Monday, August 31, 2009

Film Processing Laboratory and Library

Though we had to study the theoretical aspects of film processing, only after we actually started filming that we understood the intricacies of the chemical process and how it affects the density of the negative etc. Of course the man who was most helpful to me there was Raman Nair (Editing 1966 Batch), the younger brother of Film Archives P.K.Nair. For reasons unknown, after completing the editing course he had been working in the film processing laboratory. Years later we were associated in the Malayalam film "AEKAKINI" directed by G.S.Panikkar.

The Library at the Institute was one of the finest in India with regard to books on Cinema and collection of journals. Many a hours were spent in the library reading the latest issues of Sight and Sound, American Cinematographer etc. It was there that I became deeply attached to the American Cinematographer magazine that for many years I continued reading it to keep up with the latest technologies in Cinematography. After leaving the Institute , I was in Madras working in films. I became a member of the American library where I used to visit often to borrow books on cinema as well as to read the latest issue of AC magazine. The air-conditioned comfort of the library in the scorching summer months at Madras and the proximity of the drive-in-woodlands hotel was an added attraction. Later on when I could afford it I became a subscriber and continued reading it to update on the emerging technologies.

It was a great joy that an interview of mine was published in that great magazine when I did an English film BEYOND THE SOUL Directed by Rajeev Anchal. Please click HERE to read the interview published in September 2002 issue of American Cinematographer Magazine.

The Library at the Institute had played a major part in my film education shared only by the National Film Archives. I think most of the Institute Alumni will definitely agree that the Library and the Film Archives had contributed much to their film education.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Subrata Da's Box Lights

In the studio there was this strange looking wooden box one side of which was covered with translucent tracing paper. We were told that it was the invention of none other than the great master Cinematographer Subrato Mitra himself. It seems that when he was shooting PATHER PANJALI the West Bengal Government helped Satyajit Ray by providing some lights which turned out to be Police search lights ! Subrata Da adapted them for his movie work by bouncing the light on to white boards to soften the harshness of bright search lights. He also devised an inexpensive and ingenious soft light by fixing a number of house hold bulbs in a wooden box and covered one side with translucent tracing paper. Using that light he was able to create very soft and shadowless lighting effects. When he visited the Institute earlier ( around 1967 or so) he got two lights made for demonstration purposes.

Box Lights

We used those lights christened "DUBBA" ( Hindi word for Box) lights during our practicals and found them to be very useful for soft and naturalistic lighting effects. Bala Mahendran ( Balu Mahendra) carried the idea to Madras and got the Box lights made for his films. When he started colour film work he replaced the house hold incandescent bulbs with photo-flood lamps and used them in his films for many years. He even had an assistant appointed only for carrying his personal light to the location and back. Many in Madras thought that Box lights were Balu's invention but the fact is otherwise as seen from the photograph below!

Subrata Mitra with students

Bala Mahendran near window , Naresh Bedi( with beard)

Subrata Da had conducted the workshop at the Institute before I joined there and hence I did not have the opportunity to meet him or to attend his classes for a long time. Years later, I had the honour of meeting him when he came to Thiruvananthapuram to inaugurate the Indian Society of Cinematographers in 1995. He gave an excellent talk during the function and later interacted with the Cinematographers present. As President of the ISC, I shared the stage with him when he was conferred the Honourary Membership by eminent Film Director Shri.Adoor Gopalakrishnan.

Subrata Da, Adoor and Me

Though the Box light was very useful I found that carrying it to location and back is cumbersome. So when I started working in films at Madras, I got 4ft X3 ft wooden frames made on to which I stretched translucent thin plastic sheets ( shower curtain material) and placed them in front of lights to achieve similar soft light effect. In the later years it was replaced by white acrylic sheets, grid cloth etc.

Practicals with Acting students

As part of our training we had combined practicals with acting students who enacted small scenes which we will light up and shoot. Professor Roshan Taneja or Asrani (who was working as Part time lecturer) were there to direct the acting students and to supervise the whole thing.

Myself, Venu, Murthy ( Focus) and Prof. Taneja

Apart from doing small sequences we also did a few song picturisation exercises in which we used to take the sound track of popular Hindi films and the acting students will enact giving lip movements to the songs. This was done with the intention of showcasing the talent of the acting students to the Bombay Film Industry. Below is a still from one of the song sequences starring Jaya Bhaduri and Danny.

Jaya Bhaduri and Danny

Our outdoor exercises were done in the hilly wooded area, called forest near the swimming pool which had different kind of landscape and trees so that a variety of shots can be tried without leaving the campus. The only thing is collecting the equipments from the camera department, loading it on the trolley and pushing it up hill. But the return downward journey is much easier, you just keep a hold on to it so that it won't pick up speed and go too fast and unstoppable!

Special Effects

Shri. Rajagopalan Nair ( K.P.R.Nair) was taking classes in special effects cinematography which to me was a fascinating and exciting subject as you can magically create wonders on the screen by employing a few tricks. But a majority of the students were not much interested in experimenting and learning the special effects process. Myself, Murthy and Jaiswal were keen on knowing more of the subject and used to attend his classes regularly with rapt attention. Though we had one or two hours of classes per week, we were allowed to go to Nair saab's room anytime and fiddle with the equipments there. He used to answer our questions and explained the intricacies of special effects cinematography. His room was full of old and antiquated equipments in various conditions of disrepair.

There was Bell and Howell High speed camera which used to run up to 200 -250 frames with which we tried some high speed shots. We took an old miniature model of a building from the Prabhat days, rigged it with some wires and debris, strategically placed burning rags and recreated a burning building catching fire and collapsing. The things I learned there along with help from the book "The technique of special effects cinematography" by Raymond Fielding was very useful in my career afterwards. In many films I did my own masking shots (double roles), in camera dissolves, glass shots, title effects etc using the reliable Mitchell camera.

Also we had the rare opportunity of using the Front Projection system, the only one of its kind in India. In all other places only Back projection was being used which was giving poor image quality and restricted the lighting to be done from the side s only to avoid it spilling on the screen. As the front projection system with its glass beaded screen and front coated mirror produced excellent results, people from Bombay film industry used to come down for their front projection shots. Nair Saab taught us how to set up the partial mirror and aligning the camera and the projector properly so that the photographed object itself will cover its own shadow, which is a very tricky one. Unfortunately after leaving the Institute, I could not try front projection as that system was not available elsewhere in India. Though I have done many back projection shots, I feel that front projection results were much superior ones!

In his spare time Nair saab can be seen in his room, tinkering with some equipment or other. In those days he was also trying to build a subtitling machine by himself. He later on succeeded in making one such machine which I was told that the National Film Archives utilized for subtitling purposes.

Friday, August 28, 2009

More of the Second Year Classes

While writing about the Second year studies, I went astray as certain happy as well as unhappy incidents happened about which I strongly felt that I should react. In that process the narrative thread had broken, which I hope to later set right by editing the posts.

It was quite an experience to start lighting the sets in the huge indoor studio with it's high catwalks full of different types of lights mounted on it. Prof.Lall Jaiswani and Mr.Ramanathan were in-charge of the practicals and they explained to us how to use those lights according to the needs of the scene. The experienced light boys ( though they were quite old, were called like that ) helped us with expert advice on how to proceed with the placement and lighting of the sets. We were divided into groups of three so that when one person operates the other two pitch in as assistants doing the follow focusing and pushing the dolly. In my group the other two were Ram Agarwal and Kasturi Ramachandra Murty.

S.K.Jolly follow focusing and me on camera

Initially we had no models for our practicals and one or two amongst ourselves had to act out the movements for the lighting exercises. One day I was doing the acting part and I was sitting near a table and the lighting was in progress. All of a sudden a group of school students on a study tour rushed in to watch the film shooting going on! They thought I am some kind of a star as I was performing before the camera and started asking me for autographs! I also obliged them wondering why of all the people they are asking ME for autographs! Then I remembered my schooldays...

I was 8 or 9 years old at that time. From our school we were on an excursion to Mahabalipuram which is a famous tourist spot near Madras. While seeing the monuments we saw some film unit shooting going on. We were told that it was the Tamil film "ALLI PETRA PILLAI" starring S.S.Rajendran. A scene in which a horse drawn cart driven by some actors was being pictured. Some people wearing blue coloured dhoties were resting under the shade of trees. ( In Black and White days pure white was never used in costumes, instead blue or saffron colured clothes were used, which I learnt when I myself became a cinematographer ) Some boys shouted Pulimootai Ramaswamy ( a popular comedian with a big girth) looking at a fat man amongst the blue coloured dhotiwalas and soon they surrounded him with pieces of paper torn from notebooks for autographs. Every one wearing a blue dhoti was considered to be a worthwhile cine actor and were asked for autographs by the eager crowd of students. Puzzled by their sudden popularity the extra actors signed on every scrap of paper presented before them. I too was one of the boys who collected the autographs on pieces of paper from my note book.

As our lighting and camera operating skills improved we had combined exercises with Direction students working out small sequences.

On the sets with Direction students