About the Art of Cinematography

Apparatus | Abhimanyu Acharya

Evan Malik…

When it comes to films, we take certain things for granted. Every time we look at the credits, we see categories like ‘editor’, ‘cinematographer’, ‘VFX’ and so on. While we superficially know what these things entail, most of us hardly know their mechanics, and the way they function. All credit goes usually to the actor, and then to the director, and the work done by the technical staff remains marginalized.

Here is an attempt to know an insider’s view on the art of cinematography by a conversation with a professional cinematographer.

The following is a telephonic interview taken on 18/3/2017 with Evan Malik by Abhimanyu Acharya. Evan Malik is an emerging cinematographer in Hindi and Gujarati film and television industry. He has worked as an Assistant Cinematographer in SONY TV’s daily soap ‘Reporters’, a Gujarati film called ‘Gujjubhai the great’, and as an assistant director in two other Gujarati films ‘Bas ek chance’ and ‘Hotel Zodiac’. He has worked for numerous advertisements and TV commercials too. In the following interview, he talks about the process of cinematography, its internal mechanisms, challenges faced and certain dark sides known only to an insider. The interview lasted for almost an hour. Edited excerpts are as follows:

AA: Can you explain what exactly the job of a Cinematographer is?

EM: Basically, when the director communicates the idea/story, he will most probably have a vision in mind. A certain kind of look perhaps, or may be a certain colour palette. Cinematographer’s job is to see how that vision may be realized, what are the possibilities, how much can be achieved, how realistic that vision is and so on. Sometimes it is up to the cinematographer to decide the visual look of the movie. In short, his or her main job is to visually enhance the movie.

AA: What are the most essential, bare minimum skills that a Cinematographer requires?

EM: One needs to have a sense of how light works, and of course basic sense of colours. These days, due to upgraded technology, one also needs to know how to operate some very basic cameras. Certain rules are essential, for example- rules of 180 degree. Cinematographer’s job is to extract emotions out of visuals, so what kind of shot is used to extract what emotions, this should be known. To cut a long story short, one needs to know all the basic rules about shot taking, camera, colours and lighting. One can build up those skills later, but these are the bare essentials. Most important is the lighting. I consider cinematography as painting with lights.

AA: In the hierarchy ladder, what is the position of the cinematographer?

EM: Under ideal conditions, it’s usually right after the director. But in India, it is very dynamic. If the director is new and young while the Cinematographer is old and experienced, he will have the upper hand. At times, if the film contains some big star, then the star governs the process, and both director and cinematographers are reduced to camera operators in such cases. The hierarchy keeps changing according to the situation and context.

AA: Since you mentioned the new technology, I thought of this. Because of the advent of new, polished, big cameras which when used already visually enhances the shot, what job is left for the cinematographer? In other words, do you feel that the new cameras have somehow hijacked the role of a cinematographer?

…in action

EM: New technology has both its pros and cons. For instance, because of certain cameras, certain shots can be taken very easily now, which was not the case earlier. Earlier, even though the cinematographer might have thought of some grand and visually pleasing scene, it never worked out because of the lack of certain technology. These new cameras make the scene clean and polished. But that still needs a cinematographer to direct it. It is the cinematographer who decides which camera to use in what shot. Good cameras can never replace a cinematographer, it only makes his job easy. ‘Love sex aur dhoka’ was shot in a handicam despite having all the budget to use big new cameras, because only handicam had the potential to give the desired effect. Cinematographer has to deal with a lot of real life situations and has to be ‘street-smart’. So I don’t think camera can ever hijack cinematographer’s position.

AA: What real life situations are you referring to?

EM: On sets, one encounters many strange situations. For example, sometimes we arrange the lights for a shot. But suddenly the director changes his mind and wants to shoot it differently, and so we have to rearrange the lights. But in the time that is consumed, sometimes the external light changes. The sun sets. You can’t do it anymore the way you wanted to. Yet, you are forced to because there are time and budget constraints. So, you negotiate your way through it. Do some smart jugaad, as they say. All these things are never solved by cameras. One has to be smart and equipped to pull this off.

AA: What other difficulties do you face on sets?

EM: Most of them are related to time and budget constraints. We can’t wait for perfect lighting because we have to finish the shoot. Sometimes we have to deal with the tantrums of the actors. But all that is part of the game.

AA: Do you think the way things unfold in India, the Cinematographer gets enough credit for his work?

EM: I particularly don’t like the way things unfold here. In the west, the process is very different. There, the actors get the script, and they are asked to improvise on their own. Observing them, the director, along with the cinematographer, designs the scene, exploring different possibilities. On the contrary, in India, the director blocks the scene for the actors and the cinematographer is left with nothing to do but set the lights and operate the camera. Here, credit comes later, you don’t even get enough opportunities to show your talent.

AA: Alright, thank you for sharing your thoughts with us.

EM: Thanks.



About the Writer

Abhimanyu Acharaya is an MA English student at Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities (MCPH). Passionate about theatre, he is also a playwright, and is interested in the mechanics of the moving image.