Initial idea of Ragini MMS
The initial idea was to shoot something similar to Paranormal Activity where there was no talk about the ghost but just a presence that you were dealing with. That’s exactly what we shot. But after the first cut, the producers didn’t think that the Indian audience would understand and therefore a ghost was brought into the picture. I was completely against the idea. The producers still wanted the movie to be on the lines of Paranomal Activity but with a tinge of Aahat (laughs). We went and reshot a lot of portions where we incorporated the ghost, which eventually worked for the movie. The main purpose of taking this project was that they had thrown us the challenge of a multi rig camera set up. It sounded fantastic. And when I inquired about the budget, they said that they were planning to use a Red to shoot the movie. If you have a 6-camera setup looking into each other from various angles, Red One is not exactly the best choice because it’s a big camera and focus pullers are required. As I have a lot of experience shooting with Canon 5d and 7d in the past year and a half, I just threw the idea to them saying that it’s good enough for projection especially with the kind of film we were planning to make. As our film needed that CCTV look, it would be perfect considering the budget. In fact I had to degrade the image in DI. They liked the idea and we worked around it. I did my test shoots, setup the workflow and was all set to roll.
What were the requirements and concerns before you froze on formats?
We ended up shooting on the Canon 7d, Sony handy cam and Arri Alexa. Sony handy cam was used for the night vision. We chose 7d over 5d because we wanted to use ultra wide lenses and on the 5d it produces vignettes. So in my lens package I had 2 fish eyes, 2 regular canon lenses 16-35mm and one Tokina 11-16mm. Also I gained more depth of field, as 5d is a bit shallow. With 7d I got that extra room without having to use a focus puller. I just fixed a focus point and let the actor come slightly in and out of focus. That worked to our advantage. That was also my primary concern before we finally froze on the formats.
Restrictions you have faced?
One of the major restrictions was the lighting because of the multi camera setup. White skin has an advantage as we can easily get away with one light and one bounce board. But Indian skin is not black or white, it’s mid grey. That’s another reason why when we shoot films with one camera setup we do our master lighting and for close ups we relight. That was another challenge. But with Ragini MMS I could do things in a way that goes against some classic book rules. As the movie had a hidden camera and CCTV perspective, I could break those rules and get away with it.
The skin tones and each camera matching with others was not a concern and it was to such an extent that I deliberately induced different coloration on each and every camera. So there was a bedpost camera that was colored differently. In-fact we added a lot of noise in it and de-saturated it a lot. The handy cam was used as a prop in the film. So the handy cam and the bedpost (flycam with the wide angle lens) sort of matched. The rest of the canons we matched.
Considerations to shoot a horror movie?
It’s the design firstly. The main consideration is how to not show horror. Alfred Hitchcock said, “Fear is not in the bang but in the anticipation of it.” That sums it all. If you show why one fears, it’s the end. The fact that films like Paranormal Activity or Blair Witch Project worked was primarily because the audience was still wondering what was that they were scared of. The camera angles were so clever that it seemed as if they deliberately kept it in such a way that we don’t see the ghost or whatever that is. Lighting design is secondary. Ragini MMS was a very low budget film. Mainly we lit up with tube lights and the only big source was from outside trying to simulate moonlight or the streetlight. The biggest source was the sun with a 5k. Rest was all available natural light. During the night it was more of a light on and light off situation. So my practicals were on a switcher. It took 5 days to rig all these. Lights off in the cinema means lights are on actually because you can’t show dark. And with this movie, we had to shoot in the dark, which was another challenge. I did some testing with the kind of gels I was going to use. So I used a gel called pale navy blue to simulate moonlight where I removed the blue information to make it steel grey. That worked perfectly for the film.
Working on 5d and 7d and its limitations?
The thought of relying on post has completely screwed the image of the entire digital camera floating around these days because you mess it up in post. During the shoot itself people start making mistakes. Red has been very smart in marketing their strategies; that it shoots like film. In our country a lot of people still shoot it thinking of film in mind. They blow out the highlights and don’t care about the shadows. So like I said, the test shoot I had done and of course with my previous experience with these cameras, I realized the limitations of this camera in terms of latitude. It’s damn good on shadow reasons but not very good with highlights. This film required shooting interior and exterior. Exterior was a part of the frame. I had ND’d a lot of windows, sometimes I blew it out. I took care not to clip my blacks. So I exposed according to my interior. You can’t control the whites but with digital it clips black as well. That is something that renders out as noise. And you can’t do anything even in DI. So to recreate that black I had to push in some light and then I crushed it in post. So it was a controlled environment. Film will offer me 14 stops of latitude. So canon with my personal experience will not give more than 8 – 9 stops. So my light levels remained within this.
Digital v/s Film
This is primarily because our post is not yet sorted. We have the best equipment in India. You go to any post and we are up-to date; it’s brilliant. Even then we can’t give justice to a film shot on a Digital format. Even though they undergo a proper training it’s not enough. There is a Telugu and Tamil movie called 180, which was shot on Red. You have to see it to believe it. I was particularly impressed with the workflow. In fact I had a word with the team. Kevin Shaw was the senior colorist who did a brilliant job. They were very careful in their exposures. So as and when we felt that the sky was blowing out we over exposed the sky by only one stop and under exposed the shadows by one. Later the colorist did an excellent job in extracting it back. That is the only think you can’t change. You can change everything else if you have the Meta data. Even in shoots people go wrong because of the exposures. On camera never change your ISO. Keep it 320. You can change your metering if you want. You set your light levels according to your meter based on your grey chart and lab LUT’S. Red has done a brilliant thing. They have given a lot of options in it – False color, predator’s vision, spot meter and the histogram. They are there for a reason, which unfortunately people ignore. They have gone to extremes by incorporating SMPTE (Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineer) where they have divided exposures in the color zone. If you have understood that you can’t go wrong with exposures. It is a simple tool but works like magic.
If there is indeed going to be a revolution when and how do u see it?
According to me, a digital revolution is already in but it will take some time for Indians to warm up to it. By warming up I mean that Indians are happy with the output. We have already warmed up to it in terms of acquisition; like all my colleagues and seniors including my teacher Jehangir Choudhary; a very senior Cinematographer from the ‘76 batch of FTII. He is very well informed about the digital world and is a genius. If I have doubts on any of these formats, he is the first person to be contacted. He is up-to-date. Now we are going round in circles blaming each other. It’s a war.
I started my career shooting promos and documentaries. My first feature film Sthaniya Sambaad with Director Arjun Gourisaria was shot on Red when it had just arrived in September 2007. He was the one to introduce me to the digital realm. In November 2007 we took it out of the box and went to Calcutta to shoot the film. After that Shemshook – the Feature Film Documentary was also shot on Red.
In film school when we are shooting we are given very limited resources in terms of lighting. We are all shooting several projects and the resources get distributed. So max we get 4 baby’s, 2 solars, 1 5k, one HMI. So we are use to using only that kind of light package and the kind of f stop it generates. It is practically wide open. So in Tell Me O Khudda, I had used all my lights and would still arrive at a full open f-stop. I kept telling myself; Damn! When would I learn? The biggest source I used was 18k.
Experience working on the EPIC
I used the Epic for my recent Telugu feature film Rushi which was a fantastic experience. The dynamic range is incredible. In 4K I can shoot up to 120 fps. They have reduced the size of the body so much that it practically looks like a still camera. They have included this feature called the HDRX and if you activate it you can extract more highlight and details. In extreme conditions of lighting it brackets your exposure on the basis of your mid grey. You can specify how many stops of extraction you need. When you bring the shots to your final coloring mode as a scratch assembly, you can juxtapose the 2 layers X and A. X is your HDRX where you can extract the details. It’s quite a boon. One of the limitations is that you cannot play back. The other major drawback that I thought was the sensor glare. Once the light entered onto the sensor it was bouncing off that metal ring glaring the OLPF and hence the sensor. In this film I used a lot of point sources for a song where there were scanners and tube lights in the frame. The image was flaring badly so I initially thought it was the lens so I changed my lens. But the problems remain unchanged. It was quite uncanny. Then I got the Red One MX and I compared both the shots and Red MX performs beautifully with no flare whatsoever. So when I got in touch with the RED team they said there might be a design flaw. The only option to avoid those flares was to create a 16:9 black paper mask with a paper cut out and put it on the OLPF and that would take care of it. There was only this minor glitch. As of now Epic is the best. We shot for 5 days. It’s far more user friendly unlike Red One where the booting time is 1min 20 seconds. The Epic takes just 5 to 7 seconds. As the Epic comes with 4 128GB SSD cards the files becomes very heavy for play back. It’s good to have the Red Cine X downloaded which is free and plus it will help you if you have the Red Rocket for a smoother play back. They have given many compression ratio options, which start from 1:2 till 1:16, and depending on the frame rate you can increase or decrease the compression. The default settings in 1:8 is 60 fps to 120 fps with 4K and if you want to go more you can go up to 1:10 – 1:12.
How was the jump from Documentaries and Promos to Bollywood?
That was bliss actually. The line producer of Ragini MMS was also the Line Producer for Tell Me O Kkhudda. So this movie landed in my lap. I did not start this film. There was a different Director and four foreign Cinematographers initially. They had already shot 75 days in Turkey, Goa, Rajasthan and Mumbai- four different Cinematographers for four different regions. So after 75 days I got a call from my LP. He called and said that we had 3 days of patchwork left for the film and if I could help them out. At that time we were prepping for Raginiand therefore I agreed. I went there to shoot for 3 days. At that time Hemaji (Hema Malini) was the director. I was quite kicked about the fact that I was working with Hemaji. So once I was done with that, I came back and continued prepping for Ragini MMS. Then later I got a call from Hema Malini’s production saying that they were redoing one more scene. Those 3 days became 40 days where we practically re- shot half of the film. Primarily they had a lot of editing concerns from what they had shot earlier. So they re wrote a lot of portions in the script. I had to not only shoot new scenes but also had to match the scenes which were already done; matching not only the lighting but also the style of the respective DP’s work and continuity. They had the fun of going to Turkey, Rajasthan, Goa and I had to recreate everything in Mumbai, which was a challenge that I thoroughly enjoyed. Turkey is blessed with north light; it’s very soft and very beautiful. The sun comes at a particular angle and they shot in November. So I had to recreate that kind of lighting in India in the month of May so we shot interiors. The challenge was to recreate the north light. Nice, soft beautiful source which had a peculiarity in it yet it was very soft. So my gaffer (Arun Naryane) did a brilliant job. Working with Hemaji was just awesome. She is very dynamic and very clear in what she wants. Also she is very perceptive. I learnt a lot from her because of her experience.
Our senior actors respect the technicians a lot so they voiced their concerns and then it was up to us. My teacher used to say this a lot, “Although a Cinematographer is technician he is more of a diplomat”. Your job is to carry everyone. You have to work around it and still get your work done. Yes you end up compromising but as long the compromise doesn’t look like a mistake you are through.
In Mumbai people label you quickly. I think people hire me because I am “Jugadu”. In my documentary film my light package was – one reflector, 2 white boards, 1 500watt bulb and 1 250 w bulb. We worked with it. My only insistence was that we have to work according to the sun and they respected that. There are good things and bad things. Here they see your reel where you have bike shots and they would ask if you have car shots. I would say no and their response would be that they require car shots. What do you say to that?
When filmmakers approach me to shoot a film on a digital format, I make sure they are aware that you cannot compare film with digital media. There is a basic flaw in the philosophy itself. If you want to get into the digital domain, live with it and don’t except magic. Whatever magic that has to be done, do it in that realm unless you have millions of dollars backing you.
V.K Murthy, Ashok Mehta, Tassaduq Hussain, Binod Pradhan, Jehangir Choudhary are some of the Cinematographers that inspire me.
One director you would love to work with
The list is very long but definitely Vishal Bharadwaj.
“Sculpting in time” by Andrei Tarkovsky