Inland Empire represents writer/director David Lynch’s first foray into digital video (DV) for theatrical release. The movie’s nonlinear plot comprises a series of bizarre and loosely connected vignettes that take place in a number of settings, including Los Angeles, where an actress (Laura Dern) struggles to play a film role that may be cursed; Lödz, Poland, where nefarious characters abound; and a theatrical living-room set populated by a family of people with human bodies and rabbit heads.
Lynch shot Inland Empire himself, using a Sony PD-150 in 29.97/60i NTSC, and edited it with Apple’s Final Cut Pro. The project was originally intended to be a 4x3 presentation on his subscription-based Web site, but as shooting continued over a period of three years, he changed his mind and began to format the movie for a 1.85:1 theatrical presentation.
Dern, who also starred in two of Lynch’s 35mm productions, Blue Velvet and Wild At Heart, says the chief difference between working with the director on a film shoot and working with him on a digital shoot had to do with pacing: “We were shooting constantly [on Inland Empire]. There were no large lights to put up, and we had no need to wait between setups for coverage, because David was holding the camcorder — he could cover an entire scene in 20 minutes or an hour. The luxury was an incredible shorthand on the set. There was never any downtime.”
To convert his original NTSC standard-definition footage into a suitable theatrical format, Lynch collaborated with Michael Broderson, a post-workflow specialist at FotoKem. “David came to us about a year before he did his final post,” recalls Broderson. “He made a reticule for his PD-150, so he was framing at 1.85 as he shot, but putting it on the Internet at 4x3. I asked him if he wanted side mattes, but he preferred [the footage] be cropped to 1.85. So I figured out the dimensions and created a Photoshop overlay he could use in Final Cut Pro. David went through and reframed each shot for 1.85 and then output the movie in sections onto DV tapes.”
These tapes were up-converted to 16x9 24p HD through a Snell & Wilcox Alchemist Platinum and laid off to D-5. “With 60i footage, you’ve got 60 real fields,” notes Broderson. “Every field is adjacent to the next and they all have motion. So if you just remove the extra frames, you get an obvious stutter, and if you just blend them all together, you get a very soft look. The Alchemist uses a sophisticated motion algorithm to make everything look smooth in 24p.”
An online HD conform was completed from the D-5 tapes on an Avid DS Nitris, using Lynch’s DV tapes as a guide track, along with EDLs from his edit. “Everything was captured nonlinear with the Nitris,” says Broderson. “Within that environment, we did a lot of fixes, like motion stabilizing and paintboxing, along with the editing. The ability to do that is a big advantage over a linear online system.” The final Nitris conform was output to Sony HDCam SR tapes.
The color correction was completed tape-to-tape in a da Vinci 2K suite by FotoKem colorist George Koran. “David made the decision to do a tape-to-tape correction rather than a digital intermediate [DI],” says Koran. “He comes from the film telecine world, so he’s used to the terminology; he knows what to ask for and what we can do. We tried a lot of different looks and densities. David let me play with colors, and I would come up with suggestions. For example, on the Poland sequences, we went for a heavy Tobacco-filter look, almost a rust color. We also applied some grads to darken the top portion of the frame.”
Koran worked with Lynch to achieve a striking style for the sequences involving the rabbit-head family. “We created a cyan-greenish look on the walls of that set,” he says. “We did some Power Windows and darkened the background walls so the rabbit actors would stand out more in the foreground. For a scene involving a living-room couch and a female rabbit who is ironing, David wanted to play some shots with more contrast, so we worked on the densities. For a sequence where Laura’s character goes down into a basement, we created an almost skip-bleach/desaturated look. David really gave us lots of great-looking scenes to work with.”
Koran used a Teranex box to enhance the image quality from the HD up-conversion. “In my suite, I can program the Teranex from shot to shot, adjusting the sensitivity of the noise reduction and changing the aperture to increase the sharpness. We’re also able to smooth out the inherent grain of DV, but you have to be careful to avoid artifacts. You can easily go too far with sharpening, and then it starts to look artificial. We created a pretty good group of presets for the movie during our initial tests.”
Inland Empire was recorded to 35mm on Arrilaser recorders from two HDCam SR tapes at 1920x1080. “First, we took the final tapes into our DI suite and applied a custom look-up table [LUT] that was designed to make HD material look right on film,” explains Broderson. “In the DI suite, we could screen digitally — with the LUT applied — using a Digital Projection 2K DLP projector. We’d then record it with the Arri and look at the film version. David watched the digital and film projections, and he thought the match was spot-on.” The final output was made on Kodak Vision Premier 2393.
Koran was also impressed with the final match from tape to film. “We did a lot of initial tests to make sure everything would transfer correctly from the HD world to film. I attended the cast-and-crew screening and saw the film version projected on a full-size screen for the first time. I was really impressed with how well it translated.”
Following its theatrical run, Lynch will release Inland Empire on DVD, using the HDCam SR tapes as his master.