The recent death of V.
K. Murthy, veteran cinematographer of old Hindi cinema and the man who brought
to life Guru Dutt’s cinematic vision in such enduring works as Mr and
Mrs 55, Pyaasa, Kagaz Ke Phool, and Sahib
Bibi Aur Ghulam, confirmed the collaborative nature of the medium. While it
is true that a film—made in celluloid and now, overwhelmingly in video—usually
has to be the vision of a single creator (they used to be called auteurs or
authors by the champions of the French New Wave of the late 1950s) in order to
attain some artistic merit, every department in production—camera, sound, art
direction, editing, script writing, acting, etc., would have to function in
unison and with the required precision.
Guru Dutt made a lot of demands on Murthy’s skills. He would think up complicated, albeit entirely justified camera movements combining trolley shots with tilts and pans when a situation in the film called for it and ask Murthy to hurry up. He would tell Guru Dutt that it took time to light a complicated shot to capture the mood of a particular moment in the script.
Filmmaking in the late 1950s and early 1960s was a lot more difficult than it is now. Cameras, lights, sound recording equipment were a lot more bulky despite the advent of the German light weight Arriflex camera and the very sensitive, portable Nagra-Kudelski tape recorder. Lights were bulky and heavy generators were required to light a studio set. The video revolution was not even a dream then.
Film—celluloid coated with light-sensitive emulsion—had to be processed in the laboratory, which in the best of circumstances was a difficult proposition requiring stringent temperature control for both black-and-white (B&W) and colour emulsions for the negative as well as positive, and hence projection in theatres. People in charge of processing the negative used in the camera for shooting and the sound negative and the picture and sound positive were experts. The grading of B&W and colour films was both a science and an art.
The cameramen—they were not called cinematographers—had to be responsive to natural light and also artificial light. They were often required to combine both in a given shot, or a sequence of shots. Their technical knowledge and artistic sensibility were put to test. Cinema, in the old days was a mechanical-chemical medium requiring a knowledge of physics, chemistry and mathematics.
were not called cinematographers—had to be responsive to natural light and also
artificial light. They were often required to combine both in a given shot, or
a sequence of shots. Their technical knowledge and artistic sensibility were
put to test. Cinema, in the old days was a mechanical-chemical medium requiring
a knowledge of physics, chemistry and mathematics. Really good cameramen, east
or west, understood and appreciated painting, where light, especially from the
pre-Cubist era at the turn of the 20th century, a little before that the
seminal study done by the French Impressionists and, going way back into the
16th century, taking in Italian, Dutch, Flemish and a bit later Spanish
painting, gave them leads into composing and lighting their images on film.
Today most of the films produced are not shot on celluloid but High
Definition (HD) video cameras, of the really expensive high-end variety, like
the Arriflex Alexa Digital. Those restricted by budget go in for the series
simply called “Red” which also delivers excellent results. Shooting is a lot
faster and more comfortable. To get really memorable results, however, the
cameraperson has to be trained in old film (celluloid) photography and must be
responsive to the changes in natural light according to the time of day as well
as season. She must also have a grasp of classical western painting, and in the
case of China, India, Japan and Korea, be in empathy with native traditions of
In the annals of Indian filmmaking, Subrata Mitra was the only cameraman who made a systematic study of both eastern and western painting to augment his skills behind the camera. Mitra in Bengal photographed some of Satyajit Ray’s most memorable films invariably under considerable budgetary constraints. The laboratories in India, for processing and printing film either for image and sound, were not up to international standard in the late Fifties to the middle Sixties, to put it charitably. Sound recording studios barely passed muster.
In mainstream Hindi cinema the most memorable director–cameraman collaboration was between Guru Dutt and Murthy. The films they made together were exclusively B&W. But they stay in the memory thanks to Murthy’s emotive camerawork that brought out the intentions of the director and enhanced the performances of the players, particularly that of the beautiful and gifted Waheeda Rehman.
Fast forward now to the 21st century and the sensation created by the Russian director Alexander Sokurov with Russian Ark in 2002. It was made in a single shot in digital using a Sony Alta HDW-900 camera in conjunction with Canon lenses. On average a 90-minute film (Ark was 96) would require some 400 shots. To express all that in a single shot calls for unprecedented virtuosity. In fact, it put unbelievable pressure on cameraman Tilman Buttner, but he came through, and how.
Russian Ark encompasses 300 years of history and the play of memory brought about by the exchange between a Russian who wakes up in a museum and meets a mysterious stranger, dubbed The Frenchman. The decision to make it in a single shot was perhaps consciously, or better still, sub-consciously, triggered by the films of the Hungarian master Miklós Jancsó, who shot entire sequences in a single 10-minute take with a film camera equipped with a 1,000-foot magazine to ensure uninterrupted filming. Jancsó’s later films never had more than 10 or 12 shots. It would have been a murderously difficult job with conventional film equipment and have kept his brilliant cameraman János Kende on tenterhooks always.
Sokurov’s task was made easier by the availability of very high quality video equipment with the accessories and, of course, an outstanding camera team headed by Buttner.
The filming of Russian Ark was, and remains, the most difficult, most hazardous ever attempted in cinema. The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, was given to Sokurov and his team for just 36 hours. It could not be closed to the public for longer, as it is a huge revenue earner besides being a place of pilgrimage for art lovers throughout the western world.
The entire story in just under 96 minutes was shot in a single take. It took four years of meticulous preparation to pull off the feat. Sokurov walked Buttner several times through the one-and-a-half kilometres of the museum where the filming had to be done. Buttner filmed the entire exercise with his Mini-DV camera and back home in Berlin looked at the footage many times to figure out where to hide his lights.
Fifty electricians were used to prepare 36 rooms flawlessly to maintain the visual mood of a given situation. Some 867 trained actors, 1,000 extras, 65 costume assistants and 50 makeup artists were involved in the production besides 22 assistant directors who bore the Herculean burden faultlessly, heroically. Buttner’s camerawork was magnificent and Sokurov’s direction effortless.
No project of this scope and size has ever been attempted in cinema. Buttner attained immortality for bringing Sokurov’s vision so pulsatingly to life.
The digital video revolution has brought in its wake both advantages and
disadvantages. Shooting equipment is much lighter and requires a lot less light
than celluloid. What Kodak claimed in its advertisement for the Kodak 500 ASA
film, “Shoot in available darkness” became a reality with the availability of
very good quality "amateur" equipment, and not just high end
professional stuff now used regularly to make films in Europe, America and in
Japan, China, South Korea, and India.
The Canon 5-D camera with its complement of sharp lenses and other accessories make shooting in cramped spaces a lot easier. Besides, very little light is required to shoot compared with conventional film. Colour correction and editing can be done at home with relatively inexpensive software in a reasonably sophisticated but affordable computer. Strangely enough, the great disadvantage of the democratisation of the medium that has allowed wannabe filmmakers to make technically sophisticated films inexpensively is the lack of rigour in the conceptualisation of a script.
Cinematic conception along with meaningful content is becoming a rarity. Banality mostly disguised as social content seems to be the bane of low budget directors in India looking for the big break without possessing the necessary technical and artistic baggage. To add to their woes they are either untrained, or trained in the techniques of print and television journalism. Not many beginners take the trouble to see a vast array of beautiful films available on the Internet to educate and equip themselves for their prospective cinematic adventures. They are generally of the opinion that new equipment automatically leads to the creation of a new visual language to tell contemporary stories. To create a new visual language with its own syntax and grammar is no joke; one has to know the preceding visual tradition thoroughly and older ones as well.
When you become a filmmaker now, it is only natural to experience a tremendous sense of freedom, but what can be achieved without the necessary technical and artistic wherewithal to exercise that freedom in a given film? Nothing of lasting value, alas! How can there be a fruitful collaboration between a director and cinematographer today when neither understands or appreciates the older cinematic language, the cardinal purpose of which was to convey the passage of time.
A vast majority of contemporary films, usually shot in video, despite frantic movement within scenes and in between them, are oddly static. The narrative, however ingenious, can never create the plasticity required to make sound and image flow to express concrete and abstract ideas within a time-frame. Directors and cameramen in cinema today, are too busy with dazzling special effects rather than the creation of a harmonious whole. There is seldom, any desire to tell a story that holds together effortlessly without attempting to divert the viewer’s mind.
The tendency to combine special effects within even a conventional narrative does not always impede the flow or the flavour of the narrative though it did in the much touted 2011 version of The Adventures of Tintin by Steven Spielberg. Martin Scorcese’s 2011 production Hugo must be seen as a notable exception. It is, like Spielberg’s Tintin, primarily children’s entertainment, but like successful films in this category, reaches out to viewers from eight to eighty.
Seeing that his film is dependent on special effects at crucial points in the story, Scorcese used the Arriflex Alexa camera in the digital format in Hugo. As is well known, special effects in digital video are a lot easier, though it is fiendishly expensive. Scorcese is a big budget Hollywood director, so money was no constraint. The director of photography Robert Richardson rose to the occasion to help the director create an entirely believable, impressive period fantasy. Hugo was shot in 3D.
The story is about Hugo, a little boy who lives in a train station in Paris of the 1930s, dodging the stationmaster. He has learnt to fix clocks and other gadgets from his late father and uncle, and he keeps the station clocks running. The choice of 3D was crucial to make a train crash in a dream sequence believable. It was based on an actual one that occurred in 1895.
Special effects supervisor Matthew Grantzner of New Deal Studios observed that the engine and cars of the train were built to one-fourth scale, that is, the train was 16-and-a-half feet in length and a miniature. He thought the original crash on which the one in the film was modelled, had occurred because the driver in order to make up for lost time had speeded up, skipping several safety measures. He entered the station in Paris too fast and realising his mistake applied the brakes that failed probably due to pneumatic or hydraulic cylinder failure.
The train crash in Hugo has a terrifying, nightmarish quality not only because of its expert staging—though it was done in a 20 feet by 20 feet space—but because it is in 3D, the train leaps out of the screen at the audience. Similarly a chase up an old winding staircase has the required feeling of vertigo. All the images have a feeling of roundedness, giving credence to its dream-like subject. In addition, the Frenchman Georges Méliès, the first poet-magician and special effects wizard in cinema, is included as a character in the story. He runs a toy shop in the station and befriends Hugo.
In India, there
isn’t much call for such virtuosity as filmmaking is largely seen as a
money-making enterprise. Hindi cinema, with its headquarters in Mumbai, Tamil
cinema, and Telugu cinemas are impatient with the presence of art in the
medium. The “good versus evil” stories derived usually from epics like
the Ramayana and the Mahabharata and adapted
to modern times work best as sentimental melodramas in which actors have at all
times to be clearly visible as they rave, rant and weep through their pieces.
There is no place for atmospheric photography. The job of the cameraman is to
make the actors look good or at least presentable at all times. Since dialogue
is the driving force, innovative use of cinematic language is redundant.
Imtiaz Ali in Hindi cinema has tried to do stories, derived from Hollywood, that do not conform to the good versus evil humbug. Jab We Met (2007)—with Shahid Kapoor and Kareena Kapoor—is a kind of love story-cum-road movie based on the 1930s Hollywood original, It Happened One Night, directed by Frank Capra with Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable in the lead. Imtiaz Ali has collaborated twice in three years with cinematographer Anil Mehta.
Rockstar (2011) deals with the rise of a young talent in the Hindi pop music scene. The second, Highway (2014), with Alia Bhatt and Randeep Hooda , is more adventurous. It is a road movie with a certain ambition, about a rich girl kidnapped while on vacation in Himachal Pradesh. Her captor eventually falls in love with her but class, among other things, comes between them. Being a commercial Hindi movie, the psychological graph of the two protagonists is limited and predictable. Mehta, a fine craftsman behind the camera, cannot go beyond a point to aid the director; he has to be content with maintaining a neat, pretty look throughout.
The availability of fine—if not state-of-the-art—technology has made mainstream Hindi filmmakers aware of the need to make their films look slick and pretty to appeal to a paying non-resident Indian audience. There are several million Indians settled abroad, particularly in the United States of America, Canada, Australia and UK. They contribute an important part of a film’s earnings these days and they’re used to Hollywood films of a high technical standard. The product from India, therefore, must come as close as possible to them in terms of photography, sound recording, editing, etc.
Woefully short on medical/psychological research and really high on cuteness and sentimentality, Barfi’s look is the visual equivalent of a Mills & Boon novel.
Barfi—the runaway hit of 2012 directed by Anurag Basu, featuring Ranbir Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra—is about an autistic girl in love with a deaf and dumb boy and all the adventures they go through till death parts them. Woefully short on medical/psychological research and really high on cuteness and sentimentality, Barfi’s look is the visual equivalent of a Mills & Boon novel. Cinematographer S. Ravi Varman is to a fair extent responsible, along with the two lead actors, for the film’s success with domestic and NRI viewers.
There is still a reluctance to shift to new technology in Mumbai, although Kodak is about to shut its film laboratory. Sudhir Mishra is the only director to have made a conscious choice to shoot in RED digital and then use “reverse” technology to make prints on Kodak Positive when there is a demand for screenings in international festivals or theatres with film and not digital screening facilities.
These theatres are fast disappearing and there may not be any very soon.
At the moment, there are no Indian director-cameraman pairs, in mainstream or
offbeat cinema who have embraced new technology to make works that bear the
stamp of their personalities. A pity, as it offers so many possibilities, as
Alexander Payne demonstrated last year.
Payne made Nebraska, a road movie in which an irascible old man (Bruce Dern) goes on a long trip with his stoic son to find a (belated) meaning to life. He chose to shoot on the Arriflex Alexa Digital camera and in black & white, despite the protests of distributor Paramount Vantage.
Cameraman Phedon Papamichael has done a superb job of relating landscape to the main character’s anxieties and in capturing his relationship with others who come into his life. Narrative cinema in the US is seen by and large as a commercial enterprise but the quality of an individual film rests on the talent of the director, not just the demands of market forces. Payne’s mordant comedy is considered too serious by the moneybags but it was both an artistic and a commercial triumph.
It is not wrongly believed that the quality and look of a film depend largely on the talent and strength of a director’s personality. Mia Hansen-Løve is a young French filmmaker. Her three feature films have a unity of style and look beautiful.They are sad, serious and deeply perceptive about the human condition. Her 2009 production, The Father of My Children (camera: Pascal Auffray) was shot on film not digital video. So was Goodbye First Love (2012), photographed by Stephane Fontaine. In both cases there is a harmony in visual style thanks to Hansen-Løve’s personality that made her collaborators behind the camera work selflessly to express her cinematic vision.
Even in France, there is not always a harmony between director and cameraman. Renoir, made in 2012 by Gilles Bourdos on the great Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1840-1918), is a listless, unfair, judgmental film. It is an attempt to film a great artist, “warts and all”. The result is flavourless, though visually gorgeous. The exquisite, pellucid light in Renoir’s paintings is given new meaning as captured with enormous sensitivity by Ping Bing Lee, a South Korean cinematographer, in every live-action scene alongside the works of art. Anyone familiar with Renoir’s work will let out a cry of delight at the visuals in the film.
Sandip Ray, the lazy but talented son of the great Satyajit Ray, makes films that have an elegant, unobtrusive look. They are built around the theories first posited by Subrata Mitra, based on boosting the play of natural light unobtrusively and in maintaining the source of light in a shot or sequence, whether in the day or night. His Jekhane Bhooter Bhoy (2012), a quartet of ghost stories based on his father’s tales barring one by Sharadindu Bandopadhyay, is well photographed by Sasanko Palit on 35 mm colour film.
Nishijapon (2005), based on a Narayan Gangopadhyay novel, is expressively photographed by Barun Raha. There is a unity of style in the visuals of both films despite two different cameramen. This can be attributed to Sandip Ray’s considerable knowledge of film craft and seemingly laid back but actually forceful personality.
Directors and cameramen through the history of cinema, the good ones that is, have always come in pairs, and why not? After all, one has a vision of reality or fantasy or both, and the other brings it alive on the screen.