24 was all about creating cinema on television: Jay Oza And Tanay Satam
In a candid chat with Pandolin, budding cinematographers Jay Oza and Tanay Satam share their experiences while shooting Indian TV series 24:Season One.
The young, dynamic and passionate duo Jay and Tanay had a tough learning curve while shooting this series. “The whole show was a challenge in itself. It was an extremely ambitious project that pushed us to achieve things, which were very difficult to do. The working conditions were tough but it was a great experience overall because we got an opportunity to work with three talented directors,” they say while we at Pandolin get deeper into their lives and into the nuances of being a cinematographer.
Tell us little bit about your background and your foray into the field of cinematography?
Jay: I am originally from Baroda. I came to Mumbai after completing my graduation and got my first job as a production assistant, subsequently working as an assistant director on a few feature films. During the course of being an assistant director, I somehow realised that I was more inclined towards the cinematography. So in 2008, I went to the Prague film school for a year. After returning, I started assisting cinematographers like Ayananka Bose and Sudeep Chatterjee. I then got a call from this production house named Babble fish as they were doing a new show called The Dewarists. That’s where I met Tanay and we shot The Dewarists together.
Tanay: I have been born and brought up in Mumbai and belong to a middle class family. I started taking a liking to filmmaking while I was graduating in commerce. I wasn’t really paying any attention to my studies so I took up a job as a production assistant and eventually ended up joining Whistling Woods. After getting a technical education from the institute, I assisted a cinematographer for some time. But I didn’t enjoy the process of assisting much so I decided to do something of my own. I got my first big break with Babble Fish and learned a lot while shooting The Dewarists.
How has been your collaboration so far? How do you divide your work and devise your shooting strategy?
Tanay: Jay and I had an amazing chemistry right from when we began shooting The Dewarists. We just understood each other’s working style and it became very easy after a point of time. It’s two and a half years of working together now so we have developed a great rapport and understanding. And once you get this vibe, where both people are on the same page, it really complements the work.
Jay: Luckily, we both think alike and have the same visual sense, which really helps. Sometimes when a scene is being shot and we are running short of time, we instinctively divide our work. For example, if there are two scenes to be shot at different places, while Tanay shot one scene, I would set up lights for the next one. On the sets of 24, sometimes when I got late, he would handle the set and vice versa. And since most of the time, we shot with two cameras, we were both operating and lighting.
Tanay and I basically go by our gut rather than thinking too much about technical things like meter readings and exposure timings. We are like those musician band members who live, travel, fight and work together. We just make sure that we keep our professional and personal lives at separate levels. So far the journey has been good and we intend to collaborate in the future too.
How did your association with Indian TV series 24 happen and what was the primary look and design planned for it?
Tanay: One of the assistant directors on 24 showed our work Bring on the Night to Abhinay sir and it just took off from there. Since we were remaking a Hindi franchise of an American series, we already had 24, Season one as our reference. It was supposed to be shot in a particular way and we had to follow that set template. However, Abhinay was very clear that he wanted it to look very cinematic and didn’t want to go into the TV space. So, we did some visual referencing and sent it to him, which he really liked.
Jay: We had a fair amount of references that we went through and was highly inspired by Sherlock, BBC television series for framing. We watched some random films to basically look at realistic lighting and handheld movements. Plus we didn’t know blocking because Abhinay never wanted to restrict his actors to a particular area. So we would generally go and light up the whole area for shooting. Tanay and I were very clear on keeping the shoot very realistic look and having contrast lighting. We did a lot of handheld and just went with the vibe of the scene.
What were the discussions like with your director? Was there a conscious effort to keep its look similar to the international version of it? Were there specific aspects that you tried to replicate in the Indian adaptation?
Jay: Abhinay gave us a lot of freedom and made us feel very comfortable. He of course comes from a strong filmmaking background and therefore has a fantastic visual sense. We had brainstorming sessions and spent a lot of time with all the three directors. Initially it was just exchanging thoughts and discussing them. For the first ten days, we were figuring out how things would work because nobody in our team actually knew what the process was going to be like. The project has essentially grown over a period of time. Initially, Abhinay was not very keen on breaking rules or breaking the axis, but as we progressed into the process, he eventually agreed.
Tanay: We were told to keep the look somewhat similar to the original 24 because it has same story plot. So in the series the stocks going into small boxes and the clock coming in are all set format of the American version. We just incorporated our style of filming, framing and lighting into it. For every shot, we changed the axis to get a lot of intercuts because it’s all about the speed and 24 hours. There are a lot of fast movements and we avoided being too static. We tried to get as many different angles and coverage for the editor to help build the pace. We had some 400 GB of footage going everyday out of the two cameras.
What was your camera format and shooting setup like? What kind of framing and composition techniques did you apply while filming 24?
Tanay: We majorly shot with two RED Scarlets and Ultra Prime lenses. Other lenses, that we used were the HR Zooms and the Optimos. We also used cameras like GoPros, Canon 5Ds, 7Ds and iPhones for some sequences. The entire series has been shot on the normal 16:9 Full HD version that’s a set format for television broadcast.
Jay: Initially, we were asked to make sure that we frame by the 4: 3 aspect ratio because not every television in the country has HD. However, we refused to change our framing just to make it easy for a broadcaster. We had to stick to that particular frame to stay true to the character. So, we just adhered to our framing and Abhinay supported our decision.
Where did the shooting take place and what was your daily schedule? How did you choose locations and what kind of sets were created?
Jay: The entire shooting happened in Mumbai in approximately 60-70 locations. Most of the time, we shot at real locations and avoided studio setups. The main ATU (Anti Terrorist unit) set was a godown in Kurla and the hotel was Tulip Star. A lot of stuff was shot on the streets and at Film City studios. We recced all the locations before shooting with the art director and Abhinay. We tried hunting for locations close by. Later, when the project got extended and the budgets were getting tighter, we had to cheat lot of locations in the same location. For instance, Meera Road became town in our shots because of unavailability of locations. So we had to compromise on several locations because of time and money constraints.
Tanay: We shot for total of 188 days and every single day was a 12-14 hour shift, which involved lots of traveling to different locations. For the first eighty days, we shot endlessly through days and nights.
Since, there are a lot of action and chase sequences in the series, what was your treatment for them and how did you stylize it?
Jay: The action director was Allan Amin and whenever there were action sequences, we would have four cameras. There would be two handhelds and two zoom cameras using different kinds of zoom operations. In one of the earlier episodes of 24, there is a long chase sequence in Worli village that was shot completely on the feet. We ran like crazy in those small streets with cameras on our shoulders. Sometimes, we used Activa Bikes and beach buggies to place the camera for chase sequences. Another cheap equipment that we used a lot for interior movements was butt dolly. It was our track and trolley where we sat and operated the camera. For some shots, we used cranes too. A lot of crash zooms were used for action sequences.
A lot of episodes of this series incorporate night scenes. How did you approach the scenes and what kind of lights were used for shooting?
Jay: Yes, we had lots of night sequences and had planned our shots accordingly. We had a yellowish, street light kind of ambience planned for exteriors and we used a particular set of filters and lights to get that color tone. We have used HMIs in the night to get the blue moon kind of ambience. For interior night shots, we used a lot of tube lights, small daylights and china lamps, because the locations were very small and we didn’t have enough space for big lights and stands.
Also, the hotel in the night looked very dim and high contrast. It was suppose to look nice and warm while ATU was a completely white zone. We experimented a lot by popping electronic colors like neon blues and greens on the dark skin of the negative characters. However, not many people use that shooting style in television.
Tanay: We created a palette for every scene and set-up and when those setups were repeated we continued to use what we had already developed. Since the show is about 24 hours, we couldn’t change things within that time span. But having said that, we did take the liberty of going away from logic at some points. We just shot it very stylishly and tried to make it look uber-cool and edgy.
What was your general lighting design for the various scenes, especially the ATU interior set ups and the outdoor stunt bits?
Jay: For the interior day scenes, we put HMIs i.e. 4Ks, 6Ks etc. and for the exteriors, we just used bounce boards and not much lights. We shot a lot in the monsoons when it was pouring heavily in Mumbai and the ambience kept fluctuating but we had to shoot.
Tanay: Towards the end, there were a couple of setups where we used big lights including 24Ks, 18Ks and 12Ks. There were also times, when we just shot with two bulbs and in the climax, we shot with too many lights because the producers wanted to up the scale. So, we have done both. We played with low as well as massive lights.
What was the most challenging part of shooting a show like 24 that has been claimed as the most innovative series on Indian television till date?
Jay: The whole show was a challenge in itself. Abhinay never wanted it to look like regular television stuff. So, he asked us to go experimental and create cinema on TV. In order to do that, we needed specific items which we didn’t have but we still had to make it look outstanding. We always had restrictions about locations, money and time, so we took most of the decisions on the set. Somehow, we experimented, made mistakes, learned and finally got it right.
Tanay: It was an extremely ambitious project that was supposed to be six-month long but got stretched. We went through tremendous physical and mental exhaustion but the fact of the matter is that when you are into it, you don’t realise it. It was really fun and adventurous for us because that’s the kind of work we prefer doing. We don’t really like to sit on a track trolley. We love experimenting with our shots.
Please share your overall experience working on this series. What are the things that you both learned from this project?
Jay: We had never worked with such a large crew at a completely professional level before this. Our first TV series, Bring on the Night was a fifteen-member tiny crew, so dealing with such a big production and actors was entirely new to us. In the initial stages, Tanay and me were like the young kids on the sets. But gradually we grew as technicians. In our next project, we would definitely be more mature and able to deal with those last minute changes that happen on the sets.
Tanay: It has been an immensely learning experience on all levels. We pushed ourselves to achieve things, which were very difficult to get. Our attitude on the sets was generally very energetic as we all were young guys wanting to deliver our best. Also, this is the first time; we worked with someone like Mr. Anil Kapoor. The working conditions were tough but it was a great experience overall because of the people. We were getting great lessons everyday an opportunity to work with Abhinay Deo, Rensil D’silva and Nitya Mehra. They were all uniquely amazing.
What are your other projects in the pipeline? Do you intend to shoot for films too in near future?
Jay: We don’t want to immediately go into a very commercial film space. We have a particular style of filming and we hope to work on some good experimental cinema. We don’t want to sell out at least at this point in our career.
Tanay: We would surely like to do a good feature film project which has an enticing script. Besides, we are also open to independent advertising work.