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CINEMATOGRAPHY & THE DIGITAL IMAGING TECHNICIAN
The digital imaging technician, or DIT for short, is a relatively new position in moviemaking's hundred year history, having arrived in the 1990s as an outgrowth of the digital revolution.
The DIT plays a key role on the cinematographer's team, responsible for the camera's digital image processing and data workflow. Despite this, the position is often misunderstood and even a subject of debate.
The DIT is the latest incarnation of the video engineer, a position that goes back to the earliest days of video. Because of the complex and finicky nature of early analog video, it literally took an engineer's training to maintain it.
Early Video Engineer
As analog video morphed into digital video, so did the video engineer's job morph into the digital imaging technician. The jobs are both similar and the distinct. The goals are the same, obviously, but the tools and approach are different.
Instead of dealing with videotape and control pots used by the video engineer, the DIT is occupied with storage cards and camera menus. Ultimately, however, both are responsible for the integrity of the recorded images.
In traditional filmmaking, the 1st assistant camera (1st AC) was responsible for the functioning of the camera. Specifically, building it up/breaking it down, maintaining proper exposure, and pulling focus. Because video engineers set up the camera, too, the position was erroneously viewed as a substitute for the 1st AC.
Erroneous because despite having one or two overlapping job functions, the majority of responsibilities were very different.
For example, the 1st AC was charged with the task of making sure each shot was in focus, while the video engineer dealt with monitoring color and contrast. Different jobs, requiring different skill sets.
With all due respect to ACs, video engineers required a greater degree of training, and in the early days of video, they were engineers in the true sense of the word.
Though the position of video engineer has been largely replaced by the DIT, confusion about the position in relation to the 1st AC still persists.
This, despite the fact that the DIT is generally not involved with the physical setup of the camera, but rather the software interface (i.e., menu setup). The DIT also coordinates the workflow of digital data for postproduction by archiving raw footage, creating dailies, and maintaining the associated records.
Someone must still set up the camera, break it down at the end of the workday, pull focus, and maintain exposure. This is the job of the 1st AC and it goes back to the earliest days of moviemaking.
While camera crews eventually find their groove in working with each other (it's either that or loose the job), there is a level of contention in the industry that exists between old school DITs and the newer breed of so-called "point and shoot" HD filmmakers.
As discussed above, the job of early video engineers was quite complex, requiring a high degree of technical knowledge and training. The same was true for DITs in the early days of digital filmmaking. The cameras were more complex, as well as the offline/online editing workflow.
Today, however, cameras have become greatly simplified with most complex functions programmed via menus. In addition, confusing videotape formats have been replaced by straightforward storage cards.
The idea of simplification is not limited to cameras: it is par for the course in the fast moving technological world that we live in.
For example, Apple caused a huge stir when they rebuilt their premiere editing software application, Final Cut Pro. The new program, called Final Cut X, concealed many features in an effort to simplify functionality, including hidden time code!
Because of the simple, menu-driven nature of today's cameras, the DIT's contribution can vary radically from production to production depending on the DP's expectation and the DIT's experience. As of this writing, there are no professional standards in terms of education and experience, so anyone can call themselves a DIT.
Ironically, many "guerrilla" filmmakers combine DIT functions with that of the 1st AC. This comes full circle from the effort to keep the two jobs separate and distinct!
Opponents don't see this as a natural outgrowth of technology, but rather as a dumbing-down of the DIT's job. They argue that cinematography will suffer because of missed creative opportunities.
A well trained and experience DIT brings more to the production than merely pressing menu buttons and transferring footage. Such a DIT can help the DP achieve the desired "look" by manipulation of hue, saturation, density, etc.
Of course the opposing argument is that all of this can be achieved through lighting and postproduction.
As with most issues in contemporary filmmaking, there is no clear cut answer. Yes, the menus are easy to learn for the most part. If you have a small production and another member of the crew can comfortably play the role of DIT, fine.
On the other hand, if you are dealing a big budget and a lot of footage, it would be foolish not to hire an experienced DIT.
With straightforward menus and storage cards, the job may look simple. However, in the heat of production (e.g., transferring footage off cards, rolling back takes for a look-see) it is easy to make a simple mistake that will result in lost or recorded-over footage. This can cost thousands of dollars to remedy.
A dedicated DIT will not make these errors because he is centered on the task at hand, rather than pulling focus or checking exposure. As a cautionary note, when the budget allows, it is best to hire the appropriate personnel to do the job. -Lou LaVolpe
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