Reinventing Black and White with master cinematographer Sanu Varghese
[dropcap]It[/dropcap] is not every day that you come across a film that oozes style and aesthetic brilliance without the use of any color. Bringing back the good old charm of black and white but with a contemporary edge is Bejoy Nambiar’s David. The film has 3 distinct stories out of which one, set in London in the year 1975, is shot completely on black and white.
Shot in a bewildering play of lights and shadows by cinematographer Sanu Varghese, this sequence of the film boasts of deft camerawork and a distinct charm that create visual magic on screen. Here in conversation with Pandolin, Sanu shares his experience of recreating the beauty of black and white, its stark difference from shooting on color, the challenges faced, opportunities explored and more.
You have shot the black and white sequence of ‘David’. Whose idea was it to shoot it on black and white?
It was mainly Bejoy’s idea. Since the three stories in the film are inter cutting with each other they had to have a visual difference so that when you cut from one story to another, it immediately registers and there is no confusion about it. So he was very clear that he wanted three different looks for them. If you see the film, the sequences are distinct – one is cold, one is warm and one is black and white.
What was your principle approach to shooting on black and white?
I have shot some commercial film material on black and white but not on this length for a feature film. If you look at films over the years, black and white itself falls into several different schemes – Studio content has a very specific look, film noir is completely different and then there is also the new wave cinema where they have gone out and shot outdoors etc. But ours was a totally different look that had to be pitched at a level of drama which was required for the story. So we found a scheme which is none of these at the end. If you look at the shooting style, though it is black and white, it is very modern and contemporary in terms of shot taking etc.
[pullquote_left]You should almost feel color by texture, once that happens you know you have done black and white well.[/pullquote_left]
Where has the film been shot? How much percentage of the film was shot exterior and interior?
It is shot in Belfast which is in Northern Ireland and lot of the interior has been shot in Ooty. Approximately 40 percent of the film is exterior, which we shot in Belfast and 60% is in Ooty. Since we had winter clothes in the shots we had to shoot in a cold place and hence chose Ooty.
Did you use film or was the film shot digitally?
We shot completely on digital. There was no film mix in this at all.
Which cameras did you shoot on? What kind of lenses were used?
We essentially shot on two cameras – Red EPIC and Red MX. In lenses we were using ultra prime.
The action sequences employ a lot of high speed shots. Did you use any specific camera and how many FPS were the scenes shot on?
We used the Red Epic itself which shoots upto 300 FPS. The new ones shoot 400 FPS so Epic was used for everything. Some shots like the fight in the middle of ‘Dama Dam Mast Kalandar’ is shot on 300 FPS, 200 FPS, 150 FPS.
What was the lighting design employed in the film? What types of lights were used? How different is the lighting for black and white from colored sequences?
We were shooting with hardly any lights. We have even shot with Chinese lanterns which was a willing decision as we had to quickly switch between sets and the location also could not support putting up a lot of heavy equipment. We had to figure things that we could use to light and place it in the way we wanted the light. We were looking at what could be used to our advantage since we were shooting in black and white rather than worrying about the disadvantages.
Lighting for black and white is quite different from color. If one is normally shooting day you will be using lights which are corrected to 5000 – 6000 kelvin but here we didn’t have to do that. We could actually use tungsten lights to supplement in the day. But we were trying not to do that because when you look at it with bare eyes the actors get a feeling that it is a real environment.
Time wise it is pretty much the same. I had a team who would pre – light the next set ups. Once we decided on how the scene has to look, one team who light one set up while we would shoot on another set up to avoid wastage of time.
Bejoy’s films are visually appealing. What was his brief for this sequence?
The story which I was very keen on doing was Vikram’s story because it had a sense of absurdity in it which I thought was something that has not been visually tackled before in cinema. To me the space was like Arizona Dream which is real but not real which could also go absurd, a very different kind of drama. But because of the time issues, I did this sequence which was much higher in drama.
The plan we came up with was to pitch it at a poetic level rather than making it simply dramatic. That was an effort because the line between going crass and going poetic is very narrow. That is the thin line we were treading all the time.
Where did the post production of the film happen? Who was your team?
The online took place in Chennai with Sreekar Prasad. The grading was done in Reliance. Santosh was the colorist.
[pullquote_left]If you look at the shooting style, though it is black and white, it is very modern and contemporary in terms of shot taking etc[/pullquote_left]
Were you tempted to show the beauty of the locales in color? Do you think the sequence would have been any different if it was shot in color?
There were so many times not just while shooting but even later when we thought it should have been in color. But the sequence is clearly shot for black and white. If you shoot black and white really well, you can almost see color because of texture. When we were grading it that is what we were trying to get. It shouldn’t look like things are not in color. You should almost feel color by texture, once that happens you know you have done black and white well.
What were the challenges and learnings while shooting on black and white?
Shooting on black and white is a different challenge but the challenge also gives a possibility. It eliminates a lot of other issues which make it easier. Color harmony or color contrast is more difficult in color. If there are 3 colors than those 3 colors have to have a relationship. That issue is completely solved in black and white because it gets into the same tone and there is a harmony automatically. In some areas that way black and white is easier.
Also today because of digital it is easier shooting for black and white as against olden times. Since we were shooting on digital, we were seeing a black and white image while we were shooting whereas the older guys who shot on black and white would actually see color and be judging for black and white tones. It was so much easier for us.
But there are some challenges. For example the kind of separation you need to create between things is more crucial in black and white because there is nothing else which separates things from each other. It is then that tonal difference and textures become crucial. Since the eye doesn’t see color, it holds on to textures very strongly.
So in most things like costumes, walls etc we had to get a layer of texture on them. The walls have got printed wallpaper etc that becomes what the brain catches on to since there is no color.
Also creating moods becomes difficult in black and white. For example if you have a twilight scene inside the house, in color you can pull it off by showing day light coming inside the house, which is actually colder and interior light could be warmer. But in black and white since there is no color how do you create those moods? To actually show night you need to have a source somewhere so people actually feel there is a lamp on. It has its pros and cons.
[pullquote_right]The plan we came up with was to pitch it at a poetic level rather than making it simply dramatic. That was an effort because the line between going crass and going poetic is very narrow.[/pullquote_right]
The film was simultaneously shot in Tamil too, did you shoot any of it ?
No my part was only in Hindi not Tamil. The other two parts were in Tamil.
Did you get a chance to interact with the other two cinematographers who have shot David? Do you think it was necessary to have 3 different cinematographers for the 3 sequences?
I do not think it was completely necessary. The way I look at it, probably one person could do 3 schemes also. But it was Bejoy’s idea that if three people shoot, it would have 3 completely different treatments.
I didn’t get a chance to meet the other two cinematographers on sets though I’ve known P. S. Vinod for a long time. I had not even seen any bits of what they had shot. We have shot completely independent which was good so we would not get influenced by each other’s work. The looks are completely distinct.
How much time did it take you to complete your part? How much time did the entire film take for completion?
20 – 23 days for my part. More than 60 days altogether.
[box_info]Behind the Scenes
An interesting shot was when the camera moves under the dining table and Neil is holding a lighter. Initially we tried to supplement the lighter with other lights but finally because it is HD which works on 800 ASA with a 360 degree shutter, we have actually shot in the light of the lighter. There is no other light. Today with the new technologies you can just shoot with a lighter.[/box_info]