Breaking a new ground with Sidharth Meer
We had a Tête-à-tête with one of the most prolific DIT (Digital Imaging Technician) experts in Indian cinema, Sidharth Meer, on his experience of working as a DIT in the industry, the new technical breakthroughs and more.
Could you in very simple terms define what a DIT specifically means?
A DIT is responsible for all the data coming out of the cameras used on the set and setting the look that will be sent downstream into post. It is a hybrid role that combines production & post. He is responsible for backup, QC, making reports and LTO copies. This is a more secure form of backing up data in comparison to a hard drive. A DIT also takes charge of the image, its quality, making sure there is no clipping & then color correction, doing a basic primary grade on all the material. This then goes to the editor as dailies with the color baked in. We also transfer all the CDL information i.e. grade information to the DI facility; so when the cinematographer sits in on the final grade, he can start from where he left off on set. No more starting from scratch.
You’ve been a visual effects guy, a DIT and a postproduction supervisor. How would you define these three roles?
Actually, all the experience from working in VFX and in Post applies to the role of being a DIT. There are so many things you pick up while doing other tasks; they filter into your role as a DIT, especially in terms of workflow. One of the biggest problems right now is that a lot of people get stuck during their post. They then come to me to know if it can be fixed. Their mistakes stem from not having the right workflow. They think all digital cameras have the same workflow for post. They then get stuck in post and end up spending more money than they actually should have. One of the things you learn after you’ve dealt with overall post is that you need to have a very clear idea of what the workflow should be. I always set up right at the beginning of the project, during preproduction once the camera has been locked and that really helps the production team to go through the entire post process very smoothly.
How did this process work before DITs came into being? Was it a part of western cinema before it came to India?
It’s been in existence ever since the first Sony F900 camera was launched. It existed when Viper was around too as that shot LOG but raw images weren’t being used at the time. We were more into shooting gamma encoded video images. It was very important to have a DIT because these cameras had limited dynamic range. The DIT had a hardware based paint box that he would use to manipulate the knee and the shoulder of the camera, the colour and the gain. He’d basically be able to preserve most of the detail in the image within the camera before the signal got recorded on to the tape (at the time, they were still using tape). Subsequently when those images came into post, they’d have a little more room for manipulation. When raw cameras became available in the market, the role of a DIT became more significant as it became more computerised since the data also had to be backed up now. Most good productions don’t work without a good DIT.
It’s always advantageous having a DIT. For instance he would give the director and the cinematographer an idea of how the film is going to look after a quick preview, which then gives them a direction on how to progress with the lighting. Do production companies see this importance? How would you justify your role to a production guy?
Well, it depends on the production company. Most directors who are extremely sure of what they are making and their DP’s are extremely sure of what the film should look like, want a DIT on the set. From confirming the look to deciding the light based on the look, the DIT’s work helps a DP especially because a movie is not shot in sequence. Having a DIT means he can help you go back and reference the look from an earlier scene. It saves you from having to jog your memory which isn’t always colour accurate, or relying on camera notes which don’t give you colour and contrast information.
For instance it could be a chunk between two scenes. It’s a hard task going back to older looks without having a DIT on set.
Your recent films, both commercial and independent projects such as The Lunchbox, Shanghai and Bombay Talkies have done really well. Share with us your experience of working on these films.
On Shanghai we used the Alexa; it was recording ProRes. We didn’t have a codex recorder at the time. So, we were shooting 1920×1080 ProRes 4444 quicktime files. After downloading them on the set, we would sit in the hotel and grade all the images in Davinci Resolve and then render out offline for the editor. So Nikos Andritsakis (Cinematographer of Shanghai) would sit with me after the shoot to go through the rushes and grade them with me. We just stuck to the primaries, so we could use that to set the look. The film had a very gritty feel and they wanted to make it look like a ravaged town, you’d see on the outskirts of Maharashtra. Compare the final DI of the film with the offline and 80% of the look is already in the offline content.
Once the DP sets the look in the dailies, the director sits for at least 4-6 months on the edit; he starts living that look and when he goes into the DI part of the process, the work involves striving to improve on what they have rather than trying to create a whole new look. This is important because I’ve heard stories about Log C ungraded images being used for offline editorial and the director who worked on it for 5-6 months, being utterly shocked during the DI process because he’d gotten used to watching the low contrast, de-saturated images.
Have you been in situations where you knew what you wanted to do, the cinematographer knew what he wanted to do but there was interference from the producers/directors to alter things?
Yeah, that happens pretty much on every film but it’s less of interference. Everyone who comes in and gives their input such as the production designer, the director and the producer, have a lot at stake. All these people have invested a lot in the film. So usually a consensus is taken for any change of plans.
Tell us a little bit about The Lunchbox and Hasee Toh Phasee. We interviewed Sanu for Hasee toh Phasee. HTP has a uniquely quirky flavour unlike any other rom com one has seen. Was it a big risk for him because the story is slightly out-of-the-box? On a communication level, how did it work?
Yeah Hasee Toh Phasee is very real and less glossy. The DP had given me strict instructions to not deviate from the images shown on the monitor. They were monitoring in red gamma 3 and red colour 3 on the set and that’s exactly the look he wanted baked into the offline. He didn’t want to apply any look or grade. The offline version was very close to the final film because he got everything right. There were only minimal changes like changes in the colour of the sky, etc.
And The Lunchbox?
The Lunchbox was our first project using the new StorageDNA Evolution LTO system. I pitched this to Guneet Monga (Producer) and she thought it was really cool and cost effective so we implemented it. We made no back-ups of the material we shot on any spinning hard-drives. It was all LTO5. We made 2 copies. One as a master and one as a backup. We still have all the material only on those LTO5 tapes. The only time we used hard drives was for the conform. The team in Paris wanted all the material; so we restored everything from the LTOs onto Lacie drives that were shipped to Paris for the DI. This was, kind of an experiment. No one had done it before and it worked really well. After The Lunchbox, we’ve used 2 LTO backups and only 1 hard drive on pretty much every film we’ve done, saving the production a ton of money.
For The Lunchbox we also experimented with Light Iron’s Live play solution. We had a wifi network and a script supervisor with an iPad on the set. The cards would get downloaded, they’d get transcoded to H264 files and those would stream wirelessly to the iPad so she could make notes on the set and transfer it to the editor through an Avid ALE.
What was The Lunchbox shot on?
A camera was the ARRI Alexa shooting ProRes 4444 and the Sony F3 and Canon C300 for some second unit work. Most of the train and dabbawala traveling shots for instance.
Tell us a little about your company The Bridge.
All the work falls under the brand The Bridge now. Our core business is the On-Set Lab. This is 50% of our work. The rest is archive, conform, DI and workflow consultancy, all under the same umbrella. We have three systems that we send out on the set. One is the live grade system that we’re currently using on Dibakar’s film Detective Byomkesh Bakshy and the other two are smaller laptop based systems that fit inside a pelican case with an LTO drive included. These are sent on shoots that require only data backup, dailies and archive to LTO.
What does it take to be a DIT? What are the important factors one needs to consider before getting into this field?
Well, it’s really important to understand colour theory and colour management. Having a colour-calibrated monitor is not enough. You have to make sure that it’s calibrated correctly all the time and that it matches the final post house where the film will be finished.
Before starting work on Byomkesh Bakshy we took our 10bit monitor to Reliance and compared the material on their projector to our monitor and made sure that it matches perfectly so that all the grades we do on set look exactly the same when they go into DI. If not being a full-blown colourist at least knowledge and expertise in basic primary grading is important and so is understanding workflows and all the different edit systems. It’s crucial because you might have to create deliverables in ProRes for FCP or DNxHD for Avid; making sure that all the metadata is transferred correctly.
Knowing how all the DI systems work, how they ingest data and EDL’s form a crucial part of the process. You have to be aware of the deliverables because we don’t have film prints anymore. DCPs are the most common digital deliverables now. This too is fragmented in India and you have DCPs in different flavours. You might have to create different deliverables for Qube, Scrabble, PXD or UFO. They all have different sets of requirements. Qube will accept a TIFF XYZ DCDM whereas UFO works with DPX files. You have to know how VFX facilities work; how files need to be delivered to them. Do they require EXR or DPX? These are all incredibly important pieces. This is all part of the overall workflow and you really need to understand every part of postproduction. Having all the right gear is essential. We stress on having a true 10bit 24” or larger monitor on set so the DP can check focus and coluor on it.
I think there might be people who are slightly familiar with what a DIT does but they don’t know the kind of skills required to become a good Digital Image Technician.
It’s an amalgamation of the camera and post department so I encourage 1st AC’s and Editors to train to become DITs. Knowing all the tools is crucial. For instance learning to read a waveform on set, which helps you judge your signal and tell the DP in case of any clipping. Learning to use the right software for backup that is fast and accurate and increases efficiency. Checksums are very important but I see it done very rarely.
Could you elaborate on how Checksums work?
An MD5 Checksum is a cryptographic hash function used to verify data integrity. It’s created to make sure every single file has been copied in totality from the camera card onto your hard drive or the LTO tape. It’s very important that checksums are done because if a file is corrupt somewhere down the line in postproduction they can verify it with the hash file and they will know where in the chain the file got corrupted. All the software we use calculates checksums.
Playing which of these roles do you enjoy the most?
I enjoy all of it, but I enjoy being a DIT and a colourist the most.
Which project has been the most pleasurable one to work on?
Dibakar Banerjee’s new film Detective Byomkesh Bakshy and it’s by far the toughest shoot that I have been on. It’s challenging, but I am also sure it’s going to be the most rewarding, considering what the film is looking like right now.