Sidharth Meer is a busy man. A cursory glance through his IMDb page will apprise you of the number of films he has worked on in the past few years, in the capacity of either colourist or post-production supervisor. These titles include some of the most acclaimed Indian films of the decade: Ship of Theseus (2013), The Lunchbox (2013), Court (2015), Trapped (2017) and Newton (2017). At this year's Mumbai Film Festival (MAMI), 11 films that he worked on screened under different sections.
In fact, soon after our interview at his little studio in Andheri West, Meer had to rush to catch a train to Rajkot on which a sequence for director Chaitanya Tamhane's next feature was being shot. He founded the post-production services company Bridge PostWorks in 2017 where he alternates shifts with colleague Mahak Gupta. The company offers on set finishing, mastering & archiving services.
Over a detailed conversation, he broke down film grading which he referred to as 'Photoshop for moving images', and the difference between working on independent and big-budget projects:
How did you end up being a colourist? Did you get a specialised education in the field?
I did the Film Appreciation (FA) course at FTII – that's where I met Anand Gandhi, he was my roommate in the hostel. And then I did short courses in cinematography – one in Pune and one at the University of Southern California (USC). And at the same time, I did a visual effects course also at USC. As soon as I came back, Gandhi called and said, "Let's do this short film Right Here, Right Now." I shot that and was also involved in the post process.
Then in 2006, I went back to LA and did a slightly more intense visual effects course. Later I worked at a company in Bangkok as a VFX coordinator. And then I slowly transitioned to overall post-production. I also interned at Famous Studios with Sabu (Jose) sir learning Smoke. An assimilation of all of that education in cinematography, visual effects is what you can boil down to as the basics of colour grading.
There's this term that my VFX supervisor had taught me. He said, "Never name a file '.final', everything is '.cbb' – could be better."
At what stage of the filmmaking process are you called in?
At least 50% of the times, I'm brought on during the budgeting stage before they go on the floors. Because we're involved in the camera tests as well. We help make the decision on which camera to use, what codec to use, what storage to use. All of those things kind of factor in later in the post-production.
Also, it depends on the budget. On a project that has a very tight project, they have to make certain things work. So we figure out a solution saying, "Okay, you can shoot with this camera but use this codec. That way you'll save on your storage costs but you'll still get the same image quality which would be fine for your deliverables."
Sometimes on a project with enough of a budget, we'll be there on set throughout, basically grading over the live signal. We basically interface directly with the camera – so essentially the camera signal is going through our system into our monitor and then into the director's monitor. And all of the grades get saved as metadata which does not get burnt into the image. When the person on the final grade sits, he has all of the grade data that was done on set as a starting point.
You've worked on the bigger projects that use high-end cameras but also on Abhay Kumar's Placebo which was shot on a handycam. What are the various challenges that a project like that can pose?
On Placebo, the biggest consideration was making the image look clean enough to view because it was shot on a handycam and shot by a person who is not a cinematographer. The camera was set to an auto-exposure and auto-white balance. So the first pass on that grade was normalising the exposure and the white balance.
A lot of it was dynamics over shots – there's characters travelling through a corridor and there's overhead tubelights. The exposure is changing while they're moving. We balanced all of that out before we went on to the second process which was setting the look.
How big a part of the creative process would you say you are?
To be honest, my process comes from the background of a cinematographer. So my intent always is to maintain the integrity and the decision making that was made on set. And to not deviate too far from that creative intent – you have to respect the decisions that the DoP, the costume designer and the production designer made on the day of the shoot.
You're also now looking at it from the point of the final edit. They were on set, they were building the stuff. Now you're seeing a final edit with sound and you're feeling that emotion. And now you're going to try and complement the story with your colour decisions. Making those decisions that will now help further the story is what your part is. But also to not be visible. The whole point is that it shouldn't look like you've actually done something.
Where do you start with the actual grading process and how much of a close collaboration is it?
We watch the final edit. Sometimes with the DoP or the director present. Then we have a discussion over the story, over the arch, over what the final intent is. We do a lot of films which are not Hindi or English and a lot of the times we don't get the final subtitles – the subtitling is done later. So I've had the director sit with me and translate what's being said but obviously there are certain nuances that you don't get. So you're going in a little blind into that process. And then you get the subtitles later and you think, "This is what it actually meant!" So maybe you want to tweak something.
Most of the times it's the director and the DoP who sit. Sometimes the director won't even come in – they're completely trusting the DoP to do what they do. Rarely, a producer comes in. The editor usually comes in just to check the final conform. Because for us, the main conforming stage is replicating what the editor's timeline is but with all the high-res media. They work off low-res media so we make sure all of the transitions or effects they've used are translating correctly and it looks identical.
How often do you go back to change something you've already worked on?
On Trapped, we worked on one version of a cut which was supposed to go to a certain festival. We finished the grade, but then a lot of time elapsed and it didn't go to the festival. There were 6-7 months that went by and then when we watched the grade for MAMI where it was going to premiere, I didn't like what I had done. Because your sensibilities evolve. And then we worked backwards and made changes. It's a constant process. You're always improving stuff, you're never really finished. There's this term that my VFX supervisor had taught me. He said, "Never name a file '.final', everything is '.cbb' – could be better."
I know that it's fine if a character goes dark if he's walking through a corridor or whatever. But in Hindi cinema, especially on a big-budget film…you can't make Salman's (Khan) face dark, as simple as that.
What's the difference between how a big-budget film is graded as opposed to smaller independent projects?
In terms of hardware and software, it's identical. The equipment that's being used is pretty much the same. I haven't worked a lot on these big projects but I would say there's more importance given to…if there's a star in the film, the star has to look good. Those are the main considerations. Whereas in a lot of independent work that we do, we are making sure the story is told in the best possible way.
I've been in a grade session where the producer or the director said, "Hey man, listen, the star is looking too dark." We've kind of grown up in an age where we got exposed to English movies more than Hindi movies so those are the sensibilities I have. I know that it's fine if a character goes dark if he's walking through a corridor or whatever. But in Hindi cinema, especially on a big-budget film…you can't make Salman's (Khan) face dark, as simple as that.
I guess on a big-budget film, they have the budget for more hours to spend on doing the finer corrections. We usually average 100-120 hours on a project. Big-budget films could go on to 200-250, sometimes even 300 hours. I went for a seminar where Maxine Gervais (colourist) was talking about Black Panther – they had like 25 grade layers on every shot! She did 400 hours on that project because they have the budget.
Does the lack of recognition ever bother you? Film technicians aren't given much credit but even when they are, rarely do people talk about colourists.
I think it's changing. There's a movement now, at least in Hollywood, to get recognition from the Academy. I think in the last year, there have been 5 really big colourists who have been invited to be part of the Academy. And now they're starting a movement to push for a category.
In India, it was acknowledged to a point of time. At the National Awards, the Best Cinematography Award used to be shared between the lab and the cinematographer. That hasn't happened in the last 3-4 years because the term 'lab' has changed. You don't have labs anymore. There are more DI studios.
We usually average 100-120 hours on a project. Big-budget films could go on to 200-250, sometimes even 300 hours.
Who are some of the colourists whose work you admire?
Toby Tomkins – he's a guy who does commercial music videos. Steve Scott, who did The Revenant. Ian Vertovec, who does a lot of David Fincher's stuff. There are really cool people working right now who are kind of pushing even the technology to the edge. Also they're working with directors who are really pushing hard in terms of content and technology.
Can you tell by looking at other work what was shot on camera and how much was added in post?
Because you have no reference point, that is what it is. If it was something that I graded and watched, I would know. But I don't have a reference point for other content. That's something we constantly struggle with during the grade on our projects. We know something is probably off but we know the audience will never know because they don't have a reference for it.
What's your favourite part of your job?
Just working with so many different people – from the North East to down south. There's crazy talent all over this country – not just in Bombay. It's amazing interacting with them. I understand my talents and what I can provide to a project and I'm doing that.