FILM FUNDERS 101: What is OCN Lab Work, Exactly?

Background on Digital Cinema

At the end of the 20th century, digital technology had not yet taken over in the Broadcast world, much less the film industry.  Up until 2008, broadcast standards for the entire country were analog.  While digital cinema did exist with the largest camera companies, the equipment was sub-par compared to film.  Even the high-end cameras recorded in 1080 progressive resolution at best.  Most digital cameras used the broadcast HD standards of 1080i or 720p.  They were 8-bit with sub-sampled color and the video was highly compressed onto tape.  For exhibition, the DCI standard and complimentary theater association standards had been developed but had not yet been implemented.

Film Compared to Early Digital Standards

When HD was standardized in 2008 for US terrestrial broadcast, this standard was labeled “REC709.”  The highest resolution is 1080 x 1920, the bit-depth maxes out at 8.  The best color was sub-sampled, and for distribution via the airwaves, the compression was extreme at 19MB/s max (most TV stations carved this up into multiple 4 MB/s channels.)  Film, on the other hand, is uncompressed.  The color sampling is…. well, it’s light shining through a physical medium, so there is no sampling of any kind (no compression artifacts or banding.)  The resolution is somewhere in the range of 2k or 4k  (the exact number seems to be somewhat subjective.)  Film is raw, un-sampled, unadulterated and largely non-adjustable.  A film print is going to look the same no matter what commercial theater you view it in and the aspect ratios are locked-in, which means random people have no way to change the size of the picture on the theater screen which changes the immersive qualities of the projection format.

… if you have to go to all that trouble with digital tools to get the look of film, then it begs the question… why not shoot film to start with

The Traditional Workflow

The primitive era of the film industry was 1900 – 1915.  In this era the photo-chemical process had been well developed (pardon the pun) for black and white silent motion picture filming.  The only change with this film processing system from then till today is that color added two more layers of emulsion to what used to be a single layer.  Once the roll of negative is exposed during filming, it goes to the lab for processing.  Here, the metallic silver (rendered from silver halides by exposure to light) is “fixed”, rendering an OCN (Original Camera Negative).  This OCN is then printed onto a positive stock in a contact printer to render the “dailies” which are “rushed” back to the studio so that the director and Company can evaluate the day’s work and make decisions moving forward in production.  These dailies are also used by the editor as a “workprint” while the OCN gets tucked away in the vault for safe keeping.  The work print is edited and once picture is “locked,” it is sent along with the OCN to the Negative cutting department and the pristine Negative reels are “conformed” into two reels (A & B) to match the workprint that has been approved by the director.  Shots on the A and B reels are “checker-boarded” with overlapping heads and tails which allows mixing to create fade and dissolve transitions.  When the “A/B roll cut-negative” is run through the optical-print phase, the color correction “lights” (actual Red, Green and Blue lamps) are varied from shot to shot in order to unify the look in each scene with mechanical shutters that allow for fades/dissolves. Titles that were previously photographed are also superimposed in the optical print.  What you end up with is an “Inter-positive” (IP) print which is the final film with titles, color correction and transitions baked into this positive print.  From this archive print, an “Inter-Negative” is struck, which is used to make all of the hundreds of screening elements that are sent to theaters nation-wide.

Bell and Howell Contact Printer with Full-Emmersion wet-gate

The New Workflow

From a logistical perspective, the thing to note about shooting film is that a true OCN will last about 100 years!  All you have to do is keep it in a cool dry vault (If you don’t have a vault, then a safe deposit-box will do nicely.)  In contrast, Digital formats have only proven to last about 20 to 30 years, which means archived material must be age-tracked and copied to a new device (tape, drive, SSD…etc) before it degrades or the device fails to power-up. Since we’ll have an OCN and IP on The Land, we’ll wind up with finished elements that will last, for all intents and purposes… forever!  The best part of this complex process has now been mastered and the learning curve for me, the producer, has now been overcome.  Finishing the film is an amazing mile-stone and sitting in that darkened theater watching all of our hard work payoff will feel extraordinary, but knowing that we’ve now stepped into the next phase of a hard fight to become… that’s the real reward.

… we’ll wind up with finished elements that will last (for all intents and purposes)… forever!

Film in a Digital World?

Digital Cinema formats have only been accessible to us for about four years due to cost.  This technological development does offer some advantages for the shallow pocketed indie film producer, however to exploit these opportunities we need to get our pristine OCN into the digital realm and that takes more lab services.

The more times you run film through an editing, printing or scanning machine, the more dust and scratches it will pick up.  So, the IP print, just like in the traditional workflow, gives us a copy of the negative so that we can work with this new element and keep the negative as pristine as possible.  Another advantage to the IP process in our new workflow is the “wet-gate.”  This reduces existing dust and scratches that are present on the negative from previous handling.  Once the IP is created, then we’re ready for scan, conform, color correct, VFX and Digital Mastering (DSM).


So, you may ask, why not shoot digital from the beginning?  There are several reasons and each one is subjective, but it’s believed, fairly universally, that film has a “cinematic texture” that cannot be duplicated by even the best digital cinema camera systems today.  Personally, I think that movies need to look surreal.  To me, the digital cinema cameras are quite good, but require a lot of “look” manipulation and even with all this extra work can not provide the level of cinematic experience that film does without all the fuss.  I recently saw JOKER (2019,) which was shot in 8K digital on the best camera available today.  It’s a great movie!  But it was a weird aspect ratio, and while it’s obvious that the color department spared no effort in getting that elusive film look, it didn’t quite take me out of the reality TV mind-set that comes with the flat look of video.  And if you have to go to all that trouble with digital tools to get the look of film, then it begs the question… why not shoot film to start with?

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