Interview : Binod Pradhan : Bhaag Milkha Bhaag

It’s more than just a sports film with very strong portrayal of human emotions, says veteran cinematographer Binod Pradhan while talking about the theme of his upcoming film Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. In an insightful conversation with India’s one of the best and brilliant cinematographer, Pandolin digs out his working style, aesthetic sense and what went behind the making of his recent masterpiece.

Tell us a little bit about the film and what does the audience need to anticipate?
I think Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is a film that has many layers in it, for example the story goes through different phases of childhood, dreams and present times. It’s constantly going back and forth, which builds a very interesting structure. As the story unfolds, one realizes that it’s like peeling the moment, both inside and outside. All those layers are very complicated but this is what makes the film much more exciting.

What was the brief given to you by director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra for the film?
The brief was that it’s more than just a sports film with a strong portrayal of human emotions and conquering of inner fears as well as insecurities. Basically, Rakeysh and I use to discuss the shooting of big races in large detail and with lot of story boarding. The portion of races was the most complicated for which we used five camera.

Which camera format was used and what was your choice of lenses for shooting Bhaag Milkha Bhaag?
I shot the whole film with Red Epic except for few shots, which was shot with a high-speed camera, Phantom. Epic is quite a compact camera, which helped me a lot. It doesn’t have a so called film look to the tee but its fairly film looking. It’s more comfortable to shoot with. The monitor and the guidelines were little more accurate and I could use various facilities in the camera like shooting at 300 frames per second. There was no major problem with the highlights while using Red Epic.

At times I turned on the HDRx mode in the camera i.e. high dynamic range for better latitude. This was used in some places, for instance as a child when Milkha is boxing with other kids in the ground; you see the clouds in the scene. While shooting we couldn’t really see the clouds in the camera but when I used the HDRx mode it became easier for me to extract those cloud details in post, which normally wouldn’t have been

To get the maximum depth during the race sequences I was shooting with extreme telephoto lenses like 600mm and 1200mm that possess very shallow depth of field. I used Ultra Primes and HR zoom because Optimo was a little heavy for me to use in this film.

How did you decide upon the color and the tone for this film?
In terms of tone, I have tried to keep it depending upon what type of period it was. For instance, Milkha’s childhood has a certain type of contrast and harshness in it. That period tend to look a little warmer where greens and blues are almost non-existent. I didn’t go to that level but somewhere I was very close to this. I tried to create negative diffusion i.e. instead of diffusion on the highlights; there was the diffusion on the shadow areas for the past sequences.

In my childhood when I was working with my father in his photo studio, I saw this negative diffusion in printing. Though it was a different field, yet I thought we should try that in this film. So this is how I kept one tone for the past and for present there are little subtle tones, which sometimes go a little green and sometimes even neutral. Also there are some very harsh sequences where Milkha has a nightmare and I tried to make it look as authentic as possible without practicing any self-made image formula.

What was your treatment towards the song sequences in the film?
There is one song in the film that is completely shot in the army barracks and we tried to make it look as natural as possible. Though it’s not a very glamorous song but it looks very nice. Whereas the songs where the boy and the girl are involved, we did try to make it little more pleasing, romantic and soft. However, we never really tried to make anything extra glamorous.

What was the kind of locations you shot at and how many days did it take to complete the shoot?
We shot in all real locations such as army barracks and village fields. For a particular sequence of Melbourne in the film, we shot at Bangkok for the seascape. Rest of it was mostly shot in northern India. For example, the childhood sequence were shot in Punjab while the races that we see abroad were actually shot in the local stadiums of Delhi. We couldn’t shoot with so many people as spectators in the stadium so via VFX, we created the surroundings.

Besides, it was needed to create the stadium in a way as it was supposed to be at Milkha’s time. During that time all the tracks were mud tracks so we had to recreate that on the current synthetic tracks. It took us around 110 days to shoot the entire film.

How was your collaboration with the Art director, Sumit Basu?
He is a very fine art director who planned everything quite well for the film. Generally, he used to show us sketches and we used to make discussions along with Rakeysh about the production design. I can’t actually think of any major difference in opinion between us.

Brief us about the lighting design adopted by you for Bhaag Milkha Bhaag?
While shooting outdoor races, we used all available light and didn’t add any reflectors because of the long stretched stadium ground. We couldn’t chose to shoot at a particular time in a day otherwise it would not have been possible to gather so much shots that were required for the film. What I did most of the time was that when sun is on one side, I shot that area and when the sun shifted we all moved to the other side of the field. Most of the time I wanted Farhan to face the sun more than being backlit because that worked well to show his body. Some times we shot it at a particular time in the day so it enhances the muscles that he has build. There is no digitizing or digital manipulation to emphasize his body. What ever is there is just natural and may be slightly emphasized with the effect of the sunlight.

For the day sequences, I had some 6K’s and 18K HMIs along with some Dinos. At night, we made use of Chinese lanterns, which I found very useful during the film. Most of the time, I don’t prefer to use the gels. I would rather change it if I can in the DI. For example, instead of gelling most of the lights warm, I gel some of the lights cool, so the difference between the warm area and the cool area remains same and then during DI, I made it a little warmer. So the offset is still there and the warmth comes without using too many gels. However, in some specific scenes where I needed a very orange light, I did employ certain amount of orange gels.

What was the major challenge faced by you during shooting and how did you cope with it?
The major challenge was obviously the races where every time we have to think about something new for making it little different in terms of taking and overall treatment. There are lots of races in the film and shooting every race was a huge task. In a multi-cam setup like this, where five cameras were involved, after every shot I scratched my head thinking now where else can I place the camera. So this was constantly in our mind like what kind of camera movement to be used, whether a crane or a track should be laid or how to treat this overall. Though it required a lot of effort but it was actually interesting.

Those cameras were all over the stadium, some right on top of the stadium, some in the middle and some on the tracks. Depending upon the story of a particular shot, we used to place our cameras. For example if the guy is overtaking then we need to put our camera at a specific angle so that it emphasizes the act. If the camera is little behind then it won’t look like he is overtaking at all. Likewise if the camera is in the front, you wont know who is overtaking whom. But if the camera is more on the side then you can see the precise action.

Also there was a problem of using tracking vehicles in the stadium. Hence, we had a golf cart but that cart has its own speed restrictions. We also used Aquila crane that runs so fast that it matched the guys who were running.
To shoot a race sequence, first of all you have to make sure that your operators are well experienced to do such job because I tried a few operators but all of them were not apt. Eventually, I got two cameramen from Delhi who were professional sports camera operators.

Where was the postproduction done? Who was your colorist?
DI was done at EFX, Prasad labs while the VFX was mostly done by Tata Elxsi and Pixion. Glen was my colorist who usually works in Poland. However, the final finishing was done by Venu from EFX.

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