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Digitizing Films

As seen on | Apr 10, 2013

Senthil Kumar brought his first computer into India, hiding it in a microwave oven. Those were the days when "bringing in computers was a sin" .
He was just out of college and was tinkering around with computers, and had set up the first studio that ran computer graphics in Chennai.
Around the same time, in another part of the city, Jayendra Panchapakesan, a chemistry graduate who had dabbled in writing, was itching to move into something like audio-visual media and advertising . Jayendra bumped into Senthil one day in 1986, and the result was Real Image, a company that works on digital cinema deployment in India.
Housed in a nondescript building in Royapettah in south Chennai, Real Image is one of the five companies in the world with the DCI (Digital Cinema Initiatives) certification.
It evangelized the idea of digital cinema , was the first to bring in a series of innovations to India , and now has a suite of products used in creating every one of the 1,200 movies that are made in India every year. "Incidentally, our building , which housed a fancy audio studio rivaling the best in the world, was the studio that Beatles guitarist George Harrison chose for his secret recording with Pandit Ravi Shankar in 1995," says Senthil.
Cut back to film making in 1980. Movies and editing meant dark rooms, rolls of films, scissors and tape.
Computers were creatures you only saw if you lived abroad, and a 'mouse' was only a pest. Senthil and Jayendra wanted to bring in higher quality post-production techniques to India at low cost. They had tied up with Avid, a company making cinema software. They were worried they might be introducing something before its time, because the technology was fairly new to the world itself.
They needn't have worried. The Indian film industry enthusiastically adopted their cinema software. "India was cut off from the rest of the world and was so hungry to improve," Jayendra laughs. The ad film world took to non-linear digital editing first, movies joined soon after. "Kamal Hassan's Mahanadi was the first in India and fourth in the world to adopt the technology ," he says.
Senthil and Jayendra reinvested the money they made in the business, and started conducting classes on using the technology. "We had to first teach them how to use a mouse, and then teach them editing." Most of his 'students' , Jayendra says, were tea-boys who grew into editors.
They followed up Avid technology with digital surround sound through DTS (Digital Theater Systems) technology. Since cinema owners were not convinced about the need for DTS, they offered to install it at their own cost. This proved a successful strategy.
Soon after they decided that they should develop their own technology in order to have more control over their business . Thus Qube was born at the beginning of the new millennium. Qube was a comprehensive end-to-end solution for digital filmmaking and exhibition, and is today used by most cinemas and TV studios in the country. Qube, developed by the startup's 30-member development team, debuted in Rajinikanth's Chandramukhi.
Real Image received Rs 120-crore funding from Street Edge and Novastar (in 2004) and Intel Capital (in 2006). The company today earns close to Rs 200 crore in revenue and has 750 employees.
Senthil and Jayendra took plenty of risks along the way. "Our stint with DTS in 1995 was the hardest period. All our money was riding on it. We were confident of success , but had it failed, the company would have gone under," says Senthil.
Then there were rivals that tried to sabotage their business. "They came out with really bad copycat digital products simply to prove to producers that digital wouldn't work," Jayendra says. This, he says, set the company back by almost five years.
But their passion for the business helped them bounce back. The company is now the only company other than UFO that makes up the digital cinema distribution network in India.
So what's next? "It is something that will make sure you continue going to theatres , rather than watch movies at home," Jayendra says. Real Image is also working on a solution to curb piracy that today accounts for over 40% loss in film revenues.
"We are trying to develop a product to stop piracy in post production and this should be out soon. The product will enable you to find the source of leaks and take action accordingly.