May 11, 2010

The Digital Witch Project

Digital cinema is here to stay, but can Bollywood adapt, asks RISHI MAJUMDER

WHAT DOES Dibakar Banerjee’s Love, Sex Aur Dhoka (LSD) have in common with the 1999 Hollywood horror The Blair Witch Project? Both were frontrunners in the use of digital camera. But beyond this quiz question should Indian audiences care about the arrival of digital cinema in Bollywood? They should. Beyond the mere image, the use of digital cameras in Bollywood has the wonderful potential to create a revolution in the quality and variety of films we watch.

Bollywood is now following LSD, with both Anurag Kashyap’s upcoming That Girl In Yellow Boots and Kamal Haasan’s Tamil remake of A Wednesday being shot digitally. Even those who dislike the digital camera passionately, like Hemant Chaturvedi (who calls Slumdog Millionaire ‘one of the ugliest films he has seen), predict that in five years digital cinema would have permeated Bollywood.

“Shooting digitally cuts costs drastically compared to shooting on 35 or 16 mm film,” says Kashyap. “This will lead to more experimentation and new filmmakers getting a chance to make their films.” He claims Yellow Boots would’ve cost two and a half times more if he’d shot it conventionally.

But cost-cutting is not the only reason. By some coincidence, both LSD and The Blair Witch Project used digital cameras to recreate the poor picture quality of amateur videos. But this doesn’t mean all digital films look tacky or inferior — digital technology has travelled far since 1999. High-end digital cameras were used to shoot blockbusters like Star Wars II and III, Apocalypto, Avatar and Oscar-winner Slumdog Millionaire, and their image quality was as good as any shot on 16 or 35mm cameras. Also, digital cameras are much lighter compared to unwieldy film cameras — and so allow for more experimentation. Kashyap, for instance, would’ve never been able to shoot the climax of Yellow Boots on the streets “because I would’ve had to get government permission, vacate the area and use extras.” Filmmaker Danny Boyle too has claimed that hauling heavy apparatus into Dharavi’s narrow lanes to shoot Slumdog Millionaire would never have created the same film. Digital cameras have other advantages such as allowing shots in low light without external lighting for a more realistic look. They also enable the filmmaker to view a shot immediately, almost as the audience will, to decide about re-takes.

Digital flag-bearers like Banerjee and Kashyap both cite examples of western masters like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola who’ve shot digitally — “It’s the medium of the future,” they say. Those who don’t graduate to this medium will find themselves at sea once digital picture quality exceeds a film camera’s.

Digitisation will need Bollywood to overhaul its old guard of technical crew. “Sadly, Bollywood is not technically prepared to use this technology,” says Banerjee, citing a case where a producer imported five expensive digital cameras but forgot to order the matching post-production systems. He complains that film executives treat digital cameras like a “magic pill” that’ll guarantee “aesthetics and cost-cuts”. While working with film cameras is fairly standardised, the digital process varies from case to case. So much so that its advent in Bollywood has created a new designation among film crews — the Digital Imaging Technician. Banerjee sees this as just the first step: “It’s a change that has to occur every decade when new technology takes over the industry. It’s inevitable.”