Telling the story is the same almost everywhere – Martin Preiss
Los Angeles-based internationally acclaimed Cinematographer Martin Preiss is a product of Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts (FAMU) in Prague. Preiss recently made his Bollywood debut with Raabta. While talking to Pandolin, Preiss shares how shooting this foreign language film in a new country has taught him a lot about life, filmmaking and creativity. Here are excerpts from the conversation in which Preiss reveals how he used the most expensive lenses ever in a Bollywood movie.
You are a Czech cinematographer, writer and director. How did a Bollywood film like Raabta happen?
Well, it’s a story. One day, I woke up at 3 a.m. in my Los Angeles apartment because my European phone was ringing. I picked it up and somebody from Prague asked me if I was interested in doing a movie in Hungary. I said I was, but I told them I was in California and it was the middle of the night and if they could call later. When I woke up, I had zillion missed calls from India. So I called back, and was put in touch with Dino (Dinesh Vijan, Director). We set up a Skype call and immediately clicked together. After reading the script, which I personally really liked, I sent him some visual references. After the presentation, I talked to my agent Ann Murtha and a week later was on my way to Hungary to my first location scout. So it happened really fast. There were other really good DPs that Dino was considering, so I must have caught his eye with something. I think the collaboration worked.
How different was it to shoot a Bollywood film as compared to your previous projects?
Not much, telling the story is the same almost everywhere. You need to prepare it as much as you can and be ready to improvise. It took me some time to adjust to the Indian crew style, which is completely different from what I’m used to in US or Europe. But I had a great 1st AC, Bobby Sanivarapu. He’s an excellent professional who helped me a lot in navigating through renting and on set time. Later, in the Indian portion, we had Syed Mohammed Husain and he organized the crew excellently as well. And I would like to mention the Hungarian/Czech crew as well, which basically made it feel as any other European or American production. So there was not much difference. The Flat Packs film production company in Hungary really had top of the game Line Producers, and they all provided excellent service.
Tell me more about the visual treatment of the film, since there are two parts to the story – one set in a period era and the other in contemporary times. Also what color palettes did you choose for the parts?
For me, there are three parts of the story: the Romantic Comedy, the Drama in the past and the Thriller at the end. So I was trying to subtly make progress in order to create more of a dramatic look and keep some colors and artifacts peering through time from the past to present. I call it layering and I believe that the audience can feel these layers unconsciously. The more layers you can fit, the better. We talk here about visual storytelling, which I’m always trying to put into my movies. The visual rhythm, contrast, colors, lines and shapes. I made a graph and a visual treatment of these changes and wrote to Dino saying, “There are some locations, some lighting and some color that will be inspirational, but this will never show how the film will look. I don’t copy – I create truth through my vision, inspiration, and through my whole experience here on earth. I create the picture for the film. It will bubble to the surface through the preparation process from my inside.”
And that’s basically what happened. There is some link when I see some prep pictures and the final frames in the movie. But it always bubbles on set, on location with actors, and with available time and money. Some parts were superbly prepared and the shots are almost the same as on the storyboard. Sometimes we improvised.
Bollywood films are a lot about song and dance, which must be a completely different concept for you. What approach did you follow?
That was the difficult part as I don’t do music videos much. But Dino and Homi (Adajania, Co-Producer) were a great help in this as they made the songs into integral parts of the story, so I could relate to them. It was different from what I’ve seen in Bollywood movies, when suddenly the main character travels in one frame from India to Iceland and you don’t understand why they are there, as it doesn’t have any connection with the story. So, songs that illustrate what is happening in a movie is something I could work with. When we shot ‘Sadda Move’ in Amritsar, I must say that Ahmed Khan (Choreographer) saved me. That part of the shoot was really crazy for me, and basically all the credit for what you see goes to him. I merely supervised it. Ahmed Khan is such a great Cinematographer so I didn’t change much, as it was already great.
Which camera and lens kit did you use and why? Which other key equipment has been used in the film?
We used mainly two Alexas XTs with Hawk V-Lite Anamorphic lenses from Vantage Prague. I must say a big thanks to the producers of Raabta who believed me when I said that we would need those lenses to tell the story correctly and to get this equipment from Europe, as apparently they were the most expensive lenses ever used in a Bollywood movie. We had the full package, not just a few lenses. I chose those great lenses as we agreed to shoot in a classical anamorphic 1:2.35 ratio. The lenses have great color and feel. I tested almost seven sets of different lenses thanks to Vantage’s manager Jindrich Cipera, who provided this ability to choose the right lens for this project.
As it was mainly a romantic story, I wanted smooth skin tones, warmer feel and almost dreamy edges. Anamorphic gives you specific bokeh and beautiful flares. And all these “flaws” make the picture stand out. I’m not a big fan of a “clean” picture. I’m always trying to bend it somehow for the purpose of the story. For the underwater sequences, we used Mini with Zeiss Primes, as that was the only combo we could fit to the housing. Well actually we had two housings, so some shots are made underwater on Hawks as well.
I learned a lot on this shoot. I’m a dive-master and I shot underwater, but this experience pushed the envelope much further for me. It was a challenging four days and I admire the actors, who went from never diving before to doing it so amazingly. We used RED Epic as well for some “C” camera shots and various Drones. We went from big heavy ones to DJI Inspire to my personal DJI Mavic.
How much of VFX assistance was employed in the film? Which parts has VFX largely been used for?
That’s probably a question for my good friend Jaykar Arudra, who is the VFX supervisor. There are a lot blue screen shots, even when we went to shoot the period part in Mauritius. There’s always something you need to avoid. So the use of VFX is necessary. Basically we mostly used it for background swap. We needed big waterfalls, which we couldn’t get to in Mauritius, so that’s one swap. Then an edge of a high cliff forest etc. So the crew built some enormous blue screens (so far the biggest I’ve worked with). But I had a good experience with VFX work so I hope it was easy for Jaykar as well.
And what kind of an experience was it to work with Dinesh Vijan as he is a debutant director?
We say we are like brothers. We have similar taste and similar history. It was a great collaboration. He has thousands of ideas and is a very good producer. To be a director and a producer on set is very difficult, as sometimes what you need to do goes against the other’s goals. He was very generous and we had lots of fun on set.
Did you watch any Bollywood films before shooting Raabta. Any movies you saw for reference?
No, I didn’t want to be influenced with the standard style of Bollywood. Basically I want to find my own style after I read a script. I watch so many films in a year— almost one each day so I have a lot of references in my head. I’ve seen all of the 250 top films on IMDB and many more and I recommend every filmmaking student to do that. But as I said above, I don’t copy, at least consciously.
How would you sum up your experience of shooting in India?
It was a growing experience. India is an amazing country with wonderful people and I learned a lot about life, filmmaking, creativity and more. I would not change this experience for anything else. It was a blast. And I became a bit more humble I hope. I also learned to live more in the present day. We Westerners tend to worry about the future and past. I think you (Indians) cope much better with it than we do, so that was excellent. I also found new friends, Homi Adajania is my cup of tea and I enjoyed every second with him on and off set. I would love to do a film with him. I became friends with many great co-workers like our first AD Siddharta Luther, my AC Bobby and the DIT guys Viki Vivek and Tanmay Kant.
While working on the film, which areas did you feel that Indian films need to focus more on?
There would be plenty. But that is everywhere. It always seems to me, from the little I have seen in Bollywood cinema, that the woman characters and overall story is bit mono-thematic. An orphaned girl, a boy that loves her and a villain with lots of songs. The woman characters look like they are in control of the story, but they are not at all. The man rules. Not many Indian films would pass the Bechdel test. But as I said, I might have seen the 250 top IMDB films, but I’m a complete novice to Indian cinema. I’ve seen some, but not enough to really make an argument point. On the other hand, some business ethics could be straightened and made more transparent and trustworthy
You have received various awards at international film festivals. Raabta happens to be a commercial film but would you also like to explore non-commercial Indian Indie films?
I would love to. I’ve seen some interesting independent films from India. The official Oscar nomination for 2016 Visaranai was a film I saw here in Los Angeles and I liked it a lot. It was well-built and the characters were interesting. I would be interested in a strong drama script.