‘It’s Dangerous For A Cinematographer To Have A Signature’: Nirav Shah

The 2.0 cinematographer on how the constraints of shooting in 3D liberated him
‘It’s Dangerous For A Cinematographer To Have A Signature’: Nirav Shah

It's a couple of days since the release of 2.0, but the storm of its release doesn't seem to have hit Nirav Shah's peaceful beach facing apartment. Shah himself, saint-like in his appearance and demeanour, is a far cry from the 'loudness' of his films like Dhoom, Wanted, Pokkiri and Billa. As his film marches towards box office history, the cameraman settles down to talk about the little things. Excerpts from a long Sunday morning chat:

Some of the older 3D films that were shot in India used a single-camera system, which was then retrofitted with 3D lenses. But I gather that the technology has changed now to dual cameras. Can you tell us how it works? 

Now you have almost infinite adjustments in 3D because the cameras are independent of each other with one over the other. It's not a side-by-side setup anymore. When the cameras are on top of the other, the images can be spot on, because the alignment can be adjusted.

Has it become a lot easier?

Compared to earlier it has become more effective. Even the rigs we now use are computerised.

But aren't there very few lenses one can use for this setup? In fact, just four?

Yes, so we used four Ultra Prime Lenses for the entire film. A 24mm, 32mm, a 50 and a 85mm.

Can you give us an example of a shot that's not possible given the constraints of the technology?

Like if you have to zoom in to a person, it won't be possible. Because these are prime lenses, so the only way one can do that is by moving in closer on a set of tracks using a dolly. You can only do it mechanically.

We also had to keep steady cam shots to a minimum, mainly because the rigs are so heavy and it was just not possible.

What about certain stylised shots…an extreme close up for instance?

Extreme close ups are possible but what happens is you lose your sense of depth. Unless you have a background, there's no point attempting it in 3D.

Another limitation is how you can't shoot into lights because one camera will see the light and the other one might not.

You can look at such factors as limitations but honestly, it gave me a lot of freedom. It's like going to a buffet…sometimes there's so much that you can't decide what to eat and you end up just staring at the food. But when there's just four items, you're happy with them (smiles).

Usually, there's this rule that one shouldn't take a risk with darker shots in a 3D film given how it can tend to get even darker on screen later on. Did you have to plan for all the shots to be a bit brighter?

But there are quite a few low light shots in 2.0. The thing with 3D is you get a sense of depth when you see stuff in the back. But that doesn't mean you have to make the lighting look flat.

Are night/darker shots tougher to film in 3D?

You need a lot more light for 3D. It works best when there's more depth of focus and more depth of field. So the subject and the background should remain in focus. For that you need a humongous number of lights…perhaps four times the lights you'd require for a 2D film. Which also means you will take that much longer for set up.

What about the colours? Is the effect more pronounced when it's colourful?

I was always trying to use contrasting colours in the foreground and the background. It can help in creating a clear separation between the layers. So in the film, I would have warm light in the foreground but with darker, bluish tones in the back.

Were there shots which were first shot in 2D and then converted to 3D?

Yes there are. Shots with heavy VFX, like a lot of the stadium sequences, were converted because VFX houses said they couldn't handle the 3D. They said that even if we shoot those scenes in 3D, they would still just use images from one camera to create the VFX. It's the same with Hollywood films as well. It's not possible to create separate VFX shots for both the left eye and right eye and then merge them later.

But could you use a wider selection of lenses for those 2D shots?

No we didn't. Even while shooting in 2D, we still stuck to the same four lenses and that framing pattern. That's how we maintained consistency.

In a heavy CG film like this, how different can the role of a DOP be? Don't films like 2.0 get planned with a lot of pre-visualisations and storyboarding? Do you feel it limits a cinematographer creatively? 

It can be limiting but that's the only way to do it. Because, it's not going to work out if you try to do it on the sets. In such a film, a lot of work happens even before the shoot. So I was a part of the Pre Visualisation (PreVis) process as well. We went to LA and decided the shots right from that stage. It's like you have to shoot the film even before you actually shoot it. The camera movements and certain shots were given at the pre-vis stage where we're basically animating the storyboard. At this stage, you have to be sure we can pull off the shot in real life as well. So for the stadium scene, we realised we needed a spider cam. So we had to find the operators and bring them here for the first time in an Indian movie.

Can you make changes or improvise on the sets?

Not really because every shot has already been planned including which rig we would be using. When you include the pre-vis, it's almost like shooting the same film twice. Even the editor has to edit both the pre-vis and the actual film.

How do you shoot scenes that are required to be left partially blank for the VFX shots to come in later?

All you can do is visualise the shots and hope it works…because there are shots where we're shooting nothing. Like the shot of those two giant characters fighting in the end. You have an idea of how tall they are meant to be but we can't be sure. So we used balloons that were more than 70-80 feet high as references for the giants because their heights have to match the scale of the real stadium.

Does shooting in 3D follow a different set of rules?

To a large extent it does. In fact, you have to unlearn everything you use in 2D. What works in 2D, will not work in 3D. In 2D, you're trying to create depth where there's none. You don't need to create depth in 3D, because it is already there. You just have to make sure you get it right.

So did your copy of the screenplay also include notes on how each scene's '3D Effect' would work out?

Of course. We had to create a 'depth script' or a '3D script' where we decided how much depth each scene would have. The magnitude of the 3D effect would be decided based on the scene itself. So if a scene has heightened drama, the 3D in that scene too needed to be heightened.

Is it important for an Indian 3D film to have a lot of that 'popping out' effect? We don't see much of that in Hollywood films.

Hollywood films try to keep it subtle. It's like their emotions. So they either keep the visuals on the screen or a bit behind it. They almost never bring it out. But that's like using half of the effect. The idea for us is to also bring the action out of the screen…they might feel 2.0 is a bit too dramatic. But aren't Indian films all about the drama?

Is it important for a 3D film to also work in 2D?

When you're shooting, you can't shoot for both. If you ask me, watching this film in 2D is an incomplete experience.

How long did it take to shoot the film?  

We shot for about 240 days.

So it's the equivalent of shooting at least three films…

Actually you can finish a film in 60 days. The work on 2.0 is easily that of four films.

Did you expect this going into it?

Not four. I thought maybe two films.

Are there lessons from this film that you can use on other projects in the future, even if it is 2D?

I learnt patience. That will help in life also (laughs).

Did the label of becoming a 3D cinematographer ever tempt you?

Shooting in 3D was very exciting…that was one of the main reasons I did the film. The other reason was Rajini sir.

Is it difficult for a cinematographer to leave behind his/her signature on a film with big VFX film like 2.0?

I don't have a signature. I think it's dangerous for a DOP to have one. Finally, you're working on different scripts and with different directors. I don't feel you should have one thread running through these films. Maybe there are similarities when it comes to shot division because that's the director's call. But not when it comes to framing and lighting. But if you're noticing a pattern in my work, maybe I'm falling into a trap.

Now if they're making another 3D film, would you like to be a part of it?

I'd love to. I'd love to shoot all my films in 3D. It's not just about things coming at you. But the sense of space it creates is just beautiful…even though it's a b**ch to shoot with. I'm a very impatient person who likes to shoot very fast. But 3D just puts the brakes on everything. When you change your lenses, you have to re-align your camera, which means a lot of waiting to the point where it can really break you as a person. But when you complete it, it makes you Zen like. In spite of all that, I'd still want to shoot again in 3D.

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