How To Be a DIT – Interview with Charlie Anderson
- Learn what it takes to be a professional DIT
- Understand what is in a professional DIT cart
- Pick up insider DIT tips and tricks
Charlie Anderson is a DIT and Director of Photography (IATSE Local 600), who has worked on feature films and TV shows such as HBO’s Vinyl, 22 Jump Street, The Drop and Amazon Studio’s Z:The Beginning of Everything.
Thanks to this post’s sponsors Pomfort, the makers of industry standard DIT media management tool Silverstack and on-set colour grading software Live Grade, I got to interview Charlie on what it’s like to be a working DIT, what’s in his (ever-evolving) DIT cart and why he relies up on Pomfort’s tools to get the job done, quicker and more reliably, than with any other software.
I recently got to take a look at a beta of Pomfort’s brand new application Silverstack Lab, which incorporates new dailies creation features into the Silverstack eco-system, which you can read all about in this post.
Charlie and I cover a lot of ground in this interview, but one of the things that stayed with me the most was his wisdom on how to make your way into the industry and rise through it’s ranks.
It’s the kind of wisdom that applies to almost any role within production and post, yet you’d be astounded how many people you meet, who fail to heed it.
That wisdom boils down to ‘don’t be a jerk‘, but as you’ll see, there’s a lot more to it. Especially when you’re in the privileged position of being a Digital Imaging Technician who crosses paths with Producers, Directors, DPs and powerful Show Runners.
Making all the right moves could propel your career into the stratosphere or one miss-step could quickly crater it.
But first a bit of context…
Charlie’s background is in Computer Science, which has served him well in the role of DIT. He enjoys the combination of creative and technical problem solving he faces on a daily basis, as well as being thrust into sometimes challenging on-set scenarios that consume his attention.
His ultimate goal is to shoot more and make a career for himself as a DP, but being a DIT is giving him access to a smorgasbord of professional Directors of Photography who have turbo charged his own learning and opportunities.
His break into the industry was ‘pure happenstance’, in that he was picked off the 600 availability list by DP Reed Morano four years ago. Reed took a liking to Charlie and the two have worked together frequently ever since.
Reed has subsequently moved into directing more and more, and has brought Charlie on, time and again, as part of her required crew.
We did The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete and then Skelton Twins and then job after job after job and then Vinyl a couple of years ago.”
Working with Reed helped him build connections in the rest of the industry, or as Charlie puts it
Oh you work with Reed, you must know what you’re doing, so let me hire you for some more stuff.
What do you think that people in the industry most don’t understand about what a DIT really does?
If you think about it in terms of pure numbers. If you’re working on a show like Vinyl that might have like, say a $200 million dollar budget for 9 episodes. That’s $25 million per episode and it’s 15 [filming] days.
So that works out to roughly 2 or 3 million dollars a day and you’re the keeper of the footage. So if you screw up you might have cost production 2 to 3 million dollars in footage.
When you break it down that way, that could possible weigh on you, just a little bit! But seeing it that way, also really helps producers too.
I’ve been doing this for 10 years so I don’t really think about it like that anymore. But when I first started out, I was so stressed out, checking all the cards all the time, constantly checking all the files.
I didn’t have Silverstack back then, I had Shotput Pro, and there was an instance where Shotput wasn’t throwing out an error when it should have been, and at the end of the day I was checking the integrity of all the cards by hand and I realised, none of these cards copied! I’m glad I didn’t format anything!
What people may not know, is that a DIT is more than someone who just sits at a monitor all day.
We’re paid about the same as a camera operator because we’re there making sure that there’s not stuff in the frame, we’re there for your first AC, for your focus pullers – for making sure that they’re doing their job, seeing where they might have issues or problems. We’re second set of eyes for them.
We’re with the DP to make sure that he or she is able to catch everything. She may not see a bounce that’s caught in the reflection of this window over here. But you can see it and you can point it out.
The other thing is, as a DIT, you’re not really supposed to make like lighting decisions because it’s not your job to make lighting decisions.
It’s not your job as a DIT to tell your DP how to light. That’s his or her job. You’re there to assist them. You’re there as a second set of eyes to everybody in the camera department and you should help out in the camera department.
So you know, it’s like it’s very much like editing, in that when editing is good, you don’t notice it. When a DIT is good. You don’t really notice it, but things run more smoothly.
You’re there to help and be an integral part of the camera department. You’re not there to boost ego. You can’t say I’m the DIT. I don’t touch my cart. I don’t run cable. No man. You’ve got to help out. a) that’s how you get the day done faster and b) it’s just like ‘don’t be a jerk’.
With DITs personality is key because you’re in a pretty good position.
You get to talk with producers, you talk with directors, you talk with the DP. You talk with a lot of powerful people who have been around in this industry for many years and who have lots of connections. So it’s easy to make friends and and it’s very easy for you to shoot yourself in the foot.
You’ve got to humble yourself and remember that in reality a production can get a way without a DIT on set. But, it really helps to have a DIT on set because we bring so many valuable things to set, and to helping everybody out.
But still, ultimately we’re a line item.
We’re one of the first things that goes when they need to cut money. So you need to give them every reason to want to keep you. Even if that’s just being a nice person to have around on set as a valuable member of the camera department.
I think it can be hard for us to justify our position sometimes, but ultimately we do save productions quite a bit, even if it’s in re-shoot value or just peace of mind.
What’s the bit that’s the most fun for you?
90 percent of the jobs that I do, I’m doing iris pulls. I used to be a Focus Puller so I like having… you know in one hand you’re doing an iris pull and the other you’re trying to adjust colour at the same time.
Or you have two cameras and you’re controlling multiple cameras at the same time… so anything that puts you in the moment, where you’re totally focused on this thing for 10 seconds or whatever.
And it’s also an amazing learning environment, as I get to see how different DPs handle different things and I can lock that away in the back of my mind, for when, you know later on down the line in my career, as a DP, if I get into the same situation I can borrow from them.
Has being a DIT, meant you’ve learnt things from DPs that you couldn’t have learned any other way?
Oh yeah. You’re the middle man between production and post. You are the liaison. So anything that the DP might want to change [about the image] he goes through you to communicate to post-production.
I’ve definitely learned so much just by asking DPs “Why did you do this?” Like, ‘why did you put this diffusion here as opposed to there? And, hopefully, they’ll try to explain it to you, if they’re nice enough.
I’ve worked with a couple of DPs who don’t like to be asked questions, but most DP and especially in episodic form will be happy to explain their thinking. It’s all about timing too.
If they’re really stressed out it’s not a great time to talk to them about this kind of thing. You have to feel it out a little bit, but there is one DP that I work with, David Franco, he’s a super nice guy and he’ll tell you anything you want to know.
Same with David Mullen, who did the pilot for The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel. Actually, when we had a third camera in, I asked him if I could operate, because I shoot as well, and he was like “Yeah sure, why not.” So I got to operate for him and I had my protégé come in and take over DIT duties for that. That was pretty cool.
As a DIT you do have a window into seeing things firsthand, because you can go on set to see how the lighting is set up physically, and then go to your tent and see how it looks onscreen. You know, the filtration is adding this, the depth of field is doing that… and you get instant feedback being able to see the image from on-set through to almost postproduction.
What is the process that an image goes through on a modern film set, as seen through the eyes of a DIT?[Editor’s Note: deLOG is just the image transposed out of LOG to say, Rec. 709, a film emulation LUT or a low contrast curve. It gives the crew an image with at least some contrast to work with rather than being a flat grey image. Further note: Paralinx and Teradek are systems for wireless video monitoring.]
Essentially the workflow on set is:
The DP and I sit in the tent and talk about what he or she wants to achieve creatively. That images gets passed down the chain to Video Village and to the Assistant Camera (AC) crew who have their own smaller HD monitors which I’ll just put the deLOG on so that way they have a contrasty image.
If they have something like a 17 inch monitor they pull focus from, and they don’t have the ability to put a LUT into it then I use a Terradak color and I’ll throw the deLOG on that, and then just slap that on their monitors so they have essentially a LUT’d image to work with. But I can still get LOG.
The idea is that I want LOG all the time. I want to see the image the sensor is capturing. That way when a DP asks to see the LOG it’s a button press, as opposed to asking them to wait for 30 seconds or more. They want to see it that second they don’t want to sit there and wait because they have a million other things to do.
After that I also take screenshots of our on-set colour choices. That way I can send that on to postproduction, along with the CDLs, deLOG and stills, so they can clearly see: here’s what we did on set. Here’s how the CDLs should match up.
That way if there’s of some sort of change, or whatever, Post can see this is the change that should be reflected in the CDL. I’ve had jobs where, actually it was Reed, who lit a tungsten scene and had me colour it for night. She wanted it to look like moonlight but she didn’t have HMI she only had Tungsten, so I did that and then when we got the dailies back it was like “Oh. Everything’s Tungsten.” They didn’t look at my CDL whatsoever.
At that time it was early in my career, but I was doing screenshots so it was a foolproof way of me saying “No, this is what we did on set. Here’s what I sent you. You didn’t apply it.”
It’s essentially protecting yourself. That way a) You have reference for later on and b) you can say to the DP “Look here’s what we did. I sent this to them. Somewhere down the line it got screwed up.”
But nowadays it’s very rare that happens because everyone is on board now. Nobody is fighting for a job anymore, like it was in the beginning, where post-houses were trying to get rid of DITs because they thought that DITs were a threat to them. that kind. Now it’s all very symbiotic in my opinion.
So anyway, Post will get all of the CDLs, stills and deLOG with all the LOG files and then they’ll do all the transcoding. I’ll see dailies too, so I can QC them and make sure everything’s good. That’s pretty much the workflow at this point.
How early on in pre-production are you involved? Are you setting LUTS/Looks on camera test footage?
Well I try to be involved as early as possible.
Typically I’ll sit with the DP and create the show LUT or the deLOG as early as the camera tests, whether that’s a hair and makeup test or wardrobe test or whatever. Because that way he or she is able to look at the fabrics and the colour choices and see how the camera responds to certain things. They are also testing lenses and filters and all sort of other things too.
So we’ll take those tests and we’ll sit there for a full day just going through and looking at stuff. Tweaking it and looking at things and then we’ll take that into the colour suite, into the DI with the colorist and sit there and futher tweak it.
That will be me, the DP, the colorist and maybe their dailies colorist is also there. We’ll sit there and tweak and tweak a deLOG to get a it to where everybody is happy and then the colorist will just export the deLOG and send it to me.
But it’s a very collaborative process. It pretty much starts with me and the DP. We’ll get 90 percent of the way there and then and the colorist will essentially do the final deLOG.
There is a show coming up that I did the pilot for, The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel, which starts shooting in May. But we did kind of like a REC. 709-ish look, though not quite as contrasty. But this show is also finishing in HDR, so the colorist, Steven Bodner created an SDR version of the HDR curve to send to me to view on set. That way, when they do the HDR final colour, they can work off of the SDR and everything matches up perfectly.
Has the growth of delivery formats made your life more complicated?
Not really. It’s pretty much the same thing. I just have to stay on top of the terminology, the workflow. Knowing how everything works.
That way when somebody asks me something, at any point in time on-set, I can give them the correct answer. Even if I don’t know all the details of how that works, I know what needs to get done.
What do you actually do to prep?
I keep a full check list that I keep updating but I run through it before every show.
Some producers think “You’re a DIT. It’s a TV show. You’ve only got to set up hard drives right?” I’m like, no.
You’re on preparing and prepping with the DP for colour choices. You’re trying to pick out different aesthetics, as to what he or she wants. You’re doing research or trying to figure out answers to questions like “what’s the difference between the Alexa SXT versus the XT”… you need to know answers to all these sorts of things.
For instance, my prep lists consists of 6 different categories. The project category contains:
- Confirm camera settings with production team and DP
- Figure out colour preferences and references
- Camera settings and resolution
- Miscellaneous shoot information, camera codec setups, frame rates [They may want to shoot 23:98, but sometimes 24 or 60 or maybe 29:97 for certain things.]
- Set all my frame lines for the directors and DP
- Colour space settings
- Setting up the AC’s monitors with a LUT box etc.
- Prepping cards, labelling cards, making sure everything rolls properly, that you can get all your maximum frame rates.
- Talking to sound, VTR, editorial etc.
- Calibrating monitors
- Testing cables and batteries
- Understanding your camera orders, because different lenses have different looks to them.
On my cart I have Preston single channel iris controllers. So I have to test all the lenses for iris control and see if they all line up. If they don’t I have to make an iris ring for every single lens.
So it’s a pretty involved list of things to do.
Wow. How long do you get to prep?
For Vinyl I think I had 5 days. But I prepped myself for two weeks.
I took an extra week to myself, to go into Panavision, do all the research. Watch everything, take notes, talk with the pilot DIT, figure out what he was doing.
This is all so that when you have Show Runners, who worked on shows like House of Cards, all these big shows, asking you tough questions I had all information ready.
One of the reasons why I got hired, given that they didn’t even want a DIT on Vinyl, was that Reed said, ‘you need to bring Charlie onboard’. They had an interview with me and asked “Why should we have you on set?”
I said “Do you need me on set? I’m fine with not being there, if you don’t need a DIT? But when you’re shooting F55 and you have multiple cameras, up to three cameras at a time and you’re shooting 4K RAW… And I typically handle medium management, because with two cameras on all the time, you’re going to need a loader running around [swapping cards]…”
So there’s a bunch of different things to it, but it also comes down to personality. If you put off a good vibe people will want to be around you. That’s half the battle. Winning people over. ‘Oh, he’s a nice guy. He knows what he’s talking about and he’s not a jerk.’
What does a typical day look like for you on set, if such a thing exists?
It depends on whether it’s a stage day or do I have three location moves? Is it the same scene? Is it multiple scenes? Am I referencing things already shot or are we shooting the first part of a scene that’s going to change later?
And it all depends on the job too. For instance there’s a job I have coming up where it’s a 100 percent handheld, two camera shooting, with just a standard 709 look and the DP just wants me to make it ‘look good’. That’s it.
There’s no real colour choices or anything like that he just wants me to “Make it look 709, like how I would see it broadcasted” – Alright. Easy.
But in something like Vinyl we’re playing with colour a lot and the deLOG itself was very cyan looking. Pushing the highlights a little one colour, the shadows a different colour, that kind of thing.
So what’s in your cart? What’s your secret sauce for making sure it can handle anything?
I need to update the Cart list on the website because it’s completely different now. What’s up there is what I had for Vinyl.
- Inovativ Echo 36 DIT Cart
- Blackmagic Design UltraStudio 4K (latest Thunderbolt 3 Version)
- Blackmagic Design 20 x 20 Router
- Leader 5330 External Scopes
- Wacom Cintiq 13″ Display
- Retina Macbook Pro
- 2013 Mac Pro (Top Spec!)
- Mac Mini
- Tangent Element TK Colour Grading Panel
- (2) IS-Mini LUT boxes
- Magma 1T w/ H680 board
- Akitio PCIe Expansion Chasis
- Pomfort Silverstack
- Pomfort Live Grade
- Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve
- Blackmagic Media Express
- Divergent Media Scopebox
Now I’m in a vertical cart scenario where everything’s compact, everything folds up.
With the Inovativ cart, the reason why I don’t like it as much is because on Vinyl we shot in a lot of places where we didn’t have elevators and I had to break my cart down a lot and take it upstairs and reassemble it.
And when you’re rushing for time and you barely get to the point where you’re plugging everything in and your DP wants to see a picture and you’re not ready, you can’t have that. You just need to be up and ready to go, as fast possible.
So I’ve changed my set up to the Vertical Cart so that everything’s compact, everything’s rack mounted everything’s built-in.
It’s on wheels and the centre of gravity is very reasonable. Now I don’t have to break anything down to go upstairs, and it only takes myself and one other person to go up or downstairs. I don’t have to get four people to help take my cart upstairs and I can leave my monitors on while I’m doing it. It’s all about ease of use.
I have a Blackmagic Design Ultrastudio 4K and the Blackmagic Design 20 by 20 router. Everything is run off of a Mac mini. I have a 16 terabyte RAID 0 that I use for my on set storage. Everything is either Thunderbolt 2 or USB 3 for connectivity when offloading.
I have everything set up so the card reader and the first shuttle drive are connected directly to the Mac Mini, so it’s the first in the bus, so there aren’t any bandwidth issues.
The thing that you have to realise when doing large transfers is that whatever is the slowest part of your chain will dictate how fast things go. So if all your hard drives are plugged directly into your computer but then your card reader is like the third in a chain on the USB hub, then your transfer speed is going to be dictated by your card reader.
So essentially I have everything plugged in directly as much as possible to my Mac Mini. It’s not the maxed out Mac Mini but it’s pretty it’s pretty darn close. I’ve had it for two years so I’m waiting for the new Mac Minis (if they’ll ever happen).
But when it comes down to it, [offload] checksums are dictated by CPU speed.
In your Vinyl set up you had the Retina Macbook Pro and a Mac Pro, but in your new set up it’s all running off the Mac Mini?
Yeah, so I’m only doing transfers and CDL workflow off my Mac Mini.
If I want to render or transcode, I have a switch where I’m hooked into my Mac Pro as a headless system via Gigabit Ethernet, and I can connect via a remote desktop directly from the network app on my on my Mac Mini and be able to remotely log into it and run transcodes on it. It’s pretty fast. It’s not as fast as if I was directly plugged in, but if I’m transcoding throughout the day I can keep up with it all day long.
I think people most people would expect you to need the beefiest system you can get?
For the cart I wanted a low profile. What can I build that’s as nimble as possible. I use my MacPro all the time for VR work, or colouring at home. [Side note Charlie is also building a colour suite at home!]
I like that you have DO NOT TOUCH THE SCREEN, on both the top and bottom of both screens! I have a friend who likes to say “If you touch the screen, I get to poke you in the eye.”
You’d be surprised how many people still touch the screen…. see what it says? It says, don’t touch it.
In terms of software why do you run Pomfort Silverstack and Live Grade?
The main thing that I absolutely love about Silverstack, and it’s the only software I will use, is the fact that I can go back at any point in time.
I’ve actually had to do this on the last season of Odd Mom Out. The DP asked me if I could remember in season one what our colour temperature was on some day where we shot off-speed stuff?
All I had to do was cue up my project from the shoot and go back to that season and find the specific day because everything is organised by episode day and shooting date.
So just being able to quickly go back and look through and see “Oh we were 4700 Kelvin not 5600. And we were shooting at 48. You were right were were off-speed.” – Just to have that ability is invaluable to me.
You don’t get that with Shotput Pro, it’s an offload software. If you accidentally close it, you don’t know what you’ve already off-loaded.
I’ve always been a proponent of organisation hierarchy and making sure that I have all the information at every point. So at any point in time I can reference the data.
Mainly because I’ve been, not almost almost fired because of it, but I’ve definitely had instances in which post-production has tried to blame things on me, saying that I didn’t do something when in fact that wasn’t the case. I was able to prove that the footage got sent through correctly because of my transfer logs.
That aspect alone, just being able to prove things with a time stamp, will make me never use any other software. I will only use Silverstack just for that.
How do you think Silverstack compares to other options like Shotput Pro?
You pay a premium for Silverstack [$600 annual subscription for Silverstack XT, $400 for Silverstack vs $100 purchase for Shotput Pro] but in my opinion it’s worth every penny just to have the hierarchy.
As long as you’re organised, it’s a no brainer for me. If I accidentally quit Shotput or my computer restarts or crashes or whatever, and I have to reboot the app, I still know what I already have [offloaded].
I’ll use Shotput on my other machines when I’m doing comedy when I might have eight cameras to offload at the same time. Then I have three machines set up, but I only have one Silverstack license and so I’ll put that on my main machine, but I’ll use Shotput on the others.
I like seeing everything up at the same time, just to know ‘OK’ it’s offloaded. Yes it’s there, yes I have the footage. I look on the hard-drive and see it’s there, but it also has a checkmark next to it, to say it’s offloaded.
But if you quit Shotput it disappears, so you don’t know what you’ve already done.[Editors note – Shotput Pro version 6 has come along way in some of things Charlie mentions, such as the ability to pause and resume offloads. Check it out in detail here]
What’s been your most challenging moment as a DIT?
If there’s an issue on set you have to figure out how to handle it, without alerting everybody and making a huge issue out of it. What you say on set as the DIT can have a huge impact on a lot of people.
For example, when we had a pixel burn-in on one of our cameras on The Marvellous Mrs Maisel, I was talking with the second AC about it and I was like “We’ll just send the camera back get a new one.” You know, that’s one option.
The next thing I know I’m getting phone calls from Panavision asking
– “What’s all this about getting a new camera?”
– “What are you talking about?”
– “The producers just called me and said they heard you say that we need new cameras, because the sensor is bad.”
I was like “whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.” I was just talking to the second AC about all that stuff. I was saying that was a suggestion!
In the end they called me to walk me through how to fix it on set, but it’s things like that, where you have to be careful about what you say because you can cause emergencies pretty quickly.
I read that you had to reassemble an Alexa in Puerto Rico?
That was on 22 Jump Street. Taking the Alexa apart was definitely one of the most stressful things I’ve done.
I was doing second unit for 22 Jump Street and we were in Puerto Rico. This is back when we’re shooting with the XT, when they just first came out three years ago. And nobody had XTs anywhere.
We had six cameras that we were shooting with. Three cameras for VFX, three cameras on second unit, and we used every single camera all the time. We didn’t have any backup bodies. And one of our cameras went down.
The camera wouldn’t start up because the cooling fan wasn’t working. So I essentially had to take the entire back of the ALEXA off and re-solder the fan start up. I think I called Cam Tech in L.A. and I said here’s the situation what do I do?
– “Well how proficient are you with soldering?”
-“All right, here’s what you have to do.”
So I had to fulfil the technician part of being a Digital Imaging Technician.
That’s probably the hardest thing I’ve done because if I screwed up, we were fucked because we didn’t have another camera. There were literally no cameras in the United States or Puerto Rico, or anywhere. But I got it to work.
Probably the thing I do more often than anything else, is pair Teradek receivers.
“Do you know how to pair this receiver?”
– Sure, why not.
Do you think the role of the DIT is going to become more and more crucial to modern film production?
I don’t think the DIT position is going anywhere. But it will evolve, especially with VR becoming a thing that more and more people are shooting. And so I think DITs are going to have to learn how to stitch on set.
I already own a couple of VR cameras, so I already know the whole process. Knowing how VR works and how to troubleshoot and prep VR cameras, doing all that kind of stuff, is going to be very valuable going forward.
Any final tips for all the budding DITs out there?
My tips for being a ‘well-liked DIT’ would be:
Always keep gum on the cart at all times.
And, if you have the space and the means to do so, make a mini-expresso maker for the cart too. You will make friends with a lot of people.
That and make friends with the Gaffer and Key Grip and you’ll be set.