Digital filmmaking has been here for a while. When it arrived, it was very disruptive. It was first received with jealousy and even laughs. DOPs and cinematographers from the age of film used to bastardize, hate or even mock digital. I know it because I was there.
For many filmmakers, digital film was a lesser version of cinema. The advantages didn’t overcome the disadvantages. In that moment, film stock had a better resolution and dynamic range than digital stock.
But Moore’s law is flawless, and in time, technology catched up. Now digital stock can match most of those features. Shooting on film becomes super expensive comparing to digital stock. The versatility of digital stock is way bigger than film.
Not so simple
Digital workflows are not as easy as they seem. A series of technicians accompanied that evolution of technology. Directors of photography and cinematographers don’t like the tech part. They prefer to focus in something else (pun intended). Their realm is what happens between light and the sensor. So a new role was born, a bastardized role that today became almost as important as DOPs.
The acronym DITs meant different things in time. In some point in history, and for some people, it meant Digital Intermediate Technician. Digital intermediate was the first transition from film to digital. It was a scan of the film stock, that became the first step into full digital workflows. A middleman between film and digital. It was the first chance to actually grade footage with a computer.
The actual meaning is Digital Imaging Technician. A very technical role, that has many responsibilities. Besides the data management, a strong advisory role for exposure and lighting decisions.
Not just a trainee
There’s a sea of creative and technical roles of a film production. Super important roles that have responsibilities. The data manager is, though, among the most underestimated roles in the industry.
A film production is costly, so there are several heads of department needed. That’s where usually the budget for a data manager gets overlooked. What happens is that the role gets covered by a trainee or a second assistant.
What people tend to overlook it that a data manager has a very specific know-how. A technical knowledge that often is not in hand of the people training such trainee.
Besides that, data managers also rent or own very specific equipment. This aspect is also overlooked in some independent, small productions. The standard practice is to engage in a 3-2-1 backup system, which means three different copies. Three different supports. One of them in a different location.
The reliability and speed of those drives is important. The rhythm of filming, the amount of cards available on set, the types of shot. All important variables that define very different setups for data management.
That’s only the management of the footage, then comes the metadata management. A whole new complexity unveils. One that can save a lot of time during postproduction.
The evolution of the role
In the industry, data managers and DITs started as the nerds of the crew. Someone that’s into tech stuff, but not very creative. And the clichè was grounded on reality. Back in the early days of the first digital cameras (RED I’m looking at you), it was a bit like that.
Camera operation and file management was completely different.
DOPs continued (and sometimes to this day continue) to work as they did with film. They exchanged the film stock, with the camera body, getting used to a camera’s behavior. That explains the industry’s obsession with ARRI cameras. They got used to a tool, and now they don’t want to learn something else. They feel like other cameras cannot reproduce colors and dynamic range the same way. Steve Yedlin proved this myth to be…well, a myth. Truth is that virtually any stock is possible with any camera. With enough know how, you can choose and use the right camera for the right task. The look then can be achieved regardless of the camera. You can get a film stock look on digital. An ARRI look on a RED, etc.
Older than you think
Back in the days of film stock, there was a person in charge of loading and offloading the cans of stock. After film is exposed, it needs to be treated with extreme caution. That was the role of the Film Loader. That material safety role is covered today by the Data Wrangler.
Data manager vs DIT
The role of data manager is a safety role. The role of a DIT is more complex. A DIT’s tasks involve knowledge from photography, digital formats, compression types, compatibility. His role is tightly linked with editing and grading. Nonetheless, it’s also linked with the audio department, the metadata insertion, transcoding, storage, etc.
As you can see, a DIT can cover the role of the data manager, but has also much more important responsibilities. And that’s something that gave them a chance to climb in the filmmaking ladder. Today, those nerds sit right next to the director and the DOP on set. A well deserved role, in a world of bytes and bits.
Even knowing all this, independent productions tend to neglect the role. Even on an institutional level they fall into a limbo. Because data wranglers and DITs are a transitional role. They are in the middle between production, post and even pre production.
This limbo won’t last for long though, since this role is becoming almost mandatory.
It’s an industry request
Today’s market is prevalently VOD (video on-demand). As we all know, the streaming platforms started to create original content. For them, it became quite clear that the digital negatives are priceless. If they protect the negatives, they can future proof their investment. That’s why they started pushing very demanding standards and workflows. Technical workflows became a core axis not only during post, but also from the very beginning of a project. And some networks demand for their originals a workflow supervision role. If producers want their film broadcast on those networks, they will have to comply and budget for them.
There’s no doubt that the technical roles will grow in importance, bridging production and postproduction. The limits between phases are blurring, in an ever evolving industry. So we better keep up with times.