References and Influences in Cinematography
In his latest segment, Tribhuvan Babu talks about the major references and influences that usually inspire a cinematographer to achieve a certain look and feel for the film. Read on to know what he has to say on this topic:
As I always say that basically we are in the business of copying and by copying I don’t necessarily mean that you just take somebody’s work and replicate it. But you must first interpret what you have seen and then replicate it. Hence, there comes individuality to that copy. You do get inspired by nature, art, culture or music and copy it but there always lies a difference between two interpretations. And therefore it seizes to be a copy.
Suppose, you have to shoot a close-up, that can be done with either flat light, slightly two-thirds, three quarters of light, half-light or just the back light. So that close-up remains the same but every time you shift the light to a particular angle, the interpretation of that close-up will change. Now that comes primarily from the influences you had while you were growing up. For example, there is a beautiful piece by Edvard Grieg called The Morning where that man has created sunrise, with just his music. And if you listen to that, you can actually feel the sunrise by the way the music develops. So if one person can create that kind of magic with just one sense, i.e. the ears, then imagine the possibilities if you could control all the senses.
In my life, I am highly inspired by music and it has always been my biggest source of inspiration. Music is a very open format as every time you listen to it, you interpret something different. For example, if you have heard Pandit Bhimsen Joshi or Ustad Rashid Khan, you experience something new every time you listen to them. Recently, I was shooting something and it was raining heavily and the kind of shoot I was doing involved lots of emotions. So, I lit up subconsciously to enhance that mood of loss, love and want and celebration towards the end. Now my progression in the lighting also went like the way music develops i.e. from the high contrast to gradually low contrast to absolutely beautiful images. In terms of the colors as well, I shifted accordingly by starting with the cooler tones then gradually bringing in the warmer elements and eventually ending with a nice, warm, bright happy image. So it was a gradual development of mood just like we experience in our music.
For example, music played a huge part in all of Mani Kaul’s films. He himself was a student of Dhrupad singing and you can see the influence of Dhrupad in all his works. Now, Dhrupad itself is a reference for many other kinds of music, so even music has a reference. Then where do you stop? I mean what cannot be a reference.
Also, very early in my life I was exposed to the painters and different movements in paintings. Starting from the cave paintings to the European movement from renaissance to neorealism, the impressionism and finally the expressionism, I have followed all those movements. In terms of how perceptions develop from realism to interpretation to all the way to spiritualism, it goes so deep that the art form seizes to exist. For example, in Hindu mythology we talk about Aatman that is the self, which is nothing but a point in the universe. Similarly, art forms have evolved into nothingness but then that nothingness has become what it is because it has gone through a journey. The way the paintings evolved from imprints to storytelling was also inspired from the day-to-day life and our need to communicate what we see. So the whole idea of putting something on paper or rock was for others to read, see, believe and interpret it.
Later, the art of portraiture was taken into the real space and turned organic. When you see those paintings, you realize where that person was, when his or her painting was being made. They would use the natural lights, the pigments available and tried to make it as close as possible to the actual person. Not only the person in terms of the skin tonality but the background where they were. They would replicate the light source unlike the previous movements where there was no concept of the source. If you look at Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and the figurines which he had drawn, they are so lifelike not in terms of the lighting but in terms of the anatomy.
Then came the era of impressionism, where people painted not only about reality but their impression of the reality. They saw everything in a different color and actually opened their eyes to the possibilities of interpretation. After that came, the so-called modern art, which killed the form itself. They would see three-dimensionality in two-dimensionality and that was an interpretation to another level. Such movements also sort of shaped cinema. From the age of Lumiere Brothers, when they shot the train coming into the station, the workers getting into the factory, making a trip to the moon and all the way till Matrix, the interpretation is continuously evolving, though the tools have been more or less the same. So these are the things that inspire me to a great extent.
Besides, I read a lot of fiction and books which have helped me shape my storytelling technique. There’s a book I read long back by the name Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance, which gave me an understanding that was slowly incorporated into my style of approach to a script.
When I was in college, Frederick Forsyth and Robert Ludlum were my favorite and that’s from where my thriller sensibilities are shaped till date. So if you give me a chase sequence, I will still refer to those two. The way those guys thought action was phenomenal and it automatically comes back to you. So this is nothing but all references.
Several times I have referred to photographers too for the color palette of my films because when you are designing your images and the progression of narrative, you think color scheme as well. It gives you a vague idea about the visuals that dictate your lighting, choice of costumes, makeup and production design. Then there’s this BlackBook, which is a collection of the best work in photography collected from all over the world. This book has always been a great source of reference and inspiration for everything we do.
Also, textiles are a great source of inspiration. The way the colors are weaved together is just magical and also it’s so culture-centric. Your references also happen to be very culture specific and you can’t be random about it. Again culture in itself is a reference. Why does a particular culture disallow black and another culture allow it? There is a strong reason behind it so you have to understand that as well. And that’s when books come to your rescue, where you read about religion and philosophy. You might not understand it fully but somewhere you get a point of reference.
Inspiration happens everywhere and you cannot ignore references because at the end of the day, you cannot experience everything. Suppose, if you ask me today that how the northern light from Siberia looks or how the white nights appear, I won’t be able to tell you because I haven’t seen it physically. But I can recreate it to some accuracy by getting references from pictures and paintings.
When I did my first film, my inspiration for it came from the films of Japanese filmmakers Yasujirō Ozu who would keep the frame locked and let the things happen. Though it was not a conscious decision to refer to Ozu, but at the back of my mind, subconsciously, his works influenced me. In film schools, we do get exposed to various references like Ozu and Tarkovsky who become great influences for us. They talk about cinema in such a different light as though it is life itself. They must have seen life and nature at much more depth. I mean, if they themselves are such great references, I don’t know what their references would have been. Of course, they had their own influences because they come from a very rich heritage. Look at the films of Wong Kar Wai and the way he uses colors. That man really understood colors and what they do to human emotions.
Now, if you talk specifically about my craft as a cinematographer, there are various cinematographers all over the world whose work I have liked. But later on, I realized that it’s actually the director’s vision and the cinematographer’s contribution collectively that have influenced me, more than just the cinematographer. Because cinematography is actually trivial when compared to the larger picture. What are you going to say is far more important than how you are going to say or show it. Once you are convinced of what you are saying, then it’s just about capturing it. And capturing is the most easy part because its nothing but replicating with your influences. Now when does anything influence you? The fact that something has left a mark on you and you go back to it for reference is what influences are all about. But that happens only when you see it in a larger context and not just individually.