High Octane Dhoom 3 With Ace Cinematographer Sudeep Chatterjee
“The first thing Victor told me before I read the script was not to go by any kind of mindset that this is a Dhoom film…he told me to read the script with an open mind and whatever I felt instinctively should be translated into the look,” says Sudeep Chatterjee, the award-winning cinematographer of Dhoom 3. In an elaborate conversation with Pandolin, he unravels the wizardry of shooting such a high-octane action film.
Once in a while, you get an opportunity to work with a friend, so I was very happy to work with him. We are very similar and it really helps when you work with a like-minded team. We had a great time on set and it was one of my most enjoyable creative collaborations. There was a huge responsibility on our shoulders but having Victor as my director eased my stress and anxieties.
Which aspect of Dhoom 3 fascinated and motivated you the most to take on this project?
My primary fascination was the story itself and the little secret life that these two brothers had. And as a cinematographer, I wanted to capture that special world and visually translate all these hidden things into a physical space. Also, I liked the fact that the characters were circus artists because it added some magic to their world.
Besides, I had never shot a full-fledged action film before. Hence, I was very excited to do it and take the action sequences to another level. Because a lot of the time, when you see a chase sequence in our cinema, the vehicles move very fast but the camera never moves at the same pace. This time I really wanted to give the viewer an experience of being a part of that chase.
The first thing Victor told me before I read the script was not to go by any kind of mindset that this is a Dhoom film so it has to have some Dhoom kind of look. Instead he told me to read the script with an open mind and whatever instinctively I felt should be translated into the look. He never showed me any reference for the film and my start-up point was the script itself.
For example, if I am reading the father son scene, there is a physical description of the room. There’s a little dampness and a fireplace that create certain warmth in the relationship. Now when it’s written so clearly and the emotional track is so well established, you start seeing it.
However, the only thing he was very particular about was the execution of double role scenes. There is a usual way of shooting a double role but he said, right from the beginning that you must completely eradicate the idea that it’s a typical double role shoot. Hence, as a cinematographer, I took it in a way that there are two characters and two different actors playing these characters. I conceived my shots, lighting and situations keeping that in mind.
Also, there is a certain circus element in the way they do their robberies. We tried to make the action sequences appear like a fun performance rather than going ultra violent.
What sort of initial planning and discussions went into the making of Dhoom 3?
The primary discussion was about the story and the kind of look that would enhance it. So, we tried to describe the physical surroundings and the necessary props. Apart from this, I am very particular about the costumes because eventually when you are shooting, a large part of your frame is occupied by the actor’s wardrobe. Hence, I tried to be very specific about what I wanted. For example, there is a certain shine that comes from Jackie’s coat. I would look at five options of cloth before selecting because that really helps me plan the lighting.
I don’t think I have done anything more challenging than the scene work I did for Dhoom 3, specifically all the double role stuff. Traditionally, when you do a double role, you do simple movements and avoid character interactions but here we were shooting like we do normally with two actors. There was a lot of physical interaction and the major challenge was to be able to pre-visualize the scene in totality. So, you are continuously banking on your imagination and you have to train your mind accordingly.
Next, it was very complicated to execute technically as there were too many obstructions that would normally not occur to people. For instance, when we would do the second pass, Aamir would get surrounded by monitors to guide him with the performance of the first pass. And those monitors would cut my light so I had to keep tweaking.
There’s one particular shot where you see Samar in the mirror and Sahir appears in the reflection and then Sahir actually walks in and comes in front of the mirror. So, you see a real image of Sahir and the reflected image of Samar and then Sahir moves and covers Samar’s reflection and finally Samar pops out of it. Now, that was sheer imagination, as we had no clue what it’s going to look like after compositing.
Where did you shoot?
All the exterior sequences were shot in Chicago and for the rest like Jackie Shroff’s room, Aamir’s room, police headquarters, and the Kamli song; we built sets at the Yashraj Studios. However, the Malang song was shot at Reliance Studios because we needed a really big space. Also, the old theater shown in the film is actually the Capital cinema in the town opposite VT, which we renovated for Dhoom 3.
This is the first time I used a digital format. I have shot all my previous films on 35 mm. I tested some stuff with Alexa and Red Epic and also looked at newer options. I was quite happy with the image from Alexa and a raw recorder. I strongly felt that this was the format that suits Dhoom 3 the most. So, I requested Yashraj films to buy a set of Alexa cameras and they ended up buying the Alexa studio body with a traditional optical eyepiece plus mechanical shutter. And the other one was the Alexa M, which is a smaller body camera that I used a lot in the action scenes, particularly in the helicopters, chase vehicles, and on the boat where it was difficult to shoot with bigger cameras.
I had a package of Ultra primes and Optimo zooms for shooting the day and studio interiors. And for all my night exterior work in Chicago, I used a set of Master primes because they open to a 1.3 and we were shooting a lot of things at a 120fps. I needed a very fast lens.
Most of the time, it was a two-camera setup but for the bridge action we used four cameras. In the chase sequences, we used many crash cameras like GoPros and Lipstick cams, which are really small cameras that we would place where you normally wouldn’t. For example, if a car were crashing into another, we would put a GoPro right at the point of impact. And sometimes, the camera was so badly damaged that we couldn’t use the shot but, for the most part, we got away with it even though the resolution was not ideal. However, with the help of these cameras, we were able to get parts of the action, which was impossible to shoot otherwise. We had more than 10 GoPros and Lipstick cams scattered all over the place.
The entire movie can be striped into three parts i.e. the scene work, the song work and the action work. Now, talking about the action, especially for the chase sequences I wanted the camera to be as mobile and fast as the vehicles themselves. So, for the car chase, we needed a vehicle with an appropriate camera mounting system. I found the answer in an LA based company called Pursuit Camera Systems. They provided us with a Porsche Cayenne that was mounted with a crane. It was remote controlled from inside. The crane is mounted with a gyro-stabilized head and you put the camera on it. So, inside the car, there were the driver, the remote crane operator, the remote camera operator, the focus puller and I with our respective monitors.
But the real hero was the driver of the car. He was just fantastic and one of the finest stunt car drivers I have seen. So, the entire high-speed chase was done with the Porsche. Now, of course one can keep the camera on a high-speed car or a high-speed boat but unless you can stabilize it, the shots are not usable. And when it came to the water action, I was mainly concerned about the camera’s stability. Hence, I requested the Pursuit camera people to actually let us rip their camera systems from the Porsche Cayenne and put it on a speedboat. So that is how, we did the water action.
Also, there’s one shot of Aamir running down the building that we shot with a rigging device called a spider cam, which is basically a remote controlled Libra head. And there was a guy named Kevin, a specialist who rigged the cable and enabled us to execute that shot.
Besides, there was a tremendous production support and Yashraj provided us with everything that we needed. For example, on the first day of the water action shoot, we were getting terrific shots but I couldn’t go very close to the water. So, I requested a splash deflector and by the next morning it was there.
Please elaborate on the lighting style.
For the interior scene work, I employed regular incandescent sources like flare lights, Kinoflos, LEDs, and the usual stuff but I used a lot of intelligent lights for the song sequences, especially for the Malang song. I wanted it to be as colorful and dazzling as possible. I found it challenging to design the lighting for something like that because there is so much happening on screen during those circus setups. So, I had to show the exciting peripheral world and simultaneously guide the audience’s eye toward the main actors. Hence, for Malang, I shot with programmable lights and moving heads timed by a control panel.
Now, for the day action sequences, we worked largely with available light, some bounce boards, and a couple of HMIs. But for the night scenes, we required a lot of lighting. I wanted to use helium balloons but they were not readily available in the US, so I gave up the idea. Eventually I clustered 6K space lights, usually eight of them together, and mounted them from an industrial crane hanging overhead.
Also, we changed the fixtures at the location, particularly in the tunnel scene. Luckily the Chicago authorities gave us permission to do it! In the streets we put our lights but instead of film ones, we used normal streetlights so that when they enter frame it isn’t noticeable. Besides, we had some follow lights on the chasing vehicles.
What were the major difficulties your team experienced?
Whenever you are shooting an action sequence in an actual street, the traffic has to be locked off by police because of safety and security reasons. So, whether its the street or the river, you get very little windows of time to execute the shot. And if you don’t, then you wait for the next window. And here we are talking about high paced action with multiple cameras, which was extremely challenging.
Another difficult part was the lighting for night chase sequences. Now, how do you light shots with moving vehicles at such a fast speed? If you put lights on the street, after some point of travel, they will end up being in the frame. So, you have to conceive the lighting in a way that doesn’t enter the frame or make it appear natural.
Also, a big challenge was to keep the focus intact because we were shooting a lot of stuff at high-speed i.e. 120 fps with really open exposures i.e. 1.3 or 1.2. And it’s a nightmare for a focus puller as it’s not an organized scene where an actor would go to a mark. These are high-speed vehicles, which are not going to move according to your desire. I actually don’t know how my focus puller, Praveen, managed to do it! But I must say, I had an excellent team of assistants that included my chief assistant Anirban Chatterjee, my gaffer Shyam Shukla and Al Rivera who was my gaffer in Chicago. With their support along with immaculate planning, coordination, and communication, we sorted out everything.
Can you think of a shot or sequence that was particularly challenging and satisfying?
I would say, it was the sequence where Sahir and Samar argue and eventually Sahir slaps Samar. The lighting was high contrast and we were doing a heavy amount of motion control. There was a lot of camera movement and physical interaction between the characters. So, one needed a very strong idea of how it was going to be lit because every part of the room had a specific kind of lighting.
My DI colorist was Ashirwad from Prime focus and he comes from a traditional film grading background. I have worked with him in the non- DI days of Iqbal and Dor. I find it very easy to communicate with him because I have also been trained in traditional film. I had Ashirwad locked from an early stage and he was a part of the team that was designing the look. Even while shooting, I color-corrected stills and shared then with him.
How many days did it take to complete the film? Where did the postproduction happen and who was your VFX supervisor?
We shot for a total of 170 days in which we had three months of exteriors in Chicago. Postproduction was done by Tata Elxsi and our VFX supervisor was Joel Hynek who is a two time Oscar winner. Also, we had Vishal Anand, Pankaj Khanopur and Sherry from Tata to supervise the VFX.