Digital Intermediate on this Sundance Film Creates a '70s Grind-House Look

Sundance is perhaps the most dynamic of independent film shows and certainly the biggest. From the start of the indie movement, what filmmakers have had in common at Sundance are projects long on passion and short on budget. Strapped resources have usually meant a lean palette of options for filmmakers where compromises occur from shooting to postproduction.
Oddly enough, the process of digital intermediate (DI) now done on virtually all Hollywood studio projects has not been seen as an Indy cost saver. But that’s the case for the mockumentary Finishing the Game – brainchild of filmmaker Justin Lin – inspired by the era of 70s grind-house martial arts films married to stylized comedy. The actual conceit of the film is an ironic look at casting the uncompleted feature “Game of Death” by martial arts legend Bruce Lee. Lin’s directing bio includes his directorial debut at 2002 Sundance with Better Luck Tomorrow that took him to studio projects such as Annapolis and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.

Click below to watch a short clip from Finishing the Game.

The decision for a DI process on the road back to Sundance came late in the production. Having shot “Finishing the Game” in Super 16mm, Lin and cinematographer Tom Clancey weighed the option of doing a DI to get to a 35mm print as opposed to doing a straight optical blowup to 35mm.

“An optical blowup would have resulted in loss of quality in film grain and sharpness,” notes Clancey. “It was not the best option.”

Add to that the fact that optical blowup is also expensive and had less of the creative benefits of going the digital intermediate route. Clancey suggested Filmworksfx as a likely candidate for doing the DI work for the fact that it had a complete film pipeline in place and the DI skill from film lab to telecine, editorial, high-end CG, scanning, recording, standard 35mm theatrical projection and a state-of-the-art DI theatre projection (complete with a 12 bit NEC NC800C DLP Academy DCI approved digital projector driven by Texas Instruments, NVIDIA and Hitachi Global Storage technology).

But the issue for the filmmakers and Filmworksfx wasn’t simply in getting the film from super 16mm thru a DI process to a 35mm print without a hitch ‘ it was in doing the work in a matter of weeks for a delivery date at Sundance Film Festival. This meant the DI process had to proceed with as few speed bumps as possible in the days remaining to a Sundance release date. A short timetable was familiar to Lin and Clancey having shot Finishing the Game in a 16-day shooting schedule. But a squeezed postproduction DI treatment presented a new set of creative challenges.

“Our first visual reference was the film Pumping Iron but since Finishing the Game is a comedy-documentary we went for brighter and flatter look,” asserts Clancy. “Another key element was that 90 percent of the film was shot from handheld camera across 360 degrees for a true documentary style. This also dictated how we would manage the film at the DI stage.”

As to the DI itself, Clancey described the overall process from the top. “Generally we used the DI to balance out the look of the film from shot to shot and to maintain the ’70s documentary look we were after.”

That said, as the process of DI has become more available to filmmakers so has the potential of achieving more than basic color correction thru secondaries.

“There were two unusual segments in the film where we feature other films within the film itself. For these we needed a worn and stressed out grind-house movie look. A traditional path with a distressed low contrast lab print would have taken a good deal of experimentation and budget to nail down. The DI process we chose was by far the best way to distort the look of these film sequences.”

Simply put, the DI process kept costs down while getting the desired creative result along a far more rapid and direct path. “The original footage was shot on reversal stock and then scanned. For both sequences Ken Locsmandi and I took the reds up in the low end to make the films muddy and confused. We washed out the blacks, compressed the high end by raising the gamma and then lowered the gain. Ken added scratches and dirt.”

Most DI challenges at hand were dealt with by Ken Locsmandi, DI colorist at Filmworksfx. Coming from a background in visual effects production, Locsmandi took the challenge of doing another indie DI in stride. “Aside from doing overall color correction and balancing, we used secondaries (scaffolds) thru Assimilate Scratch to ‘ for example ‘ bring down hot areas and therefore reveal more detail in a number of shots.”

There were other places where more unique DI manipulation was used to inform the story and add to visual impact. “We actually did a bit of relighting work on a number of scenes that needed more or diminished illumination for story content,” explains Locsmandi. “In one scene, the Raja Moore character stands at a library corridor where we used Assimilate scaffolds to subtly reduce the light outside of his immediate area to stress his character.”

This was a classic example of how directors and cinematographers now use DI as a tool to reshape the visual story in a way that’s understated but powerful. Again none of this would be possible without advanced technology partners NEC, Texas Instruments, RSR (Rising Sun Research) NVIDIA and Hitachi Global Storage that literally drive the physical end of Digital Intermediate to real-time 2k speeds for the workloads required.

Clancey addressed this kind of indie DI workflow with an observation of his own. “Aside from overall color balancing, we reworked a number of wide angle sequences to help build contrast and get a bit away from a strictly flat documentary look. DI secondaries were also used to bring out specific colors in ‘ for example ‘ foliage and backgrounds. More important, we also occasionally used this technique with actors to give them more presence and definition.”

At the end of the DI, it was results that mattered to the creative team behind Finishing the Game and Clancey was pleased with the outcome.

“The digital projection we worked with was outstanding and the final print was brilliant.”

Click here for more information on Finishing the Game at the Sundance Festival web site.