Flaws – A Retrospection is an abstract short film about the expressions of a girl (Aditi Balan) who is alone and bored. Director Krishna Marimuthu (of Dharala Prabhu fame) and cinematographer Niketh Bommireddy speak about the process of making the film, shot on 16mm and 35mm film stock. Excerpts from an interview.
How did the effort begin?
Niketh: It was unplanned. I had a Netflix project; they were planning to make Lust Stories in Telugu, with Tharun Bhascker. It was a 30-minute project, and so, I wanted to convince them to use film to show what we could achieve with it. So, I got in touch with Krishna, who had some ideas. Eventually, it became this independent project.
Krishna: For me, it started when Christopher Nolan came to India in 2018, for the celluloid film preservation conference. Being a fan, Niketh and I went to Mumbai and got to see Interstellar and Inception in film print, and also hear him speak about the format. As an assistant director, I've worked on film, and it didn't seem like a big deal, but it is suddenly obsolete. One day, Niketh, whom I've worked with on many projects before, called me and said "I've got four cans of film, want to shoot something?", and that's how it started.
Was there anything specific you were looking to do with the film format?
Krishna: In the beginning, Niketh wanted it to be a comparative video, where we see the difference between the three formats – 16mm, 35mm and digital (Arri LF). And, 16mm was something that I've only heard of. So, we didn't know what we were going to shoot. We knew we had the film, and a weekend at Niketh's ancestral house. Since we were into music videos, we thought we could make something abstract, something about expression. Aditi Balan is someone we've wanted to work with; she agreed to come on board and was very supportive.
Niketh was looking to shoot contemporary content on film, and, in turn, convince his directors to shoot on film. A lot of technicians supported us, and we felt this could be something of a reboot to the whole film ecosystem.
Niketh: There were moments where we'd look at each other and say "Let's not go for more takes".
Krishna: One of the biggest takeaways from Nolan's conference was that he is not saying that digital is not the right way, he is just begging to make film an option too. Because, with the way things are going, even if I want to shoot on film in the future, I might not be able to do so, because of the budget or because there's no lab to develop it. If the ecosystem can survive, it'll be great, because, it definitely has a value and what you shoot is more cinematic on film.
Do we have the technology and facility to make a feature-length movie using film?
Niketh: Right now, you have all the infrastructure in Mumbai. You can buy film stock from Mumbai; the Kodak India headquarters is there. Kodak's lab run by Mr. Raju has a storage facility as well. So, if you want to, you can.
We have 4K scans available. Now, we release usually in 2K, max 4K content for theatres; though we might shoot on 8K or 6K. But for film, we have 4K scanners, so if you want to go for 4K release, that's also possible.
How do you intend convincing producers to spend money on film stock?
Niketh: If you are just looking at this purely in terms of numbers, it doesn't make sense.
Krishna: If a feature film has to be shot on film, the film should demand it and the producer has to be on board. Because, there is this whole logistics nightmare of shooting on film and we need the producer to be able to handle the risk. The filmmaker should be able to answer why it must be shot on film. Because, the person spending the money and the audience should be able to feel the difference. Something like what they did in Mahanati. The audience might not be able to tell if a scene is shot on film, but they feel it when it is. It is always going to be about cost versus art; both are important. A lot of the "film look" can be achieved on digital too. Even Instagram has an 8mm filter. For the viewer, this might not make a huge difference, but a technical person can make out the difference when it is converted from digital. So, we have to be responsible. All this is for commercial films. For art films, obviously, film will have a bigger priority.
What were the differences you noticed between shooting on film and digital?
Krishna: A cool thing about film; something that Nolan said and for which I got goosebumps, is that when the camera rolls, we don't know what is going to happen. Because it is not a straight mirroring of what we shoot, the image is being printed and we don't know what it looks like until it is developed, and that is the excitement. But it could go wrong too. Imagine you get just four hours permission to shoot on Mount Road with a big hero or villain. You control the crowd and a lot has gone into the shoot. Then, if you find it is underexposed during edit, that's it! (both laugh) But, when we shot, we just wanted to go back to the roots of filmmaking, and that's why we called it 'a retrospection' too. And, we will definitely try to take it forward.
And also, what happens as a result of shooting on film, is something I understood while shooting Dharala Prabhu with Vivekh Sir – the importance of rehearsals. He is used to rehearsing 20 times before going for the take. Though Dharala Prabhu was a digital project, we did rehearse a lot. So, there was this discipline in the whole set. Even when Niketh and I were shooting, we knew when the film was running out from the sound it made, and quickly call "Cut".
You mentioned that the 'film look' can be achieved on digital too, in post-production. So, why not just do that to have the best of both worlds?
Niketh: Obviously, all of us try to simulate and emulate that vintage look. That's something we have grown up with and is a part of us. That's a reason why that filter is popular on Instagram. It's just that when you know you are using a polaroid camera and an Instagram filter; it is a completely different feeling. And that is what we felt on set with film. After that one week of not knowing what we shot looks like, when I went to Mumbai and saw the footage… it was bliss. I called up Krishna, and said "This is something else, macha".
Krishna: I don't remember seeing certain blues and greens in a long time. The last I remember them is from 90s' films. I don't think those colours can be easily replicated on digital. Because, when you put up filters, what you are doing is just reducing how clean the image looks. But there's more to film than just the vintage film look.
Niketh: My guru Gnanasekaran MN taught me that in every digital camera, literally what you see is what you get. But, in film, colours get subtracted as it moves to the last layer. That's why your greens, say green grass, look a lot more natural, more subtle, in film. That magic is reserved for film.
Did you manage to shoot the Netflix project on film?
Niketh: (laughs) Unfortunately, it didn't happen. We finished shooting the Netflix project with a RED Dragon. The biggest and foremost hindrance to shooting on film, was the logistics, because we were shooting in a distant village. Secondly it was much more expensive to shoot on film. However, I am confident that it will happen in the near future. And to encourage that, as a first step, we are sharing unedited RAW footage that we shot; from all three formats – 16mm, 35mm and ARRI LF digital, as a drive link. Cinematographers, colourists and other technicians can download to edit them, colour grade them and compare and see the differences themselves. And soon, hopefully, we'll have a feature-length mainstream film.
Editor Kripakaran says he never imagined he'll get to work with film. "I got the offline footage in MOV format. The best part of film footage is that every take ends with a flashy ramp after the director's cut call. It captured Aditi's post-cut emotions in a flashy ramp, which made me realise that's what possibly made Editor Antony use flash ramp cut as an effect, which was trendsetting as a stylised editing pattern. I still wish to get that one chance in my lifetime to touch the film reel in my hand and go chop chop."
Colourist Suresh Ravi has worked only with digital camera footage. This project gave him the opportunity to explore film. "I went to the shoot, just to observe the film shooting process. After the scanning process, I received the footage in 4K DPX format. Niketh and I started grading it and we were blown by the footage quality. The 35mm scans obviously, were less noisy and also looked cleaner, whereas the 16mm had a grainier look. But we loved how the colours reacted better in 16mm scans."