Cinematographer KU Mohanan gives tips on shooting low-budget films
In an exclusive chat with Pandolin, well-known cinematographer KU Mohanan shares points to remember to create visually appealing frames without the fancy paraphernalia that usually accompanies the shooting crew on a film set.
He’s lionised the suave gangster in a slick and stylish way in Don, as well as brought alive the grime of 80s’ B-grade cinema in Miss Lovely. Be it documentaries, television commercials or movies, this Director of Photography has created visuals of all colours and lengths. He is KU Mohanan – a Film and Television Institute of India graduate and a noted cinematographer – who effortlessly fine-tunes his camera for big-budget projects (Talaash, We Are Family, Aaja Nachle, etc.) and out-of-the-box idea-driven films (John and Jane, Y Not?, Naukar Ki Kameez and others).
The soft-spoken DOP, who began his career as a cameraman for documentary films, often makes time for projects that satiate his thirst for artistically driven visuals. “Recently, I did a film called Miss Lovely. It was a low-budget film, but it was an artistic film. It was meant for film festivals and serious film viewers. It was a strong idea-based film where actors, like any other crew, are part of the story. It’s not like a Shah Rukh (Khan) film, where the star is the USP. So when I come across a script, even if it is low-budget, if it excites me I work on it very passionately. I decide to work within the means. You find the solution for everything. Actually, in filmmaking there is no one particular way of doing anything or approaching an idea. And I think even for low budget films you can create great visuals,” says Mohanan.
Further he adds, “These days a lot of people use still cameras to shoot movies. Canon makes cameras like EOS 5D, and entire films are shot with these cameras. These cameras are very light sensitive. So if you are shooting night street scenes, you can do it with the available light. Ten or fifteen years ago it was not easy to shoot low-budget films, ‘coz equipment cost a lot. Today in Rs 3-4 lakhs you can hire a basic shooting camera and editing equipment. You can also record the voice in the recorder as the quality is really good. If you really have a great idea then the cost of filmmaking has actually come down. In Rs 10-20 lakhs you can make a film. So many films that go to the festival circles are made using these still cameras. It doesn’t require so much post-production either.”
Step 1: Team work
“Filmmaking is a collaborative art. A director is like the conductor in the music orchestra, and everyone works towards creating his vision. So everyone, from the director to cinematographer to production designer to costume people, should work together and be in sync. This helps to create the right setting despite limitations.”
Step 2: Extensive location scouting
“Even if it is a low-budget film, one can find the right location/setting for the film. One must spend adequate time in scouting locations. Personally, I think spending more in pre-production is the first step to ensure a controlled and conducive environment to shoot.
For Miss Lovely we went through an extensive scouting process. It went on for months. First, one of the director’s assistant went to find the right locations for the story. The assistant returned with pictures of the locations. Then we shortlisted locations, and the main crew – consisting of the director and I – visited the places before finalising it.”
Step 3: Real spaces
“Another thing with locations is that for a low-budget film creating/constructing a set becomes very expensive. So the best option to cut cost is to find a suitable location. I personally find a real location a lot better than a set as it gives a certain kind of texture, and the lived-in feeling lends a mood to the space. In Miss Lovely every scene was shot at a real location. The worker’s room in a mill was converted as Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s character’s room in the film. We turned many nooks and corners of a particular shutdown mill, which no longer exists, into locations for the film as it lent an interesting vibe to the scene.”
Step 4: Lighting
“If one doesn’t have budget to hire lights, then one should study each and every location thoroughly – what are the available sources of natural light, its timing, its direction, the best time to shoot, the required mood in the scene, the position of camera et al. One should also understand the limitations of the equipment (camera, lenses, etc.). However, one can always fabricate normal bulbs and tubes to create bright and clear visuals. On big-budget films when you have the equipment, you don’t use your brains so much. You can get whatever you want. But on low-budget projects you have to be mentally prepared and be innovative.”
Step 5: Innovation
“There’s one sequence in Miss Lovely in which a female character has a showdown with the character Vicky. In a scene where Vicky is following her was to be shot in the outdoors – a forest road. I had planned to shoot the scene in the evening before it gets dark, so I don’t have to light up the area. But by the time we finished shooting it got very dark outside. I had a few lights, and it wasn’t sufficient to light up the entire road. Also I didn’t want to light it too much. So then we came up with the idea to brighten the place with car headlights. The entire scene was played against the car headlight. I think the scene turned out visually beautiful. So you have to improvise and your thinking cap should always be on.”
Step 6: Framing
“A lot of times you don’t have the desired locations so you have to learn to play. For instance, you may not always have the luxury of a big location, so if you are shooting in a small place with bare minimum things, then you should use a certain kind of lens and avoid going full wide. And create the mood within the space. You compromise, but by way of framing the scene you can make the situation work in your favour. There are so many situations in Miss Lovely shot like that.”