Making of Department

[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hether it’s doing ‘illegal things legally’ or breaking rules left, right and centre, there’s no denying that when it comes to making films, RGV has style. His latest release, Department, starring AB Sr, Sanjay Dutt and Rana Daggubatti is about a suspended cop trying to free the city from the underworld nexus. However, it’s more than that. Department is a heady experiment, challenging age-old camera techniques, audience expectations and the entire language of filmmaking. What results might set your pulse racing, or give you a headache. But try as much as you can, there’s no ignoring the edgy camerawork of a movie that credits multiple cinematographers.

Pandolin speaks with cinematographers Sapan Narula, Sidhartha More and Harshaj Shroff about what went on behind-the-scenes on this experimental film.
Sapan Narula
How was your experience working on ‘Department’?

RGV as a director is a whole new ballgame. He wanted to change the whole format of filmmaking. Last year, a few students (from FXSchool) and I shot a small budget film with him on DSLRs. He was so kicked about the idea. There were no restrictions as such. You could place the camera anywhere, run around with it, put it under the table, on the rooftop, throw it around. With Department having such a big star cast, RGV was excited to see how they would adapt to such a setting. They adapted. What was a rehearsal for them would become a take for us. So, they’d say let’s start the day, and we’d say we’re already done. There was also a lot of fun and action involved. We setup as many cameras as we could get our hands on in many different configurations.

What was RGV’s vision to make the film look different?

We were never allowed to light any scene. So we would have to discuss with the art director, Tarun Ahuja, and pre light the whole set. We used CFLs and lamps and natural light, of course. We had to open the aperture and use fast lenses. As a result, the film looks very raw and real. It doesn’t look like a film at all.

Achieving a lot of contrast with DSLRs can be tricky. How did you do it?

We used lots of presets available in the camera itself. You need to cut the contrast so that you have more latitude in the shadows and highlights, so that there is more bandwidth in the D.I. to play around with. We used Zeiss lenses that are softer, and made the scene look good.

We are taught to change the light and not the camera settings. The way you’ve shot has completely changed that. How was it shooting this way?

Well, it gave the film a raw feel and that’s what we wanted. We wanted to avoid doing a lot of work in post. During our last film, Not a love story, we were in post up until a day before the release, so we decided to minimize pressure on the D.I. this time around.

What system do you use for the D.I?

DaVinci Resolve.

What were your ideas for the look and the feel of the film?

In the initial meetings, RGV wanted it all raw, but we tried to make it grungy as well. We’ve played around with the texture of the footage, done a bit of cross processing as well, like yellow highlights and violet shadows. It’s a peculiar look. It’s not a period film but goes back a bit in history. Like a sequence that’s happening in the 90s. We’ve used reds in Mr. Bachchan’s den, to give it a very don-kind of feeling…

Ah, the evil look…

Oh no, he’s not evil. (laughs)

How did you decide the framing? There are a lot of wide shots.

Most of the angles were wider and fish-eyed. No director will say, “Use a fisheye for the actor’s close up.” Only RGV will say that. (laughs) Lots of cameras are placed at a low angle to give the actors a larger than life look. The choice of angle was to show a particular thing in the best possible way. Like when we made kids throw the GoPro around like a ball. There’s no rule followed. No line of action. It was just crazy. The actors are performing and four camera angles are capturing the whole process like a documentary. One shot went from the fan to a character, then around to Dutt and then to Bachchan, flips twice and then goes to the actors again, and here I am, doing a sword-fight with a monopod. Ramu was game for anything new.

Did you use a steadicam?

We used the Merlin. Sometimes there was no time to even use the tripods, so we used small beanbags we made ourselves. We’d just throw it there, the camera was steady and static, and that’s all we needed.

How did you work with the art director?

We used a lot of different sets. As we didn’t use any cinema lights, we’d request him to put certain lights in the set, so he was very helpful indeed. We used lamps, CFLs and tubelights so we got a mood to it. We let it flicker because it looked good. The art director wasn’t fussy at all. The choice of colors and clothing were important, so both the art and costume departments were extremely helpful. We’d tell them that you can’t use too many whites here, not too many checks there, as DSLRs have many small flaws and we wanted to avoid moire.

Did you choose any colors just for visual presentation?

The choice was according to character. Amitabh’s wearing just white, with a red scarf. Red is power, white is elegance and pure. Rana is in very plain simple clothes, so he looks like a normal guy who emerges a hero. The audience will connect to him, as he’s a simple guy. His introduction shot is amazing. Ramu wanted a shot where the camera starts from his foot while he’s riding a Bullet, so the camera goes up, around him, to his face, around him again and then off, and he’s riding towards camera. We achieved that with me sitting behind him on the Bullet with the Lumix GS2 and a 7mm lens on an inverted monopod, the camera dangling near his legs. The camera moves up and I take my arm around him and it goes in the front. When it’s in the front, another bike’s following us with a camera monopod and he goes in the front with it. Rana’s huge, so I was hiding behind him the whole time. We never respected any rule. It didn’t matter as long as we just achieved what we wanted to.

Why were there so many DoPs in this film?

There were no DoPs in the film. We were all Cinematographers. Everybody had their own thoughts, their own cameras and lenses. We all coordinated, which was the best part. You’re doing your own thing, shooting your own section the way you want to.

What was the greatest challenge you faced during filming?

Everyday was a challenge while filming. The biggest was trying to avoid coming into the frame, as there was so many cameras rolling together! The moment one would come into another’s frame we’d start screaming, “Get out of my frame!”
Sanjay Dutt
Siddhartha More

What was the principle idea you applied while filming ‘Department’?

For one, we were only told to shoot in natural light, and not use any other film light. Except for one or two shots indoor, where the light used is not the conventional film light but CFL lights we’ve made, most of the film is shot in natural light. Another thing was the camera angles. They were all decided by RGV and we were told to shoot angles that have never been seen before. So we’d climb on trees, go under the bed, etc. This was something we followed throughout the film. When you watch the film, you’d realize that there are shots you’ve never seen before in any movie, especially Bollywood ones.

How would you describe the look and feel of this movie as compared to any other RGV film?

There’s not only no comparison between this movie and any other film by RGV, but also between this movie and any other Bollywood movie. For example the shot where Sanjay Dutt is driving and the steering is in the foreground, those are the kind of shots taken in the film. You need to see the angles to believe it. We’ve used cameras the size of a matchbox, so we’ve gone into corners of rooms and cars that no one has before. That’s what makes the film so different.

The films seems very raw and grungy…

It is absolutely raw and very grungy. As RGV describes it, it’s rogue methodology. Not technology, but methodology. If you’ve seen Not a Love Story, that’s what we’ve done in the beginning of this movie, so you can only imagine the level of this film.

Are there any specific lights used in the film?

The reds in the movie are only for Amitabh’s character. We felt it added more meaning. It was decided on set and we shot it in complete red light. We used red ceiling lamps to light the whole room and another corner was yellow. The action sequences are all shot in natural light, so we didn’t use any lights there. There are two indoor sequences towards the end where we used tubelights. So we’ve tried to keep it as natural as we could, and didn’t use any cinema lights at all.

There are a lot of wide angles in the film?

Yes, we’ve used a lot of wide angles. While shooting, we used all the angles possible for the character, and even when you see the frame, there is no clean frame as such. Each frame is filled with a suggestion, a foreground, background, movement, etc. There are very few solo shots of the character, and that depends on the expression. We shot on multiple cameras, so we’d go off to different corners of the room when shooting, with the widest lenses we had. We used different wide lenses on each camera. We used the 7mm, the fisheye lenses, etc to create a dynamic frame and an angle never seen before.  We went the widest we could, and the closest as well. Like concentrating only on the eyes for instance. 
So many cameras, multiple digital formats…any concerns?

We’d already shot a few other movies on the digital format before shooting Department, so we knew the cameras and their limitations. The best thing about it all is that RGV was okay with it. He said he didn’t really want many colors in the film, and wanted it to look raw, so we weren’t really worried about the grading. When shooting with DSLRs, we shot with a minimum of 5-6 cameras for each scene, so even if one camera didn’t work, we still got the footage. If there were problems, we’d do a retake. However, RGV was okay with all the shots as we had created new angles, so people will actually notice the angle from which the shot is taken and not the grade or color of the film. Like the steering shots with Dutt, you’ll look at the angle of the shot, and not care about the quality and color.

Are you okay with compromising quality and just focusing on one aspect of the frame?

It depends on the Cinematographer. I can’t tell you about the very senior DOPs who shoot on film and feel differently about shooting on the 5D, but for me, I believe that I’m shooting a film and am not shooting to make it look good, but it has to go according to the script and what the director wants. Now, if the director is trying to achieve something, and in this case it was the different angles, then it can only be achieved with these cameras. If you wanted good quality and grading, then you’ll shoot on film and not get these angles. RGV selected these cameras specifically because of the angles, and the quality doesn’t really differ a lot. He could’ve shot on very expensive cameras too, but he did not, because he wanted to do something new. So quality really didn’t matter here. Besides we were shooting raw, hence it doesn’t really matter. For us, it was more important to give him different angles.

Which cameras did you use for filming?

We used the Canon 7D, 5D and 60D. We had the Lumix GH2 and the GoPro. We also had the Sony LX1.

Did you adjust the camera settings to match the other cameras?

Well, we tried our best to do that, but with so many cameras, we did have some problems when it came to matching colors, but we handled that in post so it wasn’t an issue. Four of us were shooting simultaneously and we knew what we were doing so we didn’t have to worry about all this. Once the lighting was done, we’d decide the camera settings and then we’d just shoot. We shot so many angles, that we didn’t miss anything. We obviously didn’t use all the angles. Sometimes one cameraman would enter another’s frame, but that’s fine, as we had other shots.

Four cinematographers. Four creative individuals in one place, shooting together. How was the experience? Were there any clashes?

All four of us graduated together from the FXSchool. We’ve worked on a few movies together before- a Telugu film and Not a Love Story. We never had any clashes as we all knew what we were doing. We all understood what RGV was doing so we didn’t have any problems.

How was it working in such an unconventional way with such big actors?

The actors were actually shocked in the beginning to see us work this way. When an actor like Amitabh Bachchan walks onto a set, there are big cameras, cutters, lights and so many people watching him. And then all that is removed with our film. There were the six of us, hiding in various corners of the set with six cameras. And the director. There are no lights, no big cameras, nothing. He would ask RGV, “In which camera do I have to look?” and RGV would answer, “You don’t look into any camera, just act.” That’s how natural it got. So the actor is free to do what he wants, and we’re capturing it from different angles.

Among the 5 Cinematographers who was making the major decisions?

It was a collaborative effort. We would all see what would look nice. There was nothing much to do, as we didn’t have to use lights. So what we’d do was go to the room before the shoot and decide, that if I were to live here, I’d put a tubelight here, a chandelier there and lamp in the corner. And then we’d shoot.
What was the greatest challenge you faced while filming?

I think it was finding angles that had never been shot before. So many movies have been made, each good in their own way. Finding different angles and making RGV happy was tough, but after a few days of shooting we knew what he wanted. The cameras worked very well in natural light, so that wasn’t a problem, but the challenge was to create something new.

What settings did you shoot on? Was it consistent throughout the film?

The settings weren’t consistent as such. When shooting in controlled light, it’s possible to keep your settings consistent, but as we were shooting in natural light, we had to keep adjusting the settings. So they changed everyday with the location and light. Yes, we played with the f-stops, shutter speed, ISO and even the color temperature all the time. For the wedding song, the lights kept changing. There were highlights, and then it would get cloudy. We didn’t even use a reflector while shooting the song. It was challenging to get a constant look here, especially since we were using 4 – 5 cameras for each sequence. So we kept changing the ISO, the shutter speed and f-stop again and again. We even changed settings in the middle of the shot. This was some experience. Even while shooting Amitabh’s den, we went down on the f-stop, to f2.8, so that we got a lot of blurs and focus shifts. This was to give you a feel of the character. The maximum we went on the ISO with the 5D and the 7D was 500.

Which shots are you really thrilled about?

In the starting credits, there’s a shot through the beer can. In another sequence, the camera’s attached to Rana’s head, where we can see a bit of his forehead and torso moving, but not his head. Also a shot where some kids are playing with a ball, we actually made them throw the camera.  So you don’t understand what’s happening in the beginning and then in the long shot it’s revealed that they’re playing with a ball.

How long did filming take?

It took around 9 months, though we didn’t shoot constantly. There were a lot of gaps in between.
Sanjay Dutt
Harshraj Shroff
How was your experience working on ‘Department’?

It was a very different experience as the whole film was shot handheld, in natural light, without the help of any cinema lights and in a manner where we didn’t have to keep any particular composition or framing in mind. So we broke all rules when it came to filmmaking. It was a completely new experience, especially when working in this manner with big stars.
Sidhartha and Sapan describe the film as raw and grungy. Given the various digital formats you’ve shot on, what were the challenges you faced during post, the D.I. in particular?

There were a total of 9 digital formats used in the film, including Lumix, Sony, GoPro, Weisscam, Red, 5D, 7D, 60D. It was challenging as I had just a week for the entire DI and it was a very tight schedule, especially since we had so many different formats. The main problem was matching two shots as we’d used four to six cameras for each scene. That was quite a task.
From what we’ve heard so far, it seems that the look and feel of the film wasn’t specified while shooting as the camera angles were given more importance. So how would you describe the look and feel after the D.I.?

I wouldn’t say that the look and feel wasn’t decided while shooting. We were about 95% sure of the look and feel and we used to chat with RGV about it. According to the look and situations, we’d decide on some weird angles- mount the camera on the head, on the hand, on the beer can, etc. Even the lighting was decided likewise. RGV would tell us if he wanted a particular scene grungier or with more contrast and we’d decide a scene that way.

How was it working with RGV? Was he very specific about what he wanted or did he give you creative freedom?

Working with RGV was very good. He’s very clear with what he wants in his shots. Like in a shot where he wanted to show Rana’s picture in the papers, he was very clear that he wanted the camera on the hand. He knew what he wanted and we wouldn’t waste time trying different things.

You say you overcame a lot of challenges during the D.I. How was your relationship with the colorist?

Ken was the supervisor, Mahesh was the colorist. We shared a good rapport and he understood the challenges. Matching 9 formats was a big challenge. We’d work more than 8 hours a day, discuss shots, how to match a scene, how to work around a flaw. He was of great help.  For instance, a shot in Amitabh’s den proved to be quite a challenge as a red source of light was used and matching that was very difficult. Eventually, we decided to grade and tone it in a way so as to merge it across all formats.

What was the greatest challenge you faced during filming?

Well, each day was a challenge for us as we had so many different angles to shoot from. The whole movie is full of different camera angles. We were nervous; we were working with big stars and didn’t know how they’d react. In some portions, Amitabh sir has even held the camera during the shot and taken the shot himself. Every day we’d go on the set, we had no idea what would happen. You could say we shot impromptu. RGV would come on set and say, “I want this shot” and achieving it would be the challenge.
Which shots are you really thrilled about?

There are quite a few. There’s one at the start of the film, where Sanjay Dutt is driving, and the camera goes round along with the steering wheel. Another one was with the camera behind the steering and another one was where the camera was on a beer can.