not only being trusted with the color, but also the archiving and backing up of the footage as well.
Once everything is properly ingested it’s time to organize the footage. Attention to detail is critical. You consistently have footage needing to be ingested and keeping everything properly labeled will save you tons of time down the road. I normally sort folders by date (YYYY/MM/DD) so everything is organized chronologically. This method of organization has saved me on more than one occasion. Next you have to sync audio and tag metadata. Though most of the audio sync is automated, I find it good practice to check the clap and timecode on every shot. That way you can confidently say with 100% certainty that you’ve properly reviewed the sync. It’s also not a bad idea to look at the end of the clip as well to make sure sync hasn’t slipped. It shouldn’t, but crazier things have happened. It may seem like overkill, but when you find that one mishap you’ll have saved a lot of headaches.
For the metadata tagging, some of the information is embedded in the audio. When properly synced, it transfers over. However, there is some metadata that you have to enter manually. Episodes, shoot day, and LUT used are all examples of some of the metadata requested. Those requests normally come from the editor, as they help them stay organized throughout the duration of the shoot. The metadata is also quite handy during the VFX process as they work with LUTs, cameras type, lenses, etc. The more information that can be shared, the better.
It’s the job of the dailies colorist to make sure that the image is coming through in the manner in which the DP intended. Previous meetings and conversations should have already taken place, so you should have a good idea of what they’re looking for. Not only are you setting the look of the film, but you’re matching cameras. Most shoots have more than one camera rolling at a time. There may be little discrepancies between the angles of the cameras and it’s the your job to smooth those out. Once I’m happy with everything, I like to share a couple of representative stills via email so the DP can get a quick look at the footage. It’s more of a FYI than waiting for approval. They’re too busy to take time out of their schedule and approve. Which is why it’s so important that you’re on the same page from the start. You should view yourself as an extension of the DP and help bring their vision to life. After emailing out stills, I begin rendering to the requested deliverables (normally some flavor of DNX in addition to a more compressed streaming option). Sometimes the renders are quite long, so it’s a good idea to check in on your renders every once in awhile to make sure that nothing went awry.
Now it’s time for the dailies operator to take over. Whereas the dallies colorist is an extension of the DP, the dailies operator should be an extension of the editor. Before production starts, it’s important to have a detailed discussion with the editor and assistant editor. You want to make sure you know what they’re expecting in terms of editorial layout – bin structure, metadata, and file labeling are all unique for each and every production. It’s a good idea to run a test with them beforehand to make sure they like what they’re getting from you. Sometimes you have to roll with the punches and change some stuff on the fly, but for the most part, it should all be laid out before you start.
Once the material is organized to everyone’s liking, you have to upload the footage. We normally use Aspera. But have used other options as well. We recently used Resilio which worked very well. The footage is obviously the bulk of the data, but in addition to that you have to send the Avid bins and ALE so it can be organized on the back end by the assistant editor. It sounds kind of obvious, but you want to make sure the you have a fast internet connection. You’re generally moving 100+ GB of footage and if you’re running on a slow connection it can be an incredibly painful process. Up to this point, everything I have discussed is quite time sensitive. Everyone is looking to get the footage as quickly as possible. Directors frequently request to see rough cuts as they’re shooting scenes to make sure they’re getting all the necessary coverage. Moving through the footage has to be a highly detailed, yet time efficient process.
The last step of the dailies process is backing up and archiving. LTO drives are normally the weapon of choice. While checksumming the media to LTO it’s generally a good idea to make two copies. So you should have the footage in three locations. One on your local storage, and two LTO copies. There is a lot of money invested in these productions and you can never have too many backups or copies. Make sure that everything is stored in a safe location under lock and key. Security is a big deal with these type of projects. Once the production is complete you ship the LTOs to the finishing facility. Do not send them all at once. Send one of the copies in a secure package and once it arrives at it’s location ask them to confirm that everything mounts properly. Assuming everything is ok, then ship out the second batch. This is a good failsafe for anything getting damaged in transit to it’s final destination. Remember, you should also still have everything backed up on your local storage, but you can never be too safe.
Then that’s pretty much it. Do it again and again, day after day, for the length of the production. It’s a long process, often with very unusual hours. It’s important to get your rest and do your best to stay fresh. While it’s tempting to just grind through the footage, you’re only doing yourself a disservice. While it may work for shorter projects, that type of approach not sustainable for longer durations. You’re responsible for setting the look of the film and creating the base that will be used for the final color. Another thing to keep in mind is that you have to make sure that you grade within the proper CDL guidelines to ensure everything will transfer over properly to the finishing colorist. So you’re limited to the most basic controls on one node. No windows, keys, or transitions. Just simple RGB adjustments and saturation. It really makes you focus on the task at hand to bring the image to life. Consistency, scene continuity, and quality control are all a big part of the process. Have that in the front of your mind at all times and you should be good to go and enjoy the ride.