Grain to pixel: The digital new wave

48-year-old Bedabrata Pain is a NASA scientist turned filmmaker. When he set out to craft his film, Chittagong, which released on October 12 this week, he had no financier or studio to back him. Just a strong desire to tell the story of 14-year-old Jhunku Roy, a courageous band of schoolboys and young men and women who turned revolutionaries in the 1930s.

During his 15 years at NASA, Pain has had 87 patents to his name as the lead inventor and was inducted into the US Space Technology Hall of Fame. The royalty of Rs 5 crore that he received was the money he put into making his film.

To maintain high quality at a low cost, Pain used digital instead of film cameras. As a scientist, he was all too familiar with the imaging technology at the heart of a digital camera. He was, in fact, one of the inventors of CMOS digital imaging technology that enabled the digital camera revolution, from cell phone cameras to movie cameras to those used in space telescopes. He had also led the research and development on digital active pixel sensors at NASA. Now it has helped turn his dream film project into reality.

Says Pain, "Technology has allowed this process to be democratised. For instance at one point of time all you needed was a pen to be a storyteller, with film-making that was not the case. You needed huge amount of equipment and cameras that were very expensive. Only a few had those. I think what my invention did was to make that far more democratic. Today there is a generation of kids coming up who learn think of telling a story visually. I think today film making technology has become so ubiquitous, people are getting the idea that instead of telling a story by writing or just by communicating by voice they are telling the story by picture. The fact that this digital imaging came, all of a sudden the price of a camera dropped. On the one hand you had movie cameras which used to cost $ 350,000 to $ 400,000, which meant that only a studio could afford them. Not only was a camera expensive, film was so expensive that you could not do things without keeping in mind how much it was costing per feet. As a result of our invention, that $400,000 cost came down to $30,000 dollars, almost a one tenth reduction in price. The invention was in 1993. What we did was to imagine that if I take the film, throw it away and put a chip instead. That chip will have pixels, like film has grains. Imagine I put in 10 million pixels in there, small spots which will respond to light. Right behind the spots there will a circuitry that will produce some digital number responding to how much light came. That's it. So each pixel responds to light that is reflected from the object, depending upon the amount of light that came in we have a digital circuitry that converts it into a number. So out of the camera in that single chip you get what we call a camera on a chip. So light in or photons in and digital bits out. The trick of course was to do it in a easily accessible technology. As you have seen the price of electronics keeps on going down. Why? Because it is mass produced. As soon as you have a very specialized thing it costs a lot of money. Once you have it in a mass producible technology say the computer technology, price goes down."

Nearly 95 per cent of the digital cameras now use this technology, but it took about seven years before people were ready to adopt it. Bedaprata recalls going to Kodak to make a presentation about the new technology and to recommend that the company invest in it. He says he was practically stopped by the CEO of Kodak, who said they had invested too much in film to make a switch.

"Though the invention happened in the US, somehow the companies there did not take full advantage of it. Now the balance has swung again to Japan, Korea and China where a large number of these cameras are produced. The biggest thing that happened again is the cell phone camera. In 1997-1998, all of a sudden Japanese girls started using these cameras to dress up, to apply make-up and show their pictures to their friends and their boyfriends. It was the first use of this exalted technology which was meant for space. From that time on, a number of companies figured out that if you put it on a cell phone, it would become a very easy capture technology. That's what happened. From 2000 onwards the first wave that came for the digital cameras actually came from cell phone cameras. "

The making of Chittagong has been an end to end digital process. It was shot digitally and then edited digitally. Digital prints were made and digitally delivered. For many, to even consider that film making would one day become digital, comes as a shock.

Bedabrata remembers he came in for criticism when he predicted that moviemaking would one day become digital. "You mean to take away this touchy feely thing that we can actually touch. My reaction was why do you need to touch a film in order to produce it? Many novels are now written on a laptop. You do not touch a paper in order to produce a book. Why do you need to touch a film in order to produce a movie? Somebody very rightly said a new technology gets adopted not because old users get convinced of the greatness of the new technology. But a new generation comes up which does not even know of the old technology and they adopt the new."

Filmmaker Bejoy Nambiar, who debuted with Shaitan last year, belongs to that new generation. Shaitan was the first Hindi feature to be shot on Red One digital camera two years ago. It became a runaway success.

Nambiar recounts how he wanted to break out of the clutter. "I knew that I needed to do something visually different and I knew digital would either make it or break it. And in my case I was very happy that it actually made it. Shaitan was a small film. Budgetwise it made more sense for me to go digital because it gave me the liberty to shoot much more than I would have if I had stuck to film. My cameraperson did a fabulous job. I was really happy with what he did with the digital format."

Nambiar's second film, David, has three stories and three cinematographers. What is common is the camera... a Red Epic.

Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster, directed by Tigmanshu Dhulia, is the first Hindi film to be shot on an Arri Alexa digital camera. The cinematographer is Aseem Mishra, who has done diverse films like Ek Tha Tiger and Paan Singh Tomar. A sequel, currently under production, is also being shot digitally by him.

Bhag Milkha Bhag directed by Rakesh Omprakash Mehra is being shot digitally by well-known director of photography Binod Pradhan. Y films, the youth brand of Yash Raj Films, is shooting their films digitally. The number of vendors in the market for digital cameras today is four times more than last year, indicating that gradually more are more projects are going digital.

According to Nambiar, in another five to six years people will be using film only for novelty, the way 8mm film is used for novelty.

However, senior cinematographers are often the last ones to want to move to the digital bandwagon. There is said to be an almost emotional attachment to celluloid.

For producer director Anurag Kashyap going digital was not just about money. While That Girl in Yellow Boots, which was shot on an Arri Alexa digital camera, had a shoestring budget, he plans to shoot his star studded, big budget film, Bombay Velvet on digital.

Kashyap says, "I love the digital camera. Because it makes shooting easier and economical. I shoot fast and I can shoot a lot. I shoot rehearsal, I just keep on shooting nonstop. When we had stock we did a lot of rehearsals before we started using stock. With digital there is no such fear. It saves on time, it saves on lighting money, it saves on a lot of things. I actually had no money to make That Girl In Yellow Boots. We were borrowing money everyday to make that film. We used digital because it was very convenient to shoot all the street scenes. To shoot on the streets was very convenient with a digital camera. We could easily take the camera and follow the characters. We use to shoot with the available light. It made things a lot more easier. When you are doing special effects, it is easier to shoot on digital. Because the CG work can easily be integrated. When you shoot on film the texture is different and it shows on the camera. If you had seen these big budget films like Avatar and Titanic, the new 3D films. They are all shot digitally. Digital has changed the way 3D is because of the depth of field and everything.

Films like Dibakar Banerjee's Love, Sex aur Dhoka and Pawan Kripalani's Ragini MMS used digital cinematography because the format was appropriate for the subject.

The digital revolution is one of the reasons why independent filmmakers like Anurag Kashyap and Onir are producing small budget films by first time directors.

Onir points out that today the exhibition format is changing. He says, "To shoot digitally and then convert it into negative, costs a lot. The entire process of making an intermediate negative and then making a print becomes an expensive process. Now because theaters are going digital, you do not need to make analog prints, that is also saving your cost. It becomes more possible and more of a reality for us to try and make more of these films, as now to realise it to the release is much more of a possibility than it was before."

It costs around Rs 50,000 to make a single analog print, which used to be physically delivered in metal boxes, weighing about 20 kg, to different theatres in the country as well as all over the world. Today you just push a button and the satellite beams it to the theatre.

Sanjay Gaikwad, Founder, UFO movies says the equation has changed drastically. "Earlier it used be almost 100 per cent analog prints. Today the ratio is 85% digital and 15 % analog. So one or two year down the line, we feel that our country will be the first one to be 100% digital. In fact the digital way of shooting and the pre-production helps us maintaining the quality.

Most of the big, mainstream filmmakers of the Hindi film industry are, however, still shooting on film... They are yet to endorse the idea of digital cinematography.

Siddharth Roy Kapur, CEO, UTV Disney, says, "As a studio you need to be very sensitive as to what the filmmaker is drawn towards. If there is a filmmaker that would like to try new format and style, that's the film maker that would be moving towards digital much easier. But if there is a filmmaker who likes shooting on film and film is his medium, you do not want to destroy the quality of the film that is going to be created because you are force fitting a different technology."

Cinematographer Ayananka Bose is one of the few to have pushed themselves out of a comfort zone. He is shooting his first full length feature, Once Upon A Time in Mumbai Again, on the Red Epic digital camera.

He started off when he was filming Karan Johar's Student of The Year, by using digital cameras for the sports sequences.

Bose says, "I remember what Karan Johar said to me. Let's embrace the devil before anybody else. Because there are so many things that people are saying about digital, you don't know until you do it for yourself."

Digital seems unstoppable. Change has taken place in all departments of moviemaking. The era of sound negative was the first to go, then editing became digital. It was just a matter of time before cinematography was to catch up.

One of the things film cameras can provide is a wider dynamic range. But high end digital cameras are coming close.

Arjun Sabhlok, who heads the Red Digital Cinema operations in India, says "The Red camera is the only camera that shoots in RAW in that size and compact form. So you are shooting 5K RAW. Any cinematographer knows that resolution and RAW allows you to manipulate the image in a post facility afterwards in any format and any way you want. You want to get RAW off the camera. At 5K RAW it shoots at 120 frames per second. That is really great slow motion. So the size the resolution, the speed it offers at that resolution and of course the HDRX which allows you to shoot two stream of 5K simultaneously at two different exposures. So if you are shooting against light and a person is in foreground , the background is going to burn out. Well this allows you to shoot two streams at 5K and then you can blend the frames in a post facility and see the results. "

Shakti Hasija of Pixion Labs says that from the point of view of a post-production house their responsibility has increased. "Our role has become far more important. Our responsibility has grown in terms of not only managing the post production process entirely but also in terms of the creative output. Like we have the option of changing the colors far more dramatically. With the advent of digital technology people are shooting in raw format. Wherein they do not have to decide on set what is the colour space they want to settle in. They can come into the post house where the DOP can take a call, whether he wants to keep it filmic or go towards the video. People have that advantage of doing that on the post. Like film has its own artefacts lab process, here we have the advantage of turning around the job in far quicker period of time.

The debate about film versus digital is an ongoing one.

Cinematographer Bose believes digital is a double edged sword. "If you were to image anything and you wanted to look like film, it is not a cheap process actually. Big movies, big cinematographers who are trying to get onto that bandwagon, I don't think they will eventually save too much of money because when you start shooting, you start shooting very big files. You start shooting on 4K resolutions, 5K resolutions. It takes a lot of hard disk, then you have to image the whole, what we called the workflow, goes through lot of terabytes of data. So eventually the complete cost, according to my understanding, is not really any much of a saving. Digital has a little plastic feel to it sometimes. Do you like that? How do you tackle that? It's all everybody's game of trying to understand what suits them the best at this point of time."

A number of factors are moving in one direction.

Companies like ARRI and Panavision have stopped production of film cameras and are focussing on design and manufacture of digital cameras. Film labs are closing down and film stock manufacturers are going bankrupt.

Anurag Kashyap says, "Cinema is an art form. The lower the cost, the more freedom you have. The higher the cost the more you have to dumb it down. It has to reach to a large number of people. The lower the cost of the film, the more you can experiment. Then it becomes like actual art. Since now it is expensive, I have to keep a lot of things in mind, the audience, how many tickets are going to sell, how much money it is going to recover. After it has gone digital, so many independent films are coming up. The quality of mainstream cinema has changed. A lot of independent voices feel they can leave everything behind and make independent films. And they are making films for Rs 5 lakh to Rs 10 lakh."

The last 100 years has been the story of celluloid. The story is going to change now.

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