I once asked animator Robert Breer for advice on dealing with film labs. "Take a timer to lunch," he replied. Indeed, a motion picture timer is among the most important of the invisible hands through which your movie must pass between picture lock and premiere. The timers work has a direct impact on the look of your film. Just what does a timer do? In order to learn about this profession, I called the man who had timed my first feature, Don Ciana, a master timer at Technicolor, New York.
While I must confess to a favorable prejudice towards lab workers in general, Don is truly special. A warm mixture of modesty, intelligence and professionalism, hes a charmer to boot. "When people outside the business ask me what I do for a living. I tell them Im a colorist," Don joked. "Which is essentially what I do. The term timer is from the old days of black and white when they had to look at a negative and decide how long a print should stay in the bath. What I basically do is match or balance the color and brightness from shot to shot within the various scenes in the film."
How does one become a timer? "Most timers work their way up through the ranks within the lab. I started out as a can-carrier, or gofer. Then I worked as a vault-man, finding and tracking negatives; as a finisher, splicing leaders, making up reels, and as a printer, for eight years, mostly at Precision, with two years at C.B.S. At Multicolor I became a timer, I worked there for nine years. I later went to TVC, where I spent eight years, and for the past two years Ive been at Technicolor, the largest and most prestigious name in the business."
Why must a film be color timed? With my own film, for example, the action took place during a single screen day. That day was supposed to be overcast, with rain continually threatening. On a 20-day shoot weather conditions ranged from rain to sunshine. Sticking to a schedule meant shooting regardless of the weather. While the d.p. did his best to keep the lighting consistent, the bulk of the job of matching color from shot to shot fell to Don. It was his job to smooth out and conform the color over the course of the film so that it appeared to be one continuous day on screen. Without proper timing, the variations of color from shot to shot could have distracted an audience from the action. Don was close with his first print and we only needed a few major corrections before striking our release prints. "What makes a good timer," he confessed, "is the ability to hit a decent print on the first pass, and then correct accurately for the second print."
"I remember one picture, a Troma film. It was all over the place. They had scenes shot months apart. Different cameramen, short ends, out of date stock, Fuji mixed with Kodak. It was wild. But the fact that we were able to ultimately match and turn out a good looking print is a real testimony to what can be done." As in many aspects of the craft, success is often a measure of the ultimate invisibility of the process.
Through the can-lined labyrinth of Technicolor, Don led me to the Timers Room where three Hazeltine Color Analyzers and one Kodak Color Analyzer are in almost constant use. Seated at the console, Don threaded a spool of negative through the gate. The Analyzer allows him to view the negative in positive on a video monitor. After setting up the system to his eye through the use of "China Girl," also known as "Our Lady of the Leader" (a frame of a womans face with color bars and a gray scale), he is ready to begin. At his fingertips are three dials, each representing a primary color: red, green and blue. The womans face is used to establish flesh tone perhaps the most critical balance of color.
White light in film is composed of three primary colors: red, blue and green. Complementary colors, or as Don prefers to call them, the "roll-over colors" cyan, yellow, and magenta are a mix of two opposite primaries. The rollover color of red, for example, is cyan, a mix of blue and green. "As you roll-over, or turn down the red, you bring up the cyan."
Whats the point of all this? Every time you change one color you affect all the others. So, while the Hazeltine may have three separate color dials, these controls interact with one another. If you were to add blue to a scene, for example, you would also reduce the yellow. Over 120,000 possible color combinations can be produced by mixing these three beams of primary light.
The relative brightness of the three beams is measured in whats known as "printers points." These numbers range from one to 50 for each of the primary colors. Youve probably seen them printed out in three columns on slips of paper in your dailies. According to Don, "normal is the middle range, 25 across, although its a bit of a misnomer because high 30s and 40s are really ideal. It is possible to go over the scale by changing the speed of the printing machine we can hit numbers in the high 50s, although it is fairly unusual."
Once these points are determined based on the timers eye in conjunction with any expressed bias by the cinematographer they are automatically logged into a computer and punched out on a paper strip. The Hazeltine is frame count-activated, as opposed to the old system of physically notching the film itself. These paper strips are then fed into the printer with your negative and the various lights (three actual color beams) are appropriately calibrated as the print is stuck.
Simple, right? The mechanics aside, it all boils down to what comes out on the screen in the end. "Sense of color is a relative thing. The most important thing is that the flesh tones and the overall density of the print be right on. In commercials, there have been real color trends. A few years back there was a tendency to go orange that Miller Time beer look. Now the trend is to go blue since the 501 Jeans spots. Since most people have a blue bias, if you were to look at the way the average home television is set up, you would find that 90 percent of them have the blue turned up higher, because its the most pleasant color to the average person."
A timer can offer a fresh perspective to a beleaguered director or d.p. "Sometimes you make a print and to your eye its beautiful. When you screen it for the filmmakers they say, Wait a minute, our workprint looked great. But theyve been screening their workprint for umpteen months and gotten used to it. Its when you screen the two prints side by side that they give in."
There are exceptions. Don recalled a horror/exploitation feature where "the producer/director insisted on wearing dark sunglasses during the screening and even wanted me to look at the print through them. She insisted that the print be timed 1.5 stops darker or 15 printers points. The d.p. meanwhile is saying its fine. Although I thought she was crazy, I made her print darker. At the second screening, she kept watching the film and, scene after scene, she kept saying Darker, darker! Meanwhile, the d.p. is screaming that its already too dark and pretty soon the two of them are cursing at each other at the top of their lungs. Hes saying he wants his name off the picture, shes saying Darker, darker! I wound up the referee. Well, I made her print. It was dark. Very dark. There was barely an image there. She never did sell the film.
Somewhere I heard that timers were required periodically to take a color test. Don laughed at this. "I dont know, maybe some of us should." On the subject of shooting under fluorescent light, Don groaned. "Dont," was his advice although he admitted that correction was possible. What if a cameraman doesnt use an 85 filter on Tungsten balanced film exposed in daylight? "We can handle that on our end too," he replied.
The labs also offer a choice of projection light prints. Tungsten (used in the small, portable projectors) is a more yellow light (3200 degrees) and Xenon (common at festivals where a longer throw is needed) a colder, bluer light (5400). This is a correction made on the printer (as opposed to the timers tape) and doesnt affect the timers job.
In conclusion, while it is primarily the d.p. who communicates with the Timer, it is the director who must ultimately be satisfied with the final print. Anyone who has had a bad time with a timer can attest to the emotional and financial toll of endless answer prints in search of the right release print. The ability to find the common terms of communication can definitely make for a more efficient working relationship. Knowledge of the range of the Timers abilities to manipulate your images also expands your options as a filmmaker. Working with an experienced timer, such as Don Ciana, gives you the edge of a practiced eye and years of experience.
Jeffrey Noyes Scher teaches directing at Columbia Universitys Graduate Film School. His films include Inertia and, most recently, Milk of Amnesia.