Shooting Wraiths - The Making of Bhoot Returns

Harshraj Shroff

[dropcap]The[/dropcap] horror genre in film requires nuanced treatment of props and subjects to create fear. It, therefore, is one of the most compelling and complicated cinematographic feats in the world of filmmaking. Harshraj Shroff gets candid with Pandolin about the deft effort he put in for capturing ghosts and creating bone-chilling fear in Ram Gopal Verma’s new film, Bhoot Returns.

How does Bhoot Returns stand out in the RGV Palette?

Bhoot Returns is RGV’s first ever fully 3D film. Its prequel, Bhoot, stood out as a good Indian horror film. This was my first time too with a 3D film. We shot the film on Sony HDR TD10. We are the first ever team to use Sony HDR-TD10 for shooting a feature film. In addition, we also used the GoPro 3D kit and 5D. We experimented thoroughly with horror effects throughout the shoot. As per RGV’s directions, the film was shot completely in ambient light and without the use of large external sources of lights.

What kind of cinematography does the horror genre thrive on? What are the technical elements that contribute to producing the horror aesthetic?

Horror films depend completely on specialised props that evoke fear by becoming embodiments of some disembodied fear factor. You literally organise a play of props, the actors becoming secondary and subject to the effects of a prop in turn. In each and every frame in Bhoot Returns we had a prop that gave it a break as well as focus. You also play with sound, emotions, light, and sensations in a horror film. Each and every object that’s present on the set assumes significance as a terror-inducing object that responds to alterations and heightening in these elements.

Did you use certain special camera angles in Bhoot Returns?

We went according to the needs of the story. We used lots of different angles that suited the moment of terror or suspicion we were trying to highlight.

With what thoughts did you approach your sources of ambient light?

RGV’s concept demanded that we shoot the film without any supra-dominant light source. We were indeed stunned by that demand as we were doing a 3D film for the first time and needed fine gradations of light to create depth. I was scared that I might not be able to create enough depth of field. On the floor, I ensured that my light sources, e.g. table-lamps and bed-lamps, were placed at precise locations. I wanted to be completely sure so that I didn’t need even an ounce more of any light for lighting a subject, creating a mood and exposing a prop aptly.

The horror genre plays with shadow and light. What kind of play of shadows did you bring in while shooting Bhoot Returns?

For Bhoot Returns, we tried shooting horror realistically. Whenever a character moves in the film, his face always retains a play of shadow and light. In some portions, throwing a character’s face completely in shadow creates insinuations of darkness. You can also see shadows scaling up over faces and crawling down on them. Most of this shadow play was added in post-production during DI. We also pulled out highlights, and assigned a specific bluish, coldish, colour tone that could emphasize the play of shadow and light intensely.

What locations was the film shot in?

We shot the entire film in a bunglow in Bandra. The production and the art teams set it up as per our requirements.

Shooting Wraiths - The Making of Bhoot ReturnsHow was the experience of working with RGV once again?

This is my second film with RGV. I’ve worked with him for more than a year and a half now. The experience has been very enriching. He provides you with a lot of creative autonomy and encourages experimentation. Thanks to Department and Bhoot Returns, I’ve experimented and shot with 5D, 7D, RED, all other new canon cameras, GoPro, and many more. RGV understands the creative and innovative impulses perfectly and has them to the brim. I’d like to explain this anecdotally. We were supposed to shoot Bhoot Returns on a Panasonic 3D camera. A day before we started, RGV brought the Sony camera and asked us to use it. My partner Ravi and I felt spooked. But when we tried it, we realised that it gave great 3D results. The experience of shooting with this new device was so exhilarating that we finished the shoot in 15 days flat.

How did you manage to complete the film in such quick time?

As we weren’t using external sources of light, I lit the whole set before the shoot began. Therefore, we didn’t waste any time. The process was a tad time-taking when I shot for night sequences during the day and spent time avoiding windows, draping black cloth over them, and applying felt on them. Otherwise, we were pretty quick because of precise arrangement of everything. RGV too was very fast. He knew clearly when and where he wanted which shot and which dialogue. Such precision from him and the rest of the team helped us zip through the shoot.

Which was the scariest scene for you in the film?

In her dreams, Madhu Shalini comes out on the first floor and is then stunned with the sight of Manishaa sitting in the hall below. At that moment, Manishaa looks up and throws a creepy and frozen smile at her. That was very scary. It gave me a goosebumps.

Who were your gaffers, assistants, colourist and VFX guy? Where did the DI happen? How long did it take?Shooting Wraiths - The Making of Bhoot Returns

There was no gaffer on the Bhoot Returns team. I did have associate cinematographers, such as Siddhartha More. He’s the guy who’s doing Ab Tak Chappan. I also had Hiren as an associate. My partner in the project was Ravi Chandran Thewar. The DI happened at Prime Focus World and took 15 – 20 days. The colourist was Xavier at Prime Focus. FX Studios, Mumbai, handled VFX, editing and even shooting.

How did cinematography dovetail with production design, costume and sound for Bhoot Returns?

There was no sound guy on set for Bhoot Returns. We recorded sound on camera. It was then dubbed and processed. The BGM (background music) was done by Sandeep Chowta. Our sound designer was Vikram Biswas. He was brilliant. Production designer, Tarun Ahuja’s work was commendable too.

In Department, you used the camera freely and experimented at will. Have you taken that ethic into Bhoot Returns too?

No. There are very few moments in Bhoot Returns that emphasize the camera the way it was emphasised in Department. You don’t have many jerky or fast shots in it. The few one-take shots, which are there, e.g. the shot travelling from the kitchen to the room, or the shot travelling from the ground floor to the top floor, are Steadicam shots, and are therefore smoother in texture.

Shooting Wraiths - The Making of Bhoot ReturnsRGV famously said after Department that the cinematographer was dead. Yet we find the cinematographer as an active force in his next project, Bhoot Returns. What do you want to say about this play with the role and identity of the cinematographer that RGV has initiated?

In Department, we had 5 people working on the camera. For our action sequences, we used as many as 10 cameras together. At the end, I feel, it turned out to be much more than what we required. The cinematographer could be 1 or 2, but not 5, as too many heads together can ruin a perspective. But in spite the criticism it has received, Department has achieved a very important objective. It’s freed the filmmaking process from the demands of style and aesthetics that are dominant in the industry at every moment. Department consciously broke the idea and the concept of the cinematographer and highlighted the many possibilities for a shot. It revealed what shots were possible from a given camera at a given angle at a given perspective at a given degree at a given focal length for a given subject in a given setting. The idea was to produce shots, which no one had produced before even if those shots looked absurd and were criticised for not following contemporary film aesthetics. Department was made the way it was because RGV wanted to emphasize the process of conceiving a film as an individual perceptual process of its director. He went the full Monty with this idea in Department and produced an effort that could be compared to the Oliver Stone’s experimentation in Natural Born Killers. It too was shot completely handheld. Its shots also looked weird and it too used the camera in a very haywire and haphazard fashion.