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Digital dreams: Tech helps cut filmmaking costs

By Anusha S in Mumbai
June 25, 2003 11:47 IST
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If film industry experts are to be believed, the celluloid dreams of filmmakers and stars would soon turn digital.

Mumbai-based Adlabs has already launched two films -- The Hero and Pran Jaaye Par Shaan Na Jaaye -- in the digital format.

The most recent film that has been digitally converted is the Shahrukh Khan-Rani Mukherjee starrer Chalte Chalte.

The company has also digitised Andaaz and Bhoot among the new film releases and is in talks with Rajshri Productions to digitise its latest film Mein Prem Ki Deewani Hoon.

In Chennai , Prasad EFX, a film post-production company, part of the Prasad Group, has its hands full. Prasad EFX has converted over 25 digital feature films from HD, DV Cam and Digibeta.

Clearly, it is not just the small-time directors with shoestring budgets who are opting for digital films.

Across the globe some big names have gone digital. George Lucas, Steven Soderbergh and Jean Luc Godard, to name a few.

So, is this the beginning of the end of films in celluloid format? Computer experts seem to think so.

In just a few years time every movie will be made in the digital format, they claim.

Says Sai Prasad, director, Prasad EFX, "Digital films is the future of film making. Currently, after shooting on a digital camera, the film is transferred to a 35 mm celluloid format. But in a few years there will be no transfers. Digital projection will come in."

There are several reasons behind the rising popularity of digital feature films.

For starters, all that one needs is a digital camera -- which is available for as little as $300 -- a computer, and a great script.

Digital technology allows full-length movies to be made for as little as Rs 1,00,000 or less.

Another major advantage of digitisation is that no expensive editing suites are required.

The films can be run on a computer and edited online. At the flick of a mouse the "producer" can change the backgrounds or locales.

Besides the technological advantages, the major reason for filmmakers to move to the digital format is the troubled relationship between financiers and filmmakers.

That is mainly because of the fact that most independent and small time filmmakers find it difficult to raise money from financial institutions and banks.

According to a post-production expert, digital cinema has other advantages. Since a conventional film costs at least Rs 80,000 per print, it is released in few theatres.

Today, a big budget Indian film is usually released in about 300 cinema halls even though there are 10,000 to 12,000 theatres in the country.

After doing the metro and big city rounds, the same prints are passed on to the lower revenue centres. A much wider release would be possible, if the cost of prints comes down.

But the move from celluloid to digital is not as smooth as is being projected. Digital projection is a key issue confronting the industry.

For instance, only six cinema halls in Maharashtra are equipped to run digital films.

But companies like Adlabs are optimistic. The studio has already entered into a joint venture with Hong Kong-based GDC Technology to manufacture cinema servers and Norway-based Projection Design, manufacturers of DLP digital projection system, to produce digital cinema system for India. The company plans to retrofit 1,500 cinemas by 2007.

Industry sources say that retrofitting cinemas may cost anything between $80,000 and $1,25,000, depending upon the size of the hall, acoustics and other factors.

According to Adlabs managing director, Manmohan Shetty: "Releasing films in existing theatres by installing digital projection systems will add to the producers' and distributors' revenue. It will also curtail piracy."

But the proposed cinematic revolution is still far from picture perfect.

Besides lack of screening facilities, filmmakers say that digital cinema's clarity, range and versatility are no match for conventional technology.

For young filmmakers to showcase their talents, they still need to transfer their digital films to the celluloid format.

While most production houses peg the cost of reverse telecine (as the process of transferring tape to celluloid film is called) somewhere between Rs 9 lakh (Rs 900,000) and Rs 12 lakh (Rs 1.2 million), filmmakers say it costs three times that.

For the digital dream to unspool in its entirety, it'll take a few more years. Sure, technological advances will push down costs and it'll be time to refocus the camera on new avenues.

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Anusha S in Mumbai
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