Meet Simon Hayes, Digital Imaging Technician

We had the chance this month to sit down with Simon Hayes, a digital imaging technician to discuss the role of a DIT as well as well as to share with us some of his recent work on the important feature film, Trees of Peace, about four women who find unity, hope, and strength through one of the world’s darkest tragedies, the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. Join us as we learn about the various solutions used to deal with the very large files that were generated.

Los Angeles Post Production Group: Most of us know what a DIT does but for those who don’t, can you share with us a bit of a job description?

Simon Hayes: Digital imaging technician or DIT has been a bit of a catch all phrase. There are few other job titles/roles that often get confused with that of a DIT, but those roles have fewer responsibilities. Loader/Utility is the most basic role. They handle the media that the camera uses and put the cards into and out of the camera. Next is Data wrangler or media manager. Not only are they capable of handling camera media but they are also responsible for backing up the media to multiple storage devices and recycling the media for reuse. A data wrangler/media manager will also sometimes transcode footage for dailies and/or editorial. They will apply a basic look or LUT to the footage but won’t do any color grading or corrections to the transcoded footage.

Finally, the DIT role is the most involved. Besides establishing the workflow and directing the work of the Loader and Data Wrangler, DITs serve several additional roles that are important to the production process. First is working with the DP or cinematographer to preserve their visual intent. Second is working with post production teams to ensure that image and cinematic intent of the footage carries through, as well as making sure that transcoded footage will reconform with the source footage for the final color process.

A large part of DIT work involves color management. It starts with the camera and it’s sensor and continues on with things like calibration of onset monitors to building looks for scenes and creating colored dailies and transcodes for editorial. The role of a DIT is two fold: they ensure the capture and preservation of best image quality in the original data, and they also serve as a bridge between production and post production process while maintaining the cinematographer’s vision.

LAPPG: What attracted you to this type of work and how did you get started?

SH: For me, the attraction is the balance between being highly technical and visually creative. It’s using both left brain and right brain to overcome challenges.

I started working in the entertainment industry in the mid-90’s on the grip and electrical side of production before the switchover to digital. In the early 2000’s, I transitioned out of entertainment and into a computer data center, and from there, I finished my college education studying film, video and photography. Upon graduating, I moved to Los Angeles and tried to establish myself as a cinematographer. However, within a few years, I realized I had the necessary skill set for being a digital image technician.

LAPPG: How has your role and tasks changed during the pandemic and if they haven’t what did you learn or discover during the pandemic to help your work?

SH: My role hasn’t really changed much. When I’m working on-set, I spend the majority of my time isolated inside a tent.

I would say one thing that has happened more recently is the use of things like Zoom and streaming picture from remote sets to client/agency. It is not without its own challenges.

LAPPG: How did you get involved with the film, Trees of Peace and can you tell us a little bit about the film, your involvement and the timeline for production and post?

SH: The cinematographer, Michael Rizzi who I had worked with on other projects, asked me if I’d be interested in working the Sony Venice camera on a feature film. It was our first time working with this camera system, as it had just been recently released. Sony generously provided us a camera to do several camera tests. This allowed us to develop a look, with help from The Lodge at FotoKem, and test the post production workflow all the way through to the color process before principal photography started.

Bola Koleosho (actress in Trees of Peace), Ron Ray (producer of Trees of Peace), Simon Hayes (DIT on Trees of Peace)

Trees of Peace is the story of four different women hiding together for survival during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Most of the story is told from a 5×5 foot box with the four actresses.

Principal photography started in the middle of October (2019) and concluded in mid November. The original goal was to have post finished by March (2020) for a submission festival deadline. Due to the onset of COVID-19, this allowed for more time to be spent refining the cut of the film and working with the composer.

LAPPG: What were the biggest challenges when shooting this film from a DIT standpoint? What specific solutions did OWC provide?

SH: The biggest challenge had to do with the data generated by the camera. We were shooting 6K 2:3 but framing for 1.85 4K. Because of the higher resolution and larger frame size, this generated very large video files. The large files required three different solutions.

The first were the Thunderbay 6 RAID solutions for storing the data. We used three of these to backup all the data in triplicate: a master and two backups. These were configured for RAID 5 which allowed for some redundancy: if a hard drive were to fail in an enclosure, we would not have any data loss. Also, having 6 hard drives in an enclosure ensured that there was enough speed/ bandwidth for the media to be offloaded quickly. This was helpful when shooting high frame rates for things like the dream sequence.

Next was a 4TB Thunderbay mini with solid state drives. We used this as a temporary drive to load the day’s footage and create AVID transcodes that editorial needed. This drive is capable of moving very large amounts of data very quickly. Using this drive allowed DaVinci Resolve to create HD transcodes from the original 6K footage at more than twice real time speed.

Lastly were the OWC Envoy Pro Ex drives. These solid state drives were used to shuttle transcoded footage and audio files to post daily. Because these drives have very high read and write speeds it took minutes to move footage, which allowed the AE to get started working instead of waiting for the data to be moved onto his system. With traditional hard drives, this could have been as much as an hour. An hour might not seem much in the post world, but couple that with 20 days, and the time becomes quite sizable. The OWC Envoy drives are also super rugged, so I had no worries if one was dropped accidentally.

LAPPG: What factors played a role in deciding to use OWC products?

SH: I have been a customer of OWC since 1996. Besides delivering great products at good prices, their customer service has been outstanding. If I had a problem with something I was able to get a replacement quickly, sometimes the next day. Knowing that they stand behind their products and take care of me as a customer gave me added peace of mind.

LAPPG: How did OWC’s products fit into your workflow for the film?

SH: The Thunderbay 6 RAID drive were great due to the large capacity and bandwidth. They allowed all the original camera footage, audio, BTS footage and photos to be consolidated on one drive. It simplified keeping track of assets in post. The OWC Envoy drives allowed footage and audio to be moved quickly to the various groups working on those things.

LAPPG: What would you like to see in the future to help your workflow be more efficient?

SH: Quantum storage, but we may be a lifetime or two away from that being a reality.

I’d also like to see a continuing collaboration between OWC and the industry. OWC has invested time and resources working with DITs to come up with solutions in the ever changing landscape that is digital production. A great example of this is the new Flex 8.

LAPPG: Work/life balance has been a big talking point lately. How do you find that balance for yourself while working on a film?

SH: I think this has and will always be challenge. The long hours and difficult schedules make finding time for family and friends a real challenge. As Mark Twain said, “Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” I really enjoy my work but the drawbacks are not being able to celebrate friends and family members birthdays and other special events.

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