THE TOYS

One of the things that Chittagong filmmaker Bedabrata Pain co-invented,
in his days as a scientist, is the CMOS digital imaging technology which
has enabled the digital camera revolution that is at the heart of the
independent filmmaking movement today. No tech innovation has more
directly impacted independent filmmaking the world over.

The revolution gave us the Arri Alexa which according to cinematographer
Roger Deakins brought us to a point where “digital is simply better” and
The RED camera system which was used by Steven Soderbergh to shoot
Che, The Girlfriend Experience and The Informant, and which was also
used to shoot the science fiction movie District 9. Recent Indian movies
shot on RED range from the independent Chittagong to Karan
Johar’s very mainstream Student Of The Year (this was shot
partly on a film camera as well).

Cameras like the RED and Alexa provide a strong alternative to
film, even if not an inexpensive one. But even when costly to rent,
digital cameras still manage to slash production costs. They are a
lot more maneuverable than traditional film cameras and do not
require the additional spend on cans of film.

However the true champion of the indie filmmaker has been the
DSLR, especially the highly popular Canon EOS 5D Mark II. The
DSLR’s 1080 lines of progressive scan resolution at 24 frames
a second resembles the film-look most closely. Infinitely more
affordable than cameras like the Arri Alexa and RED, they have enabled filmmakers to achieve results that are as close to film as possible – adding even more maneuverability. They have given the filmmaker greater options of playing with depth of
field and shooting in areas where there is low light, with hardly
any additional equipment. With the ability to view their shots
immediately after and the fear of wasting film out of the way,
filmmakers can now truly experiment with the medium and hone
their craft. In 2011, Canon and Nikon together sold nearly 12 million DSLRs.

A close second for technology that has revolutionized indie
filmmaking are advances in digital video compression. These have
enabled shooting HD (High-Definition) footage at reasonable file
sizes on easily and cheaply available consumer-level memory
cards which allow the footage to be transferred and edited on a
laptop. They have been key in taking post production out of the
editing studios.

Also, most exhibitors have transited to digital projection. The company
leading this transition is UFO Moviez, a satellite networked cinema. Some
would argue however that this last leap has actually hurt independent
cinema more than helping it get anywhere. Digital exhibition has ensured
that the mainstream movie can be at all places at once, conquering
every theatre, occupying every screen, in exchange for a fee that, for it, is
negligible. This leaves little room for the indie to try and squeeze in.

But let’s come back to the digital cameras and changes in post production.
They have led to a flooding of the market with good, bad and ugly films –
each calling itself a true indie. “A lot more independent films are being made and a lot more are being shelved,” says filmmaker Rajan Khosa. Then he laughs. “I’m sorry.
I don’t mean to sound dismissive.” Khosa, an independent filmmaker for
well over a decade, is best known for the critically lauded films Dance Of
The Wind and Gattu. The latter was shot with a digital camera. It was a
first for Khosa. “I usually always shoot on 35 mm (film),” he says.

For Gattu he chose the 5D because it gave him the opportunity of being
more “mobile” during the shoots. While Khosa agrees that the new
toys “make a little less dent in your budget” and are “more practical and maneuverable” he also thinks that it might be a little early to start celebrating.

This is because the final post-production for distribution and
exhibition still requires many independent filmmakers to go into
a specialized facility. Khosa discovered while working on the post
production of his film that most movie labs “don’t really know the tech when it comes to digital”. He wanted to mix computer graphics with shots of live action, for instance, and this became a problem because the labs “had no knowledge of how to work with 5D footage”. So, according to Khosa, his post production work on Gattu with the labs had to be figured out on the basis of “trial and error”. Many filmmakers feel that the labs
don’t really invest in research and development when it comes to digital
because it’s not where the bulk of their business comes from.

This leaves the Indian indie filmmaker high and dry. “You think that
shooting on digital will give you the same quality as shooting on 35 mm
film, and that your movie will live up to international standards,” says
Khosa. “But when a mainstream movie shot on film is played at the
screen next to yours, you’re always seen as falling short.”

Khosa feels that while it’s great that the indie in India is seen as a “four
man film”(meaning something that can be executed with a four person
crew), cinema “isn’t a four man medium”. “It’s great that the indie is
driven by passion,” he says. “But if we don’t put a workflow in place that
passion will die once the footage goes on to the editing table.”

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Keeping Up With The Indie Joneses

Article
September 2012
By Rishi Majumder

Rishi Majumder is Senior Editor at The Big Indian Picture.