AG: I told him, ‘If you want to can the shoot today, that’s fine with me but this is the only way I can shoot.’ So we did it.
AB: This is where our editor friends can say, ‘Yeh do performance best tha. Ek light mein and shade mein.’ (Laughs)
MA: Thoda sa zoom kar do DI mein theek kar lenge. (Laughs)
AB: So, on location, you sometimes get great shots and sometimes, things just don’t go your way.
MA: When you’re shooting outdoors, you need everyone to be as disciplined as you are. If you start a scene with a particular kind of lighting, when you’re cutting in, it has to be the same. I had worked with a director where we started shooting at 8am till 4pm. He still hadn’t figured out you know. I kept telling him light is gone, now how can I cheat, it’s the opposite? So your entire production team and the director have to be able to move at the same time.
SJV: First, you need meticulous planning, especially when shooting outdoors.
AB: Sometimes, you are working on the backfoot, like I was when shooting for Dishoom in Morocco. We had a long sequence and we had planned it only for one day. We didn’t have any contingency as we were far from home and were carrying only two skimmers and two reflectors. So what did we do? We ended up shooting for days. People must understand that the cameraman is working in the best interest of the film. We know what is good for the film and what is not, and hence we sometimes take a backseat. We are trying to avoid that day when we have to say, ‘Mera toh aaj light match nahin hoga,’ and the entire unit is idle for an extra day. They have to realise that most DoPs understand the pressures of a production. We are trying our best to follow the director’s instructions.
AM: (Cuts in) But they have to be receptive.
AB: The director’s vision will come through only if we are perfectly in sync. But there are days when we have to take a backseat. It’s the worst thing for a producer to hear us say, ‘We are going to wait for the sun’. We just do it on our own. Those are things people don’t understand.
CD: They take you for granted.
AG: I think all cameramen have a certain foresight and often find themselves thinking that it is their foresight.
MA: There are times when you bend over backwards to get something done for them. Still, when things go wrong, you are blamed. The director will say, ‘Why you didn’t take the shot?’ You have 2,000 people standing there, I am telling you it’s not right, and you’re shouting, ‘Take the shot, take the shot!’ I told you this is not working and we can’t do it. But you end up taking the shot because everybody else on the set is saying ‘take the shot’. Then, if it doesn’t work, he will say, ‘You shouldn’t have taken it, you know.’
AB: When it doesn’t work, there is only one person they point to.
MA: It’s a Catch 22 situation.
BOI: These days, everyone is racing to make it to the release date, which is announced before work on a film starts. Then you realise the film will be postponed. And you can’t take on any other film. Has that happened to any of you?
MA: Dil ke taaron ko chhed diya aapne. But, yes, it’s a fact.
AB: All of us in this room have gone through that or are going through this.
MA: Very often, the last three months are extended, but you are never compensated for the extra time. They say, ‘We will start rolling on May 1,’ so you must finish the recce before that. You put in two months before work on the film begins. Then, 10 days before May 1, they say, ‘We have to push it forward by 15 days’, so now 15 days have elapsed. Then something else happens and another 15 days elapse. So, technically, you have lost three months, and you are not compensated for that.
BOI: So you are not compensated for delays?
MA: We are trying to move to the kind of contracts used universally. In India, we have only one kind of contract, which is for the actors. It’s signed by everyone from the spot boy to the technician, but it’s meant for the actors. You read the contract and you ask, ‘Why do you want me to come for the dubbing? Why you need a DoP on the day of dubbing?’ They reply: ‘Just sign the contract’ But I could get into trouble over this if someone decides to ask why the cameraman wasn’t present at the dubbing!
BOI: How active is the cinematographers’ association?
MA: WICA (Western India Cinematographers’ Association) is fairly active. I am the general secretary of WICA. We have over 3,000 members. These gentlemen here are a cut above most of the rest. They all have work; they have offers. But WICA also stands for a lot of cameramen who don’t have work, even two days a month. Their cause is even more important to WICA. When the minimum wage is `5,000 a day and someone is working two days a month, and then he doesn’t get paid all his dues, how will he run his house? There are lots of issues, you know. Think of the exploitation all of us have suffered. Every cameraman in this room has got the short end of the stick at one point or another. When it comes to money, when it comes to time… Do you people normally work 16 to 20 hours a day?
BOI: Now that we have an anniversary issue coming up, yes we do.
MA: That’s one special issue. A cameraman never works less than 14 hours day. That’s the norm now. And I am sorry to say this but this nonsense has come from Delhi. In Delhi, they still don’t have shifts. They work on a jugaad system that pays per day.
AB: I know of one senior cinematographer who was shooting a commercial. After 13 hours, he said, ‘Boss, our shift is 12 hours long and you have made us shoot an extra hour. Technically, the time you have paid me for is over. So if you want us to shoot any more, you have to pay us at least 50 per cent of the next shift.’ They said they couldn’t because they had a fixed budget and told him he would have to shoot within that budget. Do you think they will call him the next time?
MA: You fight for your due and you don’t get repeat work.
AB: Replacing him will be some guy who is trying to make a mark, trying to get work. He will be cooperative so that he bags the next 10 projects. After that, he will also speak up and then somebody else will replace him. With so many people desperate for a chance, how do you enforce any rules? That’s what we are struggling with. The other day, Anay was trying to get a break for lunch at 1.30pm and it was something we ended up having to fight for.
MA: The cameraman never gets to sit, he stands all day. And then he is told, running break kar lo. How is a running break a break for him? I have been on sets where there are only three idiots working non-stop, the cameraman, his two assistants, and the light boy. The rest are eating chicken and taking breaks. The other day, Bose turned and said to his director, ‘If you’re taking a break, better finish the break now. Why do you want to wait for half an hour? Why do you all make it 3 o’clock?’
AB: He said, ‘Ek ghante baad break karte hain’. Instead of trying to achieve something of substance in one hour and then taking a half-hour break, why not just take the break now?
MA: Anyway you’re shooting indoors, so agar sun ja raha, nahi ja raha hai kya farak padne wala hai?
AB: Now, there are times when you do understand the need for working non-stop, like when you have taken permission to shoot at an airport, when you stop planes from landing. There is no way you can take a break then, plus you’re being charged by the hour for sitting on the runway. On those days, I won’t say, ‘Boss 1.30 ho gaya, break pe jaate hai’ (laughs). We understand. It’s not like we don’t. But there should be some enforcement of some union rules.
SJV: It works in Chennai.
AB: That’s exactly what I mean. It works in Chennai and Hyderabad because the whole South union draws off the light boy payment.
AB: They give you till 1.15pm, and if you haven’t given them a break by then, they will charge you `150 for lunch, per head, for the whole unit. No producer wants to pay `150 per head when he has to feed them anyway. And the shift ends at 6pm, extendable until 6.15pm. They don’t do half shifts; South doesn’t have half shifts. Mumbai has half shifts.
MA: What are you saying, yaar? There are no shifts here in Mumbai (Laughs).
AB: Technically, 9 to 6 is one shift and 9 to 9 is a one-and-a-half. The South doesn’t have half shifts, so 9 to 6 is one shift and beyond 6.15 it counted as another shift. There, people are very rigid. And it comes down to some form of punishment, where it pinches somebody.
AG: Voluntary punishment.
AB: That is the only way. But I must tell you, slowly all the South producers are now coming to Mumbai to shoot.
BOI: The transition from film to digital… has it been a boon or a curse for cameramen?
AG: There is no absolute answer.
MA: It works both ways.
BOI: Given that there is no film cost involved now…
AB: That is a misconception the digital industry has used beautifully to their advantage. They said the rate was `10,000 a can and in a day you shoot 10 cans, which amounts to `1 lakh. And now there is just one hard disk. What they never tell you is that the cost of that hard disk is `3,000 and you have to back it up three times. So there is never one hard disk, there are three – one hard disk for the office, one for the editor and one as back-up. And what about the space and expense of the servers that are used by each office?
AG: Archiving is expensive.
AB: Yes, somewhere someone did a comparative study and the cost difference was in the thousands.
MA: It’s cheaper to shoot on film even today. But, seriously, the discipline of cinema has gone to the dogs. At film school, we had been taught to shoot in the 1:3 ratio. You won’t get a frame beyond that…
AB: The 1:3 ratio benefits everyone. You have three shots, where you are allowed to go back. Today, the ratio is 1:40; you can just keep rolling.
SJV: 1:40 is absurd.
AB: If we make that division, according to the number of shots…
MA: How much is 14 terabytes? We are trying to recalculate 14 terabytes in terms of cans? Because I shot Swades with 770 cans and that was big in those days. And I think 14 terabytes is much, much, much more than that.
BOI: We had an editors’ roundtable a few days ago and they were also complaining about the amount of footage that comes in.
MA: It’s absolutely crazy.
SJV: Directors should follow some discipline.
AB: This is also because when the industry went digital, everybody was given to believe that it was all free. That misconception has remained with most producers and directors: keep rolling… and the footage piles up.
CD: And everything has to be high-speed; ‘48 pe kar lo, baad mein kar lengey yaa phir rakh lenge’. Everything is, ‘48 shoot kar lo’.
AB: You know, digital is not about one into two, two into three. It is one, two, four, sixteen. Everything is squares and square roots. So 24 frames becomes 48 frames. And if I am shooting outdoors, I add another layer, what we call the HD effect. So it is no longer a one is to four ratio, it is sixteen. It is not shooting 1 byte, it is shooting 16 bytes for the same thing. It’s goes higher and higher. We don’t mean to sound negative, but there was a difference in the way people used to shoot. There was a time when people used to take rehearsals much more seriously.
AG: There was sanity.
AB: Rehearsals meant that the cameraman had fixed his lighting and just needed to see if he had to tweak anything. The boom guy was trying to see if he was in the perfect position; the makeup man was sitting in front of the monitor, checking his work. It’s nothing like that now. There are four rehearsals for every take. The process is changing, but not always for the good.
BOI: When it comes to technicians like cinematographers, how much is technique and how much is art?
AB: It is a beautiful mix of both. There can be no art without technique when it comes to cinematography.
AG: It is a science first, then an art. It is an art form that gets technical backing.
AB: Take a painter, for example. He is also using technique and being creative. Any painter will tell you that he first learned how to make a brush stroke, then moved on to pencil, charcoal, oil or acrylic. There is a kala to it. When an artist becomes proficient, he is no longer thinking about the technique. It has become second nature to them. It’s the same with cinematography. The technique that dictates, aaj main 16 lagaunga, aaj mein yeh lens use karunga. It is what comes when your technique is married at some point to your instinct and creativity.