Vishnu with Vijay during Bigil

You’re just 30 and you’ve already shot two very big films. As you were learning your craft, were you preparing yourself to shoot a film like Mersal on your first go?

Nobody would expect or even dream to do such a movie as their first. It just happened. But I was always around these guys. I was around Atlee, and I know his sets very well. I assisted George C Williams in Theri, and I was even an assistant in Atlee’s short films. Later, I worked with cinemtographer Richard M Nathan, and that’s where I learnt what was cinema. That was the first time I was out of my comfort zone, working with totally new people. For any assistant coming to the sets, it can feel like a totally new world because you have no method to follow.

Were Mersal and Bigil the kind of films you wanted to make when you decided to become a cinematographer?

Definitely. These are the kind of films I wanted to make someday. Who wouldn’t want to work with Vijay sir? Very few Indian films have attempted a sports film of this scale, so it wasn’t just a regular mass film.

Is Atlee a very visual director?

Yes. The kind of look a film gets is a cinematographer’s work. But when Atlee narrates the story, it becomes easier to generate that look. He might not be able to tell you exactly how this can be created, but he’ll know the mood of it. When you work with someone for long, you understand their taste. Beyond that, it’s also how the combination of the cinematographer, art director and costume director work out. Atlee gives us that space to create something. But at the end of the day, I know what he wants. So, it’s not just that we’re all doing our own thing. Atlee’s narration is extraordinary. When he’s describing a scene, he creates a visual image and that’s where it all starts.

Collage from Bigil
Collage from Bigil showing the monochrome effect

I also think Altee’s visual sense is quite different from other commercial mass film directors. Usually, in a Vijay film, the effort is to make it as colourful as possible. But, in Bigil, we get several separate blocks such as ‘Verithanam’ (red) or the Napier bridge fight sequence (grey) or even that fight on the basketball court (dark with silhouettes), which are basically monochromatic. So, does Atlee come to you and say, let’s give ‘Verithanam’ a reddish tone?

We discussed the idea and came up with it together. But we didn’t know what kind of red it would be. We can get that tone through sets or costumes or even Holi colours. It is only later that I said let’s make it red through lighting. I had something in mind.

What was this mental image like? Was it something like “we will light up Vijay’s character in such a way that only he is clearly visible. The dancers, though will be completely red without a lot of clarity.”

Technically yes, but without it looking like that’s what we have done. That was the idea. The whole point is to make Vijay sir stand out from the others, even in a monochromatic song. It was a huge outdoors set with a lot of dancers, but honestly, I didn’t have a lot of time to light it up. In such a set-up, it would have been great if I’d gotten an entire day to light it up and see how it looks. So we got started and tried it out with the dancers. But something was missing. It is when I placed that spotlight on Vijay sir that things fell into place. Lighting such a crowd in a uniform colour tone wasn’t easy. So I had to erect 30-foot-tall rostrums around the set, something we usually don’t do outside the studio. But this red light again had to be on the dancers alone and not the sets, because that would have made the whole thing look flat. It is not an overcast red. We had a palette, even for the costumes, and we consciously avoided pinks and navy blues for this. But we used a few other blues here and there to create that mosaic effect.

‘Verithanam’ is also unique because we rarely get intro songs that are shot in the night…

What I love most about shooting in the night is the control we get over everything. Let’s say we want to shoot a rock concert scene and there are these big pillars obstructing our view, as long as we remove all light falling on those pillars, we’ll still get the look we wanted. But the same rule cannot be applied to, say, the fight scene on Napier bridge. Because people know what it looks like, we needed to keep it real. We also stuck to greys because it would be easier to match on CG.

Even Mersal was a very “red” film. Were you ever worried that people would feel a repetition in terms of its look?

I don’t think so. Even in Bigil, if you look at the entire palette, it will not just be red. The songs, maybe. I’ve consciously tried to avoid it in other places. The ‘Maathare’ song has muted colours; it has greys and silhouettes to show the character’s state of mind. But, it also looks good. More than frames or composition, I prefer to represent moods or emotions through lighting. I’m a big fan of Roger Deakins {The Shawshank Redemption, A Beautiful Mind} and most of his lighting is practical. In the songs, you choose lighting to exaggerate the emotions, but within the film, it has to be totally different.

Even the Rayappan character had a separate colour tone.

Yes. His scenes got a combination of warm yellow with a greenish tone. I think that was a new tone too. Though it is gold, I didn’t want it to have the look of our usual romantic movies. I wanted it to have that subtlety but also convey emotions. We couldn’t have chosen a particular colour tone for Bigil’s character, because he’s everywhere. He plays football, he has romantic scenes, he’s there in songs. Most of the time, it’s the scene that decides how I light it. Even when you see Gayathri in the agraharam, she too gets another look. And when Nayanthara speaks, there are images of female goddesses behind her. It’s to showcase how they have images of these female goddesses in their house, but do not know what a woman in their house in actually going through.

A still from Bigil
A still from Bigil

That look applies to Reba’s character Anitha as well right?

I didn’t want Anitha to be shown in full light. Even when Vijay sir is talking to her from outside, you will only see her silhouette. She is depressed and you can barely see her face. It’s only when football comes back to her life that we see her face clearly. It was to show her transformation.

Are there certain unwritten rules to shooting a mass hero film?

The script, of course, comes first but the star comes just after. When you’re shooting a star, you cannot keep using silhouettes to show him. You have to make an effort to make him look his best without it stepping out of the scope of the script.

Like his mentor Shankar, Atlee too has become that director who gets the term ‘bramandam’ associated with his films. How much of that grandeur is the work of the cinematographer?

Grandeur is not just wide frames and showing a lot of people. Imagine you haven’t seen Bigil. Can you think of what it will look like to show a massive football stadium with thousands of people to create the effect of watching a game on Star Sports? That’s what we set out to achieve.

As a cinematographer, what are the practical advantages in such a film to achieve this grandeur?

I think, the time you get. In a smaller film, you might get half a day to achieve a look. So you stick to what you’ve planned and execute it. But in a film like Bigil, we might get two days for this. So you first shoot what you’ve planned, just to make sure and then keep making changes to elevate that look. If you ask me, perfection is grandeur. That extra time is the luxury.

During interviews, the makers had even spoken about the sophisticated equipment needed for the shoot. So does a big budget film also mean better access to equipment compared to a smaller film?

Of course. We used a system called Arri Trinity, which is a motion-stabilised device that’s far more advanced than the steady cam. When you shoot sports, you can’t do that just with a steadycam. Trinity has to be operated by someone who can ride a Segway. Imagine a ball is being kicked. How do you shoot that? You have to follow the ball and also the players that are running. To get that speed, you need a Segway, and for the images to be perfect, you need this device. Of course, you can shoot a football match using closeups or some other technique, but that will not give you the high of being in the game.

Vijay as Rayappan in Bigil
Vijay as Rayappan in Bigil

Is this technology something we can easily source in Chennai?

Unfortunately, not. There are only seven people in the world who can operate Trinity on a Segway. I mailed all of them, and we finally got Tobin to come down from Denmark. I had to explain why we needed this for our film, and creative producer Archana Kalpathi worked really hard to get it done. We also used a Spidercam for most of the football matches, making us only the second film after 2.0 to do it. That had to be brought in from Germany.

The goal isn’t to just use these equipment. We had a vision, and we realised that we needed these to make it possible. We realised that without them, such shots would have taken even longer to achieve. We also used a camera setup called Bolt, which is basically a robot which can be programmed to move the camera very quickly to achieve a particular kind of shot. You have to write a code for that, and you can use it to choreograph complex high-speed movement.

Does such equipment also make a film expensive?

It is expensive. But, when you’re making a soccer film, you should know where to spend the money. We wanted to shoot night matches, and they need to be lit for 300 frames per second, when a usual scene requires just 24fps. So you have to expose the whole stadium with a lot of light. Everything has to be perfectly lit. Regular cinematic lighting would have been impossible. So we used a lot of physical lights that we then extended using CG. We used a special kind of floodlight that retained the colour temperature, so we could shoot easily. It also had to be stable, and not flicker, because we were shooting a lot of slow-motion content. Figuring these lights on such a large scale was a real challenge. There was a lot of research that went into even in sourcing such equipment.

Do you also have to work factoring in that large chunks of CG would be used for the stadium portions?

Yes. Imagine the crowds, imagine the movement and match it. For VFX, we used a technology called Lidar Scanning where you scan the set of the stadium. It will give you all the coordinates that will help you build a CG stadium so the scale and the lensing matches. There was no restriction. My shots complicated with a lot of movement, but the VFX matched.

What were the things VFX was used for?

The stadium and the crowds were totally made on CGI. We just had the marks and the blue screen. We filled our set with three per cent of the crowd we would need to completely fill it up, and a lot of calculations to achieve what we had planned. Apart from the games, even Singapenney had a lot of VFX.

‘Singapenney’ too looked very interesting…

VFX helped a lot. The song had to look fresh and inspirational, but it should be more than just a sports training montage. It’s easy for a montage to look boring. One of the reasons it looked fresh was also because we chose to shoot it at night. It needed to remove you from the film or the scene, and work beyond that. The choreography too was very different. It was beyond sports or dance choreography, and I must thank Shobi master for that.

Is it easy through all the logistics to also capture performances?

You have to give yourself the space to make changes according to what the performances demand. For Rayappan, we had closeups from the top where you see only him, and the rest of it goes shallow. That creates the mood. It’s Vijay sir’s reaction that asked for that kind of a shot. Whenever we shoot with him, he surprises us, and we never know what he’s going to do. So it’s not like we plan for 10 shots and go and shoot just those. We let the performers do what they have in mind. If it’s a scene where the hero is crying, you can’t start from the middle. It has be from start to finish. If you break it, you wont get it again. Vijay sir is very camera-friendly that way. You don’t have to explain anything. He sees the range and the lens and performs accordingly.

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Which is your favorite shot in Bigil?

I can’t name one, but I really like the close-up of Rayappan in the collectorate scene. I also like the tone and texture of the Jackie Shroff bathroom scene, which also had an extreme close-up of him**. It was created with the intention to make you gag. I like ‘Verthinam’ also.

What will you miss most when you have to move away from these Rs 100 crore-Rs 200 crore films to a smaller budget?

I really want to do that. I want to be a part of a film such as Aaranya Kaandam. To be able to use that film language and to convey those emotions…I loved doing Mersal and Bigil, but I want to get into that space as well.

But when you’re working on such star vehicles, does it help if you’re a fan of the man?

It does. You have your own ideas on how to portray that star on screen. I’ve always been a huge Vijay fan, right from his Ghilli days. I remember distributing audio CDs of Azhagiya Tamil Magan to all my friends when it released. And, you’d think I’m lying, but I was suspended from my college hostel for playing the songs of Pokkiri loudly. My mother was very worried about this fandom of mine. I think it’s only now that she feels relieved. Being his fan, I’m sure has contributed to the visuals of both films.

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