Open House with Sudeep Chatterjee

An OPEN HOUSE Session with a SUDEEP CHATTERJEE, Cinematographer of DHOOM 3 was held at WICA Office on  15th Jan 2014. This was, hopefully, the first in a series of interactions we propose to have on a regular basis. Many students of Whistling Woods, young and old Cinematographers attended, BinodPradhan was also in the house. Anil Mehta the current President of WICA, moderated the Discussion.

Anil Mehta: This is intended  as an open house , an intimate and free wheeling session with the people who were involved in the making of Dhoom 3.The Tech. team and the Cinematographer. 

 We have Neil here who did data handling for Dhoom 3 which is like a humungus amount of RAW DATA. Data handling was also a big aspect of this project and all of us have to understand the significance of that.

And then there’s  SumitBasu,He is a prolific Production designer and a good friend.Dhoom 3 must have been a huge challenge because while he was working with me on Highway he used to only talk about Dhoom 3.Sumit has also worked on  BhaagMilkha. Again a case of very varied and expansive work from a very accomplished Production Designer.

The Colorist from Prime Focus,  Ashirwaad, and Vishal from the TataElxi VFX team are also here.

Sudeep why don’t you start by just going back to the beginning of this project.

The other big thing was  Action,   it had to be spectacular. Since the Hero is also in a circus , a showman really, so there has to be a  certain grandeur in the visual presentation. It has to be presented with a certain amount of flair and visual spectacle. So once the basic line of action was decided,  we all used to put in our bit on how to enhance it, make itmore dramatic and visually exciting.

AM: In the initial stages of Prep what was the core team?

Sudeep: I started meeting Victor in Aug 2010 right after Guzaarish got over. It was only me and Victor initially, then Sumit da came in much later in March 2011. In Jan 2011, I read the finished script. When Sumit da came on board then we started discussing the look of the film, at that time the film was supposed to start in November 2011. So I started refusing work from 2011 June.

AM: Any visual references

SU: Dhoom 2 wasn’t a reference point. There were no specific film references. Largely we all threw in whatever was in our minds. In March 2011, Victor and I travelled through Chicago, however it was not locked in, and we had options like London, New York, San Francisco. These were the cities we were supposed to look at. But Victor, Sumit Da and I, we were somehow keen to go to Chicago first. And when we went there it kind of fitted in. It’s a beautiful city, also it’s never been shot before in any Hindi film. And for the kind of stuff that we wanted to do, there was a lot of options and variations, along the river side..roads through the middle of the city.. the bridges .. tunnels, so for a chase we could be going through various kinds of spaces,  it would not be monotonous, It would give  visual variety, and a very varied texture for sound ; which eventually got covered with background music, but that’s another story. But yes it was first thing that we all felt…that action and chases in this city are going to look fantastic.

AM: So  was this the core team,  the director, cinematographer and the production designer?

Sudeep: Yes and the first AD, Rohan Khambati. Four of us went together. That set the tone of the film.  After the recee was over,  Sumit da and I travelled a bit on our own just looking at buildings, looking at architecture, taking photographic references. Then over a drink we would sit and discuss. That formed a lot of references that we have in the film..they have come from our personal travels, we would  see some architectural detail, pick up something from a restaurant, one light detail may be… take a picture of a wall texture….

AM: So are you saying Sumit, you knew then that you are going to build a set for the interiors? You knew from the beginning that you were not looking for a real space? That’s abig element of the film,  the interior performing space… so did you go into real spaces at all?

Sumit: No, just the architecture and not inside the house, only architectural references. Chicago is a city of Frank Lloyd Wright, the famous architect.  We got all the reference points from his architecture.  Its American Victorian architecture so we get those kind of pillars and column heads. It’s a big presence in the film.

AM:  The exterior of that Great Indian Circus is a real location and the interior is constructed. The façade also looks constructed though, because there is nothing behind it?

Sumit: The real building is like that, it is located in one corner. And the entire city is opposite that building.

Sudeep: It’s actually an Aquarium building in Chicago, only the logo is CG.

Sudeep: The interior space in the Past and Present is the same. Aamir’s room in the house is the same room where Jackie Shroffwas living. It is the same set with changes to reflect the new world . The idea was that Aamir came back years later and took that same place to realize his unfulfilled dream.

X:  Lot of ‘Prep’ ‘Pre Viz’  for the action scenes and Circus Performance scenes?

Sudeep: When you do action of this magnitude, you have to go into massive pre visualization because without that no one will know what’s going on. We will also have to decide about how much we are actually shooting…how much is action department doing… how much is VFX going to create. So, we had done it in a very detailed way.  Starting  with  storyboarding with a detailed brief from me and Victor. Once the story board was there we took it to the VFX department.  We then got an animated storyboard which was edited and put to music and we had the whole sequence like a final edit. Based on those animated videos we actually asked the Stunt Teamhow much of action could be done for real.

Vishal: We located the three action sequences in a specific geography. First was where the bike comes down from one building to the other. For doing that we had location photos. We 3D mapped the city scapeand then took that into Previz.  Google is really good; it gives you the dimensions of the building. So, we extracted that from Google and put the buildings into the correct place,  the dimensions are all correct. When you put a 35 mm lens there in the 3D Pre Viz, what you see is what you will get. So when you see a bike travelling at the speed of 140 kmph, it is actually travelling at that speed.  We did this entire exercise for the  three major action sequences.

Sudeep:IW was really helpful. We were able to plan it in terms of lighting too. with the Sun Path calculator, six months later what will the  sun position be, I could actually see it like that in PreViz. I was very happy with the fact that I could have a lighting plan well in advance. There is a certain time that a beautiful patch of light will come through the Ltrack and then I could tell the first AD that  we should try and shoot that scene in top sun. We managed to execute what we had developed in Pre Viz and that for me was very satisfying.

X: Would you tell more about the collaboration between you and the VFX team, shoot and post stage?

Sudeep: Personally, it doesn’t matter to me whether I have shot something Live or it has been created by CGI. To me that final image is paramount and we all went out together to get it.

Vishal: To help him achieve that we were always on location getting all the plates shot, coordinating with Production Design to get all the elements right.

X: Most people forget this coordination?

Vishal: Fortunately we had really good experience working together on this film.

Sudeep: One of the really nice things was that Vishal was always there on the set with me. There would be many times when I would open up wide and some tower would interrupt the frame and I would tell Vishal to erase that. There were many such things where I felt that “ok this much I can do … rest you (Vishal) have to do”.

Vishal: This was not a ‘waking up later’ kind of scenario. It was pre planned and then it was all cohesive.

AM: Any particular Complex VFX scene that you want to walk us through

Vishal: Complexity wise, the twins in their den  was pretty complex,  you have eye lines to match and then there was camera movement and then there was Aamir who is so fussy about everything about his portrayal on  screen. That sequence was complex. Another one was when Aamir takes the leap off the bridge and bike does some strange things and gets converted into a seabull. That was a slightly nightmarish one.

AM:  the live interaction shots of the twins with  camera movements, How were they achieved? Was there a body double?

SUDEEP: No, there was no body double. In the interval shot, it was done with a motion control pass by pass. In the beginning,Victor played the other brother Samar. Victor and Aamir would play the whole scene for us like two actors would play it. And in terms of breakdown, I would always go for … this is how I would normally shoot the scene. We had that as the starting point, we used to record that and then VFX team and our motion control team would come in. The motion control team General Lift was from Los Angeles. It’s a smaller rig, slightly less time consuming. They are very specific and fast, much faster than the  MILO experience. The good thing was that they would let me operate the camera on the first pass.  The motion Control rig would memorize that move, ofcourse we had to refine it and put in Key Frames etc. but overall it was a more organic approach.

Vishal: Basically, when Sudeep was doing his pass, the rig was recording whatever he was doing and after that it was breaking it down into its various key frames and later we would tweak it.

Vishal: We had about seven cameras running in sync on Set which were 25fps cameras. We call them Witness Cams. We had a very senior supervisor Joe Highneyfrom Los Angeles; he came down for the shoot as well. He has a lot of experience in this kind of stuff. So, he had 5 to 7 cameras for the actionist. These cameras were focusing on various parts of the set. There would be one camera that would focus on Aamir’s feet. They were all static cameras and they all were running in sync, so if you needed to refer that what was Aamir’s footsteps in pass A, so he could react to that in Pass B, you have that reference. Then there was one camera which was only logged on to his face. After he ended up performing one pass, we could play that back on another monitor right in front of him with the same size as him so that you get natural reaction in his eyes.

AM: it’s not as if any of those additional cameras are picking up information that will be part of final picture?

Sudeep: No, there was only one Alexa which was recording everything that you will finally see in the film. We would play the first pass video and audio through that and then first part audio was put to mute when Aamir was about to speak. Those lines are second time the sound was recorded.

Vishal: All of this had to be in synch ed to a flash in front of the A Camera. Only then would all the info of the Witness Cams be useful on set.

Sudeep: The fantastic thing was that all of this was happening almost instantly. As soon as we finished the composite image was ready, the technicians on this job were fantastic.

AM: That’s a lot of gear on the set?

Sudeep: Yes, we could not walk on the set. My biggest problem was how do I light up for the second pass because like Vishal  mentioned we needed a head size image of Aamir from his first pass in front of him for his second pass. Generally, when you are shooting two actors talking to each other, lighting is not a problem. But here we used to have a 40 inches monitor right in front of him for him to interact with.  That really used to limit me in terms of lighting.

AM: Was light emitting from that monitor?

Sudeep: No, that we had bent it down and we had kept that too minimal. I tried putting a tube light. I also tried putting small tubes, taped them on to the monitor to light up the face but if I used the tape then Aamir could not see his image. It was quite a struggle. Yes it was difficult to walk on the set. It was just cameras, monitors and cables everywhere.

Vishal: The advantage with motion control is you can have a light that is visible to the camera. In the next pass, you can take that light off and roll just the background. You can get exactly the same camera move.

Sudeep: This was an option that we could have used and I think we ended up doing that once.

AM: Can you draw a list of other specialized gear that we are not used to do in our environment here which you brought down for this film?

Sudeep:  For the double role it was General Lift, the motion control team from LA. David Presley from their team was doing the real time comp and playback.

Vishal: He had a multiple video recorder which could take many feeds together and he could play them back with any kind of sync and stagger them if required and feed them to multiple monitors. It was actually a combination of various recorders – a multi channel recorder.

Sudeep: That was very competent, even on my on-board monitor, like on one switch I could have the comp image and other switch I could have the camera image. Without those things, we would really have been slow.

AM: Digital cinematography for this film was inevitable. Is that safe to say?

Sudeep: I would say so, although I didn’t get on to shooting this on digital keeping that in mind. My decision to shoot it on digital had come much before that.

AM: Tell us about that,  these are the early films to be shot in digital. So tell us about the choice of ArriAlexa and shooting Raw.

Sudeep: I had a very good time with the post production of Guzaarish. The way the images had been scanned, the way we did the DI and finally the way we did the output. But on my next film, ‘Mere brother ki Dulhan’, I was struggling with the scans. That’s when that idea came to my mind that this is one large issue that I have to completely monitor in order to get consistent images.

AM: What was the problem with the 35 mm scans?

Sudeep: The scans were not consistent, and sometimes I would be very surprised on the DI. It was largely with the contrast issues. Many times I would get thrown off with what I would expect or what I have seen on the tele cine and finally when I have gone on the DI screen, I would be like… Really! Is that all you are getting? Then I would ask the colorist that why is it looking like that?  Or this is not how I expect it to look. And then they would say let’s re-scan it and then it would be  okay. That was one element which was continuously bothering me.

Sudeep: Yes, there are various settings for the scanning which were not done properly.

X: Do you think that if you give them a proper specification it would have been better?

AM: Speaking from a Cinematographer’s perspective, it is very difficult for a cinematographer to get inside of every black box that exists today.  if you are telling me to tell an engineer how to set a scanning machine, you are pushing the threshold.

Sudeep: I did an extensive round of tests, testing it in every possible way, in worse possible situation like over expose of sky by 12 stops and try to extract some face which is completely in shadow, try to extract information there, like really beating the digital medium and film stock and I had Ashirwad from very early stage. The more I tested I felt like leaning towards digital capture,  It was cleaner, better and the post advantage was there.  I was quite excited to shoot it on digital camera, I thought that if one has to do the jump, this is the right film because the Production House  has the budget and we would get all the bells and whistles.

Having said that, before this I have shot 19 films all on film,  throughout this one I was quite insecure. I kept asking finally it would look like a film na? Ashirwad had to keep reassuring me, he finally did a great job. I bothered Binod many times too.

AM: It is interesting to have Binod here because he also made the transition at the same time…

Sudeep: Ya, in fact he transitioned to Digital within a film, many portions of Mausam were shot on digital, transition from film to Alexa. Red came in Milkha

X: In retrospect do you think digital gave you more control over your image?

Sudeep: Yes, I am very happy with all the stuff that we shot on RAW and Pro Res. There is a large part of the film, particularly towards the climax in the night that we had to shoot on 120 fps because my director wanted to have the option of being able to ramp the image. Almost everything was shot on 120 fps, which went on HD. So, I am not happy with that at all. I think that could have looked much better.I have had to add a little bit of sharpness to everything. If you compare the image to the film image, I thought the digital image onAlexa were little softer. I was continuously missing that sharpness, so I kept on asking him to add a little sharpness.

AM: You are actually saying something contrary to what most cinematographers worldwide are saying that digital is too sharp. They are finding the digital image too crisp as compared to film.

Sudeep: It’s crisper but it’s not so sharp particularly the pro res and you see that on wide shots.

AM:Binod Sir, have spent many years originating images on Film and today you are dealing with a new kind of image making. How do you feel about it?

Binod P: This is definitely a better medium because there are fewer variations, there is no scanning involved, there is no processing, and there is no dust busting. That way, there is lots of consistency.

Sudeep:  There is one thing though that makes me unsure in a way, when you were color correcting on film, there was a lot of trust on the colorist judgement, and the conversation would be quantified in RGB terms. Here, there is a Fly Wheel and you don’t know how much a colorist is moving it,  there are too many variables and there is so much that you can do..

AM: It’s good that Neil is also here, since this whole new area. Data Management. we are generating all these images which first used to come in a can which we could hold and now its all going downstream through some cables into some box which Neil is holding…

Niel: I come from a background of editing and I have actually spent many years editing films on Steenbeckactually physically cutting films. And transitioning from that into storing materials on hard discs, LTO tapes…  obviously there is insecurity. When I used to edit on Steenbeck, at the end of the day when we finished editing something, it was in the can. It was saved, it couldn’t corrupt, and it couldn’t hang or crash. Next day you opened the can and put it, it was there, nothing could happen to that.

But after having handled digital data for film specifically for a project like Dhoom3which is a very long project, I think systems have become reasonably safe now. Although it is a little scary like what you shoot is copied somewhere and that same card is erased and re used in the camera. That fear of “what if”, I’ll have to go back and re shoot. And doing a film like Dhoom there is no such thing… bike jumps through the air and landed upon its back… you can’t make that poor chap do that all over again because oops! I forgot to save that. These things happened but we have come to that point in technology where things are reasonably secured.

AM: We have also come to that point because we have realized there is a very important role for a data handler to play on set.  If a camera is recording everything, there is somebody who is checking that data. That person has become an inevitable and an important part of the set including post. But, on set one needs to emphasize that that person is now part of the camera team.

Neel: That is totally right. Another reason for Dhoom going digital was because we thought nobody on this project wants to end up feeling that we are running out of stock or too much stock is being consumed. I think that sort of helped the decision.

AM:Alexa studio and Alexa M was that all the Cameras you had on this job.

Sudeep: On action sequences we had more Alexas.. Alexa plus,  that we hired from Chicago. We also had a few Go Pros and something called Lipstick cams, these very small Sony cameras actually have the size of lipstick. And the gopros which we had quite a few, all the action guys had their gopros and they were like can we put a camera here. Mostly we had the gopros at the impact points and we lost a few cameras because the car would bang into them. Lot of impacts in the film, there are small cuts of POVs of the car flying, the go pros would crash and we would just recover the chip. My assistant would go after the shot looking for the remains of the go pros. The quality is not great but the kind of shots we got made them worth it.

Neel: Gopros would perform really well at night; it is actually a night camera.

AM: Was there some kind of Gear that you used in Chicago which we are not used to seeing here?

Sudeep: This was like a Hollywood Union project. And because it was a union project we could access to certain kind of technicians and equipments which otherwise you won’t get. We had this car called the Pursuit car, it is basically a powerful SUV with a remote control head on the top of the car that is Gyro Stablised head that takes the camera and can take a zoom easily. Like the Russian arm. Inside the car there would be the driver who has a video monitor. A crane operator next to the driver and behind him would the camera operator who would have a joystick. I would usually sit next to him telling him how I would like the shot composed. Also, I had a camera control unit from which I would control the exposure. I was freaking out with exposure control like when we would get into the tunnel I would go full open and would come out and I would slowly close the aperture. And my focus puller would be next to me.

We could do a lot of stuff with this. This could really shoot fast stuff. These guys were highly trained stunt drivers. So they could easily do reverse traffic shots.

When we were planning the river action sequence, we were missing the pursuit, the kind of speed that it could do. I suggested to Mike, the main person of the pursuit car, if we could take out the whole set from pursuit car and put it on the boat. He was like… Are you kidding? Firstly, he was not convinced but I kept pushing and then he somehow gave in. He agreed and he took two days and pulled the whole camera mount of the Pursuit.  So, we had a pursuit boat which was exactly like a pursuit car. It was doing the same thing. We had a very high quality splash deflector where the camera was wrapped in plastic and it was actually going through splash. I didn’t think that the splash deflector could withstand the water because when a speed boat runs there is a huge amount of water that comes onto the lens and the splash deflector was actually taking care of it.

AM: What about lights?

Sudeep: Chicago was a pretty well lit city. For the night action, we had lot of Condo cranes. We had about four condos which were sometimes left in the frame and the VFX guys erased it later.

AM:  ‘OnSet Dailies’Neil did you generate those for Dhoom3, are cinematographers asking for it

Neil: Yes we setup that provision Sudeep wanted it initially, then time constraints etc. dictated that we did not end up using it that much.

AM: Was the workflow  all  ‘Linear’  VFX,  DI ..?

Vishal: All linear, in fact, this is also the first time we did that.

Sudeep: That was one of the concerns I had. Previously what used to happenwhenever something used to go for VFX, it used to come back more compressed. you could clearly tell the difference between a VFX shot and a non VFX shot.

AM: This was DPX era problem…

Sudeep: Yes, I was very happy to see that I have full latitude on the shot post the VFX work. it was just like RAW stuff.

VFX: As good as a RAW image.

AM: You finished on 2k .

Sudeep: Yes

AM: Was 3D a consideration?

Sudeep: No.  We did do a 3D test. The producer liked the idea of D3 in 3D,  Victor and I were very anti converting it into 3D. If you want to go 3D then actually try and shoot 3D. So, we did a test shoot, it was really fantastic. We shot with SI 2k cameras; these people had come from Bangalore. It was quite exciting; we shot some snowfall and some rain. We saw it on a 65-inch monitor with glasses and there was a stereographer sitting next to you. The estimate was 40 per cent more time on the shoot. That doesn’t really translate in box office terms.

Z: You said you had done 19 films on film; this is your first one on Digital. Now if on the 21st film you have an option, what would you prefer?

Sudeep: I think I will go for digital. I would be romantically inclined to shoot on film but I feel I am pushing the envelope a lot more with digital. I am enjoying that.

AM: From the point of cinematographer keeping aside the technicals involved, what would be the riding factor that would tell you whether or not make a film on 3D?

Suddep: As a cinematographer the way I have been trained, I think it’s my job to give you a more three-dimensional experience. You are supposed to make a two-dimensional thing look three-dimensional. So if you are asking me to shoot a film on 3D that is one thing you are taking away from me. Probably if you want more engrossing and more enveloping kind of experience, 3D really works for a film like Gravity.

AM: Dhoom had 4500 prints out in India not a single one was a Film Print

Sudeep: There were 30 prints for Pakistan only, no prints for India.

AM: Thank you all for coming in. Like I said this is a start. Hopefully, we can take this tradition forward and do these sessions regularly.

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