Best Cinematographers we should talk about

Best stories came from where a Director of Photography is communicating effectively with the Director and the Director must know what the story means to them personally and how they want to cover scenes to convey that. And then there comes the Cinematographer or I call the 'sword man' who truly believes its not about just covering the scene. It’s about taking a certain point of view; being able to sharpen that point of view; and to make you follow the feel and the character. A well written script and professional level of production is a big fail if your cinematography is misleading the viewer. We are going to talk about the eye of the director and heart of the viewer - the cinematographers. How cinematographers are transforming the cliche moments to extra ordinary ones.

Let me know if you had gone through this too at some point of your life.

You’re watching a video, which you had already watched for more than 3 times. First time you watched it, you enjoyed it thoroughly. Second time, you go through the detailing of the story and the character, and the third time you take a count on how the shots were clicked for the particular emotion, or action. Have you? If I tell you my story, I have watched Black Panther and Queen( Bollywood) more than 10 times. It was the super 4th time when I was done re-watching the Black Panther and Queen that I Googled for its cinematographers. I know you may be thinking of, “ girl, you know nothing about film making and cinematography, you're a writer. “ Trust me I do. I had a amateur knowledge in film making and cinematography. And that’s a story for another time. My focus of today’s post is all on cinematographers and the reason behind it is simple,

  1. They are the real game changers after directors and before editors.

  2. Behind every successful film, there’s a successful cinematographer.

Rachel Morrison is the first woman cinematographer nominated for Oscars for Black Panther. Rachel is the first woman nominated in the technical category of film making. It's amazing to see her work in this gorgeous film Mudbound and Black Panther,’ it’s a great thing. Cinematography translates the emotions and intensity of a moment in the story. With Black Panther, Morrison is bringing her eye to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Don't forget, she's the first female cinematographer to do so. "It’s always been about the work. I wanted to tell an important story and do the best I can. Everything else is secondary.” Morrison says.

Bobby Singh, cinematographer of Woh Lamhe, Life In A... Metro, Gangster, Special Chabbis, The Dirty Picture, and Queen was an ideal producer's cameraman. He never slows things down to show his own brilliance. He was a cameraman who came from the ground, and was a natural throughout his life journey. You don’t need big budgets to make films look beautiful. And Bobby Singh has proved it when he gave a character to Mumbai, Goa and Seoul on screen in Metro, Woh Lamhe and Gangster. His camera captures the emotions of not only faces, but places too. He delivers incredibility in any budget. And if he was alive today, he would be the best cinematographer Bollywood ever had.

Bobby's dark tones and muted colors in Gangster were something new to Bollywood. The film was looking too dark for distributors but the producers and directors recognized Bobby's sharp eye for detail and a novel cinematography. When Gangster released, critics raved about the film's inventive cinematography. Later, with Metro, Bobby emerged as one of the brightest young talents in the business.

A Day in the Life of a Cinematographer

Cinematographers do what they do best - captures the vision. They play a pivotal role in film making using their visionary minds and technical hands on lights, cameras, and composition. Director enriches the vision and the cinematographer translates that vision into visuals. DoP- Director of Photography is interchangeable with cinematographer. Cinematography is the art and craft of capturing motion pictures.

Camera placement , camera movement, shot composition, aspect ratio, lightning, lens choice and focus, cinematographer is the person in charge of the story visuals. Luckily, cinematographers don’t have to keep it all in their heads. As I said, being a newbie filmmaker I have been reading about the film world a lot from the last two years. I came across KK Senthil Kumar, the lensman behind the biggest blockbuster Baahubali. He had worked with director, SS Rajamouli on 5 projects before dedicating 5 years of his life to Baahubali 1 and 2.

When an interviewer asked him about his experience with Director SS Rajamouli, he said, “He eats, breathes, and sleeps in the cinema. All he does is talk about films and dreams about films. Every bit of his energy he's reserving for making a shot better in details and connection.”

Senthil’s biggest challenge during the 5 year shoot of Baahubali 1 and 2, was to stay motivated and focused. “Even though everything was well rehearsed, it was challenging during the action time. And when the money was on stake, we could not go on the sets and start shooting.” he says.

On other interview when he asked about if VFX takes that feel out from craft as cinematographer or not, he said, “ If you want to make a film which is beyond imagination, larger than life which you can’t make as conventional cinema, VFX is a part of it which you have to learn and understand to take your craft beyond. A film like Life of Pi or Gravity, which is not possible to shot, VFX becomes an integral part. So as a cinematographer I need to understand VFX in a better way to present my craft in a seamless way.” He upgraded himself with this process and understood how VFX and cinematography can merge to portray the story in the best possible way.

Cinematographers are not born gifted with a vision and an eye for detail. They create it in themselves and showcase it through the lens. A DoP/ cinematographer works with a team to bring a script to life. And do mind me, if you can’t wrap your head around the world “cinematic,” watch a news channel and then watch a movie. How does the camera work differ? That difference is what cinematographers are holding from the rest of the production. The modern cinematographer owes a great deal to the marks that they made. Something that is a well kept secret is what the modern cinematographer has with them all the time on set.

The cinematographers of the most arresting Indian web series - Sacred Games in a conversation with Scroll highlighted the very minimalist details on how they gave their dream shots.

Swapnil S Sonwane was the DoP (Angry Indian Goddess) under Vikramaditya's direction.

Aseem Bajaj (Chameli)and Sylvester Fonseca(Island City) under Anurag's direction.

Swapnil Sonwane

"I had read the episodes, but a lot of changes happened on the shoot. A lot of it came from Vikram who is very thorough with his work. The good part was we didn’t shoot the episodes like a complete web series, but like a feature. The bits featuring Sartaj and Ganesh Gaitondein are completely shot in different schedules. I had shot all the scenes with Saif, Radhika Apte, Jitendra Joshi, Neeraj Kabir, Girish Kulkarni and Luke Kenny."

There was this shot introduction of Ganesh Gaitonde as a kid, it’s a top-angle shot. It had a top-angle shot of Gaitonde (present) in his bunker which is cutting from one world to another. To mark a difference between the two worlds, old anamorphic lenses did a fantastic job for the old parts.

“I thought of shooting Sartaj’s story with these old, worn-out but very warm lenses to reflect how nothing is working out in Sartaj’s life. Sartaj’s world is as real as possible. There are many close-ups, and they are all emotional.” he elaborates.

The color palette is yellow in Gaitonde’s scenes because of the guru as the camera focused to follow the emotions. "I made sure that we never took a shot because it looked good but because it was what the story needs." The end note.

Sylvester Fonseca

A lot of the shooting in his portions happened without a thought. "Anurag doesn’t work with too much Pre-production. He has a unique way of working and always has very clear ideas. There were some things we gave priority, like the choice of lenses and the use of certain colors and tones. Spherical lenses to demarcate our world." Gaitonde’s shots are in an ultra-real style since the audience should feel that they are watching this unfold (when he was narrating the story). There weren’t too many scenes for subjectivity. (like the leopard appears before Gaitonde)

"I did know that the series would be streaming on smaller screens, especially smartphones. I kept that in mind the compositions, since on smaller screens, even a wide shot will lose its detail. So I opted for interesting close-ups, and made sure that the detail wasn’t lost even in the wide shot. " The self-remark.

Aseem Bajaj

He shot for 27 days with Anurag (as he had to leave for his own film shoot Rajma Chawal).

"I don’t care about the lighting as much as I do about the actors. The face is the biggest landscape for me. The sequence where people get slaughtered at Gaitonde’s house and where Bunty loses his legs was shot at three different locations. Anurag wanted long takes on a Steadicam and hand-held shots moving from one room to the other. I always want more light, but Anurag said, make it darker, it is too lit.The camera keeps moving in Gaitonde’s scenes. Anurag said, let’s keep moving, let’s keep the energy up.We didn’t have the shots planned in advance, but we always found them."

Cinema is a collaborative process. It is not one person’s world. It is often possible to miss out on art, or the kind of cinema which strikes a balance between art and business. Some Hindi movies, which were more inclined towards the art factor, weren't made for the viewers. And to bring them back to you,I take a look at these underrated films, which are missing out by you either because their content was not strong or the marketing could have been stronger.

Either ways, these Hindi movies had a strong cinematography.

Sanju (2018)

Ravi Varman has no training in cinematography but has made a name for himself. His way with the camera taht took him from Kollywood (Anniyan, Dasavathaaram) to Bollywood (Barfi, Sanju). Sanju isn’t about Dutt’s films. It's a story of his life, a story that will inspire people who watch it. It is thrilling, adventurous and a whole lot of unusual. The only thing that is constant in this tale is this sense of inconsistency. "I wanted my cinematography to reflect that tension. Sanju doesn’t have too many wide shots because a lot of the film is conversational in nature. But that doesn’t mean that the film isn’t strong in visuals. Every frame has a subtle meaning if you look closely." he said.

"I visit the location and examine the source light there. I frame a scene in mind and the kind of lighting that might work for it. I study the actors, their acting styles and think about the light placement to justify the expressions on their faces. What the final frame should be, I decide only at the last minute. In fact, I usually start with what I call the worst frame. I’m generally thinking, okay this is an ugly frame, so let’s keep the camera there. I then start tuning the lighting." The honest cinematographer.

Varman used a variety of lens formats. "It is all about the right angles. I’ve tried to use many strategies to create a sense of mystery, fear and impending danger through the film." He further added. (Low-angle shots of Kapoor - inside the jail and a top-angle shot of him when he is in New York with the entire city behind him.)

There’s also something overwhelming and blinding about lights on a runway. I’ve always wanted to use that in a film. And he did. Remember that shot where Sanju is descending from the plane to see a host of policemen waiting for him.

Fitoor (2016)

Some movies have better scripts, other movies have better cinematographers. A well-made film is a marriage of both. The cinematography of Fitoor was loving and attractive (all those stylistic detailing). Fitoor is covering Kashmir, a beautiful canvas. Cinematographer Anay Goswami deserves credit for capturing Kashmir’s subtlety in all its details. The white snow-covered mountains, red chinar leaves and the grey of winters. Fitoor is a visual treat that reveals the many faces of Kashmir seen through dense wintry mist and bursts of light as the seasons change in the Valley.

Highway (2014)

#horsesforcourses Anil Mehta in a conversation said,"I’m not stuck with a piece of equipment. Because the film will dictate it. So for a film like Highway or Badlapur, it was aneedal, stripped-down need. But if it’s a big production – lots of set pieces, lots of action – then the whole thing will change.”

The camera that has stayed with him over the course of three to four movies is the Sony F65. “I felt it had a colour palette which is more suited to our environment – harsh lights, very saturated colours – because of who we are and the clothes we wear. I found this camera responding to that reality and environment well so I used it quite often.” He justified.

To shoot a night sequence in Highway, he along with the cast and crew of the film, had to trek a snowy slope near Pahalgam, Kashmir, on ponies, carrying minimal equipment to reach a village that doesn’t get electricity after 4:30pm. A portable generator set provided the sole electric supply for two or three bulbs, to produce the light.

The team opted for a guerilla shoot process. The crew attached to moving vehicles to capture intimate expressions of the actors. Majority of shots were with hand-held cameras.

I am sorry but I am not a bollywood fan. Only if it’s not movies like Queen, Haider, Neerja to name a few or no plot for Govinda, Rekha ji, Madhuri Dixit, Kajol, Manish Majhekar, Pankaj Tripathi, or Manoj Bajpayee. I have watched more Hollywood than Bollywood and there are so many things I can talk about nonstop in that case. But for now let’s not skip the best cinematographers behind the films we all have been loving but never get to know who they are. Many of you may judge me in the end, if I missed your favorite cinematic shots but I have made this sort of list on the basis of their cinematic techniques, communication skills, pushing the limits with experiments, and yes of course, their technical vision. Cinematographers are the head of the camera team and work with the director. A best DoP has unique blending skills for collaboration and leadership.

And no list exists without mentioning #1 Roger Deakins from the last 25 years.

Roger Deakins- best cinematographer in the film world. His dedication and gratitude towards the story are the key benchmarks of his style. Deakins' cinematography is world famous for natural lights, subtle camera, and surprising vision for colors.

Fact check: Deakins rarely uses anamorphic lens (capture a 2.39:1 ratio without having to make that sacrifice in resolution) for the reason he states that they are too slow for light processing. He’s the lens man behind big hits like Skyfall, Blade Runner, The Shawshank Redemption, Prisoners to name a few.

Skyfall - a brilliant film with spectacular performances, brilliant direction and the incredible cinematography by Roger Deakins.

Cinematographers often lose their recognition among the more visible stars of a film but when it comes to Roger Deakins, I bet NO.

He has been an icon of photography and motion pictures. Deakins passion for light is visible in Skyfall where lights oscillate from white to blue to yellow with each new location. When asked about the color grading of Skyfall, Deakin said,

“ As I have said elsewhere, I create the ‘look’ of a film on camera. I use only one LUT and the set timing for each scene follows the metadata to the DI suite. The DI process then is, for me, all about matching from shot to shot within a scene and less about adjusting individual scenes. The colours and the contrast you see in the final film are just what they were on set. Naturally, when the film is run as a whole each scene will inevitably require a little adjusting in terms of density, saturation and contrast but that is generally a minor overall correction that we make once each scene is balanced within itself.”

Women Cinematographer and Indian Film Industry

In the area of cinematography, it’s been tougher for women to make inroads. Close to 200 female cinematographers are currently active in the Indian entertainment industry. Many technical fields in film making are boasting of gender parity, cinematography in Bollywood or even in Hollywood, hasn’t turned out to be a level-playing field for women.

Priya Seth (Airlift)

Priya Seth, who has shot big-budget films with A-list actors like Akshay Kumar and Saif Ali Khan in Airlift (2016) and Chef (2017) points out that it is director Raja Krishna Menon, who helped her to fight the inherent sexism in the industry. She says, “For women cinematographers, the system doesn’t help in getting them their big break. It’s somebody who believes in them who gives them the opportunity. For somebody like me, it was Menon who gave me a fair opportunity. "

When she was going to shoot Airlift, the question, ‘Will she be able to handle the pressure?’ was tossed. This question is never asked to men cinematographer. There hasn’t been a systemic change in the Bollywood industry."

There has been a visible increase in the number of female cinematographers in the past 10 years in the industry. But in mainstream cinema, there aren’t that many. "Also, what happens is that people want to work with those who they are comfortable with. It's a boy’s club. That’s where the crux of the problem is.” She nodded.

Neha Parti Matiyani (Badrinath ki Dulhaniya)

Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) graduate Neha Parti Matiyani, kicked off her career as an independent cinematographer. She was assisting cameraman Ravi K Chandran for five years. She shares," unlike many others, I didn’t have to struggle a lot to get a break, as I had started my career working in films made by Aditya Chopra and Karan Johar."

The lady who shot Badrinath Ki Dulhania (2017) elaborates, “People are opening up to working with female cinematographers. But the soar part of the story is that men are good at their job until they go completely wrong and women have to prove their worth before everyone starts believing that they can do the job."

When asked about her on set experiences, she said,"As a cinematographer, you have around 35 people working under you. You have to run the set. Once you shoot a big film there is no stopping you and gender ceases to be a point of contention. But I can’t deny the fact that if a man and woman had the same qualifications, then the man would get the job.”

Nusrat Jafri Roy (Chacha Vidhayak Hai Humare)

"The industry is shy of giving commanding roles to women, and there appears to be a mindset problem at play. No wonder only a handful of women DOPs are known in the commercial film circuit." She concluded everything in one statement. The rest bide their time while shooting documentaries, short films and digital series, waiting for that one they need. Nusrat Jafri Roy, 39, has been in the industry since 2005, and was DOP for the Amazon Prime series, Chacha Vidhayak Hain Humare.

Modhura Palit (Manohar)

Modhura received the honor of prestigious Pierre Angénieux ExcelLens in Cinematography award in the 72nd annual Cannes Film Festival. Besides the recognition and award, Modhura was also given a camera lens (from the Optimo or Optimo Anamorphic range) on loan for one of her projects. Most of her projects are low-budget films, “I have no qualms about working with newcomers or strugglers. In fact, the enthusiasm, hard work and dedication put in by a novice is way higher to get the best possible outcome." She answered when asked for her choice of low-budget production. Low-budget films have taught me to optimise my creativity with limited resources .” Modhura has worked as a DOP on several advertisements, documentaries, features and short films. Her filmography is a perfect blend of traditional and global flavors. Her film, Paper Boy, a short film made an official entry at Kolkata International Film Festival (2015) and Dada Saheb Film Festival (2016). Kolkata-based cinematographer Modhura Palit grabbed the spotlight recently by becoming the first Indian to receive Angenieux Encouragement Award at the Cannes Film Festival 2019. Now we have the boon of digital media with overflowing information, entertainment, very handy across the environment. "We have high-quality mobiles, YouTube channels, Netflix, so anybody can go about and do the things they like. It is a very dynamic time for young artists to make their presence felt in cinema or otherwise. Newer ideas, newer ways of filmmaking thoughts are coming up and the younger generation has a fresh take on the whole scenario." She encouraged.

Shreya (Cat Sticks)

Mumbai-based Shreya, a vibrant woman and fearless artist in conversation said that she emphasizes the importance of filming through a “female gaze". It is challenging the traditional ways in which we view women on the big screen. Cinema has always told stories of women, with women, but rarely have they been told by women. It’s only in recent years when more and more female directors and writers carve space for themselves behind the camera as well as in front of it.

“I am very particular with the imagery in my films – when there’s a lot of nudity, I want to do things in my style. It’s so important for me to show women not through a male gaze ­– especially the way they fuck, or touch, or show their breasts,” she says to Homegrown, explaining that as a public we are so used to seeing women’s bodies in a commercialized and objectified way. The intimacy and beauty of showing a human body, particularly a woman’s, is evident in her work as she stays away from a fetish film making.

She has worked on two short films of her own, as well as a music video for Imaad Shah’s first EP. She recently worked on the Slamdance-nominated Cat Sticks, a black and white feature film set in the gritty, rainy Calcutta of the 1990s, directed by Ronny Sen. Explaining the bits,"it covered ground on everything from the challenges she faces in a field dominated by men to the immense joy she gets from pursuing her passion everyday. Cinematography is the visual language of poetry and imagination. I love darkness, low light, silhouettes and blackness. I love my handheld camera and I love shooting on film, less digital."

Women helping women also have a long way to go. Even if Women directors go out of their way to hire a woman DoP. It will be an upbringing for change. But they also might not know that there are so many of us around!

Free Tip:

Indian Women Cinematographers Collective

IWCC is a Mumbai-based forum for craftswomen and technicians of the film industry. The collective goal of this is to promote talent and create opportunities in the film industry, and is a space for contemporaries to showcase their diverse body of work.

Hip Hip HERray

A startup in the media and entertainment space, Hip Hip HERray Studios is India’s first digital content studio dedicated to women - web series and filmmakers. It is planning to collaborate with women from diverse regions of India, leveraging their storytelling strength. It's a new-age boutique to produce short and long form episodic series and films by women storytellers.

Women in Cinema Collective

Formed in 2017, Women in Cinema Collective (WCC), an organisation for women working in the Indian cinema industry, after a popular actress was waylaid and raped in a car at the behest of powerful Malayalam actor Dileep. Led by prominent female film personalities, WCC submitted a petition to the state chief minister for action on the sexual assault, which led to his eventual arrest.

WCC also protested against the decision of the film industry’s leading body to reinstate the actor Dileep when the case was still in court. The group is now campaigning for equal pay and welfare schemes as well as more opportunities for women in industry.

There is another ‘Free Tip’ which I created for millennials DoP/Cinematographers. Click here to download 'Quick thing to keep in mind' if you’re the camera person for any shoot.

Moreover, the above insights from cinematographers are collected from various resources and it was interesting and learning at the same time. There are many more brilliant cinematographers out there whom I may have forgotten to list on. So if you know any of them from industry, your friend circle, or you yourself, get in the comment section, link your work and let me spread the word.

You guys are doing amazing. Keep clicking and creating.