Baby is not ‘filmy’ at all – Sudeep Chatterjee
Noted cinematographer Sudeep Chatterjee talks about the making of action thriller, Baby, and what sets it apart from other films in the genre.
How did your association with Baby happen? What were Neeraj Pandey’s visual requirements for the film?
Neeraj and I have liked each other’s previous films and there was a mutual desire to work together. He connected with me and since I had some time on hand before starting to shoot Bajirao Mastani, Baby fit my schedule. The movie was shot in barely 45 days. Neeraj’s style of storytelling is quite exciting and I was keen to work with him. The nature of action in the film is also different from what I have done in Dhoom 3 where the idea was to make it spectacular and entertaining. Baby is realistic, hardcore and has a lot of hand-to-hand combat.
Neeraj’s films are content-driven and extremely honest. The premise is generally around contemporary current affairs, which every common man can relate to. The characters, the setting — everything is real. So as a DOP, the primary job is to make the scene believable. Secondly, this film required a certain gritty look. And I thought of adding a little style within the realism. Neeraj was fine with it as long as it didn’t distract us from the story. We achieved this through lensing, framing, composition and lighting. However every space has its own lighting and in a realistic situation, an office has to look like an office and so on. You cannot do something not required and achieve style that way. We put in a lot of work in selecting the locations so that we could achieve a lot of variation within the shot. For instance, there is a shot that starts at one place, goes through a corridor, turns up a dark staircase, then comes out into the exterior and so on. So we got a variety of lighting in a single shot. Another strong style visible in the film is the long Steadicam shots that Neeraj likes.
Were there any visual references that you started out with?
There were no references as such. We just spoke about films such as Zero Dark Thirty, Jarhead and The Hurt Locker that are realistic yet have style.
According to you, what sets Baby apart from other films shot in the action genre?
I think that Baby is not ‘filmy’ at all. There are convincing fights. Akshay plays a middle-aged man, runs and fights like one and he isn’t doing herogiri. You see the villain bashing and overpowering him. It is gritty and believable and that sets it apart.
Tell us about your camera and set up? What rigs have been employed for the various action sequences?
We have mostly used a single camera and a lot of Handheld and Steadicam. I’ve shot with ARRI Alexa XT using ARRIRaw with Master Prime lenses. We have used a lot of Block lenses and few Optimo Zooms for a couple of scenes. My Steadicam Operator, Devendra Das, has done fabulous work in the film along with my Focus Puller, Pravin Anumolu. When you see the film you can see the long Steadicam shots with complex focus pulling and taking. I did a lot of exposure pulling myself — something that I’ve never done before. The camera would pass through various light zones and I had a remote control device attached to the exposure ring for the exposure pulling. For example, there is a scene where we have controlled exposure from F22 to F2. It is shot in a Delhi shopping mall with Rana (Daggubati) where the camera is in the exterior and the exposure was F22. As Rana runs out and gets down a staircase, we slowly keep opening the exposure and the camera travels to the basement in a single shot. The exposure in the basement was F2.
What kind of framework and lensing have you worked with?
Neeraj doesn’t like to complicate frames or put foregrounds. He prefers simple, straight frames that tell the story directly. And I agreed to try and explore things I haven’t done before. There is a sequence where Akshay and Danny (Denzongpa) are discussing something and walking in a corridor. The shot has a lot of extra headroom and is not composed the way it is expected to be composed. There is another sequence at the Army airbase, where you have huge Air Force planes and you can clearly see how big the planes are compared to the men. So when Akshay is running next to the plane, he appears like a dot. That is how we composed the shots.
You have gone with a natural, dim lit look. Could you elaborate on the thought behind this? Please share specific scenes from the film that involved intricate lighting technique?
Every location has its own light and we pretty much went with the flow; just tweaked it in places. For instance, the beginning action sequence was shot in Istanbul in a warehouse. We replaced a few bulbs and made little changes in the windows so that we get our look and the desired contrast in such a way that it also looks like a part of the frame. We used to manipulate practical lighting in the room.
Another big thing that needs to be mentioned is the long climax shot that involved shooting a highly secret operation in the desert. The biggest challenge was to shoot this at night. We thought of lighting it as much as possible but when I saw the location, I was so impressed with the landscape that I told Neeraj that I want to shoot the entire climax Day for Night. The dicey part in this was that everything gets converted into night. And the sequence is such that the characters keep moving in and out of light. So one had to integrate a lot of artificial light as well. Our VFX supervisor, Viral, and I spent a lot of time in planning how the light should be integrated. We shot the entire sequence Day for Night and also shot at night picking up reference plates. We then lit up the resort building at night to take night plates and replaced the building in the day shots. It’s the first time we have done something like this.
Among the locations you shot in, which was the most difficult terrain?
Abu Dhabi was the most difficult to shoot in terms of physical difficulty. We shot in July at 53 degree for the Day for Night climax. It was extremely hot and there is no respite in the desert.
Take us through the desert sequence shot using the Octocopter. Why did you choose the Octocopter? What sets it apart from other equipment?
A lot of aerial shots have been taken from the helicopter. But there were some sequences in the desert where I wanted the camera to go close to the sand dunes. If a helicopter comes really low towards the sand dunes, the sand particles fly and it gets distracting. So the scenes where the camera grazes the sand dunes wouldn’t have been possible without an Octocopter.
I had previous experience of shooting with an Octocopter in one of the Nikon commercials with Priyanka Chopra. It wasn’t a pleasant experience, as the camera crashed. But when I spoke to the Octocopter handlers from Dubai, saw their reel and tested their equipment, I was convinced that it was the way to go.
How did you shoot the other aerial scenes seen in the film?
All other aerial shots were taken from the regular helicopter with proper Gyro Stabilized Head. Even in Abu Dhabi, the aerial shots of the city, etc. were taken from the helicopter.
What was your approach to shooting the chase sequence on the bridge?
These shots were always difficult to execute because we were shooting on the streets and Akshay is a popular star. We had a sequence in Nepal that was shot in a crowded, touristy place with Akshay walking. Some other street shots in Istanbul had Indian tourists around so we had to keep the camera hidden and quickly take the shot. A lot of advance planning and rehearsal without the actors and camera goes into such shots. For this particular sequence (chase on the bridge), the camera was placed at a beautiful café at the end of the bridge. We saw it (the café) during the recce and chose to shoot from there.
Could you please share the biggest sequences shot and your approach towards it?
One is the big chase sequence in Istanbul. It begins with a search, then action, a shootout, then a chase, then interrogation. The sequence had very big shots with the actors running through cafes and streets. It was difficult to execute because if you miss the shot, you cannot do it again. And the other big sequence is the Day for Night climax.
How VFX heavy is the film and for what kind of sequences has it been employed?
VFX is largely employed for the Day for Night sequence. Other than that very little VFX has been used to add some mountains, erase some building, a little wire work etc. There is an action sequence set in Marine Drive in Mumbai that you obviously couldn’t shoot there , so VFX was used.
Please tell us about the Post Production and your team?
The DI was done at Prime Focus. Ashirwad Hadkar is my colorist with whom I have a very long association. My team comprises of my Chief Assistant Cameraman, Anirban Chatterjee, Focus Puller, Pravin Anumolu, Gaffer, Shyam Shukla and Second Assistant Cameraman, Huentsang Mohapatra. These are people who have worked closely with me for several years.
I would also like to thank my senior Sudheer Palsane who filled in for me when the dates got shifted and I had to start shooting Bajirao Mastani. We requested Sudheer and he completed the things that I couldn’t finish including an action sequence on Bombay streets, some interior patch stuff that he matched really well and some other things.