The idea of shooting a film in India intrigued me – Jeffery Bierman
Before Shakun Batra’s Kapoor & Sons came his way, Los Angeles-based cinematographer Jeffery F. Bierman had never even been to India. Even though it was a film rooted in Indian culture, which Bierman is unfamiliar with, he could connect with the human emotions in the story. No wonder that this talented Director of Photography received much commendation for his recent Bollywood debut. With no understanding of the language, Bierman solely relied on the eyes and body language of the actors to move and place the camera and capture the moments with perfection. In a freewheeling conversation, Bierman shares his first experience in Bollywood and much more.
How did Kapoor & Sons happen? How were you approached for the film?
Kapoor & Sons came to me as a surprise. I have been working in Los Angeles for the past eight years and in February 2015 I received a message from my agent about a potential project in India. I had never worked in India or even been here before but somehow Shakun (Batra, Director) had come across my work and responded to it. The idea of shooting a film in India intrigued me and they sent the script for me to read. I was immediately pulled into the story, which felt very authentic. Even though it is a film set within Indian culture, which I am unfamiliar with, all of the human emotions are universal and I could connect to that. I had my agent set up a call between us and after that initial talk Shakun and I could tell that it was going to be a great collaboration between like-minded artists. The next day I was offered the job.
What was director Shakun Batra’s brief to you?
Shakun wanted to make a film based in reality, which would portray the family and characters as they were, without over-dramatizing them. We talked about a lot of films including those by Woody Allen and independent cinema that uses very simple camera work to allow the truth of the characters to shine through. We didn’t want to utilize camera language to underline the emotion. Shakun and Ayesha (Devitre)’s script was so well written that it didn’t require that approach and had we used that, it could have turned into melodrama. So the main thing was making the spaces feel real and letting the characters inhabit that space, so that we could connect with them and their journey and the dynamics between the whole family.
Even though it is a film set within Indian culture, which I am unfamiliar with, all of the human emotions are universal and I could connect to that
Kapoor & Sons is set in the lovely hill station of Coonoor. How did you want to capture the picturesque beauty of the place?
Coonoor is such a beautiful town in the hills with green lush tea plantations and nature surrounding it. Everyone on the crew fell in love with the romance of the scenery. It was a bit of a challenge for us dramatically because even though Coonoor is so beautiful, we didn’t want the film to be about that or let the beauty distract the audience from the complicated relationships in the film. Much of the film takes place in the interiors so we have used the open spaces of Coonoor to give moments of clarity to the story.
According to you, what role has the camera played in making the family appear real?
For me the camera was integral to making the family appear real. We shot on location for all the house interiors, which really allowed us to keep those spaces true to life. Our process of designing the camera work was very fluid. We had a lot of designed ideas but we always allowed our curiosity of drama and truth to have a say during rehearsals and blocking. That kept us relying on our gut instincts for what felt right, instead of counting on some intellectual concept that was conceived during prep. And my goal on this film, as it often is in my narrative work, was to allow the actors to be free in their movements.
I would make suggestions as to what positions may be better or worse for light and composition but the visual language for us was not relying on precisely designed compositions. And the more we shot the more we were drawn towards handheld camera work. It allowed so much freedom for the characters to explore, allowed me to respond and react to them, which give the image suspense because you never know what will happen next. We never wanted to rely on handheld because it just wasn’t right for every scene, some scenes needed to be built in static frames or steadicam or with elegant dolly moves. But I think we (Shakun and I) both fell in love with how the camera could connect with the actors when in handheld mode. That was one of the most enjoyable processes for me. Handheld camera work on a film like this is a real dance and as an operator, I need to be so in tune with the actors.
I had an English language script but I don’t speak Hindi so I never knew what was being said during the scenes. So while operating I would rely on the eyes and body language of the actors to push and pull my camera. It was an incredible experience because I never once felt like I was missing out on some moment. Instead, it allowed me to connect to the subtext of the scenes, which is what the visuals of a film are meant to do.
Did you see any Hindi films before shooting Kapoor & Sons?
The only Hindi film that I had seen before shooting Kapoor & Sons was Shakun’s first feature Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu – which is a really lovely film, with great performances and was beautifully shot by David MacDonald. I didn’t feel the need to watch Hindi films before shooting this movie. Shakun didn’t bring me on because of my extensive knowledge of Indian cinema but because he was drawn by my style and camerawork so I wanted to stay authentic to myself, knowing that would be the most honest path.
Handheld camera work on a film like this is a real dance and as an operator, I need to be so in tune with the actors
Unlike the West, Bollywood has a prominent song and dance culture in its films. How was the experience of shooting the songs in this film?
Shooting the songs was a lot of fun. I have shot a lot of music videos before so it wasn’t totally dissimilar to that experience but the level of production and excitement is different. During our first week of production, we shot Kar Gayi Chull. We shot that on a backlot where our production designer Sarada Ramaseshan built an incredible house that was the interior and exterior of Tia’s (Alia Bhatt) house in the film.
One of the first things that happened when I arrived in India was the layout of that set. I showed up on the first day of prep and they were laying out where the structure would be. Then we went to Coonoor for four days to scout and when we returned the entire house was built. I was amazed by the possibilities here. Back home that would have been a real challenge to accomplish it in that time frame. And Sarada was always focused on the details; it was great collaborating with her. So at the end of our first week, we shot Chull which was a massive house party scene with 200 extras, dancers and huge night exterior lighting on cranes. Shakun really wanted to go all out on this one and make a really fun song that young people and the older generation could get excited about. We shot for four days on that song from 6pm to 6am every night. It was a real blast to experience a proper Hindi song and dance.
So did your team from Los Angles accompany you to India or did you have a new team here in India?
I was the only one on my team from the US. The producers from Dharma – Danesh Irani and Pravin Khairnar connected me with my assistant Vidushi Tiwari who was absolutely great. I’m not sure I could have done it without her. She was the link from my ideas to executing them. She was there with me during the entire prep as we shot tests and made decisions regarding lighting and camera work. Her dedication to the project and keen eye for lighting was a great support on the film. Between Vidushi and the producers at Dharma we assembled the rest of my key crew members which included steadicam operator Kapil Verma, gaffer Imran Usay, key grip Imran Khan and focus puller Sunil Pandey. Everyone on my team brought a passionate attitude and love for the craft. It was a real pleasure to work with such talented technicians and artists. We had a lot of fun working together, and they all helped me to learn a little of the Hindi language along the way.
My journey into cinema really just started with my curiosity of people
Tell us about the camera setup, lenses and lighting technique used in Kapoor & Sons.
We shot the film on the Alexa XT in ArriRaw using Cooke S4 lenses all provided by Futureworks. For most scenes, I rated the camera between 200 and 400 ISO to create a very tight and smooth image. Our lighting package had everything from handmade lights that Imran built to my specs just for the shoot, up to 9K HMI’s. We focused mostly on soft light, bounced or diffused to provide a natural feel that was real to the cloudy town of Coonoor. Our DI was done at Futureworks with colorist Tushar Jadhav who spent nearly two months laboring over each shot with me, working with a delicate hand. Both of us would stand guard and protect the image from being manipulated. We wanted it to feel as natural and pure as possible. And he did a fantastic job.
How difficult, easy or different was the process of shooting a Hindi film as compared to your previous works?
I wouldn’t say that shooting a Hindi film was particularly challenging as opposed to the other movies that I have shot. But I did want to make sure that I understood the culture as it was related to the film. That was important to me. The only other main challenge was language but Shakun, Vidushi and the rest of the cast and crew made that very easy for me.
Going back to your initial days, tell us about your foray into films?
My journey into cinema really just started with my curiosity of people. I’m always interested in what makes people tick and photographing people is my favorite way to explore and express that. When I was a teenager I found cameras and learned what they could do to express emotions and ideas. From that point, it turned into a passion and obsession. Image making is one of my greatest loves.
You have largely shot documentaries and short films before Kapoor & Sons. Was shooting a full length feature any different?
I like approaching cinema from a documentary mind because it focuses me on the truth of moments. For every shot that I look at through the lens, I ask myself “do I believe this?” and if I don’t then we keep working on it till we do. That’s also how I approach lighting. I always start with the natural light and see what gifts it offers me and from there I see how it can be molded into something that stops being objective, and transforms the space through the color and mood into a statement about the space and the characters.
Your stint in Mumbai has also made you experiment with and capture the city through your lens. How would you sum up your adventure in this city?
Mumbai is a beautiful place. On my last trip I began exploring black and white photography in Mumbai, which isn’t the natural impulse because the culture and city have so many vibrant colors but in black and white all the textures take precedent, which I really enjoyed focusing on. I plan to work more in Mumbai shooting Editorial Fashion Photography as a personal project.
Are you open to doing more projects in India? If yes, what kind of films do you wish to do?
I would love to keep shooting films and other projects in India. I’m open to many types of stories and I like to be surprised by what is coming around the corner. So I will let fate decide which project comes to me next.