Roundtable – Cinematographers

MA: I think the scheduling is often done by someone else, which makes it very chaotic because they are biting off more than they can chew, which is what I like. I had shot this feature film with a British director Suri Krishnamma. It was one of those films which never released as the Indian producer cheated everyone and took off. It was a brilliant film, which we had shot in India, and they didn’t take a single shot more than they had planned. Suri, myself and the chief AD, a guy called Watson, would sit down the night before and schedule the whole thing and then complete it. And if the pack-up time was 4pm, we would pack up at 4pm. It was never, like, let’s do two more scenes.

Let me narrate this anecdote. We had been shooting since 7am and it was now 7pm. Everyone was tired. We needed two more shots but Suri and I decided to shoot them the next day. We came out and there was the chief AD standing at the door, saying, ‘Gentlemen, go back to the set and finish the shoot.’ So we went back and shot.  He wouldn’t let us go. That is the power of the chief AD.

SJV: I think most of us have worked on projects that have never been scheduled properly.

CD: Or readily scheduled.

AM: Or they have arranged the heavy schedules back-to-back.

MA: Yes, there have been times where we have shot continuously for 16 to 17 nights, and we didn’t get any turnaround time. After 17 nights, they expect you to pack up at 7am and be back on the set at 2pm and be in the groove the next day. And I am talking about big films. One single day will make no difference to the producer or anybody. But it is too expensive to let the camera crew stay idle. Back when we were shooting commercials, they would bundle you off on the very first flight after the shoot was done. If you finished at 10, they would say, ‘There’s a flight at 12, chalenge kya?’ (Laughs)

AB: This relates to one of the questions you had: how important it is for a director to have some technical knowledge? When the director is technically sound, it makes life much easier for everyone else. Whether we like it or not, a first AD’s job is to be a producer’s best friend and he will pack the schedule very greedily. And, more and more, we are seeing that guys who are not even two films old are already chief ADs on our sets. Sometimes, when you ask a chief AD how much experience they have, they say this is their first film or that they have done three films as a second AD.

It’s great, I am happy he has been promoted but he doesn’t realise that the guy behind the camera has been doing his job for 15 or 16 years. He knows that this night effect cannot be pulled off in one day but they think, ‘Nahi yaar woh sab cinematographer sambhaal lega.’ Eventually, it will go down the drain because they don’t listen. But if you have the director on your side, he will also explain that this can’t be done in a day. Then they listen and that’s where the director comes in.

AM: I have been lucky because Kabir himself was once a DoP.

AB: All these directors have worked with a sharp visual sense.

AM: Even, Tigmanshu, is visually sound and terrific.

AG: People assume a DoP has worked on the film’s visuals only but they are missing the point. We are actually trying to tell a story. And with that story, we are trying to extract something and evolve a certain kind of style. So once you are hand-in-glove on a certain method with the director, I think we all will give the director what he really wants.

AB: True, to give everyone a fair share of levy then, in a way, all of us become cinematographers. For our first two films, we are probably trying to, like using 16mm, beautiful lighting and other factors because we are all trying to make a mark. But after the second or third film, you realise that none of this really matters. We have all done films that are still in the cans. Then you start saying, ‘Chalo, iski story ke saath properly story nikalte hai.’ That’s when you become a proper DoP. The first lesson they teach you in film school is that the director and cameraman are married or are mistresses of each other. The second thing they teach you is that a DoP’s job is to translate the director’s vision.

MA: I learnt this a little later in life because of advertising, which is a visual game. So when you start working on feature films, you realise that your lighting is not important. I mean, it is but not every shot can be what we at Film And Television Institute Of India (FTII) called a ‘taali maar shot. Because you may have an actor in the shot but you also have 50 other elements. In this case, cinematography might have to take a back seat because you are underlining the entire story. You become a bridge to prop up the story.

Absolutely. I have had actors tell me, ‘Mere ko dikhta hai yaar ke tum kya lighting karte ho.’ I have had some great senior actors tell me that.

AG: I am saying the idea is to facilitate a performance, apart from creatively facilitating it.

SJV: (Cuts in) It’s one of those foremost things.

AG: Yes, if you don’t have a performance, you don’t have a film.

AB: Those are things we realise only later. I never understood it when people said, ‘Arrey yaar, I am not getting the right script.’ I am one of those people who never follows a script. I am the kind of guy who just goes and shoots. I believe the universe has this karmic thing, so I never refuse any work. Then there are friends who actually say, ‘Boss, the script didn’t appeal to me.’

MA: Then don’t take it up!

AB: I realised all these things much later. Like, if you are to relate to a script… Anay comes across as a person who has to relate to a script, I think Sanu as well. If they don’t relate to a script, I don’t think they can do justice. I am a prostitute, I just do whatever comes my way. (Laughs)

But the last decade has taught me to zone in on a director’s vision. I am lucky I can quickly tune into his wavelength. After I do what I need to do, I am able to zone out. All of us here have done advertising work, which is the smallest form of feature film. Advertising is a two-day match and you quickly zone into what that requires. You have to do exactly that and then you have to come out of it. Sometimes, they say, ‘Humko bohot moody chahiye.’ If you look at some of Sanu’s commercials, you will not believe they were shot by the same guy. One could be extremely glossy and the other very moody.

MA: Ultimately, you are going with the script.

AB: Not immediately but it does happen. As we were saying… the only grudge would be that no matter how good a job it is, sometimes it doesn’t even come across. Only the bad jobs are noticed. Another thing is that people tend to stereotype you and that becomes evident when you shoot commercials. They say things like, he is a ‘car specialist’ or a ‘hair specialist’.

BOI: How has the perception of directors and producers changed over time vis-a-vis respect for the craft of DoPs?

MA: We have actors who come on the sets and tell the DoP how to do the lighting. Yes, that’s a fact!

AB: Apart from the odd experience, everybody does get due credit because you have to realise that we spent 100 to 120 days on one film.

MA: (Cuts in) I don’t agree. What is due credit? What is the definition of due credit?

AB: Yes, it depends on what the definition of due credit is.

MA: You no longer see a DoP’s name on the posters, only the names of the director, producer and music director. We are saying a DoP should get credit at every stage. Look at the silly contracts we sign; they have been designed for actors. They send everyone the same contract. I have fought with producers, asking them why they want me for dubbing? It says I should also be available for the promotions of the film. When you don’t even mention us during the promotions, why should I be there? But they still ask us to sign the contract. I think cameramen are certainly losing ground and they no longer enjoy the position that they once did.

SJV: (Cuts in) No, I think that the structures are also changing because you’re not the only one at their disposal for visuals any more. Half the time, if you’re doing a VFX-heavy film, it’s also the VFX.

MA: But primarily you’re the mother of the visuals, do you agree?

AG: Digital technology is diluting the craft of cinematography.

SJV: Because there are many more sections than cinematography.

AM: Also, I think Digital Intermediate (DI) is another factor. When a film goes to DI, it is a different game there. A lot of people are compromising with basic composition.

MA: In the core there is a problem because you have some idiot telling you they will adjust in DI. If I underexpose, how the heck are you going to correct it in DI? People need to realise that DI is a great tool but it is not a magic wand.

AM: Correct. And like Ayananka was saying, digital technology has made things content heavy.

MA: (Cuts in) Mr Bose is trying to say that that there is not enough technical knowledge down the line. The director needs to understand the game and the visuals as much as the DoP does.

AG: Absolutely. I think we graduated onto the digital medium, which I think directors are misusing. They have not reasoned up to the probation of digitals. They have only reasoned up to the probation of digital in a negative way. They have lost their sense of discipline while shooting.

AB: When you’re on camera, they say ‘roll camera’. They talk about something else.

AG: When the rehearsals are rolling, that’s when they ask you to ‘roll camera’.

AB: Yes, that’s how it is now. Earlier, when we use to shoot a film, they spent around `10,000 and ‘cut’ was limited. Even the silent clap was taken in four frames. I remember, my camera guy was setting up a frame and suddenly they said only one clap because, at that time, all they wanted to do was save money.

AG: Now we do so many rehearsals before we take a shot.

AB: If you’re only rehearsing, why are you also shooting it?

CD: (Cuts in) Nahin kar lete hain na kya farak padta hai. Then, how different are the takes? Why should we shoot the rehearsals?

MA: Once we took a digital shot at 14,000 terabytes or some crazy figure like that. But when we sat down for DI, it turned out to be an out-focus shot. The director said, ‘This is the shot.’ And I said, ‘Impossible.’ Then we pulled out the logs and we figured the editor had only looked at the first three shots. He hadn’t looked at the remaining 48 shots.

CD: The first three must have been taken at rehearsals because, during rehearsals they ask you to start rolling.

AG: That, in my opinion, is the most undisciplined thing. There should be some sanctity to rehearsals.

AM: Yes, for everyone.

AB: I have a great new approach. During rehearsals, I don’t sit in front of the camera. If asked, I simply say, ‘Rehearsal hain na? Main takes mein baithunga.’ Otherwise, you end up capturing those out-of-focus bits that you spoke about. I just walk away from the camera and ask them to shoot whatever they want but I do not sit in front of camera. That’s the only way you can save yourself!

AG: I have worked with actors who, in between rehearsals, have stopped and asked why we are shooting the rehearsals. ‘You insisted on a rehearsal, so I agreed but why are you rolling now?’ they ask. But there aren’t many like them.

AB: Yes, there are a few actors who protest as they say they need their make-up etc before they shoot.

BOI: Can you comment on shooting indoors and outdoors? How does the camera lighting differ?

AB: It’s the same thing. When you’re on location, you have to pray that the weather conditions are on your side because you could also get caught in the middle. Like, you take the first shot and you think, wah kya light mila hai! Fantastic! Then, in your second shot, you have clouds, and the entire unit looks at you and says, ‘Sir cloud aaya, kya kare?’ It’s weird because you don’t know what to do as you have 100 people asking you what is to be done. And I am thinking, should I shoot or not? The pressure keeps building.

MA: (Cuts in) And then suddenly assistants will say, ‘Le lo na sir ek close up hi hai.’ (Laughs)

AG: It’s all about controlled light versus uncontrolled light. Recently, I was shooting for Fitoor and I don’t think I have had a more nightmarish experience. There was not one day that worked for me, I actually shot six scenes in cloudy weather and in sunny weather, back to back. We were shooting scenes to sync with the weather! And when the clouds rolled in, the weather and light changed every five minutes. Gattu (Abhishek Kapoor) went mad. He was, like, ‘What are we supposed to do because we have to shoot.’ I told him, ‘You tell me what you want to do.’ But he tossed the ball back in my court. I told him we should shoot only what we had committed to. So we shot something which had sun and then 30 minutes of cloudy scenes. So that half an hour was all right. But when the light changes every five minutes, you can’t decide what to do.

AM: This happens a lot in Kashmir.

AG: Yes, so I shot the scene in cloudy weather as well as in sunny weather. That’s how we managed to complete that day’s schedule.

AB: You were fortunate to have the director on your side; that doesn’t happen every time.

MA: He didn’t have a choice, yaar.

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Udanchhoo207.04K07.04K
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