Screen star

Pro Audio Asia, July/August 2017

Film and technology in India has undergone a considerable change since Senthil Kumar embarked on a computer science degree at the Regional Engineering College, now the National Institute of Technology, Tiruchirappalli, in 1982. At that time, Mr Kumar – who had a fascination for technology – was one of the first batch of computer science undergraduates in the country. He also found himself gravitating towards the technical processes of the films his father – a Tamil director – was working on, particularly the audio component.

‘I soon discovered that sound technology was quite primitive and backward in India at that time,’ he remembers. Determined to change this, he started educating himself on the possibilities of audio by reading books and magazines on the latest technology.

By 1986, Mr Kumar had secured some savings and a loan, enough to start Media Artists, a film, audio and video post-production facility in Chennai. He imported equipment from the US and Europe and began working on film dialogue, music scores and mixing. Equipped with an Amek Angela mixing desk, Otari 2-inch 24-track recorder, Yamaha 16-track digital mixer, Genelec monitors and comprehensive sound multi-track recording on the subcontinent.

Media Artists began to produce short films and television programs in the country including Doctor Narendranin Vinodha Vazhakku (The Strange Trial of Dr Narendran) and En Iniya Endira (My Sweet Robot), both of which were highly acclaimed by TV audiences.

Disaster struck in 1991 when a fire destroyed the studio. However, as is often the case, new opportunities arose from the ashes, and the subsequent rebuild saw Mr. Kumar reinvent the studio. This was shaped by a friend whose company, Navodaya, was producing Bible ki Kahaniyan, a new TV serial by Indian state broadcaster Doordarshan. During this project Mr. Kumar had glimpsed the future: computer-based editing.

‘Nonlinear editing was just beginning to happen, and I started looking around for the best option,’ he says. ‘From among the two or three choices available I settled on Avid, which looked like the most promising one.’

An Avid Film Composer was purchased by Navodaya, and Mr. Kumar helped to set it up and train the staff. When a representative from the US manufacturer came to Chennai a couple of months later, he was reportedly surprised to see the system up and running, editing the TV series that Navodaya had produced. Discussions with Mr. Kumar led to Avid offering him the opportunity to promote and sell the technology in India, and in 1992 he joined forces with Jayendra Panchapakesan, a former advertising copywriter turned advertising filmmaker, to set up Real Image.

The partnership with Avid, which has firmly established the brand in India as well as transforming the film industry, continues today. But the challenge involved in convincing film editors back then to switch to non-linear editing was enormous.

‘Most of the editors in the early nineties were not from any school, and had all learned their trade through apprenticeships,’ he remembers. ‘They didn’t even know how to operate a computer, so we had to start from the basics and teach them how to use a mouse.’

Fortunately, many film directors were quick to grasp the importance o Avid, speeding u the revolution in the film editing landscape. The first customer was prominent actor, director and producer Kamal Hassan. Most leading Indian film studios quickly adopted the new technology, including Famous, Western Outdoor, Crest Communications, National Film Development Corporation and Filmkraft Productions.

‘Avid changed the film editing landscape in India and most of the leading studios in the south of the country as well as facilities in Mumbai,’ recalls Mr. Kumar. ‘The technology was widely taken up over a five-year period.’

By that time, excellent sound was being created in postproduction studios across the subcontinent. However, most cinemas were equipped with poor sound systems that were unable to do justice to the new, improved soundtracks. This was extremely frustrating for filmmakers so Mr. Kumar and Mr. Panchapakesan started looking for technology that would improve sound in the cinemas. The resulting tie-up with Digital Theater Systems (DTS) would enable Indian cinema to skip a generation, going directly from mono sound to digital.

Real Image invested profits from selling Avid into launching DTS in India in 1995. An initial arrangement was established whereby 20 units were installed in cinemas around Tamil Nadu and Kerala, which the cinema owners would start paying for once their film screenings had turned a profit. Within three years the format had taken hold, and was being licensed across the country.

By now, Media Artists had established itself as one of India’s leading studios, specialising in mixing in the DTS digital format. The first DTS feature film made in India, Karupu Roja, was engineered in Media Artists in 1996, and the facility had begun working on surround sound productions. Media Artists boasted many high profile clients including Buena Vista International, for which it dubbed several Walt Disney features and television programmes including Aladdin and The Lion King into Indian languages.

However, Real Image didn’t stop at audio and by the turn of the century, the company was turning its attention to video. We realized that sound was only half the story and it was just a matter of time before picture too went digital,’ explains Mr. Kumar.

This time Real image did not want to rely on importing technology, and began to develop its own. In 2003 Qube Digital Cinema, an end-to-end solution for the mastering, distribution and exhibition of film was introduced. The technology was initially rolled out across distribution initially rolled out across Tamil Nadu in 2005, and by 2007, Guru became India’s first film to be premiered internationally on the DCI (Digital Cinema Initiatives) JPEG2000 digital format.

Initiatives have been introduced over the years, such as watermarking and advanced forensic technology to combat piracy, as well as 3D formats. By 2010 the company had developed a cost effective, non-DCI 3D digital cinema server, and two years later its 4K 3D single server, the Qube XP-I as well as Xi 4K Integrated Media Block, were being used at giant screens in North America. By June of that year all the company’s products became DCI-compliant. 2013 saw the launch of Moviebuff, a film database website and review aggregation platform, and the following year, Justickets, the company’s ticketing website followed.

In 2016, Real Image changed its name to Qube Cinema Technologies to reflect the shift in the company’s focus. However, its original business of providing technology to the film and broadcast industries has not been overlooked. Today, the 50-strong Real Image technical marketing team continues to supply Avid to the subcontinent, together with Neumann, digigrid, Digital Vision colour grading, restoration and film scanning solutions, MOG Technologies broadcast solutions, and ROOT6 Technoogy and Front Porch digital workflow systems. Worldwide, more than 1,100 employees work across office in Chennai, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Delhi, Los Angeles, and Dubai.

Qube’s end-to-end digital cinema products have become established worldwide, with more than 7,000 systems installed in 48 countries across North America, Europe and Asia, including around 4,000 in India. It is the only Indian company to produce DCI-compliant digital cinema technology, and one of the few worldwide. The company masters nearly 1,800 Indian movies each year from premises in Mumbai, Chennai and Hyderabad. Recent innovations include the Qube Cinema Network, which uses patented technology to allow centralised control of advertising with local control of movie selection and schedules, and Qube Wir, a web-based self-service single-window system for theatrical distribution into all territories across the world. This allows distributors to manage their Digital Cinema Package (DCP) assets, assign territorial rights, and have their DCPs and AES encryption keys delivered to any theatre in the world.

‘The move from film to digital is now behind us, so it’s the perfect time to change the way that movies are distributed worldwide,’ the perfect time to change the way movies are distributed,’ says Qube Cinema President and CTO Rajesh Ramachandran, who is actively involved in the development of Qube products. ‘After more than two years in development, we are sure Qube Wire will prove to be a game changer. Our level of security, comprehensive theatre database and unique feature set will be invaluable for global content owners, independent filmmakers and distributors, who will now have the power to control distribution on their own, with ease.’

Qube’s success story has seen the company striving to fulfill the exacting needs of DCI. ‘Qube Cinema is committed to creating a seamless world of digital cinema with products that are innovative, powerful, reliable, and cost-effective,’ reflects Mr. Panchapakesan. ‘We have a passion for cinema and a thorough understanding of film, video, audio and computer technology along with vast experience in the production, postproduction and exhibition industries – a unique combination of expertise that has helped in the development of the company’s digital cinema technology.’