After announcing itself as the future in 2008, digital filmmaking is on its way to becoming the norm in the Indian film industry. Karthik Subramanian catches up with some leading cinematographers and a young debutant to get an insight into the transition from film to digital

At 74, Balu Mahendra could have easily rested on the laurels of a lifetime of influential filmmaking and cinematography. A true representative of the golden era of ‘film’ cinematography, he has instead chosen to take the leap into digital filmmaking. His upcoming film Thalaimuraigal (generations) has been shot entirely with the humble Canon 5D DSLR, essentially a still camera that could also shoot video.

“It cut cost of filmmaking dramatically. The entire camera and lenses — I used only regular camera lenses by the way — cost me just Rs. 3.5 lakh,” he said in a brief chat with The Hindu at his film school ‘Pattarai’ in Vadapalani.

“Just imagine what would have happened if I had used a high-end camera. I would have had to rent it, and there would be two persons by my side taking care of it. I can do without such hassles. Besides, I am most happy with the results I have got.”

High definition movie cameras

Balu Mahendra's example is just to illustrate how far digital cameras have dominated the moving pictures we see both on television and the big screen. Digital cameras started challenging the status quo of film cameras in the mid-2000s. Red Cameras came out with high definition movie cameras. In 2008, Chennai-based Real Image Media Technologies acquired Red One camera to catalyse the switch to digital filming in the Indian film industry.

The quantum of movies being shot on film has dramatically reduced of late. And not just that, the entire end-to-end process — including the film projection, distribution and storage — have moved to the digital realm.

But this advance spells the end of a certain old-world charm. With film, the cinematographer's skill and craft came under more focus than before. They went by their gut instinct on various parameters for the shooting, and the end result was not known till the film was processed at the lab. “There was a certain thrill to finding out how good the shots were at the lab,” recalls Balu Mahendra.

But these days, “what you shoot is what you see immediately on the monitor.” “There is no running away from a badly shot frame,” laughs Ravi K Chandran, who was featured in the brochures of Arri's range of digital Alexa Camera for filmmaking. Recounting his journey from film to digital, Ravi points out several positives of the digital technology. “Earlier, we used to print different positives for different screens. And the films used to age fast because of poor projection facilities in some theatres. If you missed the opening weekend and walked into the theatre the following week, you will see a movie that will be projected with several scratches and disturbances. With digital, the projection is as good as the first day any day.”

For young cinematographers, Ravi recommends a complete understanding of the technology before embarking on projects. Balu Mahendra too says he understood the digital technology fully and even took tests before getting started with Thalaimuraigal.

Young cinematographer Karthik Ganesh, who debuted with Yash Raj's Aurangzeb earlier this year, shot the entire movie on film. “It was an interesting challenge to shoot it in film. It tested my skills as I had to plan well in advance,” he says.

In terms of quantum of cinema being shot in film in South India, most cinematographers agree that the number could be as low as ten per cent of the overall volume. In Mumbai though, several films are still being shot in film.

Among the companies that sell film stock, only Kodak and Agfa continue in the business. Agfa sells only negatives, and the future of Kodak's film business is also in doubt. The cost of the film negatives for shooting a full-length feature could be as high as Rs. 30 lakh (calculated at the rate of Rs.10,000 for a can of 400 feet or 4 minutes of film.) For this price, most producers are happy buying a digital camera.

Senthil Kumar, co-founder of Real Image Technologies, says recent digital cameras have started matching the prowess of film cameras. The flagship models of Red and Sony promise 6K resolution, which the supporters of digital technology highlight, and the cameras also have a dynamic range that is trying to catch up with the best film cameras. In the low end of the spectrum, digital cameras such as Canon 5D and Black Magic provide viable options for movies shot on a shoestring budget. They cost just under US $2,000 for the basic models. “Last year (2012) has been the tipping point for the digital camera where it has moved from being a worthy competitor to becoming the norm.”

Interestingly, P.C. Sreeram, who made the first high-definition digital film in Tamil Vaanam Vasappadum (2004), says he has realised that for certain situations film can't be replaced by digital. “The quantum of film being used for filmmaking is coming down dramatically without a doubt. But it won’t be completely obsolete. Some people will still prefer it. Or we will continue to have hybrid films, which will be shot in a mix of digital and film.”