[dropcap]A[/dropcap]ng Lee’s ‘Life of Pi’, a visually stunning 3D tale of an Indian boy adrift in the ocean for months with a Bengal tiger, won critical and commercial acclaim across the board. The film received several accolades including 4 wins at the 85th Academy Awards which included Best Director, Original Score, Cinematography and Visual Effects. While several feel that the film truly deserves all the honors there are some who think otherwise, primarily for the best cinematography.

[pullquote_right]”Our government still sees us as technicians and are not providing good education, good provisions for local films, local creations. They still depend on people from abroad,” V. Srinivas Mohan[/pullquote_right]

This has sparked off a debate amongst the film fraternity on whether ‘Life of Pi‘ actually deserved the Oscar for Best Cinematography when it largely is a film driven by visual effects. There is also a section which feels that the acceptance speech of the Life of Pi Visual Effects Team winners, who spoke about the threat facing the VFX industry, was blatantly cut off to suppress larger issues.

The debate has also found voice amongst Indian filmmakers. Pandolin spoke to two such renowned artists, Cinematographer Ravi K Chandran and Visual Effects Designer V.Srinivas Mohan on their thoughts on this issue. Their valuable opinions present two interesting sides to this debate.

Ravi K Chandran

Ravi K Chandran

On speaking to the two veterans on their opinion on the entire debate and whether Life of Pi was deserving of an Oscar for Best Cinematography, Ravi said, “I believe that Life of Pi doesn’t deserve the award for Best Cinematography because there were other films that were far superior technically and cinematically. Earlier also they have done this for films like Lord of The Rings and Avatar. They have ignored great films like Roger Deakens’ No Country for Old Men and so on and not given them an award. Last year too they awarded Hugo which was again a CGI  film.  I believe that they should institute a separate award for CGI cinematography, not including it in the traditional cinematography category.  Whenever I shoot any commercials, I don’t think that I deserve any praise for it because whatever I shoot is not there. They crop the image, they change it during the post, create a haze,  a flare etc and then at the end of the day when people call and tell you it looks very nice, it is ridiculous because that is not my work. It’s like shooting instagram pictures, they look good when anybody clicks them because they have installed presets.”

While visual effects designer, Srinivas has a completely different view, “I definitely feel that Life of Pi was worth winning the award because in my experience when I am doing films and VFX , one of the most important persons, who is involved in and complements the VFX is the DoP.

V. Srinivas Mohan

V. Srinivas Mohan

You need more than  50% involvement of the DoP in achieving a good VFX output. This is my view from the VFX perspective. From the cinematography perspective, Christopher Doyle mentioned that he felt the film is not worth the award but he may have felt it in a different way like the capturing of the live  locations etc. In my opinion filming is like cheating, we are not showing the entire sequence, for example if a person is running, we do not show the entire thing, we cut and show small portions. Miranda has also done the same thing, in a small portion he has created a beautiful craft, lit it well , made it visually appealing and rendered it beautifully.”

“In actuality, with VFX, the cinematographer needs to be more involved. If there is a direct visual, the cinematographer, if he is shooting outdoor on a real location, needs to mainly be concerned about a good lighting source and good frame. But  if the same thing is being done on VFX , he is shooting on one layer and another layer is in a different place, so he needs to work towards blending it together and pay attention to a lot of things apart from regular shoots. In that sense it is more complex. Life of Pi has beautifully captured visuals which is the cinematographer’s credit because we as VFX artists are not involved in the framing, in the color sense etc. We guide and  execute what he has captured.”

[pullquote_left]”I believe that they should institute a separate award for CGI cinematography, not including it in the traditional cinematography category,” Ravi K Chandran[/pullquote_left]

According to Ravi, there were several other films truly deserving of the honor for Best Cinematography. He said, “I find it strange for a film like Avatar, Lord of the Rings, Life of Pi or even Hugo to get the award for best cinematography because there are many other cinematographers who shot really well. Les Miserables was very nice so was Zero Dark Thirty and Skyfall, those  are the kind of films that deserve the Oscar.” When asked about the criteria to be kept in mind while choosing a movie for the best cinematography category, he elaborated, “Cinematography has to firstly tell the story. Secondly how effectively you compose in a given situation for the given story, how you light, what is your aesthetic sense etc , is important. It’s not treated footage alone. Like, No Country for Old Men is not treated, it is shot on film and has it’s own language, pace, lighting and so on, which matters. In a green screen situation you light it the way post people tell you to, you are told to shoot slightly flat and the contrast is created later.”

“Generally green screen work, if you look at magazines etc. clearly shows that they light it normally and the high contrast is done in post. The framing is also done by the CG guy or the director so it’s not the cameraman’s job. As a cameraman from India or anywhere I would like to operate the camera because when you operate the camera you actually compose the frame. The CG situation for me is like giving the still camera to somebody to shoot and you take the credit for it.”.

And cinematography and VFX should complement each other is what Srinivas truly believes.


Making of Life of Pi

Finally when quizzed if the music played during the acceptance speech of the Life of Pi Visual Effects team, while bringing up the threat to the VFX industry, was derogatory or an attempt to suppress the larger pictures, Srinivas says, “I can state two points of view on this issue that is happening, one as a VFX artist from a worldwide perspective and the other as an Indian VFX artist. On the worldwide front, I definitely support the fact that we are artists and not just technicians.  Also what has happened is that for the last few years, countries like Canada etc. have started giving subsidies for the VFX artists.”

Life of Pi Visual Effects Team

Life of Pi Visual Effects Team

“So all the big VFX companies from Canada and other places have started closing the companies in LA and that is why all the people from those areas want the LA artists to form a union to keep all the jobs inside the US. So this is something that I cannot support as India needs the exposure. So the protest is mainly for Rhythm and Hues in LA. Many people had changed their Facebook display images to the Green Dot but they realized this is not a worldwide protest but mainly for LA.” On the other hand Ravi did not find it a wrong move as he feels,”That is a rule there, they are time bound. When an award is announced people run to collect the award so that they don’t miss out on time. It is applicable to everyone. People get emotional and keep talking so this is their system to maintain time, there is nothing derogatory in it.”


Srinivas with Rajnikanth on the sets of ‘Robot’

On a closing note, Srinivas Mohan who has done the visual effects for Rajnikanth’s Robot says, “In India we have a lot of talent and though the Indian government is not giving us any benefits etc, Indian labour is very cheap. So we have now become huge competitors to LA. They are more worried about Indian and Chinese VFX companies as compared to Canada and other areas.  Also it is high time that our government recognizes our talent, as today even international companies have started recognizing it. Our government still sees us as technicians and are not providing good education, good provisions for local films, local creations. They still depend on people from abroad.

For example, almost 80 per cent of the animation content that we see on Cartoon Network is from abroad. If the government uses some kind of a clause that states that every day each channel should air atleast 30 minutes of content created by Indian companies, it will help in a big way. This is one of the ideas I thought of. They rely on content from abroad mainly because the content there is very cheap.  But we have a lot of good talent that the channels can use. The Government needs to recognize our talent instead of outsourcing the job. We have outsourced a lot, have good knowledge of how Hollywood works, now India should focus on its artists here and provide good facilities, reduce taxes, give subsidies to local animation films etc.”