Decoding a spy thriller - Sanu J Varghese on Vishwaroopam

Sanu John Varghese

[dropcap]O[/dropcap]ne of the year’s biggest films, Vishwaroopam, directed by Kamal Hassan, has been in the news for several reasons. However anyone who sees the dramatic spy thriller is sure to remember it for its stark imagery, beautiful locations and technical acumen all beautifully strung together with splendid cinematography.

Pandolin speaks to the talented cinematographer of Vishwaroopam, Sanu J Varghese,  on shooting with the master filmmaker, keeping the look of the film real, dabbling with multiple cameras, experimenting with technicians from across the globe and learning nuances of the trade which have made the film visually impeccable.

Vishwaroopam is a high octane action film. What was your principle approach towards shooting it?
We went through the script and we wanted to shoot it as close to real as possible.  But there is also some kind of hyper drama in it so we had to pitch the drama of the film as well. My instinct was to make the scenes look more real and believable.

Where has the film been shot?
We shot a lot of scenes in New York. We also shot in Grand Rapids which is in Michigan state, way up north, very close to Canada. For the Afghanistan exterior, we shot largely in Jordan and also in Chennai.

Decoding a spy thriller - Sanu J Varghese on Vishwaroopam

On Location

Since the film is essentially divided into rustic Afghanistan and urban America, what were the tones you had in mind to distinguish the places?
We had a very clear cold versus warm plan. For us, it was the US winter against the Afghanistan summer. That was very clearly there in our head.

So even in the cold look of US, we wanted to do something that did not look unreal. If you see, a lot of films have a very forced blue look to it but we deliberately tried to stay away from it.

The tones were also balanced with the costumes. The kind of colors used everywhere also have distinct tonal differences. For example, shots depicting Afghanistan did not have many colder colors but there were times when we would break the flow with a colder color so that it doesn’t look coded.

What was the lighting design employed?  How different was the lighting used to showcase both places?  Which lights were used?

We have done several things with the lighting. A lot of times, we made our own lights for specific purposes. For a shot inside the caves, we have made lights and used them to light up the interior of the cave. You can also see the lights in the frame. We made these  micro louvers which direct the light, so the light is not spreading all over the place. In the caves whatever we have shot with, is inside the frames itself but it doesn’t flare because it is controlled at the source itself.

[pullquote_left]Sidney Lumet who has written the book ‘Making Movies’ said that if the camera moves even 15 degrees then you need to relight because the visual continuity of images will have to be matched by shifting the lights[/pullquote_left]

Also I’ve tried to make my own lights in many instances because conventional lights that were available do not work in every situation. We took filaments out of those lights and made our own lights which fit in correctly and could also be shown in the frames.

All of Afghanistan we have used  18k’s , 4k Pars, kinos, bulbs etc. We have also used Chinese lanterns as they are very light in weight.

Newer cameras today work on speed so you don’t really need too much light. We can actually concentrate on the quality of light than think how to get light in for exposure. In that sense,  Digital is more liberating.

Decoding a spy thriller - Sanu J Varghese on Vishwaroopam

Framing it right

What was the camera set up for the film like? Which cameras were used? 

We largely shot on digital using the Red Mysterium X. But the high speed action sequences like the first fight in the warehouse was shot on film. We used the Arri 435, 3 of them were used in those sequences.

Vishwaroopam was almost entirely shot on a 3 camera set up at any given time. It is an interesting thing to do. Sidney Lumet who has written the book ‘Making Movies’ said that if the camera moves even 15 degrees then you need to relight because the visual continuity of images will have to be matched by shifting the lights.

With a multi – camera set up, what I have discovered is that, the kind of lighting continuity doesn’t really matter because your action continuity is so intact. Since this is the age of reality television and people are so used to images that are cutting between multiple cameras, the lighting continuity doesn’t matter to me anymore.

Decoding a spy thriller - Sanu J Varghese on Vishwaroopam

Keeping it real

Once I saw the edits, I could see everything matching so beautifully. It is not about compromising on the continuity of one for something else but I believe that multi – camera is the thing of the future. And Kamal Hassan is a master at the multi – camera set up, he uses it very smartly. Part of the action would be covered by one camera, that camera will then move out so that the next can move in. We would constantly shoot with 3 cameras which were all moving but not getting into each other’s way.

There are so many instances where we have used the camera in the frame itself and faded it out later. If you watch carefully, a lot of angles look impossible though the continuity is intact.

Kamal Hasan

Capturing the blasts

The film has several shots of bomb blasts. What technique did you use to shoot them?

We have actually put smaller cameras inside the blast. We would put in the camera and see if it survived and incidentally, the camera survived most of the time.

Also we had a very skilled SFX guy, Kevin Chisnall from New Zealand, who would tell us exactly where pieces of the debris would fly into. We had cameras which were logged off and unmanned where we would actually get a piece of debris flying almost into the camera.

Did you use any motion control technique for the various transitions in the narrative?

A lot of motion control has been used especially for crowd multiplication. In the hanging sequence, all the wides are shot using motion control where the people were multiplied. We would do one shot with people in one place then repeat it by moving the people.

It looks like a huge crowd but it is all created layers put together. Backgrounds in these places were huge chroma walls, like a 50 X 150 chroma wall which was replaced by visuals from Jordan.

The film employs a lot of VFX. Who was the team?

The VFX happened in studios across the world for over a year. There are about 900 visual effects shots in the film. There are so many visual effects that you cannot even figure. For example, the car breaking through a garage is actually the guy breaking a thermocol wall and coming out. It is brilliant VFX as you can see the dust and bricks and every detail. A lot of the chase stuff too is VFX where we have faded out the streets and put 3D models of the cars in the wide shots.

Decoding a spy thriller - Sanu J Varghese on Vishwaroopam

Sanu with the master filmmaker Kamal Hassan

How was it working with someone as experienced as Kamal Hassan? What was his brief to you?

Kamal Sir is someone who has extreme control over every aspect of filmmaking. Some of the songs and even a lot of the fights have been choreographed by him. He knows exactly where the camera has to be, what the mood of the sequence is, etc.

When you work with someone who is so senior and experienced, you need to earn his trust at some level. He has worked with the best technicians in the country and abroad. You have to find that equation with him where he trusts you with your vision otherwise it becomes very difficult to function.

We managed to pull it off in the early days of the film itself. He would trust me with my judgment on a lot of things and I would go with his vision completely. He gave me my space to function. This is one of the best collaborations I’ve had with anybody. His energy is infectious and watching him is great learning.

How much time did the shoot of the film take? Was it challenging to shoot it bilingually? Are you shooting Vishwaroopam 2 as well?

We shot the film in approximately 120 days. We were shooting Hindi and Tamil together. It is complicated and also time consuming to shoot two languages simultaneously as you take one shot first in Hindi, then again in Tamil and so on.

[pullquote_right]With a multi – camera set up, what I have discovered is that, the kind of lighting continuity doesn’t really matter because your action continuity is so intact.[/pullquote_right]

Also depending on language variation they would also be shot variation. The shots change depending on what the lyrics mean. Like the song has got completely different lyrics in Hindi and in Tamil so it is shot completely different, first entirely in Tamil then again in Hindi.

In many instances the things are different but 85% is also similar so you shoot the same thing once in Hindi and once in Tamil. And Kamal Hassan is an expert at doing this kind of stuff as he has shot in 4 languages together. So he knows exactly how to go about doing it which was a great learning.

About Vishwaroopam 2, we have already shot around 30 -40 percent of the film. But some amount of writing is incomplete and will take more time.