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Dear Ed, Do Ya Dig It?

Digital editing is a post-modern, table-top tornado

Dear Ed, Do Ya Dig It?
Dear Ed, Do Ya Dig It?
outlookindia.com
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Not so long ago, filmmakers gasped when they saw how the Oscar-winning Gladiator was actually made. The Roman Colosseum in real life is actually a parking lot in LA. In fact, a top shot showed several cars in the lot with bored drivers standing and chatting. There were no crowds in togas, no towering arches. A little away from them, Russell Crowe fiercely clanked swords with his opponents in splendid isolation.

The ambience and atmosphere were all "punched in" later. Piecemeal. On a computer.

Barely two years later, for my film Rudraksh, we created massive sets of Ravana's palace ruins in Lanka. There were huge statues, each a hundred feet high, dotting a vast landscape. A lonely car negotiated its way through these massive crags to highlight the sheer size and opulence of the palace. To add to the ambience, a dark storm brewed in the distance making the tall grass swing wildly.

The shot was quietly canned in a barren hill on the outskirts of Hyderabad. The rest was punched in later. Piecemeal.

Ten years ago, a sequence like the one in Rudraksh would have been possible only for a handful of technical wizards and would have cost a million dollars to make. Twenty years ago, only George Lucas could have done it and it would have cost him five million or more. Today, such a sequence typically takes a half day's shoot, a licence of a high-end software, a fast computer, a technician, and a Rs 2 lakh budget.

It's not that technology has changed cinema. The news is that technology has finally come off the high horse. Costs have dropped phenomenally. Fantastically powerful softwares are morphing the marketplace every few months. Thousands of well-trained software engineers flood the markets each year, hungry for opportunities. Everything has suddenly become completely affordable.

  • New digital tools for pre-visualising enable scenes to be completely conceived and put on videotape well before actual shooting. This is great news for action and dance choreographers who would like to compose new-age sequences, and for cinematographers who would like to save expensive studio time and experiment with lighting effects on the computer well in advance of the actual shoot.

  • Advances in scanning, recording, storage and retrieval of digital film footage now enable editors to plan a dizzying array of slick cuts on their edit machine, then render them at film resolution without any fuss. The earlier generation of hardware like Inferno was priced at Rs 4 crore a piece. Today, a comparable software like Fusion or Shake costs Rs 2 lakh and works on a regular PC or Mac.

  • Screenplay writers now have the freedom to unleash their creative side without fear of ridicule. Anything they dream up can be digitally created.

  • Sound engineers can line up hundreds of tracks of sound effects sourced from an amazing array of low-cost digital libraries, using software like Pro Tools or Sound Scape.

A gunshot sound, for instance, used to be just a sort of dishkiaon! pulled out from a spool audio tape. Now there are over 10,000 gunshot sounds sourced from different guns fired in different ways to choose from, with endless refining possible at the layering stage. The expensive recording theatres have become obsolete. A regular Mac or PC can be effortlessly converted into a near-professional audio workstation that works well up to the premixing stage.

  • Directors can create a new visual fabric for their story, limited only by their power to imagine and integrate.

Technology throws up challenges too. Obsolescence is so rapid that one feels one's age creep up in no time at all. Many have already fallen to this relentless march while others have scrambled to unlearn what they knew in order to learn all over again.

Just one example. An earlier generation of editors used the Steinbeck—a linear analog machine that put shots together. Today almost all Steinbeck editors are on the streets replaced by a new breed of kids who use an array of non-linear machines. Only a handful of the older generation managed to learn and stay afloat.

The bad news about technology is that it has no heart, recognises no seniors and tramples over all who ignore it. The writing is on the wall—perform or perish, learn or be liquidated.

The good news about technology is that it can be a great leveller, cutting down costs while stepping up quality to dizzying heights. It is up to a new breed of directors, writers, cameramen, editors and effect supervisors to take advantage of this. I personally see it as a fantastic opportunity to create a New Cinema for a New Generation.




(Mani Shankar is the director of Rudraksh,16 December.)
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