Making films is one of the most collaborative, physical enterprises. It is also aided by technology—which has meant that filmmaking has found ways to continue even as the pandemic rages on. Solutions that were unthinkable before have been implemented. Sudeep Chatterjee, the cinematographer of such films as Padmaavat and Chak De! India, shot an ad film recently. The shoot was taking place in a different city and Chatterjee was unable to travel. Instead, he was connected to the team on the set through Google Meet and gave them instructions virtually. He spoke to us about what the process was like.
Shooting an ad film remotely from my home in Mumbai wasn’t very difficult. In fact, it was quite simple. The only difference is that I couldn’t handle the camera physically. Instead, I got a high resolution live feed from the camera on the set. While planning, I had asked for a local camera operator and a gaffer. I would instruct them how I would instruct them normally: use the 35 mm lens, pan it a bit to the left etc.
I had also asked for another set of cameras, not for the shoot itself but to give me a view of the whole set. (Since the purpose of this camera set up is simply functional, it can be done even with iPhones). I had specified wherever I wanted these set-capture cameras—like one, for example, on the ceiling, so that I can get an overview of the ground plan.
The problems and the solutions
At one point, I was not being able to get a sense of the distance between the skimmer and the light source. I told the gaffer to measure it with the measurement app on his phone; when he said 8 ft, I realised that the light would be too harsh and I asked him increase the gap. When I looked at the feed it was fine.
I would say that the image I was receiving at my end suffered a marginal loss in quality compared to the actual footage. But I had factored that in beforehand. I could make out that there is, maybe, a 15 % quality loss and I could see that the shadow detail, for instance, was looking muddy. So I told them to send me the raw high resolution footage on email. Using my familiar camera — a regular Alexa — also helped. I know the image. I could tell that a certain kind of light would have a certain kind of effect.
I was shooting a celebrity and I was constantly talking to him through those cameras; we could both see each other. This was, again, achieved through those set-capture cameras. And in that regard the planning was crucial. I had told them that just the camera feed won’t be enough. I needed the set-capture cameras to get a larger view of the set, so that I can sit at home and direct virtually.
Shooting is a Human Experience
This is not a totally new practice. Nowadays, colour corrections are done remotely, even pre-Covid. I have done a couple of commercials where the colourist is sitting in Turkey, or London. But I don’t think I’ll be comfortable doing the same for a feature film. Feature films demand chemistry on the set and that comes from actors and other team members; ad films can afford to be more clinical in that sense. As a cinematographer one can also do a lot in post-production these days. But I try to do them on the set as much as possible; if I am doing it 3 months later in my studio, the energy might change.
But a lot of things will be done remotely in the future. I am doing recce meetings remotely. My location manager is showing me live feed from a place he has travelled to. If needed, I tell him to give me a view of the terrace. Cinematographers also use an app that allows us to get a sense of, say, how Paris will look like on the 7th of July at 12 noon, how the sun will look like, and what kind of shadows it’ll cast on Eiffel Tower. These technologies are helpful, but shooting is a human experience. We should never forget that.
(As told to Sankhayan Ghosh)