The Downside Of Digital Cinema

Posted in Cinema, Science & Tech, Tamil, Trend by Suganth on May 18, 2012

While digital cinema is seen as a boon for small budget films, it is also resulting in images — and movies — that are falling short in terms of quality

We are just four months into 2012 but the year has already witnessed a record number of releases. According to film statistician Film News Anandan, 60 Tamil films have released between January and April 2012. In addition to that, 13 dubbed films have also released during the same period. “Last year, we had 149 releases, an industry record. But I’m expecting this year’s releases to easily top 160,” says the industry veteran.

One of the major reasons for this flood of releases industry insiders say is the fact that most of these films are being shot on digital cameras that have made filmmaking possible at low budgets.

The industry has been welcoming digital because it is a very economical proposition when compared to film. Cinematographer Manoj Paramahamsa, who has shot in both digital (parts of Nadunisi Naaygal) and film (Nanban and Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa), feels that the industry switching over to digital is inevitable considering the advantages the medium has.

While the cost of hiring cameras is more or less the same, digital cameras cut down the expenses for film stock, and during post production eliminate the tedious process of processing, which is not only expensive but involves considerable human effort. Also, there is no need for preservation as digital files are stored in hard disks.

“Digital not only reduces the production budget by anywhere around 25 to 40 per cent, but as a cinematographer, I get to see the output of the day’s shoot almost immediately,” Manoj adds.

While all this looks rosy, digital is also posing a threat that many industry insiders acknowledge will be felt even more in the coming years. Out of the 60 films released so far, 15 have been shot on digital i.e. one fourth of the total number. Come to think of it, they can’t even be called films, as they are data on a hard-drive. Which is perhaps why, the censor adds a ‘V’ (short for video) to their ratings.

And among these 15 films, most of them have barely managed to make a dent at the box office, and have fared even worse when it comes to reviews. Lower budgets mean that aspiring filmmakers have an opportunity to translate their stories on-screen more easily but what also seems to be lost in translation is the content. The lack of a proper storyline and script, coupled with poor filmmaking, results in films that are not only tedious to watch but project a bad image of Tamil cinema.

These include films like Meeravudan Krishna, Pachai Engira Kaathu, Gaandham, Nandu Bhaski and Aayiram Muthangaludan Thenmozhi, all of which stank and sank without a trace at the box office.

A theatre owner on a condition of anonymity gives the reason, “While digital is cheaper, it is also resulting in badly-shot and poorly-scripted films that look like a TV serial blown up on a big screen. Barring a couple of films like Marina and Vazhakku Enn 18/9, most of these films have been an exhibition for terrible filmmaking.”

He adds, “I’m sure most of these films would have never found producers if they were to have been shot using film. Anyone who has a bit of money wants to produce a film today as digital has made it cheaper today and wannabe directors seize upon such gullible men to make films that no one is going to bother seeing in the theatres.”

Confesses a noted director, who wished to remain unnamed, “Due to the very average projection facilities, half of the audiences do not really notice the change in quality. But I did have a few discerning fans who wanted to know why my recent release did not have the same quality in visuals as my earlier two films. I had to explain to them that we shot the film using a digital still camera as it involved many outdoor scenes in a heavily crowded area.”

Director Bandi Saroj Kumar, who made Porkkalam in film and the recent Asthamanam in digital, says that the quality of film can never be replicated to full extent with digital cameras. “You can only bring 80 per cent of the quality of film using digital. You will always have to compromise a bit on quality when you go for digital,” he says.

He also feels that using digital camera doesn’t cut cost in a major way. “At best, you save only Rs 20-25 lakh by going for digital. Also, the satellite and overseas value for digitally shot films is less, unless your film has star value,” he adds.

Manoj opines that quality ultimately lies in how a director and a cinematographer adapt it to suit the content. “If you are going to opt for low-end digital cameras, your visuals are naturally going to look bad. But even in such a case, by proper lighting and framing, a cinematographer can work wonders,” he says.

But he agrees with Saroj when it comes to the fact that film gives superior output. “Currently, film has better latitude (the ratio between and light and shadows) than digital and it provides richness when it comes to details. However, with advancement in image processing technologies, digital can match film’s luster in the future,” he says hopefully.

Meanwhile… The Future Is Still Digital
Even as there is a debate over the quality of digital images in Hollywood, with directors like Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan and Brad Bird batting for film, the industry’s move towards 3D is making top directors experiment with frame rate to match digital shots with the quality of film. Peter Jackson (of The Lord Of The Rings fame) is currently shooting his Hobbit films at 48 frames per second (the current standard is 24 fps), while James Cameron is planning to shoot his Avatar sequels at 60 fps. However, audiences at a recent preview of The Hobbit were divided over the end result, with many complaining that the images looked too realistic and less cinematic.

Pixel (Im)perfect
Digital 3-D Fusion Camera System:
Developed by James Cameron and Vince Pace for his Avatar, this has been now used in several other Hollywood films which have been shot on 3D like Hugo, Tron: Legacy and Transformers: Dark Of The Moon.

Red Epic: Peter Jackson is using this to shoot his Hobbit films. The upcoming The Amazing Spider-Man and Ridley Scott’s Prometheus have also been shot using this one. Ajith’s Billa II is the first Indian film to have been shot using this camera.

Red One: This was used most notably in Kamal Haasan’s Unnaipol Oruvan, which many credit to have kickstarted the Tamil film industry’s move to digital. The actor had earlier used it for Mumbai Express though the output then was far from encouraging.

Canon 5D and 7D: These are digital SLR cameras that are essentially used for still photography which Tamil filmmakers like Balaji Sakthivel, Prabhu Solomon and Pandiraj have used for their films. The major advantage of these cameras is their small size, which makes them convenient when shooting indiscreetly outdoors.

Other popular digital cameras that are being used include Arri Alexa, Arriflex, Silicon Imaging SI-2K (used in Slumdog Millionaire, the first movie shot digitally to win the Best Cinematography Oscar).

Copyright ©2012 Chennai Times

PS: For cinephiles who would like to dig deeper, I strongly recommend that you read through film scholars David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s writings on digital cinema on their wonderful blog here.  (Though I feel compelled to also add that this piece was written well before I stumbled onto this through Jim Emerson’s tweet)

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