ScreenSavour: The digital days of filmmaking

Edward Said, a Palestinian-American public intellectual and professor of literature at Columbia University, had once narrated an interesting anecdote in an interview: Before the advent of the computers in the mid-90s he had to coax his students to write at least three pages for their assignments; after the advent of computers he had to warn his students that if they wrote anything above ten pages, he wouldn’t read their projects!

Digital technology has definitely made life easier. And this is most evident in the profession of filmmaking where it has almost entirely replaced the film camera and its attendant paraphernalia like developing, printing, distribution and projection, a complicated process that entailed huge costs which only the privileged few could afford. There are very few filmmakers in India and abroad who still swear by celluloid technology – and Christopher Nolan is amongst them.

At a recent event in Mumbai which was organised by filmmaker and archivist Shivendra Singh Dungarpur through his Film Heritage Foundation – Christopher Nolan and Tacita Dean, a renowned visual artist advocated the cause of celluloid over digital as a part of their ‘Reframing the Future of Film’ project. This was the 4th edition of the project which started in 2015 in Los Angeles, followed by London and Mexico City. The project champions the merits of photochemical film (celluloid) – a medium that faces the danger of extinction in the face of digital explosion. Celluloid films have an edge over digital because of its superior picture clarity.

Since the last more than ten years, digital cameras and projection have edged out celluloid filmmaking almost entirely. Most theatres all over the world have stopped film projection altogether. Technicolor and Fujifilm – prominent film labs have shut shops while Kodak filed for bankruptcy in 2012, but eventually promised to keep producing film stock.

In each edition of ‘Reframing the Future of Film’, Nolan had been harping on the concept of “medium specificity” which states that a filmmaker or any artist should be allowed to exhibit their works in their original formats; any alternative route to pursue such an activity will only dilute the work of art! “You can’t take a photograph of Picasso’s painting, stick it on the wall and say it is the same thing,” declared Nolan at a gathering in Mumbai – a statement which has since gone viral.

For a privileged filmmaker like Nolan whose budgets qu­ite often exceed 100 million dollars, this is all very fine to say, especially in a country like the US where they still have celluloid projection facilities and alternative chains of theatres that still project films on celluloid. But for a young and struggling filmmaker, digital technology has definitely paved a way for expression that otherwise, in a celluloid world he would have been deprived of.

A can of celluloid containing 1000-feet 35 mm roll which translates into 11 minutes of shooting time, costs approximately Rs 50,000. Since a shot is taken repeatedly till the director is satisfied the shooting ratio in an average film could vary between 4:1 to 10:1; so more stock needs to be bought which impacts the budget. Digital cameras in which shots are recorded straight into ‘cards’ allow for a higher shooting ratio without incurring any extra costs; and that is a gigantic leap – and a huge advantage. An average Indian film shot on 35-mm celluloid would have had to allocate at least Rs 50 lakh to buy raw stock! Today, a low-budget independent film shot on digital can be made at a cost of less than one crore, if production is properly strategised.

But liberty to shoot as much as you like does not guarantee quality. To come back to Edward Said’s anecdote, just as computers did not necessarily raise his students’ quality of output but only generated quantity, similarly digital technology could adversely affect discipline and quality because now you can play around endlessly. Celluloid restricted such experiments and actors and technicians – given the constrains and the prohibitive costs – gave their best.

But of course, each to his own. But every art adjusts itself to changing times and adapts; the language evolves over time, engendering newer forms of expressions.

Despite all the hullaballoo, digital is here to stay. 

(Ranjan Das is a Mumbai-based filmmaker, instructor and writer)

Ranjan Das