The Diving Camera- Exploring the Making of India’s Prime Underwater Cinematographer
[dropcap]P[/dropcap]riya Seth talks about her journey on how and what made her India’s prime underwater cinematographer.
What encouraged you to take this offbeat path?
I am a trained DP and shoot commercials. It was ad guru, Prahlad Kakkar, who started the process. One fine day, when I was shooting a commercial, he walked up to me and told me that I needed to dive. The moment I dived with the camera, I fell in love with both shooting underwater and being underwater. Everything that happened from there on was simply a natural progression.
Could you tell us a little about your partner, Anees?
Anees runs Underwater Film Services. He and I do a lot of work together. He basically coordinates all underwater shoots for the company. He is like an underwater film producer. It’s been six or seven years working together. There’s been quite a bit of struggle and we’ve now reached a stage where we do almost all the underwater shoots that are done in India each year.
Where did you get your training?
I took rigorous underwater training in Lakshadweep, at Prahlad’s place, with Anees. He was my instructor too.
How did you train for underwater cinematography? What would you say your style is?
My first five years were spent understanding how light behaves in water. The way light behaves in water is completely different from the way it behaves in air and off surfaces. Water is an organic body. You may think that you know what a certain kind of light is going to do in water, but the quality of water defeats your suppositions. Things, such as particulate matter, the time of the day,the depth of the water-body, the color of the tiles in a pool, the kind and the amount of pollutants in the water, whether the water is still or moving, make light react differently.
Till I developed that understanding, every time seemed like a first time. I now feel I can somewhat predict how light is going to express itself in a given water-body, but the learning curve has been steep. Also, as there is hardly any available light in water, we use very little of it. Unless and until we are trying to do something stylised, we try to light from above. Added lighting is the only way one can show the natural environment inside a water-body.
What are the challenges that you’d like to highlight?
The work of an underwater cinematographer is extremely challenging. Physically, it is very tiring. What we are doing has never been done in India. We break new ground with every shoot we do. We’ve done really complicated shoots such as car crashes in water, etc. Also, in India we don’t have a lot of equipment that makes work easier. Here, we are not seriously equipped in terms of underwater cranes, heads and motion-control. Therefore, our policy has been to figure things out as we go along. We have improvised and done underwater motion-control shots manually.
Does being a woman matter in some way in your profession?
I don’t think being either a woman or a man matters in the world of cinematography or underwater cinematography. Your gender is immaterial to the job of shooting something in front of you. All I know is that I just did what I wanted to do and I loved doing it.
You’ve straddled the world of advertising and film quite successfully. Which do you enjoy more? Which films have you worked on?
Three years ago, I did an independent film directed by Raja Menon called Barah Aanaa. I enjoy both advertising and films. They are two completely different beats. While filmmaking grooms you in narrative storytelling, advertising hones your craft in a different way, teaching you how to work with detail. Also, advertising is very self-indulgent, which is fun as well.
What kind of water-bodies have you shot in?
We’ve shot in all possible water-bodies, such as pools, lakes and seas. Currently, we’re in the middle of a big project for which we need to go into the sea. So yes, bring us any water-body and we’ll get inside it.
What depths of water do you shoot at and why?
We normally shoot at a depth of 6 to 8 meters max if we have actors because a) you have to be careful and keep them comfortable, and b) there is no need to go deeper to shoot a scene with people in it. We go deeper only if we need to shoot marine-life in a water-body for intercuts, etc. Then we could go as deep as 20 to 30 meters.
What kind of training do actors need to go underwater?
We make actors undergo specialised training before they go and shoot a scene in water. That’s where Anees comes in. We hold extensive meetings with the production units of the films we’re working on to get them to understand that and prepare accordingly. Suppose there’s a scene in which a car crashes into water and an actor has to find his way out of it. For it, Anees would have to train the actors first. He would have to familiarise them with the action sequence. Also, while rehearsing with them underwater, he would need to train them to attempt the sequence without masks as in the real shoot they would not have that piece of equipment clamped to their body. Anees handles all this entirely on his own as that’s his expertise. Before an actor shoots with us, we make it a must that he gets all basic scuba diving training done. As Anees is also our underwater supervisor, he is in-charge of their safety too. Any shoot, therefore, does not proceed till he has overseen and confirmed all safety norms and precautions. Our safety considerations are very large as we are quite like an action team. Even though we are a very cohesive team, we manage to cover all aspects of the business quite well.
Could you tell us about an exciting venture of yours?
Last year, we shot a Fiat Linea commercial in which an entire Linea was assembled underwater. We had a special team that built the car underwater from scratch. The engine was the only thing that was missing. Everyone thought it was CG because it was so seamless. In reality, 90% of it was live-recorded footage. It was quite interesting to see that we could accomplish something that complicated. Every underwater shoot is interesting in its own way as different shoots give birth to different points of interest and bring us face to face with different problems. Our shooting in Pondicherry for Reema Kagti’s, Talaash, was eye-opening too as it was our first experience shooting in a lake.
What’s the kind of equipment you generally use: 5D Mk II, 7D, and stuff?
No (laughs). We actually shoot on film. We’re just beginning to get into 5D and 7D because we felt that sometimes we would also need cameras that would be mobile. Otherwise, we still shoot on 35 mm film underwater cameras. There’s a big housing by a company called HydroFlex, Inc. We shoot on 35 mm and Arri cameras with ultra-prime and master-prime lenses. They are generally big bulky set-ups. But they’re beautifully designed for underwater shoots and are simply weightless. That’s the kind of gear we use most of the time. So yes, we’re very, very big. We have lights on massive industrial cranes when we are shooting. We create massive set-ups when we require them.
How do you think do the Indian underwater cinematographers stand vis-à-vis their equals in the West?
I think we are better than underwater shooting teams globally because we make do with a lot less. We don’t have the luxuries of the amount of infrastructure that they do. So we need to adapt, somehow make do, and still produce stuff that looks as good as anything. The references that we are shown generally are international references that have been done with expensive gears, which we don’t have in India. But we can’t use that as an excuse as nobody would accept it for an explanation. So we manage with what we have and still put together a good performance. We hardly have any specialised underwater lights apart from two insignificant ones. So we make do with other stuff. Therefore, I think we’re actually much better. This situation of lack of funds and machinery prevails in all forms of shooting here. In spite of that, I would say, we are capable of producing commercials and films that could rival anything that is produced in the West.
What kind of subjects do you shoot? Do you do underwater marine-life etc.?
No, I don’t do so much of natural wildlife stuff. I do Bollywood wildlife (laughs). I don’t shoot National Geographic kind of stuff. I shoot commercials. I shoot films. I shoot underwater. That’s what I do.
What’s your message to those who are all kicked up about shooting underwater?
Dive deep down. Come on, join us. We’re still growing, we’re still expanding. So the more is the number of people who want to do this, the better it is. So join the club.