-Neil Sadwelkar

India’s film industry has undergone a digital revolution. This transformation brings greater creative possibilities and broader access, but also raises concerns about digital preservation and the potential long-term effects on the industry.

The fact that the Indian film industry has a rich history, and a vast audience is no secret. However, a well-kept secret to industry outsiders is its remarkable evolution in recent decades. The shift from traditional analogue methods to predominantly digital methods has significantly impacted how films are conceived produced, distributed, and consumed.

The Analog Era

Just a few years back, filmmaking in India was entirely analogue. Filmmakers relied on physical film strips, meticulously processed in chemical labs. Editing was a manual and laborious task involving physically cutting and splicing film strips. The sound accompanying the film was managed separately, adding another layer of complexity. And distribution involved transporting bulky film reels to theatres - often a logistical nightmare in a country as infrastructure-challenged as India.

Today, film production, distribution, and even consumption are relatively hassle-free for almost every stakeholder. But how did this transformation happen? That too in just a few decades?

The vast benefits of digitalisation...resulted in a widespread adoption of digital technologies in the Indian film industry. However, this...stage of the evolution...was disruptive.

The First Wave: Digital editing tools and intermediates

The first wave of digitalisation happened in the early 1990s when a few editing teams started using digital editing tools. These tools brought efficiency and new post-production possibilities to filmmakers.

After about a decade and a half of experimentation, digital editing tools became mainstream because they offered new possibilities like ‘non-destructive’ or ‘non-linear’ editing. This allowed filmmakers to make changes freely and experiment without damaging or reshooting the film. Initially, digital editing complemented the traditional processes. However, as the technology matured, it became the new standard, offering greater flexibility and control than older techniques.

The early 2000s saw a significant turning point with the advent of Digital Intermediates (DI). This, a postproduction process that allows makers to make final creative adjustments to a movie through the digital processing of films to enhance colour, effects, and grading. With the introduction of DI, picture finishing, a crucial stage in filmmaking, entered the digital domain, streamlining workflows and enhancing control over the final look of a film. Even today, digital finishing tools allow filmmakers to meticulously craft the final product with greater precision and consistency.

While DI was an important development in the 2000s, perhaps the most dramatic transformation was in film distribution. By the late 2000s, physical film prints began to vanish and were gradually replaced with digital files sent for exhibition on hard drives. This revolutionised film distribution, eliminating the need for costly and time-consuming physical transport. Film prints used to cost up to a few hundred thousand rupees per print. To release a film in 1000 cinemas, 500-800 film prints had to be made, which was a massive investment for film producers. With digital distribution, even releases in 10,000 cinemas worldwide are possible for a small fraction of what it would cost with film prints.

The transformation of film distribution had both commercial and aesthetic impacts. Traditionally, physical prints were costly to produce and distribute, inhibiting the reach of smaller films. Digital distribution eliminated this barrier, allowing even independent films to secure wider, simultaneous releases. This faster turnaround time positively impacted revenue flows to producers. As a result, smaller movies started to co-exist with larger ones, which seeded the democratisation of the movie industry. Smaller and independent movie makers soon appeared to compete on a level playing field. The reduced cost of digital acquisition compared to traditional film stock proved a boon for smaller filmmakers, especially in the documentary genre. While narrative features initially lagged documentaries, they quickly transitioned to digital throughout the 2000s as cost-effectiveness became a key driver of adoption. Viewers, too, enjoyed a clean, consistent viewing experience throughout a film’s theatrical run, with movies less prone to scratches and dirt degrading the visuals over time.

These changes notwithstanding, by the 2000s, only a few segments of the filmmaking value chain embraced digital technologies, although the other segments were largely untouched and continued to be loyal to their old, established processes. Directors and actors still performed their respective traditional roles, albeit with the added convenience of watching their work on digital screens almost immediately after a shot is taken. In the early years of evolution, adoption was mainly non-disruptive. Although some studios’ technical crews and filmmakers experimented with digital technology, digitalisation was less rampant despite its benefits.

The second wave: the rise of VFX

The rise of digital visual effects in the early 2000s marked a significant shift in the Indian film industry when scenes that required special effects were shot digitally. Effectively, filmmaking became a hybrid process, with filmmakers combining digital and analogue to make films. However, the industry reached a turning point around 2012-2013. The massive successes of digitally shot action films resulted in many filmmakers who wanted to focus on visually complex genres going digital. The flexibility to shoot more footage without excessive costs became the trigger that spurred the mass adoption of digital technologies among filmmakers of all scales and genres. 35mm film reels used to cost as much as Rs. 4,000 per minute, and a feature-length film needed at least 50 hours of shot material. Shooting digitally involves just the cost of the hard disks required to store the shot material, which can be as low as Rs. 150-250 per minute.

Moreover, the cost of hard disks decreases dramatically every 3-4 years, whereas film costs only increase over time. This increased control and flexibility in filmmaking, coupled with the ability to use digital finishing, resulted in digital technologies gradually spreading to the other parts of the filmmaking value chain. Filmmakers and studios gradually adopted digital technologies even for scenes without complex effects. Soon, next-gen directors and scriptwriters who were exposed to digital technologies early in their professional lives started to reimagine films and started coming up with scripts that could only be made with visual effects digitally.

Today, digital technology touches every aspect of Indian filmmaking. From cutting-edge digital cameras to sophisticated visual effects software, the creative possibilities are boundless. And just as production has been transformed, distribution now thrives on online platforms alongside the enduring theatrical experience. Directors, scriptwriters, and even actors had to adapt to the digital way of filmmaking. With digital technologies, directors reshoot sequences until they get one that matches their imagination.

Digitalisation has democratized filmmaking making it possible for anyone with a mobile phone...to produce films... This might result in many filmmakers entering the industry even when they may not have the necessary skills...

Experimentation and the quest for perfection became widely prevalent on a scale hitherto unseen in the analogue world. The cases of digital audio editing and post-production are cases in point. Digital editing does not necessarily save time but enables filmmakers to quickly put together many ‘what-if’ scenarios before freezing on the final narrative. This, in turn, helps the presentation of stories in non-linear formats. With digital audio editing and music, digitalisation enables filmmakers to sample and review many music formats for a scene before arriving at an ideal mood for a given scene. With post-production activities such as colour grading, sound mixing, and finishing, digital technologies enable a large amount of parallel processing. Here, alternative approaches can also be reviewed rapidly before fixing a final look and sound. Digitalisation also permits versioning, so different versions of the same film are possible for different outputs - cinema, OTT, TV, and inflight all can have slightly different versions.

The vast benefits of digitalisation and its ability to spur experimentation resulted in the widespread adoption of digital technologies in the Indian film industry. However, this second stage of the evolution of the adoption of digital technologies was disruptive. Entities within the industry supporting analogue processes faced significant disruption. Film labs specialising in chemical development and print creation saw their businesses erode. Manufacturers supplying chemicals and other film-specific materials experienced a decline.

Cinema Evolves:

New Challenges and Opportunities

So, how does one assess the consequences of digitalisation? For one, digitalisation has democratised filmmaking, making it possible for anyone with a mobile phone or affordable camera to produce films of comparable quality to those that would have required expensive equipment in the past. This might result in many filmmakers entering the industry even when they may need to gain the necessary skills to make films of good quality. Hopefully, other checks and balances in the industry make this only a temporary phenomenon.

Moreover, while digitalisation has undeniably transformed the production and distribution of film, it introduces complexities previously absent from filmmaking. The reliance on data storage raises concerns about preservation. A century-old fi lmstrip, barring physical damage, remains intact. However, early digital films risk being lost forever if the data is corrupted, or the storage devices become obsolete. This presents a unique challenge for historians hoping to study the cinema of the early 21st century. Digital archiving strategies and infrastructure are vital to ensuring future generations can experience this formative era of the industry. Data monopolies and competition in data ownership and storage can have wide-ranging consequences for preserving of films that are made now and are likely to be made in the future. Moreover, in the long run, the lack of adequate systems of storage coupled with only a few firms being able to store and monetise large amounts of data might dilute ownership and make it so murky that work that builds on previous films might become more arduous.

In summary, the past three decades have seen digital technologies transform several filmmaking processes. This transformation has changed the nature of the medium and spurred reach and experimentation. Originally, filmmaking was analogue, manpower-intensive, restrictive, and extremely expensive. Digitalisation has altered each of these, and while doing so, resulted in the overall improvement of every aspect of filmmaking, simultaneously generating larger profits and minimising losses for film producers. While this has led to the democratisation of the industry, the long-term impact of digitalisation on the industry is far from clear. The consequences of data ownership puzzles and excess entry will play out in the next decade or so. Therefore, one will have to wait and watch how the long-term effects of digitalisation in the film industry unfold in the future.

The reliance on data storage raises concerns about preservation.... Digital archiving strategies and infrastructure are vital....


Neil Sadwelkar

Neil Sadwelkar

Film Editor