Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The UFO Moviez Scam

The Bombay police claim to have busted a gang of film pirates operating out of Karachi, who were being assisted by middle managers in post production studios. Among the people arrested is Rajesh Chaudhary, an assistant vice president at UFO Moviez.
I don't know whether Chaudhary is guilty or not, but I do know this: the entire UFO Moviez operation is a scam perpetrated by producers and multiplexes on cinema goers. It first came to my notice a couple of years ago while watching Jab We Met in Starcity, a standalone cinema near my home. The film looked peculiarly washed out, lacking depth and luminescence. An alphanumeric code that kept flashing in one corner of the frame told Jabeen and me that we were watching a digital projection rather than a proper print. Inquiry led me to the website of UFO Moviez, a firm that digitises films and uploads them to a satellite, from where they can be downloaded to servers in auditoriums across India. Striking a print is expensive, and so using this mode of distribution saves a lot of money. The downside is that UFO Moviez uses low-grade MPEG-4 technology which ruins any visual impact a film might have.
Originally, the purpose of UFO was to serve markets in the interiors that aren't covered in the opening weeks of a release because low ticket prices render sending new minted prints unremunerative. This was a sound idea. Prints are usually damaged by the time they reach such screens and projection facilities are rudimentary, so the loss of quality involved in being passed through the MPEG-4 grinder is barely felt.
Unfortunately, the greed of producers has made it standard operating procedure for UFO technology to be employed in the plushest multiplexes. Which means we shell out as much as 500 rupees per ticket on opening weekend to be treated to a pathetic projection, even though the take from just one show would easily cover the cost of a print.
That's Bollywood for you: always ass backwards. Shell out crores for the stars; more for top end cameras and cinematographers; more for the best post production facilities and cutting edge effects machines; more for lavish marketing; and then, in order to save a paltry sum on each print, destroy your technical team's efforts and cheat viewers who are being charged an extortionate entry price.


jaimit said...

I am not so sure it would be UFO's fault. I remember seeing a couple of movies projected via UFO moviez in Aurora theatre sometime back and the stuff was better than normal movies, no scratch marks for one. If memory serves me right the first time i was intrigued by the thing was while watching Krish there.
My experience with Starcity itself is very bad. Somehow i feel that teh place stinks... and yes, try the sofa seats... uggghhh. so i might be inlined to blame the theatre :)

Girish Shahane said...

Jaimit, since that first viewing, I've seen UFO stuff plenty of times in many auditoriums and it always looks awful. Aurora theatre is hardly known for its state of the art projection, so maybe MPEG-4 would seem OK there. What I object to is the use of the technology in high-charging multiplexes that boast of their expensive equipment.

jaydev said...

girish i agree with you completely. i have similiar experiences with movietime in malad and fame cinemas too. but what is interesting to note is that now the company claims that it was only one employee who was at fault.....funny since for a year apparently it has been going on. makes a mockery of the company's systems. so much for battling piracy using digital cinema as the company claims on its website.

Jabeen said...

I would much rather see scratch marks than a washed-out image with a digital number code flashing on the screen! Even the worst film print has a luminosity and richness to the image that UFO can never match. There are other digital projection technologies which look great, but this one is a cheap option and it's the pits.

I've got nothing against UFO as a company. In fact, there are others like Real Image which also do the same sort of projection in a bunch of theatres. Film distributors, cablewallas, vcd manufacturers, TV channels - they all make fools of the audience and we seem to be suckers for anything they choose to do. These days I see that even on TV during prime time serials, half the screen is covered with ads and logos.

It's upsetting that the public doesn't protest, but I get more angry with my filmmaker colleagues who work so hard and then let their work be treated so badly. As Girish says, it's absurd that producers shell out so many crores on a film and then pinch pennies when it comes to how the films are screened. I'm told that in the US, this mpeg4 projection has been blocked by the cinematographers' union. Wish there was someone here who could enforce such standards.

jaimit said...

hmmm I guess you guys are right. with high ticket prices the value proposition better be right.

Anonymous said...

Multiplexes in India should definitely use DCI ( quality projection or something just 10% lower at worst. Fortunately, that's exactly what's been happening over the last few months.

For the tech oriented, the UFO Moviez system uses MPEG-4 at an average of 5 Mbits and a peak of 8 Mbits which is a lower bitrate than even a DVD and about a quarter of the bitrate of a Blu-Ray Disc! Of course quality will be bad.

Movies are made with so much passion... it's a pity that otherwise discerning directors and cinematographers allow their content to be shown at less than optimum quality when much higher quality (and security!) can be achieved with alternate systems at virtually the same cost.

Say said...

Hello Jabeen, I am from Real Image and want to point out that we use two systems - one is the DCI system using 2K resolution and JPEG2000 compression at 250 Mbits. This is significantly better than the best film prints you get from any labs and Real Image's Qube systems are in use in about 500 screens outside India including at Odeon in the UK and CGV in Korea. There are also over 100 Qube DCI systems in Indian multiplexes across the country showing Hollywood and Indian movies.

The other system from Real Image is E-Cinema which uses similar projectors to UFO Moviez but much higher quality encoding (80 Mbps MPEG-2) and also employs the same encryption as DCI along with invisible forensic watermarking so that any camcorder piracy can be traced to the exact location it occurred.

80 Mbits with MPEG-2 looks fantastic and always better than a film print from an Indian lab though it's about 10-15% lower quality than DCI.
Real Image introduced digital cinema in prime screens first and these screens always had the alternative of prints but when they did their own comparisons in the early days, they found that the digital projection always looked better. So slowly over time, these theatres began to tell distributors that they'd prefer Real Image's digital prints to film prints. This is music to distributors ears as they also save money in the process.

Most of India's top cinematographers have checked Real Image's quality for both DCI and E-Cinema for their own films and been very happy with the result.

As a company, we are passionate about film and want it displayed in the best way possible in every theatre!

Jabeen said...

Hi, Say

'Always better than a film print' is a tall claim! I'm willing to grant that 2k projection can be pretty good, given the right conditions. But Mpeg-2? You can't be serious. Don't blame Indian labs, I think they measure up fully to international standards. What doesn't measure up is the quality of projection in our theatres. Old movie projectors with dim arc lamps and soot-covered gates ensure that only films like Dil Bole Hadippa with bright rainbow colours and no concept of light and shade are visible to the audience. I'm not at all surprised that theatres told you they prefer digital prints - it means they spend less on upgrading their equipment and less work for their projectionists too. That's why I wish we could force all these people to follow some rules!

Actually, it isn't even possible to compare the film image to a digital one. There is a sharpness to a good 2k or 4k projection which film would never have, but the optically projected film image has a certain quality that even the best digital medium can't replicate. So we shouldn't be comparing UFO or DCI or whatever else to film prints. If the digital prints look good on their own terms and faithfully reproduce all the details which a filmmaker wants the audience to see, I would settle for that. What I have seen of them in theatres so far, though, is highly substandard. Congratulations to your company if you're passionate about displaying the best, but I think you guys have a long way to go still.

The other thing is, you're talking about ideal screening conditions when you talk about the merits of mpeg-2 or DCI. That's like test conditions for a car. Can your company ensure that the projection will look as good in every movie hall as it does in your testing theatre?

Also, I'm very interested in knowing which of "India's top cinematographers" have endorsed Real Image and what exactly they have said, because none of the ones I know have ever sounded happy. Producers don't give them a choice, so they come and test your facilities and try to make the best of them. That's not the same as being happy with the result.


jaydev said...

If this technology was so good, then all cinema halls would have jumped into it.friends in the cinema industry tell me that UFO Moviez installs these projectors for free. quite obviously, this is a game played for raising money from gullible investors who get swayed on the potential of the indian film industry. they are not here for the sake of film viewers.

Binesh said...

I have viewed so many movies digitalised through UFO and as of my opinion the quality was far high than conventional prints. Without knowing facts simply saying the quality of UFO digitalised movies are poor is not seems to be right. Further this techlogoy is also helps the filim industry to cut the print cost on a greter extent. Only UFO has the satelite delivery technology which ensures help for wide release of movies at a time in the various parts of the country. For eg. the movie Gajini which released almost 500 plus theatres in India at a time through UFO. Majority of directors appreciated the quality of the movies digitalised thorugh UFO.

Girish Shahane said...

Binesh, I have watched movies carefully for a long, long time, and have written and lectured on them extensively. There are digital projection technologies I have seen that are pretty good, and a time will soon come when digital projection takes over entirely.
But UFO Movies is absolutely the worst projection I have ever seen in theatres. There is no excuse for charging multiplex rates for that sort of rubbish image.

Anonymous said...

I am in the film related field for the last couple of years. As of my opinion, quality wise, the UFO projection is very good when compared with conventional prints. Further, if the source is Negative or DI, the quality will be far better than prints. We don’t bother about the technology UFO uses, but as far we are concerned, we need digital quality and sound which we are getting from UFO. Seeing is believing. The quality of the projection depends on the quality of the print entrusted to UFO by the producer for the telecine purpose. If a good quality print is given, definitely the projection will also be good. UFO system is using in more than 1000 plus theatres in India which itself is the testimony of the wide acceptance of UFO in the market. As far as we are concerned, UFO technology is really helpful in cost saving, quality prints as well as wide release purpose. Without considering these facts, simply making allegations against UFO is not justifiable.

Girish Shahane said...

I did consider the facts related to mass release and cost savings. But you are simply wrong about image quality. You're the second UFO shill writing in anonymously or under an assumed, untraceable identity on this thread. Henceforth, I'm going to disallow this type of commentator.

binesh menon said...

Hi Gireesh,

I am Binesh Menon, the Shill as you said. Due to an clerical error from my part while ticking column in the comment box, my name displayed as "Anonymous". What you meant by Shill.I think you are the one of this kind. My experiences are my comment. If you are not in a position to accept/digest my comments, simply you leave it but dont use this kind of word. I have no benefit in promoting UFO, but truth is truth and we have to accept it. I feel that you are not watching movies in Theatres. Better you watch movie in Cinema theatre first and then make comment.

Bye Bye Gireesh

Girish Shahane said...

Not a traceable identity, Binesh. But since you are the anonymous writer, I wonder why you chose to write pretty much the same response again after a longish interval.
As far as your suggestion that I don't watch movies in theatres goes, I have responded to that already, the first time you shilled for UFO.

charu satam said...

Dear Girish, I am Charu Satam and I head Corporate Affairs at UFO. As a company which has pioneered this technology in India and currently is the world's largest digital satellite cinema network, I express my regregts if you have had a bad viewing experience. The company has come a long way since you started this debate and only last week we signed 2000th cinema hall in the country converting to our technology from analogue. I am not saying that figures speak for themselves. But without getting into technology details which is mandarin to many, I invite you to visit our facilities in Mumbai, see it yourself, meet our tech guys and raise whatever doubts you have with them. Post your visit, you are free to write whatever you feel. Rest assured, we are not viscious people like some others and would be great hosts.

Anonymous said...

Excuse me Mr UFO man! What makes your company the "world's largest satellite digital network" may I ask? AFAIK Cinedigm (formerly Access IT) has that crown! They have nearly 5000 satellite equipped DCI screens across the US of A and I think that's more than double your screen count. I worked for many years in the satellite industry in N America and love movies so I should know...