Requiem for film

Print edition : January 10, 2014

A Bollywood film reel being examined at New Empire Cinema in Mumbai on April 18, 2011. Photo: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

Prasad Colour Lab in Chennai. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger in "In the Heat of the Night". Digital technology in cinema can at last undo the inequity which darker skin tones were subjected to in the medium of celluloid film. Photo: dc safsdg dg

Salim Kumar and Zarina Wahab in "Adaminte Makan Abu", which was shot fully in digital. Madhu Ambat won the National Award for Best Cinematography in 2011 for this film. Photo: df gsdfgg

WE have known for some years now that the days of film as film are numbered, that movies are being increasingly produced and delivered in the digital mode. But when the largest commercial film laboratory in the country, Prasad Colour Lab, formally begins to wind down its operations, the sense of finality, the reality of an epochal shift, suddenly hits us afresh. The closing montage of the century-old saga of celluloid will comprise a series of images and sounds that now lapses from physical existence into the realm of memory—the can of raw stock that disappears into the two-sleeved, lightproof changing bag and emerges as the loaded camera magazine, to be snapped into place on the Arriflex camera ready for the shot; developing baths in which the exposed stock are washed; white gloves handling the processed negatives; the working print being cut and spliced into sequence at the linear Steenbeck editing table; the rows of strips of chosen film hanging on clipboards above the bin on one side of the table and the rejected “NG” footage discarded into it; the frame-by-frame grading of the final negative length for colour and tonal correction; the whirring bobbins, the constant winding and rewinding of rolls and reels of film, large and small, of positive and negative, of picture and sound; and finally, the married release print spooled into reels in cans and carried into the projection cabins of cinemas where they unreel, through the projector, at 24 frames a second to give us cinematic temporality.

Beyond these associations of sight and sound are those of smell and touch, of the chemical bath, of the feel of the film strip by expert fingers. For those involved with the production and post-production of film right up to its incarnation on the silver screen, an entire way of life stands altered. There is a digital erasure of celluloid materiality.

The sense of loss is not just personal. “You really lose those wonderful silver halide images, that organic look, those tonal values, the emotion they create,” says S. Sivaraman, who joined Prasad Colour Lab at its inception in 1976. Sivaraman handled, with his colleagues, thousands of feature films and the demands of a wide array of directors and cinematographers from across the country, rose eventually to head it and now has to preside over this mega lab’s dissolution before the onslaught of the digital. Unlike the pixels arranged in linear order which create the synthetic digital image, he explains, the silver halide grains are in random formation and better knit to provide the crystalline filmic image.

He breaks out of his film spell to a more objective appraisal of the digital as less time-consuming and more globalising—with cloud-based technology you can upload data and disperse it to different locations so that, say, visuals can be edited in Chennai, sound can be worked on in Los Angeles, and so on—but still finds it wanting in many respects, at least in the way it is used. Although “digital data are very malleable”, the volume to be handled is enormous, especially when, as often happens, the shooting ratio is lax and sometimes of the order of 1:10, since scarcity or cost of raw stock is no longer a factor. This then generates a huge amount of data to be processed, driving up the post-production cost and neutralising the digital advantage. The production costs too, and this is endorsed by independent producers, are not any less; in fact, the hiring charges of the Arri Alexa or Red series digital cameras are more than double that of the best conventional film cameras.

If the role of the lab processor has been rendered redundant with the digital takeover, and that of the projectionist with satellite delivery of movies to cinema screens, there is a perception or impression that the cinematographer too may not be as central to digital image-making as he was in the film era. Sivaraman, for example, thinks that the “DOP [Director of Photography] is no longer in command of the image” which is “chopped, reorganised, goes into many mediums… is practically mutilated”. Also, the “image may be created, even the colours manipulated, at the workstation… flaws can be fixed in post-production, so the care at the time of capturing [the image] is going down”.

However, the versatile cinematographer Madhu Ambat, who straddles art and commercial and celluloid and digital cinema with consummate ease, sees the digital camera shoot as more empowering, flexible and enhancing in terms of quality. The best digitally shot images with resolutions of up to 4 k may still be well short of the 6 to 8 k resolution that the medium of film can provide, but the difference is theoretical because, says Ambat, “beyond 2 to 4 k, the human eye cannot distinguish the difference”. His work in Adaminte Makan Abu (Abu, Son of Adam), shot on Arri D-21 digital camera, which won him the Best Cinematography Award in 2011 apart from the National Award for Best Film, Best Actor and Best Music Director that year, certainly illustrates the point that the digital image can evoke no less organic and profound a feel than that captured to exacting standards on film.

There are obvious advantages to going digital: it is environment-friendly, whereas disposing of film waste can pose a hazard; there is no need to worry about dust specks and scratches as on film in the post-production chain; distribution through a combination of satellite simulcasts and on hard disks save the big banners the cost of hundreds of release prints on film stock and reduce delivery time. But when it comes to archiving or durable and reliable preservation, the digital is as yet an unproven medium before the century-old track record of the photochemical film. Constant format changes in the video and digital mode, driven by a rapid rate of technological obsolescence kept going, no doubt, by the corporate need and greed to have newer products hit the market with regular frequency and keep the buyers coming, make it difficult to arrive at a standard specification in these media for archival preservation.

As we moved from videotapes of various gauges to DVD, briefly dabbling in-between with laser discs, and into high definition (HD) and three-dimensional (3D) viewing, and as the prosumer market expanded, whetting the appetite for better and more multitasking digital electronics—an appetite met by the operation of Moore’s law in this field—the emphasis has been on the qualitative and quantitative aspects of the production and dissemination and consumption of software and not, at least not yet, on their preservation for posterity. Digital compression may offer vast storage capacity, but whether there is loss or distortion in the process apparently depends on the tool for compression and the format chosen.

Cinema going digital has unleashed a lot of youthful energy into the field. Nowhere is this more evident in as concentrated a manner as in Kerala’s small but resilient and ever improvising cinema sector. A number of young directors, technicians and actors, many of them newcomers, are tackling refreshing new themes with varying unconventional treatments and are being received with success at the box office. The established producers are unnerved by this development because their own bigger budget, formulaic, star-driven products do not get long enough runs in the theatres to recoup their costs. In a market with as narrow a base, as fragile and as delicately balanced as this, this new crop and generation of digital movie-makers are seen as spoilers by a petulant industry and the stars on which it rides.

In a more basic and crucial sense, digital technology in cinema can, it appears, at last undo the inequity which darker skin tones were subjected to in the medium, and the century, of celluloid film. The raw stock and technology of the film era were not skin-colour-neutral. The film emulsion, whether on Kodak or Fuji stock, and the light meters were calibrated for the fair Caucasian skin, so much so that the face of a black American or African appeared featureless and characterless, especially when juxtaposed in the same frame with a light-skinned person. There was the other infuriating image, common in films featuring a black actor in a dark suit, where only the white of the shirt and the teeth when the lips parted could really be seen.

In an article this October in The Washington Post, Ann Hornaday quotes the director of the recent film 12 Years a Slave (about the abduction from New York and enslavement of a free black man in 1840), Steve McQueen, recalling “growing up and seeing Sidney Poitier sweating next to Rod Steiger in In the Heat of the Night, and obviously it’s very hot in the south. But also he was sweating because he had tons of light thrown on him because the film stock wasn’t sensitive enough for black skin.” Black skin, which absorbs over 40 per cent more light than fair skin, needed that much more compensation. A ploy cinematographers used to film black artistes was to daub their skins with Vaseline to reflect light. However, now, as Ann Hornaday points out, a clutch of films on African Americans (apart from 12 Years a Slave, Mother of George and Black Nativity) capture the pigment of the black skin in all its nuances, thanks to a combination of digital cameras with better latitude to handle darker shades and shadows and the possibility of digital post-production correction.

This technology shift represents the removal of a historical prejudice that dates back to the 1940s and Kodak’s so-called Shirley cards (Shirley, a fair-skinned female model, was probably an employee with Kodak), which was the skin tone reference to which its colour film stock was standardised. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, it was only when its clients in the dark chocolate and dark furniture businesses complained about the dull and drab quality of the images of their products that Kodak began to look at how it might capture the darker shades and colours better.

When, in 1977, the pioneering French film-maker Jean Luc Godard was invited by the new Marxist Samora Machel government of Mozambique to help set up a TV station with truly indigenous, as against Western, programming values and content, he refused to work with Kodak film stock, calling it “racist”. Although the project had to be abandoned, Godard has recorded his impressions of what it meant for a nation where “eighty per cent of the population had never seen an image —only nature” to be initiated into the visual medium. “It’s like a child,” he continues, “opening his eyes and there’s no code, no sense, he’s just looking. In Mozambique the image is the raw material. But in Hollywood, the images are so sophisticated you can’t even read them anymore.”

In the days of apartheid in South Africa, a special Polaroid ID-2 camera, which had a boost button for extra flash light, was used by the state and its departments like the Bureau of Mines to take the pictures of black citizens for their pass books and identity documents. An exhibition mounted last year by the London-based photographic duo Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin revolves around some of these issues and their assignment to shoot in the Central African republic of Gabon. It is pithily titled “To Photograph the Details of a Dark Horse in Low Light”, which was the code used by Eastman Kodak Company in the 1980s for its experiment with colour film stock that could depict the darker skin colours and tones more faithfully.

Digital technology itself, unlike the proven role of film in this respect, may yet be a dark horse when it comes to preservation of cinematic work for the distant future. But it is today the liberator of the expressiveness long suppressed beneath dark skins.

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