In Conversation With Kamal Negi

Reproduced from “Cinematography Art” a quarterly Magazine

Initial Journey
I grew up in New Delhi, with a keen interest in Journalism and started my career in media as sports reporter in print and radio. Later, a job in Television as a researcher lead to the journey in moving images. I was trained by broadcaster, Jitendra Ramprakash, my mentor who taught me the nuts and bolts of storytelling and exposed me in all aspects of image making. He gave my first break in camerawork by asking me to do independent camera knowing that I had no experience operating the camera but was assured of my passion for image-making. This turned my career from being Assistant director to a cameraman in a production company, ‘News & Entertainment Television’, run by Umesh Aggarwal. Here, I got the opportunity to shoot a lot of TV news capsules, featurettes, docus, Art and Culture shows. Thus, I became a Cameraman.
With no formal training, I learnt camerawork by reading Focal Press books on Broadcasting at British Council Library and American Center; watching a lot of BBC and CNN on cable tv and most importantly practicing at work with lamps I had in our camera van, which were – 1 porta light, 3 baby, 1 multi10 and a multi 20. INTERNET played a vital role, it helped me connect to the world on various cinematography forums and communicate with DoP’s from around the world. I started to realize the potential of camerawork beyond Television.

My First Major Assignment
Working for over a year as a cameraman in a production company it was time for a change and started freelancing. Jitendra Ramprakash collaborated with me on a corporate film showcasing a boarding school, Welham Boys in Dehradun, for their diamond jubilee celebrations. This turned into a landmark film in our careers. It was supposed to be a simple corporate film but after our recee, director suggested it to be a single shot film. It was exciting and challenging idea and we started working on the execution of it. A humungous task to deal with hundreds of students and most crucial was to deal with different lighting situations where camera had to go through six different interior and exteriors without being cut. Another important aspect was choosing the camera and equipment to achieve the shot. After research and discussions with peers I decided to shoot the film digitally, it was the begining of digital age in India. I chose to get steadicam, which could carry the camera without shaking the shots. We knew it wasn’t going to be an easy job especially lighting the interiors and make them look naturally lit. The decision to shoot at magic hour made things more challenging. We shot unsuccessfully for 2 days with 2 and half shots. All the shots were NG for some reason. We had spent all the budget of shooting on lights, was using 120KV which was supposed to be a lot for small corporate film. Students were disappointed on hearing we had no film at hand. Everyone involved was very attached to the film and were ready to support the project in any manner. I suggested one more attempt without any professional movie lights. And asked for senior students help to make our own lights by buying the halogen lamps from market. Students helped me placed them strategically wherever required. We made another attempt and created history by making 23 minutes long single shot film in 1996.
In 1997, Vishakh Rathi, an editor friend of mine, after returning from Film Appreciation course at NFAI, Pune, suggested I should speak to a graduating cinematography student and get exposure in celluloid. Sirsha Ray, the cinematography student at FTII, invited me to FTII to assist him on his film. I spent ten days with him at the FTII. It was a great exposure. I used to be on the catwalk putting up diffusion frame or setting up light for him. Later that year, I was asked to shoot my first drama by an NGO, on the victim and families of HIV positive. It came out really well and appreciated by peer group. I started to enjoy playing with moods through light.
My quest for technical expertise in the craft of cinema led me to steadicam workshop with Paul Taylor at International Film Workshops at Rockport, Maine in US and later, even moved to Mumbai looking for job as an Assistant Cinematographer but was unsuccessful and back to pavilion, Delhi. Fortunately, assignments from international production houses started coming in for documentary which helped me creatively as well as monetarily. But there was a strong desire to enhance my technical and creative skills.

International exposure:
I looked into FTII, Pune but found that I was ineligible for Cinematography, as I had no Math and science in 10+2. Therefore, kept my eyes open for reputed courses abroad. The money I had earned working for international assignments helped me go to attend Polish National Film School in lodz for a year.
Poland provided me the opportunity to breath, eat and talk cinema day in and out. Interacting with other students, listening to their views about cinema and their reasoning, opened up my not so open mind towards cinema and life. And that’s when I realized, what matters most is one’s own opinion, idea and belief in something based on one’s experiences and that is what reflect in one’s work. Otherwise a camera is something universal and it would create an image anyway.

In Poland at Camerimage film festival, I found myself interacting with cinematographers like Roger Deakins over a dinner or chat with Rodrigo Prieto and Lazlo Kovacs at a party. It was a thrilling experience as a budding cinematographer.
While in Poland, the exposure in European cinema lured me to further pursue Masters in Cinematography at the NFTS, UK. Even though I had exhausted my funds, yet I tried and was lucky to be one of the final six students selected at the Nationals and was granted ‘Screen Arts Scholarship’ for 2003 and 2004. But it was still a long and grueling task to organize the funds for boarding and lodging in UK. During those days Indian banks were not willing to give study loan for Film and Art courses and it took a lot of legwork and mortgage of my parents flat to set me off to UK.
National Film and Television School at Beaconsfield in UK was a turning point in my career. Trained under Brian Tufano (BSC) and Sean Bobbitt (BSC), I graduated with a showcase of films, which got acclaims around the world.

In late 2005, I was traveling in Nepal for South Asia Film Festival with my Graduation Documentary Film ‘My Brother My Enemy’ where it was awarded best debut film. At the same I made a short visit to Mumbai and met a few directors one of them, Koushik Sarkar an NID graduate and promising TVC Director working for REDICE films. He looked at my showreel and offered me a commercial for World Space Radio. It was set up in a studio and quite a big budget commercial, something new for both of us. I used a lot of practical lights and a few Kino flos to light the set. Camera on 36fps and movement in all the shot was the key to this lovely commercial. The collaboration turned out successful with beautiful looking film. And opened doors for me in India. We collaborated on numerous TVC’s after that.
My first Commercial with Shoojit Sircar came in the end of 2006 for Annapurna salt, which led to another commercial of ENFIELD TVC. The TVC won lot of advertising awards in 2007. From then on we both have been collaborating on hundreds of TVC’s which also includes Gujarat Tourism, Airtel, Tata Capital, etc. and that lead to my first feature film.

Vicky Donor:
Over the years the rapport build up between us had helped in executing tough and complicated scenes simply and elegantly.
Vicky Donor was a tough subject to deal with and was not a regular song and dance bollywood drama. It was not only light and healthy comedy but sensitive as well. I decided to keep the camera very natural and straightforward. Camera’s presence demanded subtleness. Film was completely shot in Delhi mostly on real locations. Since the title wasn’t very family savy, Shoojit was very clear that the presentation of the film should be pretty looking. We used to rehearse the scenes first then would decide on the blocking of the scene accordingly. Most of the film has been shot in natural light with lamps enhancing the nature.

On Madras Cafe:
I have always been excited by idea of thrillers and when Madras café came my way I was on a high and am thankful to Shoojit da for giving me that opportunity.
I am quite glad that Madras Cafe has been accepted by the Film industry and film critics at different forums because in Indian cinema we love pretty pictures. Madras Cafe was set up in a certain time period though we didn’t force to create the period. For me it was about getting the true feel of the scenes being portrayed through the images. I have to feel the scene or the emotion which the story will go through so that I can decide my tools.
Also I make sure where I am going to be lenient and where strict about certain things while shooting. There are times when you can forgive things in the frame. I feel every shot has a value for money. The time you spend on the shot and lighting up vis-a- vis how much time it is going to be on screen is also important.
In Madras Café, I think the way the camera is being placed is very crucial. The camera is inside the action without being obtrusive. The film we had in mind was constantly moving all the time until towards the end of the film where we get shocked by the nature of events. Although, I grew up reading focal press books in which it is suggested not to use zoom every time yet went against the norm and shot predominantly on OPTIMO ZOOM lenses. Shoojit da, judiciously used it in the film.
Madras Cafe was shot on locations in Cochin. Most of the places were old godowns in fort area of kochi, with no places to keep lights outside the buildings. These limitations helped make them look gritty and dark.

Further, I like myself keeping away from action without disturbing the actors. I believe in giving freedom to actors and play for them rather than actors playing for the camera.
My experience of film grading before Madras Café was only Vicky Donor which was pretty straight forward. We graded Vicky Donor and Madras Café on Base light and I find it a very versatile platform. I prefer to collaborate with colourist, who can sense the feeling of the scenes and come up with the appropriate colours. I worked with colorist Kiran Kota from Prasad labs on Madras Cafe. We were dealing with lot of greenery in jungles and costume too. The dominating thing was landscape, greenery, water and , of course, a lot of fire. So the time when we started grading I kept thinking may be some aqua feel to it – teal would suit to the idea of the film.
Madras Cafe was shot primarily in Kochi, Kanyakumari and Ramoji film city, Hyderabad to simulate srilanka. We kept in mind to have similar vegetation and landscape and also to keep correct skin tone.
Not everything we shot was planned. Shoojit and I work on instincts and take things as they come. We are always ready to adapt to the situations we are thrown in. We picked shots on the go for eg. while shooting a scene we saw some choppers airlifting a Maruti Gypsy. It became part of the film. A lot of things was improvisation.
One beautiful but risky shot we did was when John, Shoojit, Ravi kiran the focus puller and I went on a small boat inside the sea. We were going against the waves, like a sea-saw. Waves lifted the boat up in sky and then would drop back on water. I was engrossed in getting the shot which looked very powerful but could not judge the height of the waves and I lost control, thankfully I dropped safely on my safety bag with camera.
I believe everything cannot be done in the post. As a cinematographer it is better to have everything on camera rather than to leave it for later. But with pressure of producers and actors, sometimes it is difficult to get it all. Tools like diffusion material helps a lot in molding and sculpting the light. I rely a lot on Lee filters, as Rosco is not easily available in India. I don’t prefer to use filters on lens. I like it clean. I sometimes use black Promist. I really enjoy using SoftFX on a few beauty commercials but again there are so many tools available in the post that it’s better to have the information and then tweak it later.
As far as Camera is concerned, I think right now the combination which is working very well for me is the Red-epic and Alexa Plus. The Red-epic gives me the opportunity to shoot at 300 frames per second. That’s why I have used it in Madras Cafe because some action was supposed to be in slow-motion and it is very light weight to move around. I like Arri- alexa for its steadiness of the image and the latitude. I feel more close to Alexa as the images are much better than with any other cameras. I would love to use Sony F65 and Red Dragon also.
I personally feel, what camera we use is not important rather what we do with the camera is more important.

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