From setting up a post-production facility to changing movie distribution globally, Senthil Kumar and Jayendra Panchapakesan have brought Qube Cinema Technologies a long way.
Chennai-based Senthil Kumar was fascinated by technology even when as a youngster. It was no wonder then that he was amongst the very first batch of students who enrolled to study computer science at Trichy’s Regional Engineering College in 1982. Around that time, his father, Arun Veerappan, who owned AVM Studios, was directing a movie and Kumar got interested in the technical aspect of filmmaking, specifically sound.
“I felt the sound technology used in moviemaking in those days was rather primitive. This was the pre-internet era so I started reading as many books and magazines as I could lay my hands on to learn about the latest audio technology,” Kumar reminisced.
Armed with enough knowledge, in 1986, he started Media Artists as a film, audio, and video post-production facility. He invested about INR 7 lakh and took a loan of around INR 30 lakh and set up the studio on land that he owned. He also recruited a couple of people and imported some machines from the US and Europe.
Media Artists was the first studio situated away from Kodambakkom and did multi-track recording, which was not done elsewhere in India. It recorded dialogues, music, and film mixing, with premium sound quality, which was lacking in the industry till then. Some projects that Media Artists worked on included Doctor Narendranin Vinodha Vazhakku (The Strange Trial of Dr. Narendran) and En Iniya Endira (My Sweet Robot) – which were voted Best TV Serial of the Year – as well as Kanda Puranam (The Legend of Lord Kanda), Oli Mayamaana Ethirkaalam (A Bright Future), Gramathu Salangai (Village Arts), Iruttai Virattum Velichangal (The Light that Dispels Darkness), and Oru Naal Poduma (Is a Day Enough?).
RISING FROM THE ASHES
A fire gutted the building that housed the studio in 1991. Luckily, since the facility was insured, partial investment was recovered.
Media Artists continued to carry on its work and collaborated with brands like Buena Vista International for dubbing several Walt Disney features and TV programs into Indian languages, including animated films like Aladdin and Lion King. It recently dubbed Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi in Tamil, which is also the first DTS Digital version of the film.
Even as Media Artists continued its business in the 90s, Kumar trained his sights on newer pastures. His friend, Jijo, was making Bible ki Kahaniyan TV series for Doordarshan and needed help, especially with the post-production. “Computer-based nonlinear editing was just beginning and I looked around for the best option. From the two-three choices available, I settled on US-based Avid, since it looked most promising,” Kumar stated.
Jijo’s company, Navodaya, which was producing the TV series, bought an Avid system and Kumar helped set it up and trained the staff on it. Avid’s representative, who came to Chennai a couple of months later, was surprised that the system was up and running and that the company was busy editing the serial. He asked Kumar whether he would like to promote the technology in India. He grabbed the opportunity and along with Jayendra Panchapakesan, set up Real Image Media Technologies to sell Avid in India – a partnership that continues till date. Incidentally, Panchapakesan started his career in advertising and later set up JS Films that went on to produce and direct over 600 TV commercials.
THE EPIC JOURNEY
The two founders took a bank loan to import the first Avid demonstration unit, which cost about INR 20 lakh back then. Initially, their customers were ad makers, followed by filmmakers. “Our first customer from the film industry was Kamal Hassan,” Panchapakesan proudly recalled.
While the staff strength was modest in the beginning, today Real Image’s Tech Marketing team, which sells the broadcast and audio products, is 50-member strong. This team had a tough job on their hands, because it was difficult convincing the film industry to shift to Avid as most editors in the early 90s were not from a film school but had learned their trade through apprenticeship. “They barely knew how to use a computer, so we had to teach them how to use a mouse. We succeeded in gradually teaching them to edit on Avid, which they began enjoying,” he added.
Slowly, the company started targeting broadcasting companies and met with success in this domain as well. One company, which has been associated with Real Image for 12 years, is TV18 Broadcast, starting with Avid’s production asset management, newsroom computer systems, MAM and Pro tools implementation project – all of which were Real Image’s expertise in India. Rajesh Sharma, VP-Broadcast Operations for TV18 Broadcast said, “Since the first project with the company, it has been a wonderful experience. The Real Image team always went beyond the call of duty whenever required. There have been numerous instances where we received exceptional services and support from them.”
Real Image also has an established relationship of 18 years with NDTV, where it initially worked on small projects like providing Avid’s standalone non-linear editing station media composer followed by Softimage.
K Yegneshwara Iyer, Times Television Network’s technology head – technical and broadcast operations, who was the erstwhile CIO at NDTV, recalled working with Real Image in late 2002 to early 2003, “I am not sure if there are many companies that go to the extent that Real Image does to support their clients. During the launch of NDTV’s news channels, it was Real Image’s founder and I who cracked how to use Avid iNews. Their founder was up with us for many days and nights during that project. It is that support and service culture that has permeated through Real Image over the years.”
Talking about the two-decade long alliance Avid has with Real Image, Ranjit Bhatti, Territory Manager of India and South Asia, Avid said that over these years Real Image consistently invested to support the brand’s growth in the region, which includes Avid’s entire range of video products. “The company was our natural choice to partner since they were passionate about Avid, our Indian customers hold high regard for Real Image, they are strong in offering support and services and have a team of knowledgeable professionals who add value to our business. Together, we have won most of the key national and regional customers for Avid.”
ADDING BRANDS TO THE PORTFOLIO
Gradually, Real Image started adding other broadcast and audio brands to its portfolio. These include Digital Vision, which has colour grading, restoration and film scanning solutions; MOG Technologies, which provides solutions to broadcasters, post-production houses, outside broadcasters, mobile studios and live-feed productions; ROOT6 Technology, which has software-based tools for managing and automating file-based workflows; Front Porch Digital; which has digital file-based workflow solutions; Neumann, which has professional audio technology products; Waves, a leading developer of audio plugins, and professional mixing consoles.
Since 2010, Real Image has been associated with MOG Technologies as its preferred corporate partner for the region. This means, the brand relies exclusively on the former to represent it and provide consultancy and support to its customers for its central ingest solutions. Jean Pierre Morais, business developer at MOG Technologies stated his satisfaction working with the company, “Due to Real Image’s knowledge of our solutions and where they fit in a production workflow, excellence is always a key part of the approach process. They always go the extra mile and while designing newer workflows add additional details into it, taking into consideration customer’s requirements and translating into highly efficient workflow. Focus on the customer is part of their DNA.”
Talking about his brand’s relationship with Real Image, Bill Baker, senior product specialist for Root6 Technology, said that while they have been working together for a year, their previous business relationships go back much longer. Root6 Technology currently offers ContentAgent, its file-based workflow automation system, in the Indian market through Real Image. “Their broad and dedicated customer base is testament to their engineering skills and willingness to go the extra mile. They are a perfect partner for us in all respects as we push our solution to the Indian marketplace. Besides, Real Image is always willing to go the extra mile to make sure that both customer and vendor are satisfied,” Baker added.
TYING UP WITH DTS
Around this time, Kumar and Panchapakesan realised that whilst Media Artists was creating excellent sound in the studio, this was lost because of the poor sound systems in cinemas. They started exploring for a technology that would change the sound experience in theatres, which resulted in an alliance with DTS from USA.
“Real Image brought digital cinema sound to India with DTS and helped Indian cinema leapfrog a generation, from mono sound directly to digital. With this, we upgraded Media Artists to mix surround sound and got a few filmmakers interested,” Kumar explained, while talking about the tie-up.
However, for DTS to really take off, cinemas in the country had to switch to the new system and film producers and directors needed to be on board. So, the company bought 20 units in 1995 and installed them in theatres around Tamil Nadu and Kerala on their own accord and asked the owners to pay the money when the film did well.
This was a big gamble, as Kumar and Panchapakesan put all the profits they made by selling Avid into the DTS business. Fortunately, their speculation paid off within a couple of years and the technology became a hit. The duo also started working on some films like Kamal Haasan’s Indian and Priyadarshan’s Kaala Paani with 5.1 soundtrack.
“Indian did very well in Hindi too. Some distributors who heard the sound wanted it in Mumbai,” Kumar recollected.
QUBE – THE NEXT BIG STORY
After DTS’ success story, Kumar and Panchapakesan realised after sound, it was just a matter of time before picture too went digital. They decided to develop their own technology and started work on the software for digital cinema in early 2000. Qube hit the market in 2005. It is the company’s web-based service that promises to change the way movies are distributed worldwide.
Why the name Qube? “It does not stand for anything. We were experimenting with names and Qube just sounded clever,” Panchapakesan laughingly said.
Gradually, the company rechristened itself as Qube Cinema Technologies (QCT) and companies like Nomura, Intel Capital, Cisco and StreetEdge have invested in it. “Qube Cinema is an international manufacturer and provider of end-to-end digital cinema technology and mastering solutions. It draws on decades of experience in cinema to provide a seamless digital environment for exhibitors, filmmakers and post-production companies with DCI –compliant products that are flexible, reliable and highly cost-effective,” explained Kumar.
Currently, over 7,000 systems of the end-to-end digital Qube Cinema product line is installed in 48 countries across North America, Europe and Asia. It is the only Indian company and amongst a handful worldwide with DCI compliant digital cinema technology. Qube Digital Cinema servers are also present in nearly 4,000 screens across India and the company masters nearly 1,800 Indian movies annually across its offices in Mumbai, Chennai and Hyderabad. The Qube Cinema Network also uses patented technology that allows central control of advertising with local control of movie selection and schedules.
Today, of the almost INR 300 crore revenue that QCT generates, the mastering and video post-production facility accounts for 40-50% of the company’s business and Qube Cinema Network accounts for 30%, while the broadcast system integration accounts for around 8-10%. Talking about the smaller percentage that the broadcast systems integration business contributes to the overall revenue, Kumar explained, “It will continue to be a core aspect of our business. QCT will continue to serve the broadcast and post-production fraternity with state-of-the-art products and technologies. If there are only a handful of companies across the world that are working to fulfill the exacting needs of DCI, there are fewer still who look beyond. Qube Cinema is committed to creating a seamless world of digital Cinema with products that are innovative, powerful, reliable and cost-effective.”
Recently, the company launched Qube Wire, a web-based service for distribution of cinema. It provides distributors and producers a simple and secure way to send DCPs and KDMs to theaters globally. The company also has Qube Wire Cinemas, which is a crowd and partner-sourced database of worldwide screens as well as DCP & KDM Inbox and FLM-x service for chains. Other new initiatives include Moviebuff, a comprehensive movie database with critic and user review aggregation and Justickets, a scalable movie ticketing website and mobile app.
QCT’s team consists of over 1,100 employees across offices in Chennai, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Delhi, Los Angeles and Dubai. The team is helmed by a core team comprising CEO Arvind Ranganathan, who has a deep insight into the cinema industry across the business value chain, while CMO Raja Enok overseas the development and implementation of the company’s marketing plan. MS Rajagopalan is the president of Qube Cinema Network while P Venkatesh is the CFO of Qube Cinema Technologies.
Kumar and Panchapakesan sum up QCT as a company with passion for cinema and a thorough understanding of film, video, audio and computer technology along with vast experience in the production, post-production and exhibition industries – a unique combination of expertise that has helped in the development of the company’s digital cinema technology. But this is not the end of the road for the dynamic duo; the next innovation is around the corner for them.