Cinematographer Manu Anand believes that unless content in moviemaking gets interesting and inspiring, audiences will steer towards online platforms like Netflix and Amazon
By Vinita Bhatia
anu Anand believes these are exciting times for cinematographers, at least those who are willing and open to newer avenues. Those who have worked on feature films are shifting to television series that offer them the scope of trying something different, like 24 or Dharma Productions’ Powder. Working on such creations, helps them differentiate themselves from their peers, in an industry that is becoming increasingly content-driven.
That explains why Anand has always chosen films that have had unconventional storylines, like the critically-applauded Dum Laga Ke Haisha, which is about an unusually paired couple (Ayushmann Khurrana and Bhumi Pednekar) Fan, a story of an obsessive fan (a dual-role played by Shah Rukh Khan) or the soon-to-be released Aanand L. Rai directed Zero, where Shah Rukh Khan plays a dwarf. He explained how this democratisation of content and its visual delivery bodes well for cinematographers, as long as they continue to educate themselves on ways to convey the subject to the changing expectations of viewers.
Does choosing the right camera help a cinematographer in conveying the story better?
You know, I am a camera-neutral person; whichever camera suits the project is good enough for me. In today’s day and age, with the digital intermediates (DI) and other image control techniques available, the audience can’t really tell the difference between cameras. Only DOPs can say if there is some discernible difference.
Does this mean that all cameras are homogenous in their qualities?
I think some cameras are good for a particular set of things; others are good for another set of things. So it depends on the project one needs them for. It isn’t that any single camera is the Holy Grail.
I have shot films using RED Digital Camera and ARRI Alexa cameras – they are all great devices. Ultimately, it all boils down to the nature of the film one will need it for though – whether you need a small camera or a big one, or the resolution and dynamic range required. All these factors determine the choice of the device.
Usually producers decide the camera for a movie, considering various factors. If you had a say, is there any particular brand that you would prefer?
That too will depend on the kind of film I am doing. For instance, I shot Dum Laga Ke Haisha on a RED Digital camera. Later, I shot Fan on the RED Epic Dragon. The reason for choosing this camera was because I was doing plenty of handheld shots with lots of running around and I was pretty confident that I could get the look that I wanted from that camera. In this movie, I did not want to use a heavier camera like the ARRI Alexa. So, the camera’s ergonomics and to some extent its higher resolution determined that decision. For my current film Zero, I am shooting on the Alexa because it suits the project more.
In this day and age, all cameras are so good that the technology is not what’s important in telling a good story. The story is important not the tool that tells the story. Most of the cine cameras are very capable of translating a director’s vision.
With technological improvements, camera prices have also become more affordable. So, while choosing a camera, what factors matter the most – its technical aspects, its price, or ease of maintenance?
I have been fortunate enough to work in projects where the DOP can choose the camera, in consultation with the director and producer. The producer’s buy-in is important, as there are different rates for different cameras. Since most the top line cameras more or less fall in the same price bracket, cinematographers don’t really have an issue.
The challenge arises in the case of a low-budget film where the producer might want the DOP to shoot on a particular camera because he is getting a good deal from a vendor, and the DOP may not like it. So, if it is a low-budget film, I have no qualms shooting it on the cine camera the producer provides as most are amazing in terms of image quality and what they can do.
Also, overall, we are still projecting content in 2K in India. So, the cameras sort of get levelled out in terms of resolution. The most important tool that cinematographers have in their thought process is the will to be brave and innovative. You can have the best device like an ARRI Alexa 65, but if you don’t use it creatively, it doesn’t matter what camera you used.
So, it is a lot like photography, right, where the medium is as important as the process involved?
Yes. In photography, you can have a beautiful shot, but the printing is equally important for the final image to look impressive. In the older days of photography, one would go to the dark room to print a photograph, and unless you followed the process properly, the print would not look good. This is the same with film – if the colour timing isn’t done well, your image won’t look good. The same is true for digital. If the colour correction isn’t done properly your image won’t look good.
There are some people who are even shooting on iPhones. Technology is advancing so fast, that even a small camera like the Panasonic GH5 is so powerful.
Production companies are now investing more in digital cameras because they feel that it means lesser investment in lighting equipment and other paraphernalia. Even DOPs feel these smaller cameras give them a lot more flexibility. Do you agree?
Digital cameras are way more sensitive than the film versions and do not need as much light. However, this doesn’t mean that lighting doesn’t have to be done. Though the camera is sensitive, you still need to mould the light, when you have a certain look in mind. You might go to a location and depending on the lighting conditions and the look you want to achieve, you might want to get more light or balance it. So, for a DOP, lighting will always remain an important element of his work; it is not really going to go away.
Of course, the amount and extent of lighting will change. So where, I was using two big lights, I might end up using one big light.
How do you learn about the latest camera equipment – do you rely on camera manufacturers to hand you that information or do your research on your own?
We are at an age where cinematographers have to keep studying and update themselves with the latest technologies. The onus remains on the cinematographer, though the manufacturers do their bit to train us. They do a good job at making the tools accessible. For instance, recently, Panasonic held a workshop in Los Angeles for some DOPs to showcase the Varicam and show us what it was capable of. These kinds of technical workshops help us to stay ng updated about the latest technologies. However, at the end of the day, a lot of this is self-motivated and about a DOP’s inclination towards learning the nuances of new technologies.
Which is apparently happening since there are a lot more DOPs in the industry than there were a few years ago?
That will happen, right? The entry barrier in the industry is now much lower. Now, you can join the industry as an assistant and perfect your skill by learning on the job with cheaper digital cameras and if you are good, then you can start shooting much earlier.
So, has the learning curve reduced because information is easily available?
The learning curve has not reduced; I think it is actually never ending. However, the entry barrier in terms of economics is lower. Earlier, when we were doing photography, you had to buy a film, process it and there was a cost involved. Today, since photography is the base of cinematography, all you need to do is invest in a digital camera. So, you can start very early learning composition, lighting, etc. This has given people from varied backgrounds the freedom to explore this field better than they would probably have done earlier.
Another interesting thing that one sees and hears about is how 4K has become the de facto standard for capturing content. Do you think it has come to pass in India?
4K has become the de facto standard in countries like the USA thanks to Netflix and Amazon however, despite that many cameras are not 4K. We shoot in lower resolution cameras at times because the projection is only 2K. For example, the Alexa is a 3.4K camera but for a 2K projection 3.4K capture is enough.
What is the reason behind this resistance to change?
It will take time. The manufacturer has the products, but is India ready? Indian producers are not yet pushing 4K content, it is companies like Netflix and Amazon who are saying that the minimum requirement of image capture from a camera shall be 4K RAW. The reason our producers aren’t insisting on transitioning to 4K yet is that the audience experience is still in 2K and it is going to take time for our projectors in cinema halls to transition to 4K. There are very few 4K projectors and these are expensive investments. Any exhibitor will think twice before this upgrade.
Additionally, 4K post-production has to become a little more economically friendly. The post-houses will need lots more data space and more processing power since the machines have to work on a heavier load. Hence, I think it will be awhile before we start projecting and mastering on 4K.
This essentially means we will be constantly playing catch-up, because by then the industry would have moved on to 8K.
To an extent, yes. But the real difference and change shouldn’t be in resolution or 4K vs 8K. I believe content will drive change and also get people to the cinema hall. If the content is not good, they will be driven to YouTube, Netflix or Amazon on their smartphones. In the US, a lot of small films don’t even go to theatres anymore; they come straight to Netflix and Amazon, because that is where consumption is happening a lot faster and also that is where they are able to leverage their work.
While the bigger film production houses have this well-oiled juggernaut, YouTube, Amazon and Netflix have managed to infiltrate and get the audience’s attention. Cinema and online consumption will be facing off. It is inevitable. But for me nothing beats watching a film in a dark theatre on a 40-feet screen.