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Big Talk with Senthil Kumar

As seen on pulse72plus.com, April 13, 2013

The old-world charm of conventional film making is fast being replaced by digital filmmaking. One of the many advocates at the helm of this change, Mr.Senthil Kumar, co-founder QUBE Cinema, an REC Alumnus, speaks with us about QUBE, Pulse 72+ and why digital filmmaking is the next best thing.

1. I know you run a digital based enterprise. But 5 quick reasons why digital filmmaking over conventional film?

A: Anything digital will keep improving in quality over time while the price reduces so it’s usually a certainty that digital will triumph. In the case of shooting, the future was obvious because of the precedent set by still photography – for many years now, it’s been hard to see a film camera in use, let alone buy and process film negative! So a key plus for digital is the reduced cost of equipment – which is now economic enough that a production can buy the equipment just for a film rather than rent it. The second reason is the very low cost and reusable nature of hard drives in digital when compared to film stock – this allows for shooting difficult subjects like children and animals or even amateur actors where it’s often necessary to just keep the camera running in order to get the shot you want. Another reason is the lack of film grain and hence the randomness that makes compositing and other special effects harder on film-originated material. The fourth reason is the excellent low-light performance of digital cameras where just the light of a candle is sufficient when the scene calls for it. And finally, digital now has a very wide dynamic range, the range of light within a shot, from the darkest to the brightest part. This is especially because of the new High Dynamic Range (HDR) techniques available in some digital cinema cameras. There are more reasons to use digital cameras but these would be some of the top ones. V

Digital Filmaking

2.Digital filmmaking, aiding young filmmakers is of course well known. But could you give a rough estimate of an expense difference this makes? (regarding the camera, film, rent etc)

A: When shooting with digital cameras, the range of costs can vary widely depending on the quality level and the accessories and lenses used. At the low end, a Canon DSLR capable of shooting at 24 frames/sec with a stock Canon lens can cost less than $1000 and at the high end, a Red Epic or Sony F-65 can cost about $200,000 with a set of lenses and accessories. The type of equipment and the lenses used will determine the daily rentals. Obviously the lowest cost option would be to buy or borrow a DSLR and shoot using that but if using a typical Red camera setup, the cost of rentals would be about Rs. 20,000 per day. Film cameras can be rented for about half that but a 400 foot roll of film negative would cost more than Rs. 12,000 apart from the processing costs so it will still end up more expensive to shoot film. When shooting high end digital today, there is no large cost saving. The reasons to choose digital are quality and convenience at the high end. But over time, there’s no doubt that this level of quality will be available in $1000 equipment.

3.But there's still heart in the film stock, that can never be replaced by digital. Moving on from film to digital cannot be called an upgrade if this is considered right? Great directors still insist on film. Down here, Raavanan and in Hollywood, The Dark Knight (Rises) are all cinematographic marvels.

A: Film is still fantastic in its capability and quality but digital now matches this quality with all the other advantages mentioned previously. There is the high level of familiarity that cinematographers have with film along with years of experience. This is what drives some cinematographers towards working on film – it’s just less of a hassle for them to work with what they know and trust than experiment with an unknown thing. Just like people wax eloquent about vinyl records, it’s just nostalgia when people long for that film quality because digital has it already. With all my years of experience, these days, I often struggle to determine if something was shot on digital or film! But each person needs to work with what they know and love and not be forced to make a choice in something as creative as filmmaking. The last thing you want is for technology to impair anyone’s creativity. But for all those who romanticize film, I’d like to check if they shoot their stills digitally or on film!

Stock films Still in the Hearts

4.And adding to the fire is HFR (High Frame Rate), which essentially offers the picture at double the regular frame rate, capitalizing on quality, and losing the feel of the old cinema. People do complain HFR is TV-like, and sometimes nauseating. What's your take?

A: Having seen samples of 24 fps vs. HFR at 48, 60 and 120 frames/sec, I can see that HFR adds a lot to realism in 3D. With The Hobbit, the amount of artificial makeup and graphics may have clouded the argument…People have said that the HFR version lets you see through the makeup and that breaks the illusion. But I think future projects, especially Avatar 2 which is likely to be shot at 60 fps, will slowly and surely turn the tide. The slight blur and stutter that’s a part of shooting at 24 fps is something we’ve just got used to as the ‘film look’. Over time, we’ll get used to a different look! Films are magical because we see them in a darkened theatre with great sound and picture, hopefully without any external disturbance and in a social setting with others sharing the experience. 24 fps is not the reason in my opinion.

IMAX - Giant Screens

5.Qube has always been one of the biggest game-changers for the industry. Any plans to develop a large screen format like the IMAX and promote it in the country?

A: In January, we introduced our new technology that could play 3D from two projectors and thus handle IMAX sized screens. A number of former IMAX screens worldwide have adopted our system in the last few months. We are looking at the possibility of introducing this system in cinemas across India to provide an unbeatable experience for watching movies.

Giant Qube Screen in Houston

6.Some of the best made films of this year, were from debutantes and in digital. How much of a help can QUBE offer from its end to promote good cinema? Any tips?

A: The promise of digital is the democratization of movies and this has been something we’ve said for the last decade. With some states such as Tamil Nadu reaching 90% digitization, we’ve seen the number of small films grow year-after-year. In just 3 years, the number of small films made in Tamil Nadu has doubled and is continuing to grow. This trend allows many talented directors to make films at economical costs and successfully release them. We try our best to help small films by very flexible rate structures for release where they can just pay for the shows they play.

7.Your message to the young and aspiring?

A: Try to make money doing what you love to do! Never do something just for money unless it’s a very short-term thing… And if you’re starting a business, try to work with a co-founder with whom you have a very good equation so that you share the burdens and you’re not alone in difficult times. I’ve had my share of struggles, bad luck and outright failures but overall, I was very lucky… and believe me, luck plays a big part.

8.What are your future projects?

A: While I have several ideas, digital cinema is still not over the hill. I’ll really be able to devote time to new projects only a year from now, fingers crossed!

9.Your take on pulse72+?

A: This certainly seems like a very nice venture… I just looked through the site. I’m a bit nostalgic because a group of us started the REC Trichy college magazine “Analog” when I studied there in the mid-80s (there was no web then!). And I’m simply amazed at the quality of the questions you’ve posed – they are well researched and even better than you think they are (wink)! I’d love to meet whoever came up with these questions. Wish you the very best in this and every other endeavor in your life!