An overview of the digital imaging technician.
The Camera Department provides the visual representation of a TV programme/film. In pre-production, the Director of Photography DOP (Head of Department) and the camera operator conduct research and preparation including carrying out technical recces of studios and locations. They prepare a list of all required camera equipment and check that the results fit with the director's initial vision. A small but integral pairing of data wrangler and digital imaging technician (DIT) sit within the Camera Department on a TV production shoot.
Without these very important members of the team, digital footage wouldn’t make it to its final destination of the edit suite in post-production. Data management comes into play when digital formats are used rather than tape or film stock. A large majority of TV productions use digital cameras (eg. RED, ARRI, Canon, Sony) these days. A DIT is an on-set expert in digital cameras, they help set up the equipment, test the equipment and check that the files are correctly saved and labelled.
In the past, a DIT was a camera engineer (managed the cameras) and colour timer (set looks). Today, a DIT will make adjustments to the multitude of variables available in the camera to manipulate the resulting digital image. They perform a host of pre-post production tasks such as manage and backup of on-set data, QC footage for problems, assist the DOP with exposure settings, make exposure correction, monitoring (understand scopes, waveforms etc), develop looks with the DOP that will be applied to dailies, apply LUTs to footage, creation of dailies for computer, iPad/iPhone and cloud delivery, perform primary colour grading - and even troubleshoot the camera when necessary.
The DIT acts as a liaison between the Camera Department on set and post-production to ensure that the production’s proposed workflow will work. Some DITs oversee parts of the post production process, to ensure that the footage is handled correctly all the way through. A DIT must have a thorough technical understanding of LUTs (Lookup Tables), colour space, camera formats, codecs and editing software, which is why a background in the Camera Department and/or post-production complements a career as a DIT. Digital cameras shoot “Log” or "flat" footage (without the final colour baked in), so the DIT will quickly apply a LUT to give it an impression of what the footage would look like when it is colour graded in post.
There is a lot of pressure on DITs because of these technicalities and being responsible for a production’s complete creative output. It’s not an easy role, and can take a number of years to become competent and confident with the range of media that is currently available for digital production. They need to be really savvy with new trends and software too, as the digital market changes so frequently.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A DATA WRANGLER AND A DIT?
There’s a common misconception that if you’re a data wrangler, you’re also a DIT. There are actually many differences between the two roles. A data wrangler is usually a junior crew member, who works with and supports the DIT. Employed by production, they usually perform tasks on set, but will run rushes to post-production facilities houses and/or production offices. A data wrangler sometimes has other aspects to their role, can often have runner and logger duties too, especially on productions with smaller budgets.
The data wrangler is responsible for the transfer of data captured on cards (eg. XQD, SXS, MSD, CF, SD, ZAXCOM) that are compatible with digital cameras and digital sound recorders. Data wranglers backup these cards and install the backups on a drive (or sometimes multiple drives for extra protection). They make 2 or 3 backup copies (these are a requirement of most insurance companies), verify and deliver transcoded rushes data to post production. In post production, edit assistants and editors take over, and start editing the rushes brought in by the data wrangler.
All backups will have their integrity checked and log sheets with checksums, details of the contents of the files, will be produced by the data wrangler. When the footage is passed from the shoot to post production, the data wrangler is required to keep a log of who has received what rushes and track all copies of the footage. A data wrangler might occasionally be asked to perform similar tasks to the DIT, but data wranglers would not normally be asked to complete the highly technical tasks such as producing LUTs, setting up cameras or overseeing any part of the production process.
If there isn’t enough in the production budget to employ a data wrangler, or a data wrangler isn’t available for a particular day/shoot, the DIT will manage the data workflow, spot-checks and backups as well as their usual duties. Data wranglers won’t just handle data from cameras, they should also be familiar with media coming from sound recorders, Go Pros and aerial cameras too. Media cards come in all shapes and sizes (mostly quite small and easy to misplace!), and have a specific reader with a USB lead to capture the data. Others cards can be inserted directly into card slots in computers.
WHERE DO DITS AND DATA WRANGLERS WORK?
DITs are generally found on set or location, spending some time with the Camera Department, and then they also have a mobile workstation close to the set, (a safe room with power points) where they can process camera media cards given to them by the clapper loader or camera assistant straight after each and every reload. The DIT’s workstation usually includes a Mac Pro, monitor, and a few drives - similar to what you’d find in an edit suite, but a mobile version. The dailies (footage and sound files amounted at the end of the shooting day) will then be stored on handy portable drives. At this point, a data wrangler will probably deliver the hard drives to post-production. But if there isn’t a data wrangler available, DITs will liaise with post to ensure the footage reaches its destination safely.
Some DITs insist on being involved at the preproduction stage (fairly standard on long running/complicated series or films), but this doesn't always happen. It is important on bigger productions, or series (with multiple cameras/units) where a massive amount of data will be flying around in chaos unless someone comes up with a workflow routine that can keep the data management on track.
For example, a DIT employed to work on a long running factual series shooting abroad would start in pre-production to help design the most productive workflows for the production (which could save time and money further down the line). The DIT would have meeting with the DOP, SP, camera assistants and series editors about cameras, technology and their preferred data methods. He/she would advise the Heads Of Departments on specifics such as file management workflows, naming conventions, codecs and frame rates, master rushes logs and the necessary hardware and software for use in hostile conditions on location.
Occasionally, once the data management side of a production is completed by a DIT, they will be kept on by production to help with deliverables such as music cue sheets, clearances and compliance paperwork. So, although the DIT’s main purpose is to carry out data management during production - this is by no means the only place you’ll find them! Like many freelancers in the TV industry, they have to diversify and multitask in order to gain more work, and this often means adding a few extra skills to their CV so that they become more desirable to productions and will hopefully gain longer contracts as a result! Some DITs are also camera operators, or assistants, because they have such a good grasp on camera technology and formats.
WHAT’S THE BEST WAY INTO THIS CAREER ROLE?
Intensive industry experience is the most obvious route into this role, though it helps to have a grounding in the basic camera skills, a photography or film degree and/or some production knowledge. You could apply to be a camera trainee through Trainee Finder, which gives hands-on experience in the industry and will help you build contacts who will become essential when looking for work - it’s a crowded industry so you need to put in extra legwork to make HODs notice you.
You could start out as a runner on a feature film, a logger on a reality TV series, or go in-house at an independent production company (or post production house) as a receptionist or office runner
IN WHAT AREAS OF THE INDUSTRY CAN THIS POSITION BE FOUND?
The rates of pay will vary from genre to genre (drama budgets tend to be bigger than factual) but the duties will be similar. Just be aware that there will inevitably be a lot more data to deal with on high end productions plus potentially different types of data, e.g. aerial camera shots from different cameras.
WHAT KEY PERSONAL ATTRIBUTES DO YOU NEED TO BE A DIT?
Technical camera knowledge
Strong organisation and communication skills
Understanding of colour science
Dynamic use of initiative
Strong IT skills
Stamina for long hours
Can work accurately under pressure
WHAT IS THE CAREER PATH OF A DIT?
There is no specific set career path into the data management or the Camera Department, you could come into it from editorial, production, or post-production. A lot of DITs come from positions in the Camera Department or being involved in post-production as these two departments tend to be the most technically-focused. Some data wranglers might start out as loggers on a big entertainment series. They would be suitable candidates for the data management because loggers often use industry standard software programmes such as FORscene and Cinegy, which incorporate editing and file/data management, though the focus is usually on helping editorial identify good sync and usable scenes.
However, loggers have to be fast and accurate in order to type up and review reams and reams of footage, then write it down on a log sheet. This is imperative to the processes as it helps to organise different stories and key themes. Loggers take notes on the names of different scenes, the time code numbers, and comment on if they think the footage is usable or not. A logger who feels comfortable and confident handling massive amounts of info, (and the adeptness to quickly process it) would definitely have the right transferable skills for a career in data management.
Some people stay in data management, and find it a varied and fulfilling career - especially if perfectionism as a top priority and you’re a little bit OCD about filing and naming conventions. However, others feel the need to go in a more creative direction, so some DITs diversify and supplement their careers with editing or camera work.
WHAT IS IT LIKE TO WORK AS A DIT?
The opportunity to travel all over the place, home and abroad is a big draw for most DITs. The variety of projects is also a massive plus point for DITs - you could be working on a big budget TV film one day, then flying out to South Africa another day to support a crew shooting a new natural history programme. DITs are super organised, and need to have the self-motivation to work alone but also make quick friends with the Camera Department in order to set up a good working environment on set. You will also need to be able to keep high levels of accuracy at all times, even after a 14-hour shoot and there’s still cards coming in from the camera assistant. This is not a 9 till 5 occupation and if you can’t handle pressure, you will struggle to keep up in this kind of work environment.
DO I NEED ANY QUALIFICATIONS?
You don’t need any qualifications to work as a DIT, but you do need to have a real desire to enter this department and display common sense when it comes to health and safety procedures, as you’ll be working with lots of technical equipment, and cables.
Should you wish to gain a better understanding of the Camera Department then you could consider a short course to give you the opportunity to handle the cards and cameras associated with the trade:
Short courses should provide the basic skills for digital, as well as more traditional 16mm and 35mm formats. A background in digital photography is also beneficial as it’ll provide you with a good, all-round understanding of camera technicalities
COMMON ACRONYMS YOU’LL ENCOUNTER AS A DIT
LUT - Lookup Table
CDL - Colour Decision List
ACES - The Academy Colour Encoding System
ALE - Avid Log Exchange
EDL - Edit Decision List
UPS - Uninterrupted Power Supply
DIT - should be pronounced D.I.T rather than dit!)
What do you find in a DIT’s mobile workstation?
Mac Pro 3Ghz 8-Core
64GB RAM installed
Rack-mounted APC Smart UPS 1500
Video Card (eg. ATI Radeon 5870)
Drives (eg. Hitachi enterprise which have a 5 year warranty)
Cloned boot drives (in case of a catastrophic event)
Rack-mounted RAID (eg.24TB Enterprise)
Tangent Track Ball panel (for colour grading)
Cart (it’s common for DITs to house all the above components in a mobile cart with wheels and shelving - enabling the DIT to pull the whole workstation around more easily.)
Software to support all the latest camera data (eg. RED, ARRI, Canon 5D)
- WiFi Hotspot in case you’re asked to send rushes via online file transfer site
Tips for travelling with your computer
If you travel with your DIT kit, it's a good idea to pull all drives from the tower, and put them in a foam-lined Pelican case and carry them with you. Not only will your drives be better protected, but your Mac Pro will weigh a lot less, so you might not have to pay an overweight fee with the airlines. A Mac Pro and keyboard without drive weighs in at just 50lbs.
Tenba Mac Pro Air Cases are great for shipping Macs. They are made specifically for the Mac Pro with tons of protection, but without the weight of Anvil or Pelican type cases. Tenba also makes a variety of flight cases custom suited for your iMac, laptop, tower and monitor
What Software programmes do DITs use?
There’s loads of free apps out there, but the choice and quality can vary quite wildly. So here’s a list of recommended entry level software for computers, iPads and smartphones:
OmniDisk Sweeper. Shows you the files on your drive, in descending order by size, and lets you decide what to do with them. Delete away, but exercise caution.
Hedge for Mac. Hedge is the stress-free way to import video. No more corrupt files, incomplete backups or lost footage. Leave the offload to Hedge and use your brain for more important things.
LiveGrade Air. The free iOS App for professional look creation. LiveGrade Air allows to create and exchange color-ideas by just using an iPad or iPhone.
ShotPut Pro. ShotPut Pro is an automated copy utility application for HD video and photo files. ShotPut Pro is the industry standard offloading application for professionals. The simple user interface and robust copy speeds make it indispensable for today’s tapeless HD workflows.
Once you’ve grasped how to use some (or all of the above), you might want to graduate to the following programmes which are used by more established DITs:
Silver Stack. Colour grading functionality and look library management, the ability to import looks created in Live Grade Pro via CDL, and the transfer of clip and colour information to down-stream applications like DaVinci Resolve or your NLE of choice.
Colorfront. Produce a range of software including Transkoder (ultimate tool for DCP and IMF mastering), and Express Dailies (high performance digital processing system).
Scratch Play. Playback & review tool for virtually all production and camera formats.
LiveGrade Pro. The Reference for Professional Look Creation.
Avid. Industry standard Non Linear Editing (NLE) software.
Some of these full programmes do have a fee attached, but we suggest making the most of the free 30 day trials on offer, so at least you get used to the different features and then you can make a more informed decision about purchasing any of them. The learning curve can be steep and only grasped in real life situations – although plenty of training video resources are available online.
What hours will I be working?
Hours may be long (8 -12 hours a day) and the work can be physically exhausting. For a large chunk of this time, you will be on your feet, with the camera crew. As you can be expected to work long hours, make sure to take care of yourself as well as the rest of the department. When you are tired it is easy to forget your tasks, so make lists and prioritise them. Drinking plenty of water will help you stay focused and keep dehydration at bay.
What are the industry bodies for the Camera Department?
Guild of Television Cameramen
International Moving Image Society
How much do DITs get paid?
Some productions will have you on a 5 or 6 day working week, with a 10 hr day cited as ‘social hours’. You can charge extra for over-time, antisocial hours and night shoots. Other productions will pay you a daily rate. DITs should charge extra (Box Hire) for the use of their personal kit. Bectu (Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union) have their recommended Camera Department Rate Card, which lists a DIT working on a British Drama (10 hour day) as £300 per day (inc holiday pay). *Figure taken from 2014 BECTU rate card*
How long will I be a data wrangler before I move up to DIT?
It largely depends on your tenacity and drive. If you show your initiative, do your homework/research and go above and beyond the standard requirements - you could go from data rrangler to DIT in around two or three years. If you’re happy to take your time and progress at a slower pace, you will gain more experience and avoid the risk of being out of your depth when you do step up.
What can I do to speed up my progress into the Camera Department?
Working on short films and friend’s projects are sure fire ways to bolster your competence with data handling. Offer to take control of the data management and design a workflow that you think is suitable for the project and follow it through. It’s worth remembering that you meet many people on short films, and creating good working relationships on a freebie project can lead to paid work. Going to free industry trade shows such as BVE in London provide a great opportunity to test out industry standard cameras, attend masterclasses, swat up on new technical trends and do some networking. It’s also a good idea to go to technology events, UK screen host two industry events every year.
Another thing to look out for is when camera hire companies exhibit at industry events and advertise on site ‘hands-on demo days’. Sign up to kit hire company e-bullets and you’ll get the opportunity to go try out loads of cameras and sample the latest technology for free. It’s also another opportunity to grow your network - and potentially find work. If you live in the city, you could probably expect to attend a demo session every couple of months - if not more!
Thank you's ...
My First Job in TV would like to thank Kevin Ball for his advice and input into this career guide.