In 2014, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014) released two days earlier than the scheduled release date in theatres that were still equipped to play film. The two studios involved, Paramount and Warner Bros, said that the 240 theatres in 77 markets across the US that were equipped to project 35mm and 70mm film were being given this special treat as a mark of respect to the filmmaker’s campaign to save film from becoming an extinct format. Nolan continues to be amongst the handful of big ticket filmmakers who remain committed to shooting on film and leaves no stone unturned to ensure that film remained a part of the business going forward.
In a film-crazy country such as India, there is rarely any A-list filmmaker who would not want to mirror Nolan’s passion or his success but ironically enough, none of them would display the same commitment to film. What’s funnier is the manner in which some of them would urge people to participate in Reframing the Future of Film, an event that where Nolan would be advocating celluloid film in the digital age to Indian filmmakers but at the same, would do precious little on their own to preserve celluloid or even the style of filmmaking it inspires. In a television interview a few years ago, Aamir Khan mentioned how we in India were leagues behind the likes of Hollywood, and specifically Christopher Nolan. This is the time when Nolan’s Inception was the talk of the town and Khan commented that we (India) were not close to Hollywood technically or even in the sphere of ‘headspace’ as they were “able to do anything that they imagine and we not able to imagine only.”
Does Nolan’s ability to think also have something to do with the format that he executes on? Perhaps yes.
One of the arguments to be made is that thinking in terms of film as opposed to digital does change the way a filmmaker approaches the narrative. Amongst the other things the format also impacts the shooting ratio — how many minutes of footage shot for one minute of screen time. As film is a very expensive medium, the ratio would vary. In the Golden Age of Hollywood, the average ratio was 10:1 but some filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock would shoot 3:1 leaving studios with very little option. Stanley Kubrick, who was known to not stop till he was satisfied, shot Full Metal Jacket (1987) with a 62:1 ratio, which means for every 1 minute of the edited film, there was 62 minutes of footage!
If you think that is a lot then consider two recent films — Gone Girl (2014) and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) — that had a shooting ratio of 201:1 and 240:1 respectively. Had it still been film, there was no way that David Fincher would shoot over 200 hours of footage for Gone Girl that had a screen time of 2 hours and 29 minutes. Fincher, in fact, also shot the opening scene of The Social Network (2010) 99 times! A rare exception is Shane Carruth’s indie cult sci-fi Primer (2014) that amazingly enough had a shooting ratio of just 1.3:1 largely due to being shot on 16mm negative and had it been shot digitally the then-up and coming filmmaker would have shot more footage.
The exercise of shooting on film compels filmmakers to think differently and this is what makes some films stand apart. Like Christopher Nolan, Kenneth Branagh is also a celluloid purist who refuses to shoot in digital format and used some of the last 65mm Panavision cameras in the world for his version of Murder on the Orient Express (2017). Even Paul Thomas Anderson used 65mm Panavision camera and lens for The Master (2012) and the brilliance truly needs to be seen. Highlighting Anderson’s “exquisite, obsessive attention to physical detail issues” in the film, Richard Brody wrote in The New Yorker that the decision to shoot in the large format of 65mm gave the filmmaker almost four times as much visual information to play with as compared to the classic 35mm stock.
It is the combination of the lens and the film negative that adorns the visual richness to Murder on the Orient Express or Interstellar, where some portions were shot on 65mm IMAX film, and make them a part of a rare breed of films and filmmakers. Nolan never shies away from using his sway as an immensely successful filmmaker and often makes the headlines while professing his love for film. He went to the extent of saying that he would never work with Netflix thanks to their mindless digital distribution policy that simultaneously streams and releases films that to him was an “untenable model for theatrical presentation.” He later emailed an apology to Netflix for his comments but his love for all things film remains steadfast, which is a lot more than many Indian filmmakers.
Many of Hindi cinema’s contemporary stalwarts speak highly of films from yesteryears but few actually make an effort to help save them or even talk about it with greater passion. It is a pity that a film called Duniya (1984), that was produced by Yash Johar and features one of Rishi Kapoor’s best performances, is not available even in DVD format. The late producer’s son, Karan Johar, is one of the biggest names in Indian cinema but has done little to restore a bit of his father’s legacy.
Sanjay Leela Bhansali has often cited Uday Shankar’s Kalpana (1948) to be a major influence but even after making pots of money on not only his own films but also as a producer (Rowdy Rathore), one rarely heard him do anything to save the film from near extinction. Kalpana’s negative was restored a few years ago by the World Cinema Foundation on the recommendation of Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, the filmmaker and founder of the non-profit organisation Film Heritage Foundation, and it was Martin Scorsese, who championed the cause. At the time of the restored film’s screening, Bhansali had said, “To me, Uday Shankar and his Kalpana are the greatest legacies of dance and dancing. I’ve seen the film though the negatives are destroyed. Martin Scorsese taking the initiative to restore Kalpana is a major event in Indian cinema. It’s a pity we don’t seem to respect our classics as much as the foreigners.”
It is a pity that Hindi filmmakers who could make an impact when it comes to the film format would probably get photos clicked with Nolan or host him but in all likelihood, overlook the one singular aspect of his that is indeed worth emulating.