Image and image-making

Print edition : June 10, 2016
A close look at the often unseen and unacknowledged but thrillingly unpredictable processes that go into the making of magical images and sounds on screen.

THE digital explosion at the end of the last century and the beginning of the present one marked the end of “cinema” as it was experienced and understood until then. It inaugurated the era of “post-celluloid” cinema and transformed or made redundant all the processes involved in the shooting, post-production, distribution and exhibition of films. Many movie professions became obsolete; many technicians and artists who had spent their lives developing ingenious and innovative methods and acquiring expertise in creating celluloid magic found themselves rendered superfluous. New machines and young techies entered the field with ever tinier gadgets and cut-and-paste equipment to do better, faster and in a cheaper way what their predecessors fretted and fumed for days and months to conjure. Those valiant stunts, spectacular set designs, haunting music melodies, thrilling special effects, enchanting audio experiments, magical visual transformations, everything was now done differently. Most importantly, the intense physicality and grinding human interfaces inherent to the whole thing suddenly became history. Computer programs ruled the roost, huge Steenbeck machines gave way to sleek Avid systems, Arriflex to flashy new cameras that were amazingly fluid and handy. Big studios were closed down, laboratories downsized, the subcontinental transportation of prints substituted by servers beaming signals across the globe. Now, anyone with a digital camera, ever so cheap and handy, is a “film-maker”. Everything gathered a new riotous pace. Directors and actors no longer had to wait for film rolls to be processed to watch, judge and correct their performances. Editors and sound designers could play around with a multitude of tracks. The whole magic and mystery of cinema seemed to have been unravelled and made mundane.

Another crucial shift brought about by digital technology was the deontologisation of the cinematic image. In the digital age, one can image whatever one can imagine, which means there is no need for an interface with pro-filmic reality or the object world in order to image or shoot anything. In the pre-digital, celluloid era one had to shoot real, physical things to create visual illusions, animations or special effects; but now film image need not depend on the object world or physical reality. One can make a whole film without using the camera at all! In this process, cinematic or photographic image is “de-ontologised”. In an age when one can manipulate an image in whatever way one wants and tweak it to suit one’s whims and fancies, the image can no longer claim the status of evidence or proof of the existence of or the veracity of what it depicts. Incessant exposure to such images, in turn, anaesthetises viewers because they, too, watch them knowing that the images on the screen are digital, that is, unreal and devoid of physical or organic existence.

All this has transformed the manner in which films are imagined, made, distributed, exhibited, shared and enjoyed today. So, in this new age of “digital democracy”, what is the state and status of the magic that cinema once was? Along with the obsolescence and elimination of many celebrated institutions and establishments, has moviemaking, too, lost its mysterious sheen? “Not at all,” says Anand Pandian, author of Reel World: On Location in Kollywood, whose book stands testimony to the eternal human struggle with creativity at different levels and of different orders that still goes into the making of cinema. As the author puts it, “This is a book about experience in a world of cinema, a book about what happens to life when everything begins to look and feel like cinema.”

He goes on: “Reel world, real world—reality itself as a flux of images, and every film an experiment with this reality. How does one grapple with the look and feel of such volatile environments? Think of those who live most intensely with these cinematic mechanisms, those who work to modulate their force and texture. Say we plunged into the depths of some of their experiments—what would happen to us, and to our understanding of this life in a world of images?”

Most books on Indian cinema engage with film texts and visual representations; others focus on stars, singers, auteurs. Few and far between are books on institutions that sustain cinema—creative, commercial and technical, formal and informal—and on individuals who are essential to the medium—technicians, producers, distributors and exhibitors. If at all there are books on the “inside stories” of cinema, they are about the rise and fall of stars, gossip and other titbits that feed into the cinema folklore and mythology. Reel World explores the core elements and forces at work in cinema—the art, passion, infatuation, speculation, business or celebration. It takes a close look at the often unseen and unacknowledged but thrillingly unpredictable processes that go into the making of magical images and sounds on screen.

Starting from the development of a story idea, gathering of the right people to man the audiovisual and spatio-temporal execution, scouting for locations, building of sets, negotiating with stars and technicians, managing and coordinating a huge crew, and arranging financial resources to haggling with distribution and exhibition networks, film-making has different layers—hard physical labour, thinking, imagination and planning—that work to create a seamless visual narrative.

Pandian adopts a three-pronged strategy of observing, recording and theorising. Detailed recording of personal impressions are supplemented by descriptions of personalities, their associates, the interior and exterior ambience that envelop them, their musings, reactions, gestures, and so on. There are also lightning excursions into theoretical reflections peppered with quotations from philosophers, poets, thinkers and film theorists. What he achieves through this delightful combination of thought and description is a unique ethnographic account that is both autobiographical and participant-observational.

Entangled and enmeshed in the ethnographic accounts of these various labours of cinema is the very writing process of the author/ethnographer himself: “Dreams, like films, invite us to tell stories. And I, too, have a story to tell here. I want to say something about how stories such as this one came into being—how such films arise, what can happen when such dreams appear as well. Stories and films, films and dreams, dreams and stories; it is hard to know where to begin, how to proceed from one to the next. But perhaps this difficulty isn’t mine alone.” It is the “I” in the middle of it all, whose ruminations, frustrations, hopes and jitters that run through the text that invites the reader to become part of it, where reading too is prompted to be self-reflexive.

The chapter titles capture the key forces and elements involved in this journey into the heart, mind and body of Tamil cinema: Dreams, Hope, Space, Art, Love, Desire, Light, Colour and Time.

The author’s often frustrating yet consistent attempt is to capture that magical, elusive moment of creativity when a new idea, image, musical note, word or expression comes into being. Is it sheer hard work or is it something spontaneous and inherent? Does it come from within or through confrontation with the world? Pandian closely follows these creative minds to understand the mystery or dynamics behind the birth of art. One fascinating aspect of such rigorous ethnographic labour is the way in which the author is able to tease out responses from his subjects. For instance, you find Anthony, while editing the car chase, musing over editing pace: “Maybe I’m one of those characters in the film. Not present on the screen, but still, in the film… the fourth person sitting in the car.” When the art director Rajeevan is asked how he will know if he has made a mark in the industry, he replies referring to Sabu Cyril, his mentor: “They say that he can do anything. Just that.” Caught in the frenzy of film-making, Selvaraghavan says: “It’s like jumping into the sea, you have to keep swimming. It’s too late now to swim back.”

Boris Groys in his article “The Truth of Art” comments: “Andre Breton tells a story about a French poet who, when he went to sleep, put on his door a sign that read: ‘Please, be quiet—the poet is working.’ This anecdote summarises the traditional understanding of creative work: creative work is creative because it takes place beyond public control —and even beyond the conscious control of the author. This time of absence could last days, months, years—even a whole lifetime. Only at the end of this period of absence was the author expected to present a work (maybe found in his papers posthumously) that would then be accepted as creative precisely because it seemed to emerge out of nothingness.”

In this book, we are made privy to this enigmatic and elusive interface between the creator and the nothingness that confronts him/her in the act of creation.

C.S. Venkiteswaran is a film critic and documentary film-maker based in Thiruvananthapuram.

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