‘I approach lighting and framing a scene in tandem with the emotional narrative’ – Vishnu Rao
An alumnus of Film and Television Institute of India, cinematographer Vishnu Rao’s first brush with cinema was as an assistant on Merchant Ivory’s Cotton Mary.
He started working as a Director of Photography towards the end of 1999 and worked on many television commercials, music videos, documentaries and a few short films before he made his film debut with Bhootnath ( B R Films ). He has also worked on Prince ( Tips Industries ). After that was Aashiqui 2 ( Vishesh Films ) and his latest release was Ek Villain ( Balaji Motion Pictures ).
How did your association with the Bhatt camp and in turn with Mohit Suri begin?
Mohit and I had connected for another film before Aashiqui 2 but the dates didn’t work out then. We kept in touch and around early 2013 we connected again for Aashiqui 2. We enjoy each other’s style of work and became good friends during the course of the shoot. Mohit is a hands on and involved director. I enjoy and appreciate his sensibilities. Collaborating with him on Ek Villain came naturally and was quite an intense and rewarding experience.
Please tell us about the camera and lenses used to shoot Ek Villain?
The primary capture was on Arri Alexa XT cameras recording Arriraw. We used Red Epic cameras as additional cameras when required. We also used the Phantom Flex for specific shots. Our prime lenses were Arri Ultra Primes ranging from 8mm to 135mm and our zoom lenses were Angenieux Optimo 24mm – 290mm and Angenieux HR 25mm – 250mm.
Where has the film largely been shot and in how many days?
We shot for about 85 to 87 days. The film was shot in Goa, Mauritius and Mumbai. The bulk of it was shot on location. There were sets as well – primarily built on real locations as opposed to being built on sound stages. Shooting on locations do present their set of challenges. They are never simple to have complete control over. One cannot control the weather, or sunrise and sunset. Space is often limited and timings and crowd control can be big factors. However they do bring an authenticity to a scene that sometimes could be missing on a sound stage. As for a preference – that’s always relative to what has to be captured. On this film I did enjoy shooting on location.
What was the visual treatment adopted for this film?
There was an attempt to keep it real and at the same time good looking and visually engaging. I normally approach lighting and framing a scene keeping the emotional narrative in mind. The environment which the scene is set in and the transitional narrative, play a part – and one is conscious of the glamour and beauty element too. On the whole it was important to achieve a smooth visual flow. The lighting design implemented was evocative of this approach.
How did you execute the sequence on boats where the protagonist (Sidharth Malhotra) goes to meet his boss?
The sequence on the boats was interesting to film. It was shot at a ship breaking yard in Goa. The action scene leading up to the dialogue was one long continuous shot with no cuts. We had to rehearse the camera tracking with the choreography of the fighters and the timing of camera moves ( pans + tilts ) a few times. There were a quite few variables to consider. A lot of people had to get their timing just right – the lead actor, the fighters, the focus puller, the pyro technician, the camera grips etc. We also had to build ramps for Sidharth and the camera to move between the three barges. Once we started filming, it required a fair amount of time to reset for the next take – since we wanted it to be one continuous shot with no cuts we would reset everything again. As it grew later in the day we had to adjust the camera move a little as shadows grew longer and the camera shadow would be in shot at certain points. All of this made for an interesting shooting day.
For a cinematographer, how do you plan shots when VFX or CG need to be incorporated later?
While planning a scene where visual effects or computer graphics are to be incorporated later, one normally works backwards. It’s important to know or at least have a clear idea of what one wants the final shot or scene to look and feel like. Once that’s done, the technical execution happens.
This involves collaboration with the VFX supervisor on set. Explaining to them what we want and understanding from them what is or isn’t achievable. When it comes to lighting or framing its important to bear in mind what background plates are being used and or what CG elements will be introduced, their textures, finish, size and shape etc. These sometimes could determine the lighting approach. I also go into the VFX suite and communicate to the artists the direction, source and intensity of light that should be incorporated while building the CG element(s).
An example from Bhootnath would be the leaf scene. For this scene we planned the position of the leaves and the kind of flutter and shine they would have once added in post, this helped us to light and frame accordingly. In Ek Villain important VFX scenes were when the female lead Aisha (Shraddha Kapoor) breaks through the glass and the bioluminescence on the beach. For the glass breaking scene, framing and movement of camera had to be spot on for takes with the actor and for plates without her. Lighting of the glass which was to be shot later had to be exactly the same as the light on the real set / location – the same intensity, direction and fall off of shadows. I knew that while shooting the glass plates I would use top and cross backlight to enhance the shatter – that determined the lighting and time of day to shoot the live action with the actor, which in turn determined the intensity and colour temperature of the light while filming plates of the glass shattering.
For the bioluminescence section in the song Galliyan – I chose to shoot day for night – thereby adding and capturing vast depth that shooting at night would not render, mainly because it’s impossible to light the entire ocean till the horizon. Shots were designed specifically keeping this in mind. The lighting incorporated a soft directionless source – to give the feel of ambient night light. Later during the grading process I did multiple passes of each shot which were layered together after the CG. These were then further graded alongside grading of mattes to blend the entire visual seamlessly.
What were the most interesting scenes to shoot?
The introduction of Guru at the Narkasur festival was interesting. The sequence was lit to have a carnival feel yet to be moody enough to have a slightly ominous effect. It was important to not see Guru’s face clearly right at the beginning until he takes off his hood. I used a lot of mixed colour temperatures sources in this scene to create the carnival yet chaotic look. A lot of the set lighting was done by using practicals and placing sources in shot – like the neon light lined tree. As the scene progressed we used gelled tungsten sources running though dimmers which were operated to create the effect of the burning effigy. This footage was mixed with real footage that we shot in Goa of the festival – which was used at the beginning of the sequence.
Another interesting sequence to film was the action on the skywalk just before the interval where Guru confronts Rakesh for the first time. This was shot at location on an over-bridge onto which we added our set and fixtures. Because of it being over a busy road with a lot of traffic flow our general lighting had to be far away and elevated. We had dinos on scaffolding towers on diagonally opposite sides of the skyway from maybe two hundred metres away. There was a cold cross light from the roof of a building to provide a directional rim while looking into the clock tower which itself was lit by a large tungsten source mixed with smaller cold ones. Lightening machines were mounted on two 35 foot camera cranes positioned at either end of the bridge. Traffic light was simulated by tungsten lamps from below that were gelled and manually rotated. Virtually all key light for the actors were from practicals that I mounted on the set. To create contrast, overhead fixtures were cold fluorescents that were mixed with incandescent tungsten sources mounted on the side beams – the actors were also periodically hit with travelling hard light simulating traffic. This was a difficult location to control – the crowd, the traffic and even the wind was a factor – especially for the scaffolding towers. It was an enjoyable challenge to meet.
Any interesting/unique techniques employed to shoot any of the other songs?
All songs had unique specifics. The underwater sequence in “Galliyan” was unique in its own right. The general practice while filming an underwater sequence is to film in a swimming pool where the backdrop blue and set elements are submerged. Rarely are they filmed in the middle of the ocean – they do occur but on scarce occasion – this was one such.
We filmed over two days in Mauritius at three different dive spots. This was necessary as we needed a contrast in the environment as the sequence progressed. The beginning when we first see Guru looking for Aisha underwater, the geography had to be barren of sea life. We shot this at a dive location about an hour and half out into the ocean, off an outcrop of rock that had this kind of a desolate feel with not too many bright shades of colour in the coral. As Aisha guides Guru through the underwater landscape we see the wonder of sea life. This was shot at two different dive sites – in more open water over a bed of coral. I also did a few point of view shots where in I tracked schools of fish round the reef.
There are a few things to consider while filming under sea. Paramount is safety – of the actors and of the crew. One has to be very aware of the surrounding and time spent at what depth. Another big factor is the visibility. The timing when to shoot with the tide coming in or going out is key. If visibility is bad, the magic is lost and all one sees is murky blue. Also when visibility is low, one is often forced to position the camera very up close to the actors sacrificing depth and scale. I shot the underwater sequence on Red Epic camera with the Red 17mm to 40mm zoom lens encased in a Gates housing. The housing enables control over focus, aperture and focal length – all can be pulled during shot. The underwater crew consisted of a five man team in full scuba gear. There were two safety divers, one with each actor who positioned them in shot, a housing / camera technician, a focus puller and I was operating the camera. The underwater shoot was co-ordinated by UnderWater Film Services based in Mumbai.
Please tell us about the post – production of the film and your team ?
The post production studio was Prime Focus. Grading and visual effects were done there. The film was graded on a Baselight system. We graded on a big screen, onto which the image was projected using a Christie projector. Our colourist was Manoj Verma with whom I have worked quite closely before. We graded a lot of the visual effect shots a few times – before and after the VFX and CG were implemented. I would also co-ordinate with the visual effects supervisor on the lighting, framing, colour, size, shape and texture of the CG elements.
– By Priyanka Jain