Exclusive: Whistling Woods International VP & CTO Chaitanya Chinchlikar shares insights about the role of emerging technologies in filmmaking

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Whistling Woods vice president and business head chief technology officer and head of emerging media Chaitanya Chinchlikar

With the changing landscape of filmmaking, the Indian film industry is poised to adapt to newer technologies on the horizon. Is the next generation of filmmakers learning to leverage the latest methods that are emerging in the content industry?

Whistling Woods International (WWI), Asia’s premier film, communication, and creative arts institute has always been at the forefront of filmmaking, facilitating students with the cutting-edge technology needed to take their craft to the next level. 

Recently we caught up withWhistling Wood vice president and business head chief technology officer and head of emerging media Chaitanya Chinchlikar to discuss their approach of incorporation of new & emerging technologies into the education at WWI. 

Technological Advancements

In a bid to improve the craft of filmmaking, WWI has been bringing in and evangelising new and emerging technologies with unfailing regularity over the past 14 years. Chinchlikar informs, “From the introduction of Digital Cinematography and Movie Magic Budgeting & Scheduling in 2006, to the introduction of 4K Cinematography & 3D Stereoscopic Filmmaking in 2010, to Content Creation for Digital Platforms in 2012, to introduction of India’s first 8K workflow for film schools in 2018, to Cinematic VR in 2019, to now planning to include virtual production, volumetric capture and blended content both for screen and immersive platforms in 2021, the journey has been difficult but has also been extremely fruitful and fulfilling. This is something that we as India’s premier film school have to do. We have to make it our DNA that our students will be on-par with the cutting-edge technologies out there, if not ahead of them. This stand is at the core of what Whistling Woods International does.”

Credits – Whistling Woods International

Technology in modern filmmaking, he notes, is as important as the craft of filmmaking or the business aspects. According to CC (as he is popularly known), “right from its inception,  filmmaking has always been about striking a delicate balance between its three pillars – the Art & Craft, the Technology and the Business. Companies & individuals who are able to do this well, have been, over the decades, successful filmmakers.”

He shares, “And oftentimes, whenever filmmakers have not succeeded, it is primarily because they couldn’t balance the three. This balance is something that we take very seriously at Whistling Woods International and try to imbibe it into every student.”

With the advent of the digital age and the proliferation of OTT platforms, the demand for visually-rich content has gone up. Naturally, viewers are expecting differentiated content, backed by a superior viewing experience.

Expounding on the role of technology and the way it is driving content in the current times, he shares, “The role of technology is extremely important. Over the last 14 years, the changes that technology has brought in are highly significant & industry-altering. It has given us new content consumption platforms like the Digital / OTT platforms as well as Virtual & Augmented Reality, not to forget, genres of cinema, which would not have been possible without significant advancements in technology.”

Credits Whistling Woods International

Students Staying Up-To-Date With The Latest Tools

Explaining why he feels students need to keep abreast of the latest methods of filmmaking, he elaborates, “It is extremely important for students to be at the cutting-edge. In fact students, in our opinion, should be six to twelve months ahead of the industry wrt technology, at the time they graduate. So that when they enter the industry they have a leg up, they have something to contribute, something that a lot of the industry professionals don’t have – namely hands-on experience with the latest technologies, workflows and pipelines. We as a film school consider it mandatory for us to be able to give students this experience & ability.”

When asked whether or not, the incorporation of newer methods and advanced tools in their pedagogy equip students to make visually-rich content, he answers, “Absolutely, not just that, it’ll be a great marriage when these young, fresh and tech-savvy students come in and start to work with seasoned experienced industry professionals. The combination of their experience and wisdom merged with the tech-savvy of the fresh entrants into the industry makes for a mouth-watering buffet of possibilities and we are happy and proud of our role in making that happen.”

VR Lab

Beta Testing Partnerships With Tech Giants

WWI has set benchmarks when it comes to the arts, science and technology of filmmaking. Throwing light on what encouraged them to move in this direction, he shares, “This is something that the school had very presciently forecasted right from day one and has dedicated resources for it. A large part of our initial budget was dedicated to building a future-proof campus, creating the right environment & ecosystem and investing in the latest technology of the time. This approach enabled the Global Tech companies to take us seriously and enabled us to partner with them and we continue to do that till today. These partnerships have gone on to pay rich dividends for the Tech companies, for WWI and most-importantly, for our students.”

Credits – Whistling Woods International

It is important for film schools to be on the same page with the R&D departments of technology companies, not just the sales departments. In this regard, WWI, he notes, has been the preferred choice for beta testing of new  technologies for a host of global media & entertainment tech companies, which has, in turn, helped the students learn the latest tech, more easily & more effectively.

He believes that staying ahead of the curve needs investing time, effort and money into technology, travelling the world and meeting various R&D departments of the tech-companies. He shares, “For example; we are attending NAB, IBC, we are a part of Standards bodies like the SMPTE (Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers) or the VRIF (Virtual Reality Industry Forum). WWI has six research and development lab on campus; all of them set up in partnerships with several global tech giants – like Sony, Red, Apple, Foxconn, Unity, Unreal, HP, Reliance Jio, et al. WWI has a dedicated Senior Management member with the task of answering the question – What Next. It is extremely rare for the Business Head of an institute to also be its CTO and be responsible for bringing in new technologies & workflows into the academics. WWI has done that for almost a decade.”

Speaking about associations with various tech-giants to enable this, he details, “With our list of Technology partners, we have been continuously receiving a plethora of newer technologies, which have come our way through beta testing partnerships or through just complimentary grants by these companies. And this has happened primarily because a lot of these tech companies have seen the effort that we are taking to evangelise and introduce new technology into the market.”

Explaining as to what leads these companies to join forces with the film school, he reveals, “It’s a combination of outreach, knowing the field, anticipating and forecasting as to what technologies are likely to roll out in the next three years, and being willing to dedicate serious human resources for the same. These tech companies see the seriousness with which the institute takes R&D, appreciate and reciprocate all this effort.”

Virtual Production & Unreal Engine

Citing new software and technologies that the industry is abuzz about, he shares, “As we all know, Virtual Production has been making its way towards mainstream adoption in the industry over the past couple of years. While the industry is a year or two away from fully embracing Virtual Production, it has already been on Whistling Woods International’ developmental horizon for two years now. Cinematic VR, which is just starting to get mainstream globally, has been our core focus of R&D from the period 2017 to 2020. We currently have India’s only full-fledged course in Cinematic VR – not just in the technology of VR but teaching the art & craft of telling fiction & non-fiction narrative stories in 360VR.”

Credits Whistling Woods International

Throwing light on the latest developments underway on campus, he elaborates, “We have created an indigenously built Motion Capture, Volumetric Capture and Virtual Production workflow pipeline on campus. To smoothen it out and to understand how to integrate this into our curriculum better, currently we’re in the middle of a special beta training for the Unreal Engine cinematics pipeline, by the Epic Games team. It’s these things which really make a big difference. If we had not taken the effort to build out our own workflow, WWI personnel & faculty would not have been a part of this special training, which is generally done only for high-end industry professionals.”

Content Pushing Boundaries

In the recent past, we’ve been treated to various pieces of content that have shown the lengths to which technology can be used to power imagination.

On being asked about the content that has particularly impressed him, he shares, “The way Alejandro G. Iñárritu, has his films made which seem like long single-take films, is spectacular. What Jon Favreau has done in Jungle Book, Lion King & The Mandalorian is breathtaking. In India, Tanhaji really impressed me with the way it visually looked and the scale that it managed to achieve.”

While some filmmakers have been agnostic, even dismissive of VFX-heavy films, a look at the top 10 box office films of all time will show you what the viewing audience thinks of them…

Speaking about the feasibility of leveraging modern technology, he shares, “I think building one kilometre deep sets and lighting them up with thousands of lights for 10 ‘impact’ shots in a film is great but it’s extremely inefficient. So if you are able to achieve the same thing or maybe better while maintaining financial and visual efficiency by embracing new technology, why would you not do that?”

Advice To Budding Filmmakers & Technicians.

Having seen the innards of the filmmaking landscape, Chinchlikar feels that it is imperative for students to have a strong sense of both technicalities and artistry and not operate in silos. 

He elaborates, “So it’s a bit of a motto that we have at Whistling Woods International, that every artist should be a technician and every technician should be an artist and both of them should understand the business of the industry that they’re in. And as this sounds pretty simple, it is extremely difficult to do but this is what my advice would be. Don’t say that I am creative so I don’t care about this technology bit or I am a technician and I don’t really care about the creative or the art aspects of the content that I am working on. This is not an industry that likes this separation. This is an industry where you need to be a jack of all but master of one. So even if you do decide and think that tech is going to be your calling, you absolutely can’t ignore the creative or the business aspects.”