Production Notes

Tenzing Sonam
30 March 2005

Those of you who have been checking our site for updates on Dreaming Lhasa must be wondering where we have disappeared to since I last posted an update. Yes, it's been quite a while and in the interim, we've literally been through hell and back! The good news is that we've finally finished the film!

When last heard from us, we had just finished the edit and locked picture in London. We then spent most of August in Bombay, working at Prasad Labs' digital division, EFX, to grade our picture and do the blow-up to 35mm. We were excited by this prospect as we were going the digital intermediate (DI) route, a relatively recent technological advancement in film post-production. How recent we would soon find out…we didn't know it but ours was the first Super 16 to 35mm DI film in India! And, like all digital pioneers, we soon found ourselves embroiled in a nightmare of overtime electronic gremlins and unforeseen technical glitches.

The majority of our problems stemmed from the negative scanner - in our case, a Cintel DSX - that is at the heart of the DI process. This very expensive piece of gear scans the relevant shots from the original negatives at very high resolution. These scanned images are then conformed to the final edit and this becomes the basis of the colour grade. Once the grade is finalized, the digital picture is recorded back onto 35mm negative, from which the final prints are struck.

Everything went smoothly in the beginning. Our colourist, Ken Metzker, was from Vancouver (foreign colourists are in high demand in Bombay) and we immediately hit it off when we realized that our musical tastes ran along similar lines - a very important factor when you're going to be locked up for days in a dark, silent room, staring at images, with only music to keep you entertained! We were using a high-end system called Lustre for the grading and the possibilities this opened up were staggering. Think Adobe Photoshop but applied to moving images. We could do pretty much whatever we wanted to the picture and this proved mind-bogglingly confusing in the beginning. Our DP, Ranjan Palit, was in Bombay for a few days to help us get started before leaving for another shoot and we did a few tests together and watched the results projected on 35mm before settling on the look of the film.

If all had gone according to plan, this would have been it: we would have finished grading the film in about two weeks, at the end of which we would have been ready to record out the 35mm negative. But this was not to be: early on, we noticed that some of the scanned images had a kind of rippling effect running through them - a tiny wave that ran in a horizontal line for a few frames. No worries, we were told, the problem shots would be re-scanned and reinserted into the picture. If only it had been that simple! The ripple or "wave", as we termed it for lack of any known terminology, turned out to be like those mutant monsters in horror films that rapidly start multiplying out of control. On closer examination, we discovered that there were literally hundreds of waves all over the place! Teams of EFX's scanning assistants went on the night shift, combing the film frame by frame for these waves.

Each shot with a wave was re-scanned, some up to eight or nine times, before we could get a clean scan. Each shot that was replaced had to be re-graded once again to match the colour. For us, this was an excruciatingly tense period; each time a shot was re-scanned, our precious negatives were being handled yet again, thereby increasing the possibility of damage, and one of the beauties of the DI process is that the original negatives need only be handled once - the first time they are scanned. EFX's supervisor, Madhu, who was working closely with us, was soon tearing his hair out in frustration. Urgent consultations with Cintel back in England provided no answers and we had no choice but to hack our way forward like primitive explorers in a rain forest, taking each day as it came.

After numerous re-scans, just when we thought we had finally got rid of all the waves, a fresh problem manifested itself. One of the shots that we had re-scanned looked soft. On checking that shot against the original, it was clear that it had somehow slipped out of focus during the re-scan. Another search ensued, which revealed a huge number of out-of-focus shots, all of which had to be re-scanned again! We had already been in Bombay for close to a month, practically living in the lab, and this was literally the last straw! With EFX's reassurances that everything would be OK still ringing in our heads, we fled back to Delhi where we had abandoned our kids in the care of their grandmother.

A couple of weeks later, EFX sent us the first of the five reels, which they had recorded out to 35mm and made a test print of. It was the last - and shortest - reel. This was a big moment, watching an entire reel projected in a cinema for the first time, and we were not disappointed. The print looked beautiful and made every moment of anguish and frustration that we had just endured worthwhile. Unfortunately, this was not to be the end of our problems, and it would take many more sessions back at EFX - many more sleepless nights and moments of utter despair - before we were able to get the entire film to our satisfaction. To this end, we must thank Kavitha Prasad, Madhu, Ken and their team of dedicated technicians who stood by us and suffered with us, and always did their best to resolve every setback and technical hitch that beset us.

Meanwhile, over at Fireflies Studio, also in Bombay, our sound recordist and designer, Satheesh, and his team were preparing the audio tracks for the final mix. With everything in place, we met up with him at Boom Studios in London on the 8th of September. We had a two-week booking - a short session by normal feature film standards - so we had to maximize our time. Thankfully, we were in safe hands with our re-recording mixer, Stuart Hilliker, who did the mix efficiently and with great skill and sensitivity. Another potential disaster was narrowly averted when we discovered last-minute that our dialogue tracks had somehow shifted out of sync during the post-sound work in Bombay. Luckily, Boom came to our rescue by immediately assigning the task of getting the tracks back into sync to their dialogue editor, Becky. Our thanks again to all at Boom who gave us their full support and made it possible for a low budget film like ours to get such a great mix.

There were still a couple of things left to do before we would be completely finished; the Dolby Digital mastering (which we ran out of time to do at Boom) and the subtitling. By this point, we were both close to collapse. On the home front, our kids - Mila and Maya - were beginning to forget what their parents looked like! In late November, Ritu bravely made one final trip to London on her own to take care of the unfinished business. The Dolby mastering was done at Boom, and a complete print with the final soundtrack was then struck. In December, Ritu took this print to Titra Films in Geneva to get the laser subtitles done. A few days later, she watched the complete subtitled print for the first time. This was it - the fruit of all our labours - and even as she nervously spotted all kinds of real or imagined problems, she heaved a sigh of relief because she knew deep down that we had made it; for better or for worse, the baby was now ready to take its first steps.

The next phase is to publicize and market the film and in this, we are really fortunate not to have to face this daunting task on our own. Jeremy Thomas' sales company, HanWay Films, is representing the film and they will be taking on the difficult task of shepherding it out into the big, bad world. The plan is to launch the film at some festival later this year and then to try and secure distribution. We have no illusions that this is a seriously difficult job and we need all the luck and goodwill we can muster to make it a success.

As I write this, it feels like we are slowly re-entering the "real" world, having been lost all this time in a strange, all-encompassing and all-obsessive, alternate reality. Yes, there is that inevitable sense of emptiness and disorientation but also a feeling of relief at having reached the end of our journey safely, back in the reassuring haven of family and friends, and the comfort of those everyday activities that we have neglected for so long - doing homework with the kids, shopping, cooking, paying the electricity bills, and perhaps, daring to dream about the next film…

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