Thatcher
Thatcher Kelley's DIT Rig

Ever heard of a DIT? DIT stands for Digital Imaging Technician. With the advancement of digital cameras, this position was created to assist camera crews and directors to get the most out of their equipment. On set, they are referred to as the DIT. During production, they are normally found behind their “rig’ that consists of a few monitors, computers and hard drives. On exterior shoots, you’ll find them under an umbrella or inside a blackout tent.

So, what exactly does a DIT do? We spoke to two industry professionals from opposite sides of the US to find out. Thatcher Kelly is based in Seattle, WA, and has worked in the industry for more than a dozen years. His credits include feature films, documentaries and lots of commercials.

Andrew Morrison has also been a DIT for commercials. He lives in South Carolina and has been the industry for just a few years. His credits include short and feature films, plus network television shows. Recently, Andrew finds more work in the lighting or camera departments like in his current position on Netflix’s show “Outer Banks”.

Behind the Camera
Andrew Morrison behind the Camera. A DIT needs to know the essential operations and settings of the camera

Where it all starts

Both Thatcher and Andrew are film school grads who understood that to get going in the industry, you need to be willing to start at the bottom.

“I started working out of a rental house in LA,” Thatcher tells us. “That’s kind of the usual way. If you’re in the camera department and you want to move up in the high-end production world. You go and do your time at a camera rental house.” It was there he learned all about the settings and operation of many different cameras. This is an important skill for a DIT to have.

“My job was to prepare the equipment for the guys who would actually go on set. The camera assistants and DPs would come in and check out the equipment. They’d make sure that it’s all set up for their job. I would work with them throughout the day. It’s a great way to build relationships and get to know people and learn all the gear and learn how things work and then eventually gain some trust.” He would occasionally get recruited to join the camera team on set.

A direct path

Andrew came through a different route. He says that right out of film school, “I developed an interest in lighting and from there color correction. There’s kind of a duality between the two.” Andrew learned DaVinci Resolve as a colorist and that was a natural connection for the job as DIT.

His flexibility helped him get started, along with a valuable life lesson, “Don’t be afraid to get in there, work hard. If you’re just starting out as the camera assistant, say, you get an opportunity. More opportunities will come if you work hard.” Opportunities kept coming and Andrew works in many aspects of production.

So, knowing digital cameras well plus color, lighting and flexibility are important skills to the DIT. But what do they actually do?

The DIT craft

The job of the Digital Imaging Technician is similar to a video engineer in the broadcast world. As the industry transitioned from film to digital cameras, it was important to have a person who knew the right settings and outputs. Additionally, DIT’s are responsible for allowing the Director and camera crew the ability to view the images accurately.

“The main thing that we do is maintaining the image quality,” Thatcher says. “For the most part, I’m an advocate for the cinematographer. I’m there to make sure that what they’re shooting, does what it’s supposed to do.” This includes having high-resolution monitors so directors can see an accurate representation of the image. The DIT ensures that all of the settings and data transfer will keep the shots looking the way the creators envisioned.

Andrew agrees, “The DIT is really a guardian of the look for the Director of Photography. He really guards what the DP’s vision is.” This means that they often act as a go-between from the production to the post-production crews. They work together with a loader, who is responsible for the data cards that the camera uses. Some crews also have a “Data Wrangler” who transfers the video to back up hard drives and possibly even cloud storage.

A variety of skills

Although these are often cross-over positions on set, Andrews says the big difference is, “They’re not there to touch the image, the image quality or make recommendations. Their job is just to make sure that what was shot is coming through is making its way into post-production.” The DIT will often recommend image and setting adjustments for the camera crew. The Director, DP or Cinematographer will be right next to the DIT to view the images. They may seek advice on getting what they want out of the camera.

Andrew also points out, “The camera department is going to look to you as a subject matter expert for any kind of technical issue. They’re most likely going to come to the DIT. That’s not necessarily the primary job, but they often become the tech of the camera department.” This is understandable as the position grew out of the broadcast engineering world.

The rig

Depending on the conditions, the DIT’s position or rig can be on a table or mobile cart. The key element is its monitor. You won’t find an off the shelf computer monitor here. Their screen must be the highest quality and fully adjustable to get accurate color settings. The Directors and cinematographers have to be certain that what they’re shooting is exactly what they want.

Andrew describes a typical rig, “The Mac Pro is kind of the workhorse for the DIT, put into a road case of some type. A Flanders Scientific monitor, and then, of course, your RAID.” He refers to a “Redundant Array of Independent Disks” or RAID storage. This is a rack of hard drives that provides a maximum amount of storage. The higher the resolution of the camera, the greater the amount of storage is needed. Andrew says its typical for a DIT to own their own gear.

Why that choice?

“I like Flanders Scientific because they know their users and they build firmware to accommodate us users. They’ve listened.” Thatcher adds about his choice in monitors. Flanders and Sony monitors he calls the “de facto film industry standards” Both are high-end, OLED monitors. Of course, this comes at a premium price starting at twenty to fourth thousand dollars.

As storage cards are brought from the camera to the DIT, the data must be transferred to other drives for back up and transfer to post-production. Both of these pros like DaVinci Resolve. Thatcher tells us, “Especially in the commercial world, you’re interested just making high quality, transcodes. You don’t need as much metadata manipulation capabilities. Resolve is not that great at metadata manipulation and sending metadata files over to post-production, it’s just not optimized for that. But it’s great for just transcoding footage and making it sound.”

It’s not just copy and paste

They both tell us that transcoding often becomes the bulk of the time spent on set. Producers may require multiple backups for each data card. The DIT may also be responsible for making lower resolution copies for editing and visual effects teams.

Andrew tells us that the process begins as soon as memory cards are removed from the camera. “The loader put red tape on it, which signifies hasn’t been offloaded yet. That card is going to get handed off to the DIT, who’s going to transfer it to a drive that’s already been setup. That process is going to happen fairly automatically. After the card is offloaded, he puts on a green piece of tape and it goes back to set.”

Thatcher continues with the details of the process, “It depends on the type of job. If it’s a commercial, it’s just at the end of the day and we’ll either ship the drive off or hand over one of the master drives with all the footage.”

If it’s a longer production, “A lot of times they don’t need it until the very end. In which case, we’ll split up the hard drives at night. I’ll send one home with a producer.” Thatcher tells us backup and security are key.

And that’s not all

“A lot of times on TV or movies, we’ll have a midday break and so halfway through the day, I’ll have a specific hard drive just for those low-quality editor files. Sometimes they’re just little tiny SD cards because they’re not the original RAW files. It doesn’t require big hard drives. We can just take the first half days of footage and send it to post-production so they can start editing right away.”

As production becomes more and more collaborative, Thatcher points out that electronic data transfer is becoming the norm. “More and more these days I’m doing file transfers. Usually not the original raw footage, because it’s a lot of data but sending those smaller editor files. Those can send across, from LA to New York or to London or wherever the editor is a lot faster than shipping FedEx.”

It is very common for the DIT to be one of the last people on the set at the end of the day.

Post pandemic future

Finally, as the production industry is trying to navigate the effects of COVID-19. Smaller crews and tighter budgets are having an effect on the DIT position. East Coaster Andrews says it is more common to see a crew going without a DIT.

“The Data Wrangler and the Loader can cover the necessity of backup and transcode. They can do that. Then the DP can do the job of the DIT if they agree to it. I don’t think that’s ideal, but it happens. And it was happening before COVID, and now with COVID I think it definitely suffered. I’ve seen less and less of them fight for the position.”

On the other hand, Thatcher says he’s busier than ever. He thinks it’s maybe just a matter of location. There aren’t too many DIT’s in the Pacific Northwest

So, you want to enter the DIT world?

We asked Thatcher and Andrew what advice would they would give to someone who is looking to become a DIT.

“First of all, just choose not to be a DIT. There’s a lot of better jobs out there.” Thatcher laughs. “In all seriousness, if you want to be a DIT, you need to get involved in the camera department. Volunteer to be a PA. Help out, ask questions and express an interest.”

“Don’t be afraid to work in the lowest position in the department,” Andrew agrees. “Network, network, network. If that’s really what you want to do. Learn how to color, about third party data. You need to know how to do data that is managed.” He adds, “Don’t buy in and don’t try to finance because the equipment is going to change in two to three years.”

Thatcher tells us, “I’d say be humble. Everybody else on set is smart, too, and don’t think you’re a know it all.”

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