Basic knowlegde about telecine

Lars Pedersen Aug 10, 2016

  1. Hi,

    I'm trying to understand classic film transfer or telecine.

    Does all the dynamic range of the film negative survive the telecine? Or does it force the DOP/LAB to make choices about the exposure? And does all the dynamic range survive back to a film projector?
  2. Wow welcome to a can of worms.....yes no yes sort of.... A Telecine could increase the power to the bulb and push more light through the negative so the dynamic range of a Telecine is hard to quantify. The dop would give the lab instructions on how the negative was to be processed and made unsensitive to light, this was called pushing a stop or dropping a stop through the film lab chemicals. Negatives are never projected they are too delicate.​
    prints or positives are projected. Due to the nature of creating a print alot of dynamic range is usually lost or at least limited. But the negative if kept in good order should be in perfect order after Telecine might need to be run through a cleaner if no one has maintained the film path. ​
  3. It depends. The person scanning the negative (or IP) has to determine what the D-MIN (blackest detail) and the D-MAX (brightest detail) signal range is in terms of contrast. I usually ask for a balanced scan when possible, so rather than set to an arbitrary test film, the scanning operator actually winds into the film and makes an effort to make the RGB levels sorta/kinda balanced for that particular project. Every piece of negative is different, every emulsion is different, every lab is different, but for a given feature film (or TV show shot on film), there's usually a "happy medium" level you can achieve in the scan that will give you a reasonable Cineon Log starting grade.

    In the days when TV shows were printed to lo-con print (which is when I fell into the job, from 1979 to about 1985), we did do lots of TV and home video transfers from special prints struck off the original camera negative. Some were timed, some were not, but even with the primitive equipment from that era, you could make reasonable pictures most of the time. More for reasons of cost than anything else, the studios moved to transferring features from IP (a special intermediate element intended only to strike dupe negatives), made from the OCN, and we eventually figured out how to make acceptable pictures from IP. It took some years before we really had that down, I would say not until about 1988-1989.

    Original negatives were initially telecined to tape for commercials, then TV shows starting around maybe 1983-1983. (Mike Most, who is lurking around, was involved in that over at Encore, and had an interesting approach that eventually had an impact on the industry.) By 1990, I think all American filmed TV shows were being scanned from negative to tape, edited on tape, and most were then given a final color-timing pass in tape-to-tape. We went from analog composite (very yucky) to analog component (less yucky) to digital component (actually pretty good) within a 10-year period. The 1990s were pretty much all-digital for telecine, at least in LA and NY.

    By the end of the decade, HD started coming in circa 1999. There had been attempts to do analog HD, like at the Panasonic HD Center at Universal and Sony's HD Post facility on the Columbia/Sony Pictures lot, but I think it's fair to say those primitive HD transfers did not hold up well. Once the Philips Spirit was perfected, that quickly became the standard real-time scanner in the late 1990s and 2000s, and it held up for a long time until the collapse of film around 2008-2010.

    In answer to your question: the dynamic range of film had to be compressed for TV, but not much more than what we do today with digital cameras. I think it's fair to say that smart DPs understood that average TV sets had limitations in terms of what you could get away with for darkness, but shows like China Beach and X-Files pushed the limit in the early 1990s and I think the restrictions on darkness and underexposure shifted over time to the point where you could get away with quite a bit. I'd also credit DP John Bartley on Lost as doing a lot with extreme contrast range on that show, all shot on film, particularly in his ability to subtly fill night areas that appeared to be lit entirely by torches and firelight.

    D.I.'s are a whole 'nother discussion. Suffice it to say if we printed back out to film, I'd say all the dynamic range would survive in the process and it looked fine in film projection or in digital projection. But it was a long teething process; the early D.I.'s, from 1998-2008 or so, were very painful in terms of predictably getting back the same results on film that we saw in the color-timing room. Color was more an issue than contrast, at least in my experience.
  4. I feel sad that all this knowledge and trade craft is now almost entirely obsolete. I truly respect the fact that my first job was in a film lab in soho and I was lucky to be in a position where the lab and the Telecine department both wanted me for assisting roles and trained me up in both and let me chose my path.
    Clark Bierbaum likes this.
  5. I've always had the feeling that movies I used to watch on TV in the '70s looked great and they somehow got the dynamic range of the film onto analogue TV with more success and fewer tools than you sometimes see today. Could this be to do with the' lo con print' in the process you mentioned?
    David McLaren likes this.
  6. It is good having a basic understanding of the way things were. Though I honestly think the most valuable stuff I know generally goes back to dealing with DPs on sets and understanding the really tough challenges they have with lighting, gaffing, exposure, and so on. Film and telecine are neither here nor there -- those days are pretty much done, except for restoration projects of old films being reissued on HD and 4K. But understanding the limitations of modern digital cameras, knowing how to read a histogram, what to dig into in the Raw controls, which steps save time, which adjustments can quickly ruin the image... those are more valuable today. Treating the DP as a human being and empathizing with his challenges is the highest thing on the list.

    A lot of them looked pretty crappy. I've often said, even though I probably did more than 350 film & TV project prior to the HD era, I would love to redo every single one of them with the tools we have today. We were so limited in terms of range, lack of windows and masking, bad secondaries, and so on... I'm far happier with what we've been able to do with color in the 2000s. The good old days weren't that good.

    I'll say this much: I once had a polite argument with a late-1980s client who brought in some complex graphic/VFX elements -- one set on 35mm negative, one a lo-con print. He asked me which I'd rather use, and I said with confidence, "well, of course, the negative would be better." We put that up, made it look pretty good, worked with it for about 30-40 minutes, and he seemed satisfied. As we finished, he said, "just for the sake of argument, let's take a look at the print." I shrugged and said OK, switched over to positive, put it up... and damned if it didn't have a more natural look. There was something about the whites and the way they held the exposure that was a lot "gentler" -- a more pleasing roll-off -- than how the negative looked.

    Suitably chastened, I went through the print, made very similar corrections (matching to the neg in terms of color), and re-transferred it all for free. Lesson learned: sometimes, the neg is better; sometimes, the print is better. No question, a "somewhat" timed lo-con print could be color-corrected in about 1/4th the time it would take to do the original camera negative, for the simple reason that the OCN has no correction other than what was shot. 100% of the look comes from the colorist, apart from the DP's basic exposure and chemistry of the negative. And that takes some work.

    Nowadays, with modern pin-reg scanners with wide-dynamic range CCD pickups, I think we have the ability to match the best of lo-con prints. But 30 years ago, we just didn't have that luxury. It was stone knives and bear skins, I tells ya... :oops:
  7. I'm not sure if in the 70s in England low contrast prints were run for shows or if it was all from analog quad tape. Wasn't around.... ;) But I do know for broadcast films sometimes they would have a Telecine playing live down the wire with a grader doing a live grade to air no sudden changes.
  8. Yes, that method was dying out just as I got into telecine. Producers realized that if you took (say) a day to color-correct a 1-hour show, it was far better than having some lunkhead try to grade the show live from a print on the air. I did quite a few shows for Universal: Incredible Hulk, Galactica 1980, Rockford Files, Columbo, stuff like that. We rarely spent more than 5 hours on them. Today, we'd take 20 hours and be far more meticulous.

    Bear in mind that in 1979-1980, telecine had lift / gamma / gain and maybe chroma if you were lucky. No secondaries. Those came later, maybe 1981-1982, along with still frames. Very tough era. I don't miss those days at all. We didn't get power windows until maybe 1997-1998.

    I think the last network shows I did from print was Murder She Wrote and China Beach. I believe the former was the very last American network dramatic series to be cut on film; from then on, they shot on negative, transferred to tape, edited the tape, and (generally) color-corrected from tape.
    jamie dickinson likes this.

  9. Since at least 40% of each Rockford Files episode consisted of consisted of copies of the same shots of James Garner driving around, 5 hours seems like more than enough time :)
  10. The Rochford Files! Respect! :)
    I tried grading 'live' a couple of times from 16mm news archive to Beta SP from a Rank Cintel (?) and sepmag using two joysticks. It probably looked terrible and the sepmag would always snap when I hit the sync button.
  11. Naaaaaa, very little stock footage in that show except the main title, the end title, and establishing shots of his Malibu trailer. Not a tough show to do. China Beach was very, very tough, and that inevitably took 10-12 hours per episode. Just darker than hell. I was much happier doing shows from negative, because (to me) the lo-con prints were never timed light enough.

  12. My wife and I watched a few episodes recently and each one had repeated shots in it. Maybe not stock footage, but there was one where he was driving through the city and went around the same corner gas station at least 3 times. Either it was the same shot (or different takes of the same shot), or all the gas stations in LA looked the same back then!
  13. If you wanna see lots of dupes and stock footage, watch Dragnet or Adam 12. Mind-numbing how cheap those shows were. And the open of M*A*S*H is very hard to watch: there's dupes from the 1970 scope Robert Altman feature, and those are like four generations down. Horrible stuff. But... it was (and is) a great show with great writing and great performances, so it still survives.
  14. Adam 12. Wow. That was my favorite show when I was 3 (repetition and toddlers, I guess). I actually have a photo somewhere I took of it on the TV, I liked it so much I remember waiting for it to come on so I could take the picture. That was the same night I took a magnet to the tube and basically turned it into a black and white set. Also the last time I was allowed to play with magnets for a while...

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