Christopher Nolan makes movies in photochemical film. That's his preferred — and until now only — medium of choice. Asking him to shoot a movie in digital would be akin to snatching away the canvas and watercolours from a painter… asking him to make do with whatever is available, maybe a computer screen and a digital brush.
Movies are not fine art. And the director of The Dark Knight, Inception, Interstellar, Memento and Dunkirk can afford to make movies the way he wants to, because he is one of the most commercially successful and critically acclaimed directors in the world. So is Quentin Tarantino, who along with Nolan is among the leading crusaders of the revival of celluloid. So quick has been the digital takeover of filmmaking and the way we watch, that we are still processing the magnitude of this change. Sample the statistics: In 2010 in India, 1274 feature length films shot on celluloid and none on digital; in 2013-14 there were 188 feature length films made on film and 1178 films on digital. In 2016-17, one feature film was shot on celluloid and 1986 feature length films shot on digital format.
Nolan was here in India to remind us — filmmakers and film lovers — what it is to create on celluloid, and how it is to experience it being projected on the big screen. To kickstart a movement to make celluloid accessible to young filmmakers, and equip theatres with technology to show them. In his three-day tour, he had a meeting with the representatives of the Indian film industry, introduced Dunkirk and Interstellar the way they were intended to be seen — in 70mm and 35mm formats respectively. And in an open-to-public ticketed event held at the National Centre for Performing Arts on Sunday, he articulated in detail why film matters. The event —Reframing the Future of Film — saw Nolan in conversation with Tacita Dean, a visual artist and founder of savefilmfoundation, and Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, filmmaker and founder of the Film Heritage Foundation; both these not-for-profit organisations, doing tireless work to save the celluloid, are behind the initiative in India.
It was a full house — intellectuals, actors, filmmakers, journalists, film students and fans. Nolan was greeted with roars, unprecedented for a director in India; the only time it was matched was when Nolan mentioned his long-time collaborator composer Hans Zimmer. Fans wearing "In Nolan, we trust" T-shirts were spotted. When the session opened for questions from the audience, a fan went overboard by telling Nolan how his Wi-fi password and his film school thesis is inspired by the Batman movies — Nolan dismissed the latter in a brief, subtle manner. And a female fan, who claimed to have come from Bangalore, actually started threatening that she will start crying if Nolan doesn't take a book written on him by her friend — who awkwardly waited next to her. A waste of precious opportunity to ask questions to one of the most exciting directors in the world, who can talk about his work in great depth. But, in its own way, a welcome anomaly in what was a tightly controlled tour.
Here are some of the highlights of the talk:
CELLULOID IS AT THE HEART OF CINEMA
One of the first things that was addressed was dispelling of the notion of the revival of film as something nostalgic and indulgent. "Nostalgia is a term people use to dismiss other people's passion. To put it in a box," said Nolan. He spoke about how difficult it is to explain it to the studios that film is a medium, not a technology. "One of the things that happens in Hollywood a lot … is they say that at the end of the day it is really about the story. It sounds smart and sophisticated. But we don't write radio plays, we don't write novels. It's a complete denial of the appeal of the medium," he said.
"One of the things that happens in Hollywood a lot … is that they say that at the end of the day it is really about story," he said, "It sounds smart and sophisticated. But we don't write radio plays, we don't write novels. Its a complete denial of the appeal of the medium."
Film, Nolan insists, is "quantifiably different" from digital. "Resolution in film was and still is superior to digital — and it is considered superior — and so is the colour reproduction," he said.
At the closed door round-table, Amitabh Bachchan had cited that he "likes digital because it can shoot for hours and he doesn't have to worry about length of film being used." Dungarpur brought it up, and Nolan was polite in a very British way — 'Big B'. "Will it be rude to call him that?" — and wry — "It would seem… intrusive for actors, the monstrous camera … what I have learnt is that they actually love it because… you can hear the money spinning." Nolan was trying to make the point about how the finiteness and physical aspect of film allows magic to happen on the set, including the performance of the actors. "You have that focus… that concentration that okay, we have to get this right, almost committing this to a physical medium thats going to last forever," he said. Dean said how the energy of the movie set is going more into post-production. "There is a phrase in Hollywood: We'll do it in post," Nolan quipped.
A CASE FOR FREEDOM OF CHOICE
Both Dean and Nolan reiterated that this is not about Film vs Digital, but Film plus Digital; "One of the great things about digital is that it is changing everyday,"he said. How, this is a call for film to co-exist, and create an infrastructure that is more inclusive. Nolan recalled that it was Dean, and how she has helped film thrive in the art world, who taught him to understand the heart of the matter. "Medium specificity," he said, "is a constant in the art world. The institution has to respect the medium the artist choses to work on. You cannot simply take a photo of a Picasso painting and stick on the wall and tell people they are seeing original work," he said. "If you are working with clay and you shape something with clay, the force from the clay requires to make something from it… it informs the creative process in a meaningful and fundamental way. The medium… is going to define something about the art that you are making."
The process of converting the 9000 odd screens in India from analogue to digital that began in 2003 was completed last year. Dungarpur said that exhibitors and distributors find digital technology easier to deal with. Nolan said that while it is great that the exhibitors and the distributors considerations were taken seriously, "No one ever asked the filmmakers." "And if they had, half would have said 'yes', half would have said 'no'. The ideal is to have both available…"
It has been increasingly hard to shoot on film in the digital age, he said, as "there is always more money to be made in changing technology. There is always economic imperative to bring in new technology," he said, "I don't want technology to be the invasion. I want the filmmaker to be the invasion."
THE PRACTICALITY OF BRINGING BACK CELLULOID
Nolan wanted to remind us that we should treat film as an art-form. But he also spoke about how different the film industry is from the art world. He emphasised on the importance of "salesmanship", the selling of celluloid as an 'experience'. "We have to show the 'money people' that it can be exciting. It's a fun thing. We put the 70 mm projection proudly on the posters of Interstellar and Dunkirk and it looked cool. And those screens did phenomenally well." He cited the example of the roadshow screenings of Tarantino's Hateful Eight. The audience can feel the difference, he says. And those who were present on Saturday evening at the 70 mm screening of Dunkirk at IMAX, Wadala, and 35mm screening of Interstellar at Liberty — which Nolan called "the beautiful art deco theatre" — despite the few niggles, seem to have vouched for it.
We have to show the 'money people' that it can be exciting. It's a fun thing. We put the 70 mm projection proudly on the posters of Interstellar and Dunkirk and it looked cool. And those screens did phenomenally well.
When Dungarpur asked about the sustainability of film, Nolan said that for the audience it is "emotionally different experience watching the story unfold. And that has value. I absolutely think it is sustainable…" He said that while digital technology is undeniably clean, it is the same technology as in people's homes. Film in theatre is a different experience.
"As a commercial filmmaker I understand that my film will be seen on streaming and TV — and it is great to have your story reach to so many people in so many different ways — but I also want it to be available in the way I want, whether it is 70mm and 35 mm, those who seek it," Nolan said.
One of the initiatives that will begin the process of revival of film in India is Kodak's partnership with Film Lab, one of the oldest labs in Mumbai. The Kodak CEO Jeff Clarke, who joined the stage toward the end of the session, said that this will help build an ecosystem needed in order to promote film use and exhibition — to revive and maintain projectionists, projector maintenance, negative cutting, lab and optical printing skills. "Film is not going away anywhere, he announced, "In fact, new film is coming out." Clarke also said that there will be a relaunch of a new batch of Super 8 cameras, the iconic movie camera that many a filmmaking legend trained his hands on. For those who can't wait, some of them are still available in Mumbai. In the build-up to Nolan's visit, FHF had run a contest — a treasure hunt of sorts — to find the handful of these shops in the city. One of them is in Chorbazaar. Nolan visited it on Sunday morning, and bought a Super 8 Camera for his son. It came cheap, he said — Rs 1000 — cheaper than you get them in America.