The bond between Indian cinematography and Arriflex

After joining the Film and Television Institute in the eighties to study cinematography, the first year was spent shooting still photographs, doing lighting practicals and lab work. We however watched a lot of films, argued more about them and of course dreamt of shooting our own films.

It was only in the second year that we got a chance to shoot on film. I remember my shot in the motion picture exposure practical exercise and it was a panning shot of somebody going into a building.

It was a bright day and the iris was cut down to f/22. I could barely see anything and some one shouted ‘start camera’. I was so nervous. The Arri 2c camera came alive – black and white film squeezing though the gears. Before I could get my bearings the shot was over. I wasn’t prepared for the flicker that I saw through the eyepiece. I thought my camera was faulty. My first shot in cinema was going to be wobbly. I had to wait for a week to see the results on screen.

I heaved sigh of relief when my shot came on screen. There it was – crystal clear with no flicker.

Guru Dutt with VK Murthi

Then out of the blue, I realised there is so much science in motion pictures, precision engineering in the film cameras, chemistry in the labs and even the projector was doing its bit to the mystique of the movies by flashing a frame of film twice to avoid the flicker. This was baffling, film cameras are an engineering marvel – so many parts, so many gears working precisely, stopping starting, frame after frame.

Satyajit Ray and Subrata Mitra
Jean-Luc Godard

Most studios used Mitchell cameras; many great films in India were shot on Mitchell and continued till the sixties. Mitchell was the great American workhorse meant for shooting on shooting floors, had a complete set of registration pins and produced a great image, shutter angle could be cut during the shot but it was heavy  too bulky and cumbersome.

A scene from Jules Et Jim

But when did things change? What was the tipping point. Using portable equipment and requiring little or no set up time. French New Wave of film-making presented a documentary style of cinema which captured the restless energy of the young, on the streets of Paris. This style had a definite impact on India cinema too.The inability of other camera manufacturers to address the design issues and solve the problem of weight and ergonomics meant that those bulky cameras were quickly consigned to only shooting special effects shots.

Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Mankada Ravi Varma and Mamooty shooting Mathilukal

A hallmark of German engineering excellence -Arriflex- designed for the battle field, had in a few years become the main production camera in India along with the solid Nagra recorder.

Satyajit Ray with a Arri 2c in the back of an Ambassador car

Young Creative Indian film makers found this camera, with a new reflex system, liberated them from the confines of the studios. They were able to shoot on locations with natural light, free to shoot inside cars, in the nook and corners and literally run with the camera to take hand held shots. It could survive a dunking in the sea. Arri built a reputation amongst Indian cinematographers that this is a small but sturdy camera you could trust.

Aravindan with Shaji N Karun

In the next four decades, Arriflex continued to innovate with rotating eyepieces, brought in high-speed cameras, introduced silent camera with better registration and eventually, the combination of Kodak colour film and Arri cameras were here to stay. Labs improved and the cinematographer got used to lighting for colour film, so did the quality of Indian cinematography.

Mani Ratnam and Rajiv Menon in a shoot

But this status quo was to be challenged again and things began to change around the last decade. Digital revolution was first seen in editing and audio post-production, its use in principal photography was resisted for a while by the industry. Digital projection was making film labs and film stocks irrelevant. Kodak which pioneered digital photography perished in the analogue inferno.

Bajirao Mastani shooting in progress

Arriflex adapted. It didn’t get bogged down by the number of pixels or technical jargon but managed to create the new industry standard with superior latitude and reliability in their Alexa series of cameras.

Baahubali shooting in progress

For students of cinema who have witnessed quite a few changes, it is astonishing how Arriflex has remained in the forefront of film technology.

Innovation, having a eye on the future, being flexible and adapting to the changing technology and demands of the industry is crucial for a camera manufacturing company transforming itself into a lighting company and now to a total media solution provider, thus managing to remain relevant even after hundred years.

Its difficult to explain the bond that a cinematographer has with his camera. Is it like a writer with his pen…? No… the writer could always use a typewriter or a computer. Is it like a musician with his guitar? Not really, keyboards, synthesizer  and sequencer could play guitar samples.

I think it’s like a pilot going to war with a fighter plane, man and machine as a team, trusting his machine, while putting his life at risk for a larger cause. The motion picture camera helps the cinematographer soar over creative obstacles, fight battles with changing light, searing temperatures, dust, rain, storm and finally discovering the clarity of new visual horizons, capturing them and bringing them back to the audience in the glory of the darkened movie halls.

Germany may have lost the battle of Britain to Vampires and Spitfires. But seventy years later German technology dominates the world of cinematography. Arriflex with reliability, design and innovation continues its deep and personal bond with Indian Cinematographers.

Speech by Mr. Rajiv Menon at the Arri 100 Years Celebration held at Mumbai on October 2017.

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Crime and Punishment in Cinema

deewar

India is the world’s largest democracy, but it is also a very unequal country, where some citizens are more equal than others. Convicted criminals, who are rich and powerful, seem to get out of jail well before their sentences have been completed. This is in sharp contrast to the lives of thousands of under trails languishing in jails not having access to a lawyer or even getting a chance for a fair trial. However, in the darkened “Halls of Cinema”, Good always wins over Evil and the Long Arm of the Law would eventually catch up with the criminals.

How does the film industry view crime and punishment? How do they represent it in their work? How do they deal with the law when one of their own is the accused?

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Wonder Woman – Finally a female perspective!

I walked out of the theatre after watching “Wonder Woman” feeling a complete sense of empowerment and self-belief that I can take on the world. I can’t remember feeling invincible or this elated after any film that I have seen and this is one of the reasons why this film is a global blockbuster success. Grossing $572 million worldwide it has set records for the biggest opening for a female-centric film. Superhero movies so far empowered only half the world’s population. Patty Jenkins, the first woman director of a studio super-heroine movie, empowers the other half.

When I first heard the title, I thought it was corny, expecting the film to just be a male version of “Superman”. I have never been a fan of superhero movies despite subjecting myself to several versions of “Superman”, “Batman” and “Spiderman”, more to humour my spouse than for my own interest. The worlds these movies inhabited were artificial to me and I could never suspend my disbelief enough to buy into these characters. I marvelled only slightly at the special effects and never got involved in the action sequences knowing fully-well who was going to be the victor at the end. But it was magical to feel the goose bumps on my skin and the rush of blood as I watched Diana (Gal Gadot), Princess of the Amazons take on the various men who tried to stop her.

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A Perfectionist Who Refused To Compromise

Marcus Bartley

When Rajiv and I were preparing to shoot Kadal, we saw lot of films which involved shooting in the sea. Very few Indian films were shot in the sea, but one film which caught our attention was Chemmeen, based on the famous book by Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, directed by Ramu Kariat and shot by Marcus Bartley the legend. It is still a classic and even today, some of the shots take your breath away.

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The Missing Female Protagonist in Tamil Cinema

I watched “Rogue One” in 3D last night with all its spectacular special effects, animated characters and breathtaking visuals. While I wouldn’t say it is the best of the Star Wars series, what impressed me was the way the female protagonist (Jyn) held the whole story together. This is a mainstream Hollywood, big- budget action film targeting a worldwide audience yet they chose to cast a young, relatively unknown actress to play a strong, brave and inspiring character with the mission to save her planet. Threatened by being annihilated by the Death Star – a weapon capable of apocalyptic destruction forcibly created by her kidnapped father – she is unafraid to go on this dangerous mission alone.

Although Jyn is accompanied by a male rebel commander, she deftly wields her weapon to destroy the inhuman storm troopers who come in her way. She inspires the scared allies to join her fight and gains the trust of the commander sent to kill her father, who relents due to her integrity. However, Jyn is not cold and emotionless. She does have a feminine, sentimental and loving side when she is briefly reunited with her father. She feels affection for the commander accompanying her on her mission and risks her own life to save a helpless child caught in the crossfire. In the climax, she boldly faces the antagonist on her own and completes her mission although sacrificing her life for the cause.

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Miniature Shoot

The concept of using miniatures in cinema to create an illusion of a real object has existed since the inception of filmmaking.

When circumstances do not allow us to carry out shoots in real locations with real objects, it necessitates the scenario of miniature shooting. It may be due to technical reasons, safety restrictions, economics of production, time constraints, or the non availability of the actual object or location.

Requirement for miniature shooting continues to be relevant even today for most of the CG works like compositing with graphics and real objects.

Miniature-1

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Cowboy, Painter and Photographer

As a child my first impression of English films was seeing Mackenna’s Gold, a big budget western film, where cowboys went looking for the mountain of gold and got corrupted and died by its lure. I was fascinated by Cowboys, read cowboy comics, tied a handkerchief around my neck galloped around my house waiting to lasso a wild horse. Since I used to live in a flat in Bombay, I could only lasso, the carpet that was rolled and kept under our divan, which would be spread out when visitors came in the evening. How did the image of the cowboy and westerns come to dominate world cinema, how did this uniquely American invention become one of the great cultural exports of America?

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Yes to Establishing Shots, No to Visual Cliché’s

Isn’t the Eiffel Tower symbolic of the ever-romantic Paris? Or is the clock tower of Westminster, the only symbol of London and British sophistication? In Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, The Statue of Liberty in New York is shown as a beacon of welcoming immigrants into the Unites States of America.

How many times in American films have you seen the typical opening shot of an automobile crossing a bridge and then the car coming to a halt, in a suburban neighbourhood and the protagonist coming out of the car and getting into the house? The Great American obsession for the automobiles and their cities results in shots that have become visual clichés. The establishing long shots in films are not just images representing a location; they also set the mood of the film. Some shots rise above the ordinary, like the Brooklyn Bridge and the two lovers seated below in Woody Allen’s Manhattan – a truly classic Long shot.

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