“Knowing how to make the technology hurdles transparent on any set so your DP can concentrate on the work is critical to the role the DIT plays.” - Michael Romano, Local 600 DIT based in Los Angeles & Honolulu.
As digital technology gradually entered the cinema world, demand for technicians grew alongside the fast-changing world of filmmaking. Productions were migrating away from film stocks and ushering in an age of digital cinematography which created a need for people to handle new, foreign tasks such as digital image processing and asset management.
That’s where your modern-day Digital Imaging Technician (DIT) comes in! Realistically, the role of a DIT isn’t always as specific as many other production roles such as the DP or 1st AC. Most DITs today are in charge of a plethora of responsibilities including video routing, image management, color grading, data movement, quality control, networking, and being integral to designing and implementing a workflow fine-tuned for specific projects. The simplest description of this position is that: a good DIT cuts the barriers put up by complex technology and extends the Director of Photography’s vision and intent deep into post production. Basically, they’re like IT professionals but with much cooler jobs.
This week we’re looking at the inspiration and tech behind Michael Romano, a Local 600 DIT who’s been in this business for over 10 years and worked on numerous feature films and scripted television series (IMDb). Between moving hundreds of terabytes, live coloring and soldering his own cables, Michael Romano shares with us his path to becoming a DIT and his favorite gear to keep on his cart.
An Audio Background
“The funny thing is I actually started out doing audio post production, I have a degree in audio engineering. When I graduated college, all of my peers wanted to be sound engineers or producers in the music industry, but I felt the writing was on the wall for that industry so I focused on audio post-production for picture. I’d always been an avid fan of cinema and it felt right.”
“That led to an internship at an audio post facility. Fetching coffee and lunch for the engineers and clients, just itching for a chance to spend time in front of the consoles became my day to day. As much as I loathed the grunt work, looking back, I think it’s integral to succeeding in the entertainment, or any, business.”
“The commercial audio post-for-picture facilities at that time were up against a lot of music studios moving in on the picture sound market. Everyone was trying to stay afloat in the wreckage of the music industry and they were all struggling to pay their staff people so no one was hiring interns into the fold. Before long, I found myself at a subcontracted production company for ESPN, doing not sound, but essentially post PA work. It was paid and at the time, that was extremely important. The company produced around 3 sports reality and documentary shows for ESPN a year. While there, they gave me a shot at, and I developed a real knack for, motion graphics. It was basic stuff like lower thirds, but we made, modified and tracked thousands of these graphics elements. It was the start of motion picture asset management and QC for me.”
A Winding Path
“After a little over a year, the sports world started to wear me out. I loved the technical side of the work (and the travel), but sports docs just wasn’t my thing and I needed a change. I decided to move to Hawaii. With a clean slate and suddenly finding myself in a smaller market, I found employment in the Grip department. My first union job was on LOST as a hall call, they must’ve been pretty hard up! Outside the Grip gigs, and eventually Set Lighting gigs, I was doing a lot of commercials and indie projects, which more and more were skewing into digital directions.”
“Around that time I was introduced to a company called Sight + Sound Studios, which, back then, was really just Bill Maheras. As a Director/DP who’d been working on mostly commercial projects since the 70’s, Bill was in the midst of moving his company into more of a rental operation and we sort of just clicked on how to go about dealing with new technology. See, Bill really pays attention to what is coming and he never lost that vision. He saw the shift to digital cinema production and must have seen something in me as well. In 2007, the company bought one of the early-ish Red One cameras, shortly followed by a set of Ultra Primes and all the assorted trappings that those purchases lead to. I got to spend time figuring all of it out. In what other environment would you be afforded the chance to simply take a brand new, high end digital motion picture camera to your house, free of charge, for a week, just to see how it worked? He financed the equipment and I figured out the functionality. He’d have a question, I’d have the answer. Over the years, I was able to unbox Alexas, Amiras, Dragons, Cookes, Master Primes and all manner of support equipment simply to see how these things worked. If it weren’t for Bill and Sight + Sound, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Into DIT Work
“Even with a deep understanding of the tools, I didn’t really identify with being a DIT. I mean, what was a DIT anyways? I was still making a living as a Set Lighting Technician and most of the bigger jobs were still shot on film. I first came up to bat on some dinky, non-union commercial that I was actually gaffing: The camera assistant was a no-show and the DP literally asked the whole crew if anyone knew how to build a Red One and safely handle the media. Of course, I did, so I took it over and we got through the day. The success I found in that situation quickly got me interested in pursuing the DIT position seriously. I started doing local commercials, indie movies and handled all the technical aspects on personal projects I made with friends.”
“There wasn’t any training to be had, it was all just figuring things out. I read a lot online, in trade magazines, pestered manufacturers about the inner workings of equipment and always ran new cameras through their paces at Sight + Sound. This was a pretty volatile time where many veteran filmmakers were trying to transition from film into digital, so it was a scramble to come up with and solidify best practices. Most people on set had no knowledge of data security or asset management, so there was a sudden demand for people in film production with deep computer skills. Lucky for me, a lot of the same rules we started seeing in digital cinematography applied equally to music and audio post production. The data side of things was a very natural transition because, from a data security standpoint, sound files and picture files vary only by their size on disk. Hashes, content management systems, drive speeds - all this was familiar stuff because I’d done it all before, just never in a parking lot!”
“Eventually my name spread enough in Hawaii that I had the opportunity - which I seized - to become a Local 600 member as a DIT. From that jumping point I’ve had the opportunity to work with a great many talented Cinematographers from all around the world on features, commercials and scripted television. The work has taken me from my backyard to the other side of the globe and I wouldn’t trade it for anything!”
A lot of times, in can be tricky working with Cinematographers you haven’t previously. There are a lot of different perceptions of the DIT role and DPs utilize those skills in all kinds of ways. Some will have you calling filter changes to assistants and pulling remote iris while others only ask for specific color grade changes. Some sit with you at the cart the entire time, some you have to chase down on the set and others sit only with the Director, calling changes in to you. There’s so many ways to skin a cat, I think it can confuse people sometimes. I just make sure I’m always ready to meet whatever needs arise and am a consistent, constant advocate for whichever DP I’m currently working with.”
A Technical Challenge
“Basically, imagine a city block. The camera and Tx are on a vehicle that starts at one end of the block and drives to the other, filming a person on a bicycle. You can’t use a follow vehicle because the camera will see all over the street but you can hide things in driveways, behind trees and telephone poles. Your wireless Rx can pick up the signal for about half the block length. I’ve seen all sorts of tricks like hand panning arrays (been there, done that) to just saying “Once it’s gone, it’s gone”. I think that response is just lazy, there’s always a way! I approach this scenario putting the village in the center of the run and string cables toward both ends with a Teradek Rx on each line. As the move starts, I’m feeding from the closest Rx and as that picture starts to fall apart, I switch over to the next Rx unit. There’s about a frame lost during the change over but the technique works and the DP and Director can make a call on whether or not the shot was good or if we need to go again. I have this setup ready to go at every location we shoot at, every day. The city block is an extreme example but even a Steadicam move through a structure with heavy walls calls for these kinds of tricks.”
“There are limitations to current technology, and sometimes it’s up to us to explain those limitations in ways that aren’t too technical. Before we even attempt these things I try and make sure we’re properly equipped before hand. Sometimes though, the day just unfolds into a scenario that wasn’t quite planned. When you’re pushing the equipment to the edge of what it’s designed to do, I always let the DP, AD and Director know that there’s a likelihood we might be in and out of picture if we do things this way but I also always include a “best way” suggestion. “If the Director rides in the empty seat in the russian arm vehicle, range dropouts won’t become an issue.” These key personnel really appreciate the transparency, sans technical jargon, and it helps factor into the team’s decision processes when looking at safety, timeliness, personnel placement during driving shots etc.”
What’s On Michael’s Cart?
Inovativ Ranger 48 - “It’s the perfect mix of size, weight and strength. The biggest thing about these carts are the hydraulic handbrakes. They’re an additional cost from the standard foot brakes, but so worth the money! The rest of the crew is often struggling to get their gear down a hill backwards while I’m riding the brakes with one hand and steering with the other. It’s not only easier but safer to have control of all that weight”
Blackmagic Smart Videohub 40x40 - “SDI routers are the heart of every cart. You need to get picture to every LUT box, waveform, I/O point and monitor on set and plugging and unplugging cables quickly falls out of favor. These devices can take a single SDI video source and send it to up to 40 destinations at once, or any combination of ins and outs thereof. One thing I love about the Blackmagic routers is the iPad control app which allows me to be anywhere on set within WiFi range and still control the unit. We often have multiple video villages and sometimes cables get crossed in the scramble. I just pop off the iPad, walk over and make it right without having to actually repatch any cables.”
Leader LV3333 Waveform Monitor - “I’ve worked with cheaper waveform monitors and nothing can really compare to the Leader. The false color is my “always on” mode but the waveform really stands out when looking for practical fixture flicker. A lot of installed and cine lighting is now LED based and of wildly varying manufacture quality. Most of these lights look fine to the human eye but flicker or generate rolling bars of luminance through the camera shutter. A good waveform monitor is often the only way to detect the subtle ones. It doesn’t seem like such a big deal until the DI when they try to pull clean HSL keys on the material and it’s pulsing uncontrollably.”
Tangent Panels - “I don’t know how people grade with a mouse. To me, a control surface is mandatory. One can modify lift, gamma and gain using both hands simultaneously.”
Teradek Bolt - “You can’t shoot almost anything these days without wireless systems somewhere on the set, and the various flavors of Bolts are pretty much the industry standard. I have two masts with pre-wired power and SDI cables to accept the receivers on my cart. It’s really great because I can roll around on battery power and still have a picture mid-move. The Bolts do a pretty good job of finding and connecting to the lesser-used frequency bands. If the area is RF saturated, it is what it is but I’ve mostly forgotten about manual channel assignment. If at any time the video starts falling apart, you can reboot the Tx and it automatically scans and adjusts to a new frequency. Lately I’ve been using the built in frequency analyzer to check out the RF situation on location but mostly you only look if the area is already problematic.”
X-Keys Keyboard - “This is something new I recently integrated and it’s simplified my task load immensely. It’s an empty keyboard that you can assign macros onto each key via software. If you’re in the middle of some other task and need to take a screen grab of a feed, there’s a button that’s preprogrammed to tab out over to LiveGrade and take a screenshot of a specific camera instantly - with only one key. It’s a huge time saver and makes performing multi step tasks incredibly simple.”
Decimator MD-QUAD - “Such a simple device. The MD-QUAD has long been a integral part of my cart. It takes four different feeds and displays them all at once on a single monitor. While not great for judging focus (it’s like 4 SD streams) it can help make sense of multi-cam days and I always pipe it’s output into the Leader for false color on four cameras simultaneously.”
Robocups - “These are the only cup holders worth mentioning. Creature comforts are important so I always keep one on the DP side and one on my side of the cart.”
Check out Michael’s awesome work and DIT builds:IG: @strawberrydit