Monday, August 07, 2006

Making of a Digital Film - My Experience

Way back in 1991, after having graduated from the F.T.I.I., I shot a self-financed short film, in 16mm, called ‘The Hot Shot’. I had made the film the way I wanted to and with my own money. The film went to a couple of film festivals and nothing came out of it – except the fact that I had lost around 25,000/- in the making of the film.

For the next twelve years I immersed myself into TV work and had almost forgotten what filmmaking is all about – till one fine morning I woke up with a realization that I had not done anything worthwhile in all these years. I had forgotten the very context that I had set on my own life! It was time to shake oneself out of one’s guts.

It was in 2004 that I brought my digital video camera. Though the idea was to hire it out so that I repay back the loan that I had taken for its purchase, the other motivating factor was that I could make my own digital films.

Initially, I decided to make some shorts. There was still no market for the short fiction film in India – there still isn’t. But the heartening fact was that short films were being made–and their number was increasing. The low cost nature of this new age digital format was mainly responsible for it.

It was time to reinvent myself. I quickly came to terms with the digital-celluloid divide – debate that is still in rage. There are certain things possible on the celluloid, which is not possible in the digital and visa versa. The two of them simply cannot be judged against each other.

I made three short films within a span of two years – two fictions and a documentary. This time I made sure that I did not spend the kind of amount that I had done years back. I knew that there was no market for the short fiction film and worked accordingly. And I made those films more or less the way I wanted them to be.

My friend edited my first short fiction film in his home computer. By the time I was making my third short film, I had my own edit set up– a capture card worth 5,000/- on a Pentium III with a 126 MB ram! The films did go to some short film festivals – national and international. The short documentary even recovered its costs!

I was then on the look out for a story that could be made into a low cost digital feature film – stories that have few locations, few characters and the likes. Language was not the issue. I stumbled upon Narayana Nandalike’s Tulu play ‘Bojja’ – a play that depicted the changing life patters in modern day coastal Karnataka.

The associate director for my Kannada TV programs, Surendra Kumar, had earlier mentioned that we could shoot around his house in his native village Marnad, if I had any script in my mind. This was it! We were going to make a digital film and its name was going to be SUDDHA.

Of the many part-time film financers we met, one agreed to fund the film. But he backed off at the last moment – for I guess, he was not impressed by the returns that we had projected. Frankly, I was also not sure how would a Tulu digital film like SUDDHA recover it money.

I reworked the production logistics and even the script. We cut characters, cut mikes, avoided artificial lights and even cut the number of shooting days. The budget that was thus worked out was so pathetic that it could now be financed by just the three of us – me, Surendra and Mohan Marnad, who by now was on board.

But there were a few issues. There is a general tendency prevalent today that a digital film should be wacky, should have shaky camera, handheld tracks, jump cuts, a lot of blurs, and should have heavy video effects and the likes. The temptation was great. For one, such a style of filming had the probability of drastically reducing the number of shooting days. Over the world, there were occasions where digital feature films were shot in 24 hours, using this style. Fortunately, I did not succumb.

The second - I was limiting myself in all respects, mainly due to the budget factor. Right at the raw stock stage, I decided to go for the inexpensive Mini DV tape, rather than the DV Cam tapes. Also, the Mini DV tapes would run on the mini DV mode and not the DV Cam mode – thereby increasing the tape time by about twenty minutes. And then there were no artificial lights, no professional actors, no boom men, no light boys etc.

Would all these affect the quality of the film? Was it ‘compromise’ – with all the horrible meanings that are generally associated with it? A friend of mine was even quick enough to comment that my choice of making a film digitally itself was a ‘terrible’ compromise.

But a quick research into the Dogma movement redeemed me. The dogma guys set some self imposed and almost silly looking limitations on themselves – no lights, no sets etc. The idea was to see if they could make the films that they wanted to, adhering to these limitations.

My limitations were mostly budget imposed. Could I make my film under those limitations? The choice was between making the film and not making it. I choose to make it – and to my surprise, the limitations no longer remained so. The rawness of the amateur actors, the magical quality of the available lights and the variations in the voices recorded on location became an advantage.

The fact that I was using a low cost Mini DV tape too helped. The inexperience actors were taking an average of ten to twelve takes to give an okay shot. By these standards, had I shot on celluloid, the film would have never got made.

The digital era has made filmmaking accessible to everyone. Today, someone sitting in a remote village in Hattiangadi village in Kundapur can also think of making a digital film. All he has to do is write a script, get hold of a few local actors, and execute the script. A wide range of digital cameras – from single CCDs to HDVs are available to him. He can commit mistakes, come back, watch them and re-shoot entire portions with minimum costs. He can even think of editing the film in his own personal computer.

So, if you want, you can. More and more Film Festivals are looking at digital feature films. I see SUDDHA’s recognition at the recently held Osian Cinefan Festival of Asian Films, as a validation of digital feature filmmaking in India. Even in a country like Philippines, hordes of digital feature films are shot every year. Of these, I was told, around 10% of them are taken up by the mainstream industry for a theatrical release!

But would that happen in India? How do I exhibit a feature film like SUDDHA? My letters to a private TV station regarding a possible telecast of SUDDHA has evoked no response. I guess their priorities are the ‘mother-in-law and daughter-in-law’ serials.

Although there are a few theaters that project films digitally, they are used only to release big budget films, for a simultaneously all-India-release, with less celluloid prints. At present, the distributors are not too keen to look at digitally shot films for digital projection. But I guess it is a matter of time.

But till then, we have to find alternative modes of exhibition.

Is it possible for us to use the college network of our universities? If self-sustaining regular screenings of different digital films – fiction and non fiction - could be arranged in each of the colleges affiliated with the universities, the students of these colleges could have an alternative set of films that they could see. Some of the colleges and universities already have film clubs and are even making short digital films. The mass communication departments could do well to take a lead in this aspect, for by doing so, they would be providing a platform for the very students that graduate out of their institutions.

Also, is it possible for us to arrange screenings of digital films in the various Zilla / Gram Panchayats? Even if fifty people (a conservative number) come to watch a movie in each of the gram panchayats, in a district like Dakshina Kannada itself, around 10,000 people would have seen the film! Can a business model be worked out on these lines by an enterprising individual or corporate body?

Alternatively, with a little grant or subsidy from the government and with some support from the organizational structure that it has, this could well be a reality. If for example The Tulu Academy, under the Kannada and Culture department, takes up the exhibition of low cost Tulu films using the Zilla Panchayat network in Coastal Karnataka, a large number of people can get access to such films.

And if The Academy could work out a self sustaining system where it gets remuneration from the Gram Panchayats either through viewer’s donation or through local sponsors, and give a portion of the proceeds to the filmmakers for their next film, a truly low cost Tulu digital cinema can well be on its way. Imagine this scheme being replicated in all districts of Karnataka in their respective dialects!

The information department already has a grass root-level-digital-exhibition system in place where it educates the general public regarding the various government programs. Should this existing system be strengthened for the exhibition of digital films or should a new system be put into place, is a matter that can be debated.

But first, there should be a will.

Despite all odds, if Ninasam’s experiments at Heggodu and with Thirugata can work, why not this? Already, in Delhi, the SPIC MACAY is considering alternative digital exhibition modes in the 1700 colleges that it has under its wings. Closer home, an NGO called ‘Namma Bhoomi’ is toying with the idea of showing ‘Samskara’ in the various Gram Panchayats in Kundaapur, using digital projection.

The possibilities, as we see, are immense.



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