Dailies Services: Still Relevant and More Vital Than Ever
By: Kylee Peña, Workflow Supervisor
At the dawn of film a century ago, dailies services were essential. Labs took cans of film negative each day (hence the name) and turned them into the pictures filmmakers needed to see in order to edit and showcase their work. Now a hundred years later, the art and science of motion pictures has been distilled and democratized in a lot of great ways. With the iPhone 8, we’ll have HDR in our pockets. Kids are recording videos containing incredible motion tracking technology and sending them in an instant via Snapchat. For tens of dollars a month, anyone can have access to the same editing software used by people in the highest levels of the industry.
The downside of ramping up the power we have available in our toolset is that expectations will continue to grow while budgets only shrink. We can do more with less, so why not do more with less?
And so it would seem that dailies services are surely losing relevancy. On the surface, paying for someone to handle your “digital negative” and create low resolution offline media seems superfluous when you could have a DIT on set handling it, or an editor cutting from the original media. Dailies services: old-fashioned and going out of style, right?
Maybe not. Consider this scenario.
You’re producing a mid-level feature film. The production schedule is tight because you’re trying to hit a major festival deadline which requires submitting a very polished rough cut for consideration. You’ve got a DIT on set using LiveGrade to set looks with the director of photography. The DIT will work with color on each scene and render offline dailies on set with that color baked in. Those files will be delivered to local post production after wrap each day via a hard drive, long before the editor even begins work.</span></div>
It’s day one of editorial receiving their dailies. The assistant editor looks at the script notes and thinks a shot might be missing and needs to call the DIT. But the DIT is in the middle of set coloring and needs to wait to call the editorial team back on his lunch break. Editorial is slightly delayed, but it’s not the end of the world. There are many other things they can work on while waiting for that call back.
Day four: the DP and director decide they don’t like how an earlier scene looks anymore. The color needs to be adjusted and re-delivered to post to better match their vision. Since the DIT is again busy with the <i>current</i> scene’s live grading and rendering, editorial doesn’t get the new files until two days later. This delays updating scene assemblies for showing producers and financiers. But eventually everyone is back on track.
A couple more days pass smoothly. Then a second unit shoots a very long afternoon of driving shots, filling every card they have available. The DIT is stuck on set after wrap trying to finish ingesting and rendering, and production must keep electric working and pay everyone overtime until he finishes.
A few more days like this in a row and the DIT’s dailies start getting delayed by an entire day — if he stays on set too long, he won’t meet his turnaround requirements to start work on time the next day. So the DIT begins trying to balance catching up on previous days with continuing to move forward with current duties, and some days the post team is waiting hours to receive files.
The second unit decides to pull out a few GoPro and Canon cameras to be used for the day. These files are delivered to the DIT and he processes these just like any other camera files.
Finally in the last week of production, editorial is still trying to catch up after all the incessant delays. With only a couple weeks after wrap to address notes on their rough cut, they have little time to spare.
On a critical emotional scene, the assistant editor finds that one of the Avid MXF files which was delivered is corrupt and needs to be rendered again. The DIT is swamped on set, unable to address this simple request until an hour after production wraps for the day. Meanwhile, the director is heading to work with the editor on the critical scene the next night, but the editor only barely has a half day to construct this important scene before she arrives.
The picture is finally locked and turned over for final conform and color. A new snag arises: the online facility flags that all of the GoPro and Canon camera files were rendered without timecode, and all of their filenames were not unique. The DIT forgot these cameras were not conform-friendly and lacked this necessary metadata for a proper conform, so he didn’t make new masters of the camera files before processing his dailies. Now the final conform is going to have time added to it while the shots are manually conformed.
Anyone who has ever worked on set or in post can see that by cutting out seemingly irrelevant or redundant services, it’s very easy to fall into a cycle of time wasted and even more money spent.
And the effects can ripple beyond that: if the DIT on set is overwhelmed, is your digital negative being backed up properly to multiple locations and/or LTO? Is it organized in a way that will make your online process smooth, or will the conform be even more costly as a tangled knot is undone? And even worse: will this spiral of inefficiency cause you to miss your festival deadline altogether?
There are many things dailies labs handle that help keep things on track for editorial. Dailies labs will produce viewing files for streaming sites and transfer dailies to editorial teams in other cities. They’ll process offspeed footage in multiple useable versions, so the slow motion can also be used as real time. They keep track of cameras that do not carry the necessary metadata for the conform process — timecode, unique file names, or embedded reel names — and will produce new masters that function better and keep the online running smooth with no surprise costs. They’ll handle flag and handle frame rate conversions if footage is shot at 30fps when 23.98 is not an option and fix conversion issues with odd formats. Along with many others, these are all tasks that would likely not be completed by the DIT on set in our theoretical scenario.
In a scenario with dailies services, the lab could be collaborating with the DIT to service the creatives on set and handling these media management and troubleshooting tasks instead.
In another scenario there is no DIT on set at all, and an editor chooses to edit from the digital negative, whether it be HD or 4K or 6K. As the popularity of more affordable high powered computers and accessible editing tools continues to rise, so does the popularity of eliminating the “offline/online” workflow altogether. It’s awfully tempting: the DP can see the pictures without compression. There’s no conform to pay for because there’s no conform. You just hit a button and you’ve got your finished product right out of one system. Who needs offline dailies at all?
While tempting, this continues to be more of a dream scenario for most mid-level films and beyond. Post production and all the tools involved will always continually be chasing what’s available on set. Working from the digital negative means always having updated software which supports the latest and greatest formats — and the knowledge to solve issues that arise with them. Working from a large source also means investing a tremendous amount into a workstation. It might seem more cost effective to drop $12,000 on a high powered computer you can use long term instead of dailies services that come and go, but you have to maintain the workstation. And if you want to have an assistant and editor working in tandem, you’ll need two of those workstations. Maybe you could rent them, but getting exactly what you need is increasingly unlikely (or expensive) as your requirements become more specific.
Working from high quality source material also introduces the opportunity for many more software and hardware failures, especially as plugins, color and other effects are added to the sequence over time. Supervised sessions with producers could start ending up more like troubleshooting sessions with your NLE vendor. Final exports at the end of a deadline tend to be more rife with errors, and the errors are less likely to have solutions if the source media is relatively new ground for everyone.
High fidelity, low impact proxy formats available within DNxHD/DNxHR or ProRes (among others) look great and better yet, we’ve pretty much got the workflow figured out. Instead of spending an unknown and unpredictable amount of downtime potentially trying to troubleshoot your software, why not pass those duties to a dailies house and leave your editors to edit?
And again, who is in charge of assuring your master media is backed up sufficiently to long term storage such as LTO? Maybe this is being taken on by a PA, or assistant editor who is relatively new to LTO work? All of the money you have spent on location, crew, props, wardrobe and talent is all on this backup. If you loose the backup to inexperience or disorganization, all of that money was spent for nothing.
Dailies services are not only relevant, but they’re more vital than ever because your time has never been more valuable.
With the tight deadlines and small margin for error in budgeting, removing all the uncertainties from a vastly unpredictable environment will help keep a film on track and prevent multiple departments from seizing up. The “offline/online” workflow — or even creating dailies which will be the new master in a lower impact mezzanine format — is old, but it’s also simple and elegant. Much of Hollywood may be slow and unchanging, but dailies services aren’t: they’re evolving each day to support what’s next for filmmakers.