How To Shoot A Science-Fiction Film On A Low Budget, Film Companion
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The restraints of a low budget are at odds with science-fiction’s limitless capacity for imagination, but, with Cargo, director Arati Kadav makes it work. Set largely inside a spaceship, the Netflix film follows the demon Prahastha (Vikrant Massey) and his assistant Yuvishka (Shweta Tripathi), who help transition human beings into the afterlife. As they travel through space, the film focuses on their internal journeys of what death means to the ones left behind. Hints of the film’s low budget pop up occasionally — a futuristic palm-reading device is instantly recognizable as an ATM spray-painted green — but don’t detract from the moving storytelling.

“You know those people who decide to take off for a day and shoot something? I’m sure Cargo‘s budget is even lesser than that of those films,” says Kadav. She declines to specify the exact figure, but talks about drawing inspiration from George Clooney in Gravity (2013), writing a long backstory for Konkona Sen Sharma to woo her and the one scene she wrote but couldn’t film:

The writing

There’s a joke I tell my friends: We don’t write an idea and then look for resources, instead we look for resources and then write the idea. This was exactly the case with Cargo. In 2017, my friend Rahul Puri had told me that Whistling Woods, the film school he runs, was going to be free in December and we could get the studio space, a camera and some lights. So I started thinking about what I could do in a single location and the idea of a spaceship came to mind. I spent three months writing a complicated massive intergalactic superhero story, which was an insane idea. It was funny and creative, but would’ve been too expensive to shoot. We would’ve needed nine actors and we didn’t have the budget for that.

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Vikrant Massey on the sets of Cargo.

I think the beauty of life lies in death. Once you acknowledge death, you start valuing your time here more. While I was ruminating on this, the one-liner that came to my mind was: An immigration office in space for dead people. When this idea came to me, I felt that this was the right budget for it.

Pre-production

We knew that we would have to make do with limited VFX and so we did extensive pre-production prep. We did extensive referencing, right from Gravity (2013) to real NASA visuals to figure out what we could use from those films that wouldn’t cost us much. We’d watch the scene in Gravity in which George Clooney is ticking things off on a notepad and think, ‘Hey, paper is a low-cost item to have.’ 

Hiring the actors

A factor that really helped was that the film required many people to come in and shoot for only few minutes a day, as opposed to a full schedule of 20-30 days. So I could ask them to do it as a favour. None of the actors in the film were in it for the money, all of them were passionate about the work. Konkona Sen Sharma doesn’t do cameos but Vikrant asked her to meet me. I wrote a huge backstory for her character because I was trying to woo her — her character always wanted to be one of the initial seven astronauts who went into space and worked at Post Death Transition Services but Prahastha got the job over her and that’s what caused them to break up. Now he’s lonely and she’s living a more fulfilled life, but somewhere, she still misses him.

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When I showed Konkona some portions we had shot, she said she felt like she had to support the film because her father was a huge sci-fi enthusiast. She didn’t charge us a penny for her work.  

The costumes

The idea of giving Vikrant and Shweta costumes was that they’d be sorted with one outfit and wouldn’t have to change much. Vikrant wears a blue uniform because he’s been there for so long, he’s blended in with his blue surroundings. Shweta’s is yellow because she’s new, she stands out. There was an advertisement in which the actors were playing astronauts and that’s where we sourced a space suit from. We had just one so both Vikrant and Shweta were sharing it throughout the film. I wish we had the budget for a more realistic space suit, those cost Rs 25,000. We added labels and swatches to the suit to make it more specific, but I wasn’t happy with it. 

For the astronaut helmet, we used a motorcycle helmet, which was enhanced with paper and cardboard. For close-ups, it was slightly enhanced using CGI.

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There’s a baaraat scene in the film and we were supposed to have 10 people wearing the same costume. Since we didn’t have the budget for 10 full costumes, we got 10 shirts but only five pants. So the frame was calibrated in such a manner that you only see the actors’ shirts and nothing below.

The sets

The idea was to spend money only on aspects that were genuinely needed, otherwise everything would fall apart. Because the spaceship has a lot of spaces, we had to reuse our sets.  Like Transformers, we would reassemble the set to form another part of the spaceship. For the first schedule, we created Prahastha and Yuvishka’s rooms and the central area where the cargo comes in on a tram. The tram wasn’t automated, it’s actually being pushed by a bunch of set boys. After we we shot all those portions, we reused the same sets to create the transition area, where the cargo is healed and there’s a tunnel. So the props you see in Prahastha’s room are also in the transition area. We’d make it a game and try to guess what was reused where. That saved a lot of money.

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One of the walls of Yuvishka’s room is made of metallic components. All of those are aluminium parts that came from an old keyboard we got from a raddiwala. There was a mass dump somewhere and I’m shocked at how much we got from there. We also found two discarded ATMs, which we used as the palm-reading machines. The two suitcases Yuvishka comes in with are actually two discarded ATM money boxes. 

A lot of single-location films can get boring because it’s very tough to keep people engaged when you don’t give them visual respite. So we used a lot of colours to break up the monotony. The arrival area is blue but the transition area is green, to give it a hospital vibe. We couldn’t switch it up too much, because paint was too expensive. We used lighting to make the tunnel look orange.

The shoot

We didn’t have the budgets for track shots so you won’t see any in the film. If there’s one bit of advice I’d give anyone, it’s please stabilize the floor of your set. We also didn’t have the budget to do that and so whenever someone moved, the floor would shake and the camera would also move. We had to redesign our entire shot breakdown after factoring in this.

The VFX

We shot the film in 30 days, but VFX took a year. We hired two companies, one for the heavy-duty work and another for the smaller stuff. If you watch the film carefully, you’ll notice that we only use green screens while shooting at a specific angle. None of the other angles we’ve shot at used a green screen, otherwise it would’ve become a VFX-heavy film. For the other angles, we printed and pasted pages on the background to fool people into thinking it was a background created in post-production. We would sometimes change those pages between shots for variety. Those were the hacks we came up with. That’s why all the TV screens and panels can only be seen from one angle.

The scenes she wrote but couldn’t film

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We were asked to clear the studio two days before we’d finished the film and I’d left a lot of the important scenes for the end so that was an issue. The film has a scene in which a cargo stabs Prahastha. That wasn’t the initial plan, the cargo was supposed to escape, go into Prahastha’s room and then stab him there. In retaliation, Prahastha was supposed to use his powers to destroy him. That’s how Yuvishka loses her powers — she sees Prahastha in an act of violence and is shocked. We couldn’t shoot this and so solved the problem by making the cargo stab Prahasta in the transition area itself. It made sense creatively, because Prahastha has endeared himself to the audience by this point and to see him destroy a man would’ve changed that.

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