Priya Seth on life and underwater cinematography - Part II

Priya Seth, one of the few female cinematographers in the country, on career, life and underwater cinematography
Priya Seth -  Indian woman-cinematographer
Priya Seth - Indian woman-cinematographer


Continued from Part I


Seth joined Gopal Shah while beginning her career, because the latter had worked with a woman-cinematographer prior to working with Seth. “Being a man was a pre-requisite for cinematography, back then. Nobody hired women. A friend of mine told me that Shah had hired a woman assistant before. So I knew that he was open to working with women. I approached him, and he thought I’d barely last for six months. He assumed I’d get run off and get married,” joked Seth. For a long time, there wasn’t any female cinematographer around, in the industry. It was just Seth, alone.
When asked about whether she faced any adversities during that time, Seth said, “No. Advertising back then, and even now, is a very evolved industry. Since I was working with a DoP who was at the top of his game, I got to work with best of the industry.”
Seth mentioned facing discrimination once she started off on her own, as an independent cinematographer. “Nobody told me that I can’t get an opportunity because I’m a woman on my face of course, but it is there in the hindsight. A woman would not even get the opportunity to walk through that door.” It took Seth a long while to establish herself in the industry, in spite of the talent and caliber she possessed.

Priya Seth

Priya Seth

Today we do see female cinematographers in the country, but there aren’t too many yet. When asked about why women don’t opt for cinematography as a career, Seth said, “This is a tough job – not because of the physical exertion alone, but also because one does not get breaks in between shoots. Because it is a male-dominated industry, there aren’t an equal number of opportunities for women.”

Seth is a trained scuba diver. She is an expert at underwater cinematography across the country for films belonging to Hindi, Tamil, Telugu cinema. When asked about how she does it, Seth’s face lit up as she narrated, “Underwater cinematography is my most-loved form of cinematography. We dive in with all our scuba gear and sealed camera housing, which helps us shoot under the sea, pool, or the ocean, as situation demands. We recreate scenarios for stunts and song sequences.”
Many of the demanding underwater scenes in movies have been shot by Seth. Over the last twelve-fifteen years, she has done tons of scenes for various movies.

Underwater cinematography is my most-loved form of cinematography. We dive in with all our scuba gear and sealed camera housing, which helps us shoot under the sea, pool, or the ocean, as situation demands. We recreate scenarios for stunts and song sequences.

Seth relies on her go-to equipments to ensure flawless shooting. “For underwater scenes, I use equipment from the reputed HydroFlex, from Los Angeles. I have been using their housing for quite a while now, since everything has shifted to digital. Prior to this, I used to use the ARRI 3, but we had to come up every four and a half minutes to reload the magazines. Digital has definitely simplified underwater shoots immensely,” said Seth. Seth also mentioned using Stereovision’s equipment for camera housing. Lighting equipment stands of equal importance when shooting underwater, she emphasised.
“We treat the water body as our studio. We curate our sets underwater. These are highly technical shoots. We work intricately. We have been doing it for so long now, that we have an entire technical system in place. My partner, who I’ve been working with since fifteen years, is a safety scuba diver. We have developed a fairly reliable system after a lot of trial and error, and we do a good job,” said Seth. Seth placed emphasis on the use of digital technology for bigger pictures, focal issues, and simpler executions.

Priya Seth and Akshay Kumar, on the set of Airlift

Priya Seth and Akshay Kumar, on the set of Airlift

For general cinematography, Seth started explaining backwards – from projection to capture. According to her, in terms of projection, there is a lot more consistency. “We grade something, and that’s it. We don’t have to constantly be worried about any loss or variations when distributed,” explained Seth. For capture, most cinematographers are still old-school and like to shoot on film. “For low-light stability, digital is far superior. But the craft of lighting is losing value because of the exposure/illumination that digital technology provides. I have worked for so long, there is a part of me which is nostalgic. I value that old process of filming and the traditional photo-chemical process. But I can only comment on my aesthetic,” reminisced Seth. Seth swears by the ARRI Alexa, because she understands the camera. “I don’t want technology to sit on my head. Alexa takes care of the technology part, I don’t have to worry. It helps me concentrate on the emotional appeal of the shot,” she added.

The Akshay Kumar starrer - Airlift, which was shot in a mere 49 days, was done entirely by Seth. While talking about the movie, she said, “Airlift is very close to my heart. Suddenly people became aware of my existence after that movie, which is not a bad thing! It was an interesting project as it was mounted on such a large canvas. We conceived it at a particular scale. We had prepared well. We managed to take that leap without fearing whether we will be able to pull it off or not!” Seth joked that she is still surprised at how did she manage the task.
“There is a certain momentum to shooting, when you’re in that universe of the movie. I like the intensity of working at a face pace. Movies shouldn’t take longer than 49 days to be shot!” exclaimed Seth.

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