Master of Light: Conversation with Contemporary Bollywood Cinematographer – Rajeev Jain ICS WICA
Rajiv Jain – Indian Cinematographer / DOP – The Complete Interviews, Vol. I
The Shape of Light – Rajiv Jain Paints with His Camera
Rajeev Jain (Born: 1968, Lucknow) started working as a director of photography in 1993, after serving an apprenticeship as camera assistant and camera operator. Since then Rajeev has worked as director of photography with some of India’s most esteemed directors, in some cases establishing a close and intimate association. We met up with Rajeev Jain in India, on the occasion of a five day seminar organized by the Delhi Film Club on The Shape of Light, an event which saw the participation of hundreds of students, filmmakers from across India.
How has cinematography changed in the last fifteen years?
I went to the Bhartendu Academy of Dramatic Arts (Bhartendu Natya Academy) in Lucknow during the period of the new wave. We were witnessing a cinematographic quality which had ‘unchained’ itself in many senses in films from the period until the end of the 1980’s. Even the montage was much more liberated, and Cinematographer/ Directors, with Gautam Ghose at the forefront, were searching for greater liberty. Even when it came to shooting, using hand-held cameras, using natural lighting, or lighting in a way which seemed natural, such as through open windows, etc. In other words an absolute freedom whether with camera movement or lighting.
And in our country?
In India there was still a more classical style of photography, and I am making reference such as Subroto Mitra, Sudhendu Roy, who worked with Satyajit Ray up until Agantuk (1991). Meanwhile other new cinematographers with different ideas were also emerging, like Ashok Mehta (36 Chowrangi Lane), especially with black and white. But this black and white image with its own proper aesthetic beauty had a characteristic quality of merging lighting to atmosphere or ambience. Hence from this point on maybe cinematography acquired a more important significance, a complete symbiosis with the film and the narrative.
Can the meeting between director and director of photography influence the career of one or the other?
During the seminar a meeting of a good director of photography and a great poet. With the cinema of Ray, on the other hand, there was without a doubt a decisive turn with the arrival of Pather Panchali (1955) onward.
Which filmmakers have made a particular impression on you?
The rapport with Shyam Benegal on Tota Maina (TV Series) certainly was for me an event which I remember with great emotion until this day. I meet people who confide with me that they decided to become a director of photographer after seeing that serial, or directors who decided to enter cinema thanks to Tota Maina. For example, one day there was a kenyan boy who happened to be at my house that decided to come to India to make Tv seial after seeing Tota Maina. So it has been an important film for many people, and much more for me because I was lucky to work with Shyam babu.
How did you meet?
It was quite by accident. He was looking for a director of photography who was also mentally prepared for this adventure, and through various sources my name came up. A friend of mine who worked as assistant director introduced me to Shyam babu. I remember when he called to tell me that Shyam Benegal wanted to meet me. We met at his office for tea, and at the end of this encounter he takes out a script and offers it to me. I can feel the emotion of that moment right now.
Can you tell us about the TV Series’s ‘dynamic photography’?
Shyam babu used to tell me that TV uses time like a narrative element, while the photography normally remains constant for the duration of a sequence. It is precisely time that the ‘dynamic photography’ exploits to render a different consistency to the film. An example is the atmospheric conditions within nature: if during a cloudy day the sun comes out at a certain moment this will modify the condition of the light. In an interior space if someone enters a dark room and turns on the light this will change the condition of the light. However, this is all tied to precise actions. This discourse is amplified in Tota Maina, where in addition to variations in natural light were added variations which correspond to emotional motivation rather than any sense of logic.
During some scenes you also used different shutter speeds, sometimes barely noticeable.
During the filming Shyam Babu would ask for certain precise frames a slight increase in shutter speed, hardly noticeable, and therefore far from the slow motion effect we have been accustomed to seeing in many TV Series. This was solely to have greater suspension, therefore always in the service of a certain atmosphere in the serial. Technically this variation in speed consisted of a slight adjustment of the diaphragm. Shyam babu was very precise and exacting with his choice of photography, and not only myself but the whole troupe was so impressed by his personality that we complied voluntarily with his every request.
In the course of this seminar you have lamented the fact that it always gets more difficult to shoot a film in India with careful attention to the cinematography. For what reason?
Principally because there is a lack of respect for the profession in India. In the few films I have shot with foreign crews and production I actually discovered a greater professional respect. Then certainly there is the lack of preparation, because if films are not well prepared you will end up improvising on the set. Another reason is the understanding of shooting schedules, because if you shoot a film in ten weeks or in five weeks the result will be clearly different. With the advent of digital editing there is also the tendency to pass the complete negative through the telecine and then in AVID, without printing the so called ‘dailies’ which I think are very important for controlling possible technical problems. This happened with a film shot abroad, where an entire scene had to be reshot after only discovering an exposure problem during the montage.
Strictly technically speaking, why is it that Indian films are no longer made with the same care as they once were?
Maybe what is missing is an actual love of cinema. The problem is that there are no longer understanding producers who invest in projects they care about. We no longer have the person who loves the film so much that they want it made as fine as it possibly can. The operative now is to make the film only with the budget in mind, sometimes regardless of whether the film is good or not.
AUTHOR’S BIOGRAPHY: Tony Parsons (born 6th November 1953) is a British journalist broadcaster and author. He began his career as a music journalist on the NME, writing about punk music. Later, he wrote for The Daily Telegraph, before going on to write his current column for the Daily Mirror. Parsons was for a time a regular guest on the BBC Two arts review programme The Late Show, and still appears infrequently on the successor Newsnight Review; he also briefly hosted a series on Channel 4 called Big Mouth. He is the author of the multi-million selling novel, Man and Boy (1999). Parsons had written a number of novels including The Kids (1976), Platinum Logic (1981) and Limelight Blues (1983), before he found mainstream success by focussing on the tribulations of thirty-something men. Parsons has since published a series of best-selling novels — One For My Baby (2001), Man and Wife (2003), The Family Way (2004), Stories We Could Tell (2006), My Favourite Wife (2007) and Starting Over (2009). His novels typically deal with relationship problems, emotional dramas and the traumas of men and women in our time. Many believe the content of his work is weak.
Tags: bollywood, cinematographer, director photography, dop, india, indian, jain, kalpvriksh, mumbai, rajiv, rajeev, videographer
Making of Ras Star – Indian Kenyan Cinematographer Rajiv Jain
RAS STAR IS CURRENTLY FEATURING AT THE INTERNATIONAL MUSEUM OF WOMEN FILM FESTIVAL.
Raj next job was on a short film, Rasstar, based on the life of Kenyan rapper Nazizi, which was aired on M-Net.
Synopsis: A teenage rapper, Amani, from a staunch Muslim family teams up with her brother Abdosh, an emerging con artist to figure out a way to make money and get her into the talent show finals. As the story unfolds, Amani and her brother get caught up with a local gangster and a stolen phone incident and use her brother’s glib tongue to get them out. Through absolute blind luck they manage to find the money they need only to come to blows with their Uncle Shaka, the family patriarch and Mlandimu, the local gangster who finally saves them.
Rajeev Jain, a well-versed Bollywood Cinematographer and Director of Photography, discusses his new Award-winning film, Ras Star, and the unique camera approach he used specifically for this film about one young woman’s quest for life. With a background as director of photography for features such as Army, Badhaai Ho Badhaai, Carry On Pandu, Kadachit, Kalpvriksh – The Wish Tree, Mirabai Not out and Pyar Mein Kabhi Kabhi, Rajiv has had more than enough experience behind the lens to make the leap to cinema. He also has cinematography credits for the Award winning Kenyan TV Series Heartbeat FM.
Where are you from and how did you become a cinematographer?
[Raj] I am from Lucknow in the North West of India. My first degree is in Science and it took a while to find my way into a more artistic world. After several meanders I ended up at the Bhartendu Academy of Dramatic Arts (Bhartendu Natya Academy) studying drama. I managed to direct a few short plays and did camera for many more. Since then I have enjoyed both documentary and drama camerawork with each informing and advancing the other.
How did you approach the cinematography of Rasstar?
[Raj] Through discussions with Wanuri, finding films we both liked visually. We wanted to find separate looks for each story and a different look for the present day. We found a visual ‘theory’ for each section ( for example a deep red and black colour scheme for Amani story, long lenses for Abdosh story and very wide lenses for Mlandimu). The looks had to be able to implement quickly (then aided in the grading) because of the very tight schedule. We then applied the visual theory to a shot list (which we often had to do this the night before due to locations changing or not being found yet)
What was it like working with HD for the first time?
[Raj] With a 35mm camera you are looking directly through a beautiful lens and seeing the scene in colour and can trust your eyes as part of the photographic process. With an HD camera you are looking at a tiny black and white image through the viewfinder so you need a large (ideally 24″) HD monitor to properly judge what you are filming. This is huge and totally impractical with such a small crew and low budget so we managed with a 14″ monitor a fair amount of the time but up a mountain or on a remote beach only a small battery monitor is possible. This was very frustrating and led to some things that could have been better.
HD is horrible looking if any area is overexposed. This proved most problematic in outdoor which we chose to shoot on very wide lenses meaning there was a lot of sky in the shot. Unfortunately the skies were particularly flat and overcast but relatively bright white.
The biggest advantage to HD was being able to travel a lot lighter with a couple of zooms up the town for instance and being able to film 2 hours worth of material with no worries ( which would have been roughly 12 huge cans of 1000 feet of film to carry and load). It also meant Wanuri and I could go off at weekends and film city shots and pickups very easily.
Does storytelling matter?
[Raj] Storytelling is a huge part of life from an early age. It’s a way of finding meaning in the world. For a child it’s a way of understanding the world through metaphor – not that a child thinks of it in that way.
If the world blew up and the few stragglers met up it wouldn’t be long before they gathered around a fire and someone started telling tales to make sense of things. Stories entertain, provide an escape or catharsis, stimulate thought and debate and make you laugh.
What was the best thing about making Rasstar?
[Raj] The best thing was being up in such a beautiful part of the world working on a script that used the Kenyan slum as part of the story.
What was the worst thing?
[Raj] The first day of the action sequence in market. The crowd took so long to get onto the location that we on the camera crew were reduced to making beards out of moss and a feature length documentary on clouds (some very fine clouds though).
Can you tell us a couple of interesting/little known/behind the scenes things about the making of Rasstar?
[Raj] Wanuri is certainly one of the hardest working directors I’ve worked with but I think I found her limit one Saturday night. We were filming in pub (climax performance) and pick-up shots and had a choice to go to the local pub where some of the crew were tucking into lamb shank and downing some fine beer or head off. The light looked too tempting though so we headed off towards and thank goodness we did because the light over was astonishing. Deep red light was bouncing off them making them glow against the black background. There were so many midges we had to set the camera running and run around to draw them away from clustering around the camera. We shot for ages and the light was low but still great approaching. I tried to get one last shot with long DJ console in the foreground when Wanuri suggested we had enough and should go, words I never thought she’d say! (The shot was a nice one and made the final film).
Have you worked on anything since Rasstar?
[Raj] Since Rasstar I’ve filmed the film Kalpvriksh – The Wish Tree. It was a great experience to film in such a remote and interesting place. Mahableshwar I’ve filmed a half hour comedy for Channel : ‘The Smallest Man in Town’ and I’ve also filmed and edited a half hour documentary in Dubai about a cleaning lady who works in Dubai. I have recently been Dop on a low budget feature “Carry on Pandu”.
My Cinematography Style | by Rajiv Jain | Indian Bollywood Cinematographer
For some time, I’ve been meaning to put in writing my views on cinematography and my aesthetic style and now, here it is. This doesn’t mean I follow them dogmatically – it’s simply what works for me in broad strokes. As an Indian cinematographer, I should be able to give the director or production whatever look I’m asked. But within the visual and aesthetic constraints of any production – or the occasional lack thereof – an element of me is always there. Rules were meant to be broken – but only when you have a full understanding of the rules. While I can’t claim to know all of them, I’m learning with each production. Here are some of my thoughts…
The aesthetic of a project needs to be established early to the audience. It’s distracting to introduce a new aesthetic or editorial style too late in a story without a proper justification or motivation.
Another area that gets too little attention is on atmospheric shots – those shots that fill the space between scenes. It gives the audience some time to breathe and to think and can be a moment for the music to affect the audience.
I find graduated filters too fake and unnatural. It doesn’t focus our attention and instead, usually calls attention to itself. I don’t think I’ve ever used them and have yet to be criticized for my decision.
Most directors cut too soon both on set and in editorial. On set, wait to say, “Cut”. Sometimes an actor can give a gem of a moment at the end of a scene if you wait. It’s worth it and I’m surprised how often a director will use that moment in the final cut. It’s nice to hold on an actor at the end of certain scenes to allow the audience to take in the moment and reflect.
People change and so do their views. So I’m sure my views are likely to change, too. Till then…
Cooked Art: Cinematography … by Pocket – Sized Indian Cinematographer Rajiv Jain
I love films that are made like artwork; each scene is masterfully photographed for brilliant composition to create lines of action, symmetrical balance, with a fine use of space, texture, colour, and perspective. Here are two movies which I recently saw again, and depict wonderful visual language.
So what the hell is a cinematographer? If you want to get into semantics, it means ‘writing in the movement.’ But their job, mainly, is to have control over the camera and lighting crews in a scene, and therefore have a lot of creative input into the final image. Though if you consider the fact that the art director is responsible for the mise en scene, the storyboard artist plans out the shots and what is actually happening, and the director is going to want to have a piece of the action, then it’s no small wonder how films end up looking great. Here are some of the guys that managed to do this (in my little opinion)
What qualification did you study at Bhartendu Academy of Dramatic Arts and when did you finish?
I went straight from high school to Bhartendu Academy of Dramatic Arts and did a 2 year Diploma in Dramatic Arts, majoring in Lighting and graduating in 1985. The courses are run differently now. It is run more like a film school than an art school, which I think is excellent! It allows students to make earlier decisions on their chosen field within film & television, be it a cinematographer, director, producer, editor etc. It also better prepares the students for working in the industry. It is teaching so much more than just how to make films.
What did you think of the facilities you recently saw at Bhartendu Academy of Dramatic Arts (Bhartendu Natya Academy)?
The facilities at Bhartendu Academy of Dramatic Arts are fantastic; I would say world class even. The main production studio is very well equipped. The post production facilities such as the edit suites and sound mixing rooms are just like what is being used in much of the Indian film and television industry.
I am also particularly impressed with the production value of the recent student films at Bhartendu Academy of Dramatic Arts. I think the standard of work is quite high.
I think it is fantastic that the students get to shoot projects Film is the international industry-standard format for feature films, as well most overseas television drama. It is rare for students to get the opportunity to work with film now that the digital formats are becoming more and more prevalent. If you are able to shoot and work with film, then you will be able to work in any format that you come across out there. It doesn’t work the other way around.
What I mean by this is that the principals of filmmaking are the same whichever format you shoot in. However, shooting film requires a different approach, both technically and creatively. These principles can be applied to shooting digital, but shooting film requires a greater understanding of lighting and exposure.
The digital equipment at Bhartendu Academy of Dramatic Arts is of a standard and quality that will enable the graduates to go out into the industry and understand pretty much the workings of any other piece of equipment they will come across. There is no reason why the quality of the student projects can’t match the high quality of professional projects because the equipment they are using is the same.
I am also particularly impressed with the production value of the recent student films at Bhartendu Academy of Dramatic Arts. I think that the standard of work is quite high.
What was the first break or job that was key to setting you on your way in your career?
I have had a number of breaks I guess and many of them lead onto one another. A series of fortunate events you might say, but if I was to think of one particular big break it was one night when I had just finished editing my new cinematography show reel. (A show reel is like a portfolio of work, a cut down of my best cinematography edited to music.)
Just as I had finished, an email came through to me that was forwarded by someone that I barely knew. The email said that a Kenyan production company was looking for an Indian cinematographer to shoot part of an international film that was to screen at the World Expo in Nairobi, Kenya and they wanted to see show reels.
I went to the post office the next morning and sent mine off express mail. I received phone call only days later confirming that I had the job. I was flown to Nairobi and I worked with a full professional crew on what was my first major job.
The people I met on that project liked my work so much that I got a call a month later and they flew me to Darussalam to shoot some commercials. I eventually returned to India with a new and improved show reel. Having international work on the reel raised my profile further and got me bigger and better jobs and an agent and I was away…
A case of the right timing I guess!
What qualities do you think are needed in order to make a career in the creative industries?
The quality that I admire in successful creative professionals is the ability to take pride in one’s own work. Whatever your creative pursuit, I think that if you are doing work that you really enjoy and that you take great pride in, then you is lucky enough to have one of the best jobs in the world.
I also think that challenging oneself by working outside of your comfort zone is important and realising that to succeed you have to be consistent, positive and work really hard.
Whichever creative field you are in, it is going to be a hard slog to get your career underway. With creative careers you are judged on your body of work and your track record. The first thing one need to do is create a portfolio, or in my case a show reel, and then prepare yourself for criticism and knock backs, never giving up and use those knock backs as incentive to work harder and set your standards higher.
I also think it is important to do ‘passion projects’ that allow you to experiment with ideas or further your experience. By passion projects, I mean ones that you do for the love of it and not the pay. I shot a lot of ‘freebies’ to get my show reel up to scratch and to get experience before I started getting paid for my art.
Also it’s important to work on your network of contacts. You never know when that person you might consider as a rival might actually be the one to pass some work your way or introduce you to new collaborators. The film industry is too small to make enemies. We should be like a support network and learn from each other in order to continually make better projects.
For you, what are the ‘must see’ benchmark films in terms of either outstanding or pioneering cinematography?
Well for starters the cinematography on the recent Indian feature films Kalpvriksh – The Wish Tree – Yours Dreams Are Just a Touch Away and the soon to be released Carry on Pandu are quite outstanding. Ha!
No, seriously, some of my favourite and most influential films in terms of cinematography are not the ones with the big crane shots or the world’s longest steadicam shot, but the ones that create a real mood and atmosphere. Films that convey emotion to an audience and help to communicate the subtext of a story by saying more about the characters than dialogue alone ever could.
I think the most influential films for me would be anything directed by Satyajit Ray (Aparajito (The Unvanquished), Parash Pathar (The Philosopher’s Stone), Jalsaghar (The Music Room) for his use of mood, atmosphere and cinematic techniques of storytelling.
Also, classics such as Pather Panchali (Song of the Road). It took me a while to realise why it is considered the best film ever made. The use of deep focus in this film is not just a technical achievement, but also a storytelling one.
I also really liked Shakha Proshakha (Branches of a Tree), Agantuk. They are both quite rough and hand held at times, but very beautiful and you really felt like you were ‘inside’ the movie.
That is what I was trying to create on the most recent film that I shot, Kalpvriksh – The Wishing Tree.
I want the audience to feel like they were there in Kalpvriksh, with the characters, to feel it, smell it and taste it.
Key lights: Defining moments in cinematography since the Kalpvriksh – The Wish Tree
An interview with Rajiv Jain, Indian Cinematographer and owner of Rajiv Jain Films, Cinematography and Grips – Dubai – Mumbai – Nairobi.
Q: What is your job title? Where are you employed?
A: Director’s director of photography, director of photography. I have my own company, Rajiv Jain Films, Cinematography and Grips, and I’ve been doing it for about twenty-five years.
Q: How long have you been a cinematographer?
A: I’ve been doing it for several years, but I started my own company.
Q: What type of training did you have to become a cinematographer?
A: I went to the Bhartendu Academy of Dramatic Arts. I had a two-year diploma degree in theatre arts. That put me into a position to see how the industry has changed a lot. Coming out of college, kids should just start their own company. First, they should decide what they want to do in the industry and then go for it. The sky’s the limit depending on the career path you choose.
Q: What do you like best about your job?
A: Working for myself. Having the freedom to make your own decisions, to make your own path about what you want to do. But you can go for a month without working if you’re on your own, so definitely put yourself on a business path as well as a creative path. Take businesses classes, not just liberal arts. The film industry is a business, just like the music industry. You have to be a self-starter.
Q: Describe your typical day on the job.
A: Which job? Normally when I’m not working, I’m in my office doing paperwork. From your office, you might have to go somewhere on location and that can be anywhere from two days to thirty days. A lot of our stuff is remote locations. Every job is unique. As soon as you think it’s typical, it changes.
Q: What career were you in before becoming a cinematographer? Do you feel that it helped prepare you for becoming a massage therapist?
A: I was doing theatre, photo journalism, working at a local channel and making a decent earning. I found myself incorporating paramount to my words, and when I started taking pictures and filming, I realized this was what I’m most passionate about. But when you have a creative bone in your body, like writing, it’s easier to expand into other aspects of a different creative trade.
Q: What traits do you feel are necessary to be successful as a cinematographer?
A: Everybody takes different paths to be successful. But you have to keep up-to-date. Editing and graphics has changed so much. The whole dynamics has completely changed. You have to be totally flexible and stay with the current trend.
Q: Would you say it’s imperative to have a college education for a career such as this one?
A: I don’t think it’s imperative, but what I got out of college is I networked a lot. I don’t think it’s a hundred percent necessary. But, of course, you should have a good school to teach you what you need. When you’re in college, you need to start working on building a portfolio and college can help with that. If two people went for the same job and they both had impeccable portfolios, but one also carried a four-year degree, you can bet that person’s going to land the job. To be in the industry full-time, not just freelance, means it’s important to get that degree.
Q: Would you recommend this career to someone else?
A: Yeah. I can’t think of anything better to do. I see things that people don’t see. Is it for everybody? I don’t think so. You have to have thick skin. You have to work for months on end. Don’t set your expectations too high. Be realistic. My first recommendation would be to go to college and get that full-time job. Get a feel for what the industry is all about. It’s hard to just have a good portfolio, unless you’re an amazing cinematographer. Doing it without college is extremely hard to do.
Q: What is your next career move, if any?
A: Retire and go village. No, but seriously, I’m going to do more projects. I want complete control of my future projects.
Kalpvriksh – The Wish Tree – Yours Dreams Are Just a Touch Away – Rajiv Jain Cinematographer
Two-time Winner Indian Cinematographer Rajiv Jain ICS WICA Creates Special World of Light, Shadows in his recent film Kalpvriksh the Wish Tree Yours Dreams Are Just a Touch Away
Rajiv Jain has a way of seeing that takes an image to its outer limits. In his years as assistant, electrician, grip, and in the past 16 years as director of photography, he has developed a visual sensitivity and expertise.
Rajiv takes his inspiration from directors such as Satyajit Ray (Pather Panchali) and cinematographers Ashok Mehta, ISC (36 Chowrangi Lane) and Binod Pradhan (Parinda) for their use of colour and lights and shadow to amplify the emotional content of stories. I find the ability to allow the characters to operate in shadow is a real art, he says. Ashok Mehta allows his characters to function in darkness. He lights everything so the blacks are really rich – yet you can see everything.
His work in Kalpvriksh, a film by director Manika Sharma exudes a period quality with an edge. Rajiv was especially intrigued by the non-narrative, fragmented script, because it offered a myriad of visual possibilities. Shooting primarily on Kodak to give contrast to the exterior scenes, Rajiv experimented with warm and blue filters to get the look he wanted. The result is a stark, almost surreal journey into the minds and actions of the film’s bizarre characters.
Up-front collaboration on any film is essential, Rajiv emphasizes.
It’s important for me to go through the script scene by scene with the director Manika Sharma, Rajiv says, to try to see what is in her mind. I want to know what the scene is saying, who the most important character is at that moment, and how the characters move through the scene. We also share photographs and movies, which gives us a visual base to work from.
A graduate of Bhartendu Academy of Dramatic Arts in Drama and a beginning still photography, Rajiv took a course in filmmaking. Intrigued by the film medium, he saw the possibilities of combining his interests with film in commercials. Searching for a way to learn camerawork, he offered his assistance (unpaid) to director of photography Subroto Mitra to learn the craft.
He taught me about his SR package, what the lenses were, and how to load magazines, he said. Then he started me by working on Shyam Benegal’s documentary on Nehru.
In 1996, Rajiv got the first opportunity to shoot a film, Army, with Mukul Anand. After eight weeks of stressful shooting – his every move was watched.
After 6 more features, then came Kalpvriksh in 2007, allowed Rajiv to explore a new visual technique to add nuance to the story. The film includes a dreamlike journey that Rajiv wanted to give a dreamlike quality. We tested filters and a bleach bypass process to give that section of the film its own special look,” he says. “Instead we decided to use a swing tilt, a view camera attachment that allows the operator to change the plane of focus. It let us throw different parts of the frame out of focus, which is difficult to do in a wide shot because of increased depth of field.
Rajiv is currently finishing production on Carry on Pandu, a feature being shot in Mumbai, as well as doing Commercials.
Full of Surprises! Rajiv Jain, Indian Cinematographer / DOP, Talks About… KALPVRIKSH (THE WISHING TREE): YOUR DREAMS… ARE JUST A TOUCH AWAY…
Like any artist, Rajiv was born with innate talent burnished by experience and cultural influences. Born in 1968, his first introduction to movie magic came while observing his uncle as a projectionist at Ravindralaya Theatre, Lucknow. “I remember sitting in that little projection room and watching films with my uncle,” the Indian cinematographer recalls. “It was like watching silent movies because you couldn’t hear sound in the booth. I just saw the images and would try to understand the story. My uncle would show us Charlie Chaplin movies, which, of course, were silent. There is no doubt that he put his dream of becoming a cinematographer into my heart.” Originally from India, cinematographer Rajiv Jain ICS WICA studied at the Bhartendu Academy of Dramatic Arts in Lucknow, India.
The day after completing his studies, Rajiv went to work as a trainee on an anamorphic picture. He contributed to ten more movies as assistant director of photography before becoming a DOP. “From that moment on I considered the camera to be like a pen that you use to draw images,” he states. “Operating a camera is mainly about composition and rhythm. I also operated the camera for Bollywood songs. It was very primitive. While we were shooting, someone with a watch was timing every pan and zoom. He would say, ‘You have 5 1/2 seconds to do that zoom.’ It was a great lesson for me, learning to make each element of a shot work in that amount of time.”
I thought it was fascinating that film speaks a common language that everyone in the world can understand,” he recalls. “That’s especially true for cinematographers, because we are communicating with the audience non-verbally.” “To me, making a film is like resolving conflicts between light and dark, cold and warmth, blue and orange or other contrasting colours. There should be a sense of energy, or change of movement. A sense that time is going on — light becomes night, which reverts to morning. Life becomes death. Making a film is like documenting a journey and using light in the style that best suits that particular picture… the concept behind it.
The first important decision regarding the visuals was to shoot in anamorphic (2.4:1) format, as they had done on Kalpvriksh – The Wishing Tree. Rajiv explains that Manika likes to manipulate the subjective and objective viewpoints, sometimes in the same frame or even at the same time. In a simple example, a shot will begin on a subject, and then an actor will step into the frame, creating an over-the-shoulder shot, changing it from subjective––in which the viewer sees what the character sees––to objective. “One of my first suggestions was shooting Kalpvriksh – The Wishing Tree in Super 35 format,” Rajiv continues. “I felt that would give the film an edge that you don’t expect to see in Drama. I felt we could use the wider frame to create a claustrophobic feeling in the Shabana’s cave and more interesting composition showing Shabana in the world.” She, director Manika Sharma, designer Mansi and other members of the creative team discussed the possibilities for composing Kalpvriksh – the Wishing Tree in widescreen format, while drawing upon such visual references as another drama with an improbable theme. Though Manika storyboarded scenes, Rajiv utilized the sketches primarily as a communications tool. While shooting, the director remained open to veering from the storyboards to take advantage of unexpected opportunities. “Our production designer Mansi and costume designer gave us rich sets and costumes. Even though pushing two stops in the development sometimes is not as faithful to colours, their collaboration with this technique allowed us (especially in the dinner / fantasy sequences) to have a warm and yellow-looking scene, as if all that was lit was candle light,” he says.
In one dramatically lit scene, the school principal (Mahabano Kotwal) is sitting on the chair, looking out a window at the falling rain. “The whole scene was lit with one hard day light, an ARRI 6K,” says Rajiv. “We brought one light through the window. In order to light the door, we used a 4 by 4 mirror just out of frame to the right. The light is modulated by the rain on the window, and it stretched over to the book. We were ‘gathering chestnuts.’ It was serendipitous, and it all worked out with one light.” “For fill light on this movie, we used either very, very little or absolutely none,” he adds. “I find that with the film stocks we were using, if you’re overexposing a little bit, you can read the shadow detail incredibly well. When I saw the picture at Theatre on the 70-foot-wide screen, on the dark side, which is dead black, you can actually see hairs going into actors’ heads. I found it very interesting. I hope it works on a subconscious level for the audience.” Even though Rajiv knew that he could not shoot wide open at a T2 or a T2.8––because the Super 35 format chosen has a shallower depth––he still wanted this tool to give the story a greater stage presence. The bigger negative allowed him to push the envelope. And, he knew the grain would still be acceptable, if he stayed within the T2.8 to T4 ranges on interiors. “We could still use real sources and it wouldn’t be hard for our camera crew to follow focus,” he says confidently.
Like many of his colleagues, cinematographer Rajiv Jain has many concerns about changes that can be introduced to imagery during the post process of our electronic age. Such considerations only become intensified when one is dealing with a profusion of visual effects, which was the case with Kalpvriksh – The Wishing Tree. “I tried to make a concerted effort to stay as involved in postproduction as possible – which is sometimes tough because it’s ‘off to the next job’ – to work with the digital effects and optical house to ensure that there wouldn’t be any problems with the answer printing process. “You don’t see any lights in the master shot,” he says. “The master shot that we started out with was an impossible shot to light. We were jammed back in the corner with a 35 mm lens and there was a two-way mirror in the background. So we used a technique Rajiv Jain called a ‘driller.’ Simply put, you’re normally shooting horizontally across a room, and there are horizontal surfaces, like the tops of mantels and tables. If you come from directly overhead with a light and drill it down onto that surface, it works quite well. It doesn’t seem wrong. If light comes from a place that’s not normal or usual, people seem to accept the element that’s being illuminated without really figuring out what’s going on in terms of a source. Shadows go straight down, so they don’t end up looking strange or calling attention to the source. You see it on the table and then it comes off the table and lights the faces to a degree. It’s interesting because you’re not lighting the people at all. You’re lighting the environment that they’re in.
Anamorphic gives you the space in the frame to do that,” Rajiv says. “Manika has no problem filling an anamorphic frame in a contemporary picture. The story also has an elegiac aspect, so it seemed better to tell it without rock video cutting and frenetic camera movement. With the amazing cast, we knew this film would be about the performances. All those ideas––as well as ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’––factored into our decision to shoot anamorphic.” To determine a visually appropriate approach for the various moods needed in Kalpvriksh – The Wishing Tree, Manika and Rajiv chose to forego in large part the usual business of viewing other films during prep. “We used a lot of book work, referring to other kinds of artists working in two-dimensional forms, still photography and drawings mainly,” Rajiv relates. “This was a nice and different way to prep. Looking at movies to see how a particular sequence worked is great, but this approach started me on this incredible round of self-education, covering still photography from 1890 up ’til now. Now I can’t stop myself from buying the books. It is amazing how much visual reference source material is out there when you go back to basics. These were great jumping-off points for us.
The cinematographer also had to avoid telltale reflections of camera gear and personnel on the water surface. Along with a disciplined crew, that required careful light placement and camera angle selection. He discovered that putting the plastic at the right distance from the lens for tighter shots from Shawn’s point-of-view rendered slightly distorted images with a hint of grain, which amplified the look that he and director Manika desired. Rajiv also occasionally added reflections of characters and objects on the water’s surface to draw attention to the barrier separating the boy from other people. Sometimes the camera takes a subjective, spectator-like stance while other times the audience seems to share Shawn’s life-in-the-bubble experience. “There was no simple formula for deciding when to put the audience inside the bubble with Shawn. It was a question I asked the director for each shot in every scene. Are we with Shawn inside the bubble, or are we outside looking in?”
I didn’t believe this and obviously neither did neither director Manika Sharma nor producing company Rhombus Films. Another picture shot in an old house in Bollywood required us to actually operate two generators to power all of the lights. By the time we were done, however, I was able to shoot two-thirds of a long sequence by dollying along with the reflections seen in a long fishpond at night (Shabana’s cave). “I think it’s a visual reflection of the fact that one’s position in life can change almost instantaneously,” he says. “It’s extremely effective visually. It seems to work on a number of different levels. Using this different approach seems to freshen up all your overs and reverses. There’s a very interesting scene between Shabana and kid that was staged on an under the tree, and there’s a sense of disquiet and possible aggression. It’s very ambiguous, yet the spatial dynamics really underscore the feeling.”
There is a great advantage in working on location versus a studio. For example, the muslim house I mentioned had real marble floors. An experienced DOP knows how to utilize this reality something he can only simulate in a studio,” mused Rajiv. Reflectors were used extensively throughout the film, usually on the fill side to pick up some ambience or an edge of the keylight, and to redirect some of that light to the fill side. In most cases it was very subtle, however, just reflecting in the shine of the skin. “We used the reflectors as almost more of an eyelight,” Rajiv says. “There is such tension between these three characters. There are a lot of internal emotions beneath the surface of this movie. I felt that the audience needed to have access to the internal life of the characters, so I tried to keep eyelights going, especially when we’d get in close. Often it was done with a small reflector thrown in at the last moment.
One of the most important aspects included previsualizing the character of Shabana herself. “To nail her down, we started off by working on storyboards with an artist,” says Rajiv, “who drew terrific boards and is a brilliant artist as well. We told him our thoughts on how the Shabana looked and he set to work. Manika credits him with creating a good part of the final look, since his drawings were used to communicate to hair, make-up and wardrobe departments what Manika wanted for his look.” Part of Cave ‘ guise involved the use of a wig that often obscured the actor’s face – which on occasion made for a less than ideal lighting situation. “During hair and make-up tests, I saw that while Shabana looked amazing, they were going to be difficult to deal with for 2 weeks. She had a big headgear and a huge costume also, so there was a question of whether we were ever going to be able to really see her. I told Manika that at times she was on the verge of becoming a headgear with hair. Being very sensitive to the needs of actors, Manika didn’t want to get the hair out of her face, so we tried not to mess with her and solve it on our own.”
On Kalpvriksh – The Wishing Tree, Rajiv opted for Vision 200T (5274) for everything but night exteriors, explaining that the smooth grain of this non-intrusive emulsion records deep blacks, true colours and a wide tonal range. Rajiv shot day exteriors on Eastman EXR 100T (5248), using an 81 EF filter to half-correct and retain the cool blue of winter. Daylight-balanced 250D (5246) Vision stock was selected for day interiors, while he exploited Vision 500T (5279) on most night interiors and exteriors. Since shooting, the cinematographer did extensive tests with different materials to search for the right thickness and translucency. “It’s the same as using a cheap filter on the lens and we realized that any distortion or loss of focus would be magnified when the lab optically ‘squeezed’ the images into the 2.40 aspect ratio. In addition to selecting the right plastic, it was important for us to record a strong negative with properly focused images. We were shooting through filters at least 90 percent of the time.
While shooting forest scenes with the lead actor, Rajiv employed what he calls a Nine-light sandwich. “Others might call it a book light, but in any case, we were bouncing a Nine-light Maxi Brute off a piece of bead board, then letting the light pass through a diffusion frame usually fitted with either 216 or light grid. The resulting soft light striking He had a very beautiful quality, plus some serious pounding of foot-candles. This soft light had enough to punch through Shabana’s hair, and I could control the amount of light just by clicking off various globes. But it also required a lot of flagging and took up much space.” On other occasions, Rajiv illuminated the Forest by directing the light from more extreme angles. “I came in much lower and more frontal with his key than I would have normally, but the approach succeeded in letting her hair fall naturally, so, while it was tough, it worked. It did make me thankful for the scenes when Shabana is dressed up with her hair pulled back, since I could get a nice edge on her through side lighting.”
When kids arrive at tree before the climax, production established the famously setting by filming the actors in front of blue screen and green screen. Those elements were digitally composited with stock background plates culled from Ladakh. Harry and Arjun from Red Chillies’ in-house facility supervised the visual effect shots. “I don’t think these scenes could be any more believable if we had travelled to Ladakh to film them live,” marvels Rajiv. “How can you miss when you begin with 70 millimetre background plates? We matched everything to those plates.”
There were a few daylight scenes in there, so we decided that cracks in the cave roof let hard sunlight in,” he continues. “I put some signs of this in on the walls behind the actors and let some light bounce off the floor. For the most part though, the cave scenes are set at night – lit by firelight or lanterns or the imaginary glow coming off, which isn’t plugged into anything. For the Water, I chose to use a slightly blue key light on the actors but didn’t put any flickering movement in because I felt that it was distracting. The only flickering on their faces comes from the actual water. What I did add was a slight flicker effect on the walls, which I found to be more pleasing while lending a bit of realism.
Front-end lab work was done by Gemini, which provided film dailies. “After her experiences in the commercial world where you work on a monitor all the time, Manika loved watching film dailies – it opened up a new world for her,” says Rajiv. “For example, there is a shot of a Shabana delivering a line at the end of a long shot under the tree. When Manika saw it played back on the monitor, she didn’t feel good about it. She seemed too small in the shot. She remarked that maybe her line would have to disappear in editing. After some time, Manika saw it projected on a big screen and loved the shot.” When asked if such glad tidings extend to the on-screen drama as well, Rajiv smiles, and says, “Would you be surprised if I said there is a happy ending?”
The cinematographer does not use diffusion on the camera lens, instead preferring to soften his subject as needed by selectively affecting the light source. “I’ve never liked it in films when the overall resolution of the lens changes visibly during cuts in to a close-up during a scene,” he declares. “The whole business of putting heavy diffusion in front of the lens to make [an actress] look ‘better’ is just crazy to me. I don’t want to see the cinematographer’s effort to make someone look good. Instead, I want to see the character look well, and I think that happens when the actor is both integrated into the scene properly and lit in a flattering manner. My solution is to soften at the source of illumination, and let the image be as clear as possible. Some people think Primo lenses are too sharp, but I love all that perfection. When you combine years and years of research and development on the film stocks from Kodak, with what has gone into these Arri lenses and the lab work at Gemini, and then put all that into a film being projected properly on screen, the result is such awesome perfection! So I take a lot of pride in delivering a really perfect negative. We may want to mess it up later, and that’s fine, but I believe in starting with something well-exposed and sharp.”
With all the many visual treatments necessary to depict the Shabana’s perceptions, Rajiv and Manika needed to settle on parameters early on for the more elaborate manifestations requiring visual effects. “We’re telling a story that is seen in part through the eyes of a crazy person,” offers Rajiv. “She’s an incredibly brilliant crazy person, but crazy nonetheless, so there’s a sense of the fantastic about these visions, but they are not in the tradition of science-fiction movie effects. We had submitted a wish list of visual effects for budgeting, but it came back priced four or five times higher than we hoped. This meant we had to pull back, and that decision ultimately worked better for the film we wound up making. Most of the effects are things we did ourselves, with practical light cues, or as a combination of those cues with digital enhancement.”
I’m glad that this movie’s look seems interesting to the eye, but I’m also pleased that the visuals don’t supersede the story. Early reviews are praising Shabana’s performance as one of the best she’s ever given, so it wouldn’t make sense to do anything that took away from that aspect. Lots of films now seem overwhelmed with effects, but Manika isn’t one to tell that type of story.
When Indian Cinematographer Rajiv Jain, ICS WICA is asked if, he would do anything differently today, the master artiste replies, “Ninety-nine percent of the time when I see my old films I am serene. It was the best I could do at that time of my life with what I had to work with. What’s important is your life and how you evolve as a human being and as an artist.
Q & A with Rajiv Jain, ICS WICA Indian Cinematographer on Film Kalpvriksh – The Wish Tree – Your Dreams Are Just a Touch Away
Indian Director of Photography, Rajiv Jain, ICS WICA is a Cinematographer based in Mumbai, India. Rajiv specializes in shooting television commercials in the 35mm motion picture film format as well as HD Digital formats. Rajiv started in the early days of the music video revolution, before venturing into narrative filmmaking. His eclectic body of work includes Army, Badhaai Ho Badhaai, Carry on Pandu, Kadachit, Kalpvriksh – The Wish Tree, Mirabai Notout, Pyar Mein Kabhi Kabhi and Rasstar .
QUESTION: Where were you born and raised?
RAJIV: I was born in Lucknow, India. There was no seminal event that happened to me as a young person that made me want to be a cinematographer. It certainly wasn’t the quality of the light in Lucknow. I remember it was gray; was stained brown from the traffic and the sky dark. But as I say that, I realize the suppressed palette of the place did affect me emotionally. Saturates leaped out against that neutrals, as in a dream or a post-industrial nightmare.
QUESTION: What did your parents do?
RAJIV: My parents were just ordinary folks. I don’t think they were particularly ambitious for me. Their main concern, I think, was that I wasn’t an embarrassment. We moved to the Etawah and then back to Lucknow, where I completed my education. My degrees were in Theatre Arts.
QUESTION: Did you have a career goal at that point in life?
RAJIV: I wanted to be a writer, but like Mohan Rakesh I thought too much and wrote too little. That is too say I was more a reader then a writer, more academician then poet. I got very interested in semiology and structuralism (the study of how language encodes ideas). Initially I studied how the spoken and written language worked, but then became more interested in how codes worked in other languages, like the language of film. My interest in film language led me in a rather convoluted way to cinematography.
QUESTION: That’s interesting. Can you be a little more specific?
RAJIV: I became very interested in understanding how in altering light, composition, camera angles and camera movement a cinematographer alters an audiences perception of the visual event, and thereby the audience’s emotional response. It is a difficult thing to quantify. I remember specifically thinking back to seeing Pather Panchali when I was a child, and how its images had always remained in my imagination, not only for their pure beauty and sublime scale, but because they affected me emotionally, striking some unconscious but responsive cord. Later I saw Ray’s “The Apu Trilogy”. I had much the same response, but now my understanding was informed by my studies. It would be accurate to say that the cinematographers of these two films, Subroto Mitra, were those who most influenced my decision to become a cinematographer.
QUESTION: How did you make a connection between words and photography?
RAJIV: In writing essays and articles about film. I realized that film images worked very much the way the spoken/written language works. You want to express certain ideas. There are culturally agreed and understood codas. These shapes, which we call letters, have agreed upon pronunciations. These letters form words. These words have agreed meanings. But it is of course arbitrary. The word “cat” has no innate “catness” about it, but on hearing this word the listener forms an idea in their brain. A cat. We can then add adjectives, and qualifiers, to make it a black cat, or an angry black cat. These words are codes, but not universal codes. They are specific to a culture that shares that language. Photography in some respects is a much more complex language system. The denotative (specific) or connotative (symbolic or implied) meaning of an image can be ambiguous, but also complex. Perhaps the best literary analogy is the Haiku poem. The fewer words have greater potential meaning — the more words that are added in longer literary forms, the more specific the meaning. An image offers both specific and non-specific meanings. It can work on many layers, conscious and not.
QUESTION: Did you have any mentors or were you totally self-taught?
RAJIV: I’ve learned a lot from other DP’s. But it’s mainly from studying their work. Ashok Mehta and I talk a lot, and he’s given me a great deal. But I was self-taught. I studied art extensively, particularly early 20th century artists, and late 19th century artists. I learned a lot about light from them. I’ve stolen an idea from every good film I’ve seen, probably. Particularly the work of Subroto Mitra (ISC), Ashok Mehta (ISC), Binod Pradhan, and Santosh Sivan (ISC).
QUESTION: Do you think of yourself as an artist, a technician or both?
RAJIV: I think that’s a very important distinction. I don’t want to sound pretentious, but if you consider the nature of art, it is meant to give us new eyes to see the world. I want audiences to respond viscerally to what our intentions are for a film. I think that cinematography works very much like music in that it is difficult for us to measure or quantify why audiences respond to what we do. So it is an art. And its practitioners must therefore be artists.
QUESTION: Tell us more about your analogy of music and cinematography.
RAJIV: I can sit in dailies and I can see the other people watching the film with me respond physically and emotionally to the images; but it is very difficult quantifying what they are responding to. If you watch people listening to music, they may also respond, but you would hard put to quantify why they are responding.
QUESTION: I’ll borrow a phrase from Subroto Mitra, who said, cinematographers are the authors of the images. But, that isn’t widely recognized.
RAJIV: Part of the problem lies with our collective culture. Films are reviewed as theatre rather than as a unique art form. Critics will talk about scripts and performances. They talk about things they understand, but they understand them because their own cultural antecedents are principally in traditional theatre, though they may not recognize that. In this context, cinematography and music aren’t understood, except to say they were beautiful, because there is not a particular language developed within criticism for their description. Unfortunately, many reviewers don’t recognize how decisions made by the director, cinematographer and composer made a profound impact on the visceral reactions and intellectual responses of audiences. I’m not saying that cinematographers aren’t recognized. We are, at least within the industry, but not in the consumer press. I don’t think I read a single review that mentioned the significance of Subroto Mitra’s (ISC) decision to use 16mm film and other formats in certain scenes in The River, yet that made a profound impact. I consider that a significant artistic decision worthy of comment, in fact, essential to an audiences understanding of the film’s artistic treatment.
QUESTION: The collaboration between directors and cinematographers is unique.
RAJIV: An important thing about that collaboration is that cinematographers have to integrate their vision for a film with the director’s vision.
QUESTION: Do the many music videos you shot influence you today?
RAJIV: Not really. None of my films look like music videos, but the great thing about music videos was that we could experiment with different lighting, film stocks, lenses and filters. We would decide to try putting four filters on the lens, force process the film, or put a negative through a reversal film postproduction process to see how it comes out, and then try it again the other way around. It was a great way to learn.
QUESTION: Are there other cinematographers whose work you follow?
RAJIV: I can mention all the obvious names, but the truth is I learn from all cinematographers. I can watch a television program shot by a 29-year-old cinematographer and find something that he or she did that is quite interesting. I’m constantly learning from other people. I still read every magazine and journal about cinematography and photography that I can lay my hands on. I still study art. I collect books of photographers and paintings. But it’s not just the good work that others do that I learn from. I learn from my own mistakes that I have had ample opportunity to make over these last 20 years. When my son Adam was in the seventh grade, he wrote an essay in which he was required to say who his hero was. He said it was me. “My father is my hero because he messes up all the time, and he lets me see it.” So I feel o.k. about messing up. I think that’s a hugely important lesson to learn. It’s o.k. to mess up, and you will sometimes mess up if you’re willing to push the limits of your craft.
QUESTION: Did any other mentors influence your thinking?
RAJIV: I was a graduate from the University of Lucknow for a short while. That’s where I met Renu Saluja who was a really important mentor. She pointed me down some really interesting avenues as regards film theory.
QUESTION: How do you decide that something is a film you want to do?
RAJIV: Early in my career anything that was offered was a film I wanted to do. Today, two things are likely to affect my decision. One is my first meeting with the director. That relationship is like a marriage only, oddly, much more intense. You have to decide whether you’re going to be able to get along with that person for the long time that you’re going to be together. I think I have gotten along well with over 90 percent of the directors I have worked with, and many have remained friends. The second thing is the photography. I’m always interested in doing new and different things. If the project is very much like what I have done before, and the script is not great, then it is less likely I will be interested. Sometimes a project comes along that is just so interesting it is impossible to resist.
QUESTION: What do you tell students and other young filmmakers when they ask you to share the secret of success? Do you tell them the truth about the odds?
RAJIV: I think you have to be patient, and not let yourself believe that things are going to happen quickly. You need integrity and honesty about who you want to become. That way, even if you fail, you can fail with some dignity. If you compromise and fail, what do you have left?
Quick notes by Indian Cinematographer / DOP Rajiv Jain on Cinematography and aspiring Indian Cinematographers:
A quick “filler post” while I try to get something actually substantial written:
The most hits I get for my blog are from people searching keywords like “Indian Cinematographers” “cinematography career path” and “how to be a great Cinematographer.” I can really only offer my own personal experience.
Rajiv on advice for young, aspiring Indian cinematographers:
By Tony Parsons