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Trading celluloid for pixels

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The film projectionist at a small Taipei cinema pulls down a grunting metal shutter for the last time. The ticket seller sweeps the empty, cavernous hall, tightens the taps in the restrooms, and carries the trash out. In the 2003 Taiwanese film, Goodbye Dragon Inn, it is the end of the last show and the ticket seller, with a pronounced limp, walks out of the frame slowly and laboriously, holding up a scarlet umbrella in a grey and black frame. The rain pours silently and without pity.

The last scene of the film could well be a fitting tribute to celluloid itself. Film cameras, which captured images and imaginations in the past century, are possibly on their last legs in the movie industry. In the last months, three leading camera manufacturers - ARRI, Panavision and Aaton - have stopped mass production of film cameras. ARRI is focusing on developing its digital cameras and technology.

Sony, in the meanwhile, has just released the digital F65 and Canon will follow suit soon. Research and development in film cameras has practically ground to a halt, while Kodak's downfall hasn't inspired confidence. Film enthusiasts have stopped drumming their fingers in anticipation of bigger, better models. Even if purists and diehard fans clutch the thin, perforated strips, roll side to side with their eyes tight shut, and bawl that the revolution will never come, the writing is pretty much on the screen.

According to filmmakers, almost 50 per cent of movies are shot on digital cameras, among which the ARRI Alexa seems to rule the roost. Films such as Luv Ka The End, Mujhsey Fraandship Karogey, Sahib, Biwi Aur Gangster, Murder 2 and half of Mausam were shot in the digital medium. "The medium is changing. It's sad but I give film another couple of years. The industry's comfort zone might still be geared to film but that is the reluctance any new technology faces, " says cinematographer Ranjan Palit, who uses an Alexa and has worked on films such as 7 Khoon Maaf and Dreaming Lhasa. "Labs are also evolving. They have invested in digital intermediate, the best digital facilities. It is inevitable. If film cameras are no longer being made, what is the point? Film labs will become obsolete, " he says. As a cue, the Central Board of Film Certification, this month, allowed the submission of digital format movies for certification.

Fittingly, British visual artist Tacita Dean's obeisance to celluloid opened at Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern in London in October. Dean's video installation called Film, complete with sprocket holes on the edges, is an 11-minute silent film, during the shooting of which Dean - ironically - found that no lab in the UK would print 16 mm anymore. There are many takers for the bright and shiny digital format since it has the advantages of adapting to limited budgets and time, less wastage, accessibility and mobility. Compared to older Red digital cameras, newer models are bridging the gap between the look of film and the sterility and flatness of digital images.

Palit swears by the ARRI Alexa, which has been around for 15 months only. "We just shot a feature, Aparajita, in California in 25 days. This would not have been possible with so many locations if we were shooting on film. The Alexa is also much better in low light conditions, " he says. Cinematographers say digital cameras capture street-lit scenes without extra lighting, which drives down costs. Palit believes that given the single-minded focus on research and development of digital, the remaining 10 per cent quality gap between images captured on film and those shot digitally will be bridged soon. But when it comes to shooting extensive landscape, most opt for film. Cost-wise too, digital wins hands down. K Nandakumar of Flamingo Films, a Delhi-based film equipment and services company, says film cameras are rented out for Rs 12, 000 to Rs 25, 000 a day, and digital cameras for Rs 15, 000 to Rs 30, 000 a day. But the extra cost of film and processing surpasses the marginally higher rent for digital cameras.

Rohan Sippy, however, is unsure about the cost aspect. "You need skilled data technicians and new ways of archiving, both of which will be costly. No one has considered this yet. In the west, studios source and archive films. Archiving is the next million-dollar question, " says Sippy. Niraj Sanghai, business head, films India, Prime Focus, one of the largest technical and creative services companies for the film industry, says, "There is a gap in thinking. When you shoot film, it is in a can in front of you. There is a mental satisfaction to it. But in digital, even though it is recorded twice, directors don't feel secure. " Prime Focus has acquired 10 digital cameras in the past year.

But digital, many say, is more agile and versatile, giving filmmakers more breadth than ever before. The violent scene between Priyanka Chopra and Irrfan Khan in 7 Khoon Maaf, for instance, could only be shot once. So, Palit also used a Canon 5D as a support camera.
"It is not a question of whether we are ready for the change. But what does digital offer? It is much cheaper and allows you to get into spaces where film can't go. Honestly, I can't tell which portion of a film is shot digitally and which is on film. Only cinematographers can, " says film critic and author Anupama Chopra. "What is more important is that it gives everyone the opportunity to tell stories. Film-making doesn't remain only in the studios or just an elitist pursuit. The digital medium allows smaller, experimental films to become profitable, " says Chopra.

Both the film-till-I-die fanatic and the let-usembrace-the-new futurist agree that digital filmmaking has given new form to the thought and imagination of generations to come. And YouTube bears witness to that. Whether it is a social documentary, a travel montage, video installation art, or a motionblurred video through a car window, the power of the moving image is now everybody's to grab and share. "From the late 1990s, cheap accessible handy cams have transformed filmmaking and so has simultaneous desktop editing. Documentary film makers were the first to benefit. The digital medium liberated them from huge expenses, post production costs and democratised filmmaking. Digital can be immediately manipulated, edited, colour corrected - magic for the film industry. It has been an epochal shift, " says Sanjay Kak, a documentary filmmaker. Today, an activist in Jharkhand can buy an HD camera that fits snugly in a palm, make a film, edit, cut a DVD, add subtitles, and release it - all single-handedly.

Does technology play a role in the way we tell a story ? Mumbai-based film researcher Kalpana Nair says it does. "Creatively, Bollywood films shot on digital are more character driven. The camera in films like LSD, Stanley Ka Dabba or Sahib Biwi Aur Gangster is not focused on making stars look larger than life. It seems to give directors more control over a film because treatment, editing and writing get priority, " says Nair.

Sippy used the Phantom digital camera that shoots 2, 500 frames per second (film cameras can go up to 500-odd ) for a couple of slow motion sequences of Abhishek Bachchan in a nightclub in Dum Maaro Dum. "The movie was dominantly film because the DoP was comfortable with it. The industry was overdue for some kind of disruptive technology. But finally it is about the story. New tools let you tell new kinds of stories, " says Sippy, who adds that he is agnostic about technology itself because audiences adapt quickly and focus on the emotional involvement.

Though slower off the block, ad or commercial films are also migrating. Palit cheekily explains that this is probably because ad film directors don't want to move from film because film means marked up billings including cost of film, processing, transfer to digital etc. Writer-director Hitesh Kewalya, who has worked for television and commercials and is a partner at Invisible Rabbit, a boutique animation studio, says, "Commercials have become more real and are less fantasy-based now. Concepts are stronger even if budgets are smaller. Also, if you want to shoot in a market, and you don't want to get a permit, no one will notice a small camera. "
But what about the silky feel of a negative? The jagged touch of the square holes along the edge? The urge to lift a frame to the sun and let the image play on your face? For any departing medium - like analogue still photography - nostalgia creates a wave of affection and respect, a feeling that the art form will never be the same again. Palit agrees that the life of film is in the process. "It's tactile, it's something you use. We would look at shots on a lamp. There is a smell to film. That is the tragic element - digital is sterile and slightly synthetic. "

Shivendra Singh Dungarpur is disconsolate, so he is going back to where it all started. He works for the World Cinema Foundation, a non-profit established by American director Martin Scorsese dedicated to preserving and restoring neglected films from around the world. Dungarpur is involved in restoring Kalpana, a 1948 film, which will premiere at Cannes next year. The Foundation restored Ritwik Ghatak's 1973 classic Titas Ekti Nadir Naam. While Dungarpur's ultimate aim is to find the lost print of Alam Ara, India's first talkie, he also wants to restore all of Dadasaheb Phalke's films.

Dungarpur, who started with a 16 mm camera, is dead against any comparison of film and digital. "You cannot compare the two. Film is expensive and digital is versatile. It is only when you work through the film process that you realise how moving it is. Digital is instant. You don't even have time to live with it. " He laments the poor quality and lack of interest in film restoration in India. He also wants to set up a film museum for which he has been picking up rejected cameras and lenses over the years.

Dungarpur's love for film goes back to his childhood. When he was about seven, his grandmother, a Nepali princess, would drive him to Patna, book a whole theatre and they would watch movies back-toback. It would just be the two of them lounging carelessly in the empty regular stalls below and her maids on the balcony. But the real magic was in the weightless dust that sparkled in the light beam from the projector window, the giggle of the maids above, and the story that the slightly imperfect images on the screen told.

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