Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Basic Camera Mechanism

[I wrote this for Digital Academy students, four years ago. As the information about analog motion picture camera is quickly diminishing, I syndicate this here. This article needs some modification. I shall do that in few days. The original post may be accessed here .]

“… the Director of Photography is a money manager, who with the assistance of the crew, must deliver daily a product that is aesthetically exciting, technically exact, and on budget. (...)
“And-oh, – yes- he or she must, in each expensive minute of every working day, contribute to the art of the film” –          David L. Quaid, ASC

Having a controlled check on composition and exposure is important, but all such theoretical knowledge fall flat if they cannot be applied through camera. Whatever the make, it is basically a light-tight box only, with inbuilt controls for sharp image (lens), exposure (aperture and shutter), and film or sensor in the back.
These are the basic parts a camera must have; but with more sophisticated and user friendly cameras lining up every day, in the market, a detailed knowledge of each popular make and the differences among them is necessary.

When motion picture became a major industry in the west, just after World War II, efficient, automatic cameras boomed in the market. For a long time, cameras were hand-cranked. That means, the operator use to run the show by manually running 10- 16 frames per second before the projector gate. Gradually, film advance inside camera was replaced by machine. New companies such as ARRI, Mitchell, Aaton, Éclair and Panavision appeared in the market.

Cameras soon became standardized, so that one who knows how to use a camera of a particular make can easily run another with minimum extra input. As the camera design is based on common sense, this common ground among completely different cameras made life easy for the cinematographers.
But, how was the basic camera design? How was that still the same – even after hundred years since the camera started? A look into the basic lay-out of any motion picture camera can clarify this.

No other camera is better than ARRI IIC for this purpose. Granddaddy of most cameras functional today, this light-weight, small SLR camera exhibits the basic design which made all ARRI cameras popular. Stanley Kubrick, a great ARRI Aficionado throughout his life , used this great portable camera to some extent in all his films.ARRI IIC from the ARRI 35 group (IIC being the model number, while ARRI is the company that manufactures these cameras – named after the two founders – Arnold and Richter – Ar-Ri) is amodular camera. That means, its components can be separated and other fitting components can be locked in their places. Basically the camera system consists of the camera body with the gatepressure plateand pull down claw where the film is threaded; the view finder; the camera motor which runs the film through the camera, lens and magazine where both the unexposed and the exposed filmstock stay.
A detailed look into each part is necessary.
Just like any other SLR camera, ARRI IIC body is housed with a mirror-shutter and a prism on the side to reflect light to the view-finder ground-glass. A brief explanation is needed now. Any camera is a sophistication over the basic pin-hole type that creates an inverted fully color image on the inside wall of the dark box (ie, the camera). Light rays that pass through a small pin-hole opposite the image-wall create that inverted image.

A Modern SLR camera, is a pin-hole camera in function only. However, it offers an external viewer some facilities to see the image on the inside wall. It uses a mirror inclined at an angle (ideally 45°) to the image-wall.

In the diagram above, it can be seen how the light rays come through the lens (the pin-hole in modern cameras stays within the lens, and is known as aperture) and fall on the mirror. The mirror, in this case, is inclined at 45° to the Film plane. When the mirror is in the path of the light rays, obviously it blocks the light from falling on the film. The mirror reflects the light upwards instead. A mirror image of the inverted pin-hole image is made on the translucent screen above. That screen is known as the ground glass. Light passes through the ground glass to get reflected in the sides of the prism above, and finally reach the eye-piece. An external viewer (ie, the photographer) can see the image looking through the view-finder. That image is the same image that the pin-hole (or, the lens) camera makes. That is the same image without any modification that gets imprinted on the film when the same light rays strike it.

This simple system of viewing ensures the photographer of the framing. He knows he will get exactly what he sees.
As the photographer sees the reflection through a single lens, the camera system is known as SLR (Single Lens Reflex.) Motion Picture cameras use a similar technology. However, here the mirror does not flip upwards, as it does in a still photography SLR camera. No physical mirror can go through so many ups and downs at such a high speed (film speed is 24 frames per second normally.

So, such a mirror would have to flip up 24 times a second, and in 1/48th of a second each time.)
Motion picture cameras solve this problem with a rotating mirror. In a still photography camera, the shutter stays behind the mirror and both flip up or down together, in sync, when the film is exposed. In a motion picture camera, however the shutter and the mirror are in the same rotating disc. Arri came up with this brilliant technology in 1931, anticipating the very high demand of such a technology, in future.
How does this technology work?

As can be seen in the diagram above, a mirror inclined at 45° angle, in a way to similar to the still photography camera’s mirror, rotates in the gate where the film comes to be exposed. When the mirror is in front of the gate, the film runs so that the next frame can come to the gate. When the mirror goes out of the gate, downwards, light rays hit the film frame straight and image is recorded. As the mirror keeps rotating, it comes back before the gate, shutting the light off but reflecting it to the view-finder. Now, the cameraman can see the image but film is blanked out. As film is blanked out it can move and the next frame can come to the gate for the next exposure. Twenty four such exposures are made at the camera gate, every second.

The mirror itself works like a shutter.
In Arri IIC, the shutter angle – how much area in the circular disc is covered by the mirror and how much is left open – is variable from 15° through 165°. The shutter speed effectively changes as the shutter (or mirror) opening is changed. Shutter speed for each exposure (ie, each frame) is 1/52th for a normal shutter closure of 165°. More shutter opening makes shots blurry. Less opening makes them crispy sharp. For that reason fast actions normally require very small opening. In many modern cameras, the shutter opening (technically known as shutter angle) can be changed when the shot is on (when the camera is running.) An electronically operable shutter is installed in such cameras. In Arri IIC, and many other cameras, that is not possible. Shutter angle can be manually changed, and only when the camera is powered off. In all Arri and other SLR motion picture cameras the continuous flicker at the view-finder is a part of life for the cinematographer.

That means he sees what the lens sees, but that also means he cannot see what is being recorded on the film. For that split second, when a frame is exposed, the mirror goes down and the view-finder is blanked.
Such a split second occurs twenty four times every second, during filming. Aspect ratio, information about the frame and many other things are displayed through the view finder, for the cinematographer’s use. They are basically marks on the ground glass. The ground glass can be taken out, changed, or even fitted with LEDs. In the camera body, besides the mirror, the other two important things are the pressure plate and the pull-down claw.

When the film is running, it cannot run on its own. Something has to move the film through the gate. The pull-down claw does that. When the film is at rest, it gets exposed. Any kind of motion, or vibration in the film blurs the image. Hence, something is needed to keep the film steadily static. In other words, the film needs a solid support. The pressure plate is just a metal plate, that gives such support to the film. The film adheres to the pressure plate literally, until the pull down goes back, goes up and moves forward to get into a perforation and goes down with the perforation so that the next frame can be exposed. The way pull-down claw moves can be compared to a train’s wheel on the track.

Arri makes their own lenses in collaboration with Carl Zeiss. The two major series of cine lenses are Ultra Prime and Master Prime.  There are three types of popular mounts – PL (Positive Lock) mount, C-Mount and Bayonet Mount. Most camera operators prefer PL Mount for the ease of their fitting.

Lens is a major attachment to the camera body. There are a range of different lenses that can fit onto the lens mount of a camera. Some companies like Panavision are very exclusive in the choice of lenses. They use mounts where only their lens can be fit.

The motor can be used as handgrip for handheld camera operation. This is how many operative cameramen used this model for documentary type shots. Like most motion picture cameras, Arri IIC uses a DC battery of 16.8 V normally. For faster frame rate shoot (which means slow motion in the projected footage), or time lapse cinematography, 24 V batteries can be used.

The next important part of the camera is the motor itself. It fixes to the camera body on its underside.  It is a variable speed motor which operates through a rheostat (variable resistance.)There are buttons on the camera body to maneuver the shutter rotation (inching knob), change the frame rate (tachometer) and to close the viewfinder from inside.

There should be a three installments on the function, precision and choice of different lenses and their respective use in different situations, with corresponding footage. I shall post that, shortly, subject to acquisition of test and actual footage and the permission from the Cinematographers who shot those.

ARRI-Zeiss Lenses

Another indispensable part in a motion picture camera is its view-finder. Basically, the view finder is a lens system that magnifies the ground glass image without distortion for the cinematographer’s eyes. There are two sections in the viewfinder tube. The main section connects to the ground glass chamber through a door on the camera. The eye-piece section can be removed from the main view-finder. There is eye-power adjustment in the eye-piece for a cameraman, to work without glasses. A CCD (or any other type of sensor) video camera can be fixed inside the view-finder system, so that a video image of the running shot can be viewed on a monitor, at the time of shoot. This appendage is called video assist.

Between the take off and take up sprocket of the magazine, runs the film to be shot. This running length is constant, and its length is maintained in a loop. For Arri magazines, this loop is 52 perforations (ie, 13 frames) in length. If this loop is of a different size, the film can break due to running stress.

However, the most handled part of the camera system is the magazine. Unexposed film stock stays here. Through a sprocket slit film runs out of the magazine, threaded inside the camera gate, to get exposed and taken up back into the other spool of the magazine. Film magazines come in different capacities, like 200 ft, 400 ft and 1000 ft, normally. There are different camera systems, from different countries and manufacturers. Some DPs prefer non-Arri systems such as Panavision or Aaton (from the USA and France respectively.) There are excellent camera systems from Mitchell, Éclair and Bolex.

There are many more companies that make SLR and other systems.
However, all motion picture cameras share the basic designs implemented by Arri company in Germany, when they planned their IIC model. A cinematographer has to update himself continuously of current camera designs and operative techniques. Reading product literature and shooting tests with a new camera in the market is a cinematographer’s routine work.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Some Problems with an Interview

A brilliant example of what not to do with camera during recording an interview.

I know some of my friends would not agree. But, the way the single shots are taken with continuously moving and handheld cameras is peculiar.

Over-the-Shoulder or suggestion shots do not work in interviews. They may work in the interview in a film, although Godard prefers to use the news interview style while showing interviews in his films (he moves between the personal and the interview spaces all the time.)

Suggestion shots do not work in the interviews because they distract. This is like putting a hilsa fish in gulabjamun and icecream.

Someone tried to experiment too much with this interview. This is what sometimes newbie directors ask me - to take fantastic shots out of a dry interview. To keep the nose in the same area in the frame - to follow the face in a tight frame.

They don't work.

Image Source       

To me, even Close Up shots don't work well in the interview. The Master Shot should be Medium Long - TV and Computer screens are big today (well, mobile phones are not.) Master shot means where all the characters are shown in one frame - the overall geography among characters is established. Master Shot does not necessarily mean a wide shot.

Close Up does not work well in an interview, because that makes the frame too packed. Viewer's eyes do not get any room to hover around. It sends a claustrophobic feeling to the viewer.

Close Up does not work in interviews, because we expect to see the body language of the speaker. At the same time, we cannot afford to see the whole body. We are already seeing that in the Master Shot.

So, the correct, psychologically effective, shot magnification would be Medium Close Up (MCU), where the frame keeps the speaker from the head (with little headspace) to just above the elbow joint.

The ideal cuts for such a static position are from Medium-Long Shot to a Medium Close Up, and reverse.

We call this cutting from one magnification to its next-to-next step. Medium shot (head to waist, or the American Cowboy - head to buttock) to the Long shot (full figure/head-to-toe with  little foreground in case of the previous cowboy shot).

The in-between shot magnification is Medium Long Shot, head to just above the knee joint.)

Cutting from the medium shot to the medium long does not look smooth, specially when the speakers are static.

Same goes for cutting between the medium long and long shot, or its reverse.

The classicism of match cut between the second-step magnification works in the interviews too.

And finally, the cameraman, or the Producer, should remember that camera is not the hero of this interview!

P.S. The  description of the Knee Shot/ Medium Long Shot for the girl is unusual. normally, that should end above the knee joint. Else, the legs may look amputated. Extreme Close Up for eyes, or mouth, or any other part significant part of face for the man is not shown.

Shot Magnification for GuyShot Magnification for Girl
                                                                                                 Image Source

Sunday, March 8, 2015


(This article is a modified republishing of my own article which I wrote for Digital Academy's website, for my students, when I used to teach there.

The versions written for DA could be found in these two links.

Any kind of image or impression is visible through contrast. And any contrast is primarily created by light.

Just as a painter needs some functional knowledge of the chemical and physical properties of his paints, a photographer needs to know the basics of his paint – the light. The more he knows how light interacts with nature and with his eyes, the more he can have the guidance of light to create beautiful images.

It is all cinematographers’ dream to be one with the light, to see the basic fabric of light. The moment he sees it, nature reveals herself to him. All great Masters of cinematography knew light as their greatest kin in the world. Keeping this in mind, it is no more surprising to know that the Maestro Satyajit Ray scolded his Cinematographer, another Maestro, Subrata Mitra, for taking too much time to light up the set. He plainly said on Mitra’s face, “You are light’s slave!”

Ray was wrong. Cinematographers are not slaves to light, but kins. They seek oneness with light to materialize the sparks on the screen that they have in mind.

Subrata Mitra’s lighting for Ray’s Charulata (1964)

It is mandatory for a genuine cinematographer to know as much about light as possible, exactly the way someone tries to understand his best friend. The formal study of light is known as optics.


The first thing to know about light may come as a big surprise. Light shows everything, but it is invisible itself. Light shows up matter in its path of travel. When the path of travel consists of smoke or dust in the air, or cloud, streaks or beam can be seen. However, when it travels through clean air, if someone stands perpendicular to the rays and look at the supposed beam in the air, he sees nothing.


We can see the light beam as the source, or as coming through a glass. But, eyes perpendicular to the beam, she cannot see the light. It is complete darkness for her.

Perhaps the most important feature of light is it always travels in straight line. This is not difficult to understand when one keeps the phenomenon of shadow in mind. When a light bulb is lit up, light radiates in full sphere all around it.


All the individual light rays travel in their respective paths, in straight lines. However, if some object is placed in a light ray’s path, any one of three phenomena may be observed depending on the nature of the blocking object.

If light passes through the blocking object, mostly unaffected, the object is called transparent. Glass, water, air and many other minerals and synthetic materials are transparent.


If light is blocked, and cannot pass through, the object is known as opaque. Later, we shall see that opaque objects are of different types too.


There are objects, such as smoked glass, cellophane paper or plastic bottles, which block some rays and let others pass, but spreading them more outwards. These are called translucent objects.

In cinematography, translucent objects play a major role, as we shall see later in this article.
When light is blocked by an opaque object, the block is delineated by the shape of the object, otherwise known as the shadow.

Hence, shadow is the absence of light, and just like any other contrast it is visible only when there is a lack of light in some part in an otherwise lit up area. It sounds paradoxical, but to see shadow prominently, light is needed.


Even the most transparent object in the nature casts a shadow as nothing is purely transparent. But, the more opaque an object is, the shadow is darker (ie, there is no light in the shadow area. The shadow area is totally dark unlike the image above.)


What happens to the light rays that cannot pass through?

 Again any one of three things happens. They can be reflected off the blocking surface of the opaque object in a very regular manner, just like mirror. They can be reflected off the surface in an irregular manner that spreads them out at the time of reflection, just like any visible object other than mirror. Or, they can be totally absorbed.

Just like any ideal physical phenomenon, pure mirror reflection, irregular reflection or absorption never happens. There is always a mix of everything, with one of the three dominating.


One thing is sure, and no cinematographer can afford to ever forget that – whatever happens, an individual light ray always travels in a straight line, and can never turn around a blocking object unlike water.

So, it can be seen when light rays meet something in their path they are absorbed, or transmitted through the object or reflected off the object surface. When light rays are mostly absorbed, the object looks dark. In other words, its details cannot be seen.

When the object surface reflects light rays, a very interesting natural rule is followed.


As it can be seen in the diagram above, a light ray always gets reflected in the same angle in which it falls on a surface. Nothing in the universe causes an exception to this. This is a fundamental property of light, and does not depend on the source, color or brightness of the light, or on any property of the reflecting surface.

However, this does not say how a beam of light would behave while getting reflected on an uneven surface.

For all cinematographic purposes, light can be considered as a cylindrical pack of individual light rays – a beam - in common parlance.

Each ray in the light beam reflects off in the angle of incidence (i.e, the angle in which they hit the object surface). But, if different areas in the surface are themselves at angles (i.e, if the surface is not a plane), even two parallel light rays in a hitting beam, will get reflected in angles to each other, depending on the angles between two points on the reflecting surface.

In another word, light rays will fan out, or be concentrated.

Normally, visible surfaces fan out light rays very irregularly. The reflection they perform is known as diffuse reflection, as opposed to the very regular mirror reflection.


Sometimes, cinematographers use a technical term – specular reflection. That is same as the mirror reflection (Latin word for mirror is speculum.)

In a mirror reflection the light source is seen while the reflecting surface is not noticeable. But, a diffuse reflection shows the reflecting surface, and not the light source. Human eyes see most objects because of diffuse reflection only.

Even in a diffuse reflection, a significant portion of the beam can cause mirror reflection at a particular angle. So, the light source is partially reflected on a wall, or on a polished door. Such a reflection is known as a hotspot, and is always to be avoided in any shoot. Any composition with a hotspot looks clumsy.


Hotspot on the door

Sometimes the hotspot can be made less prominent by making the glossy area matte, with the help of spray.

When the light is allowed by the transparent or translucent object, light rays are always bent. Just like mirror reflection, two parallel rays remain parallel after bending, because they bend in the same angle, if the transparent object is a plane (or flat).

However, if the transparent object is curved, like part of a transparent sphere, light rays bend more as one goes up or down from the center.


The bending can be towards one another, or away from one another. Accordingly, light rays converge to a focus, or diverge away.

Anyone can sense that such curved transparent objects are known as lens. They magnify or reduce an image forming through them.

Bending of light caused by any transparent object is known as refraction. The bending can be regular or accelerated in both the ways. However, in the case of lenses, the acceleration itself is regular.

What happens when the acceleration is not regular? That means, light rays cross one another randomly after transmission through the object and spread. Translucent materials produce such an effect.


As the light rays are more spread out through a translucent material, in effect it is same as increasing the size of the light source. That in turn makes the light create a softer shadow.

This is why cinematographers use different translucent materials before light sources, and at different distances from sources, to create different levels of shadows. In nature also it is a very regular phenomenon. On a clear day, the sun casts very hard, well-defined, fine edged shadows. But, as the sky turns cloudy the shadows also turn to fuzzier, to a practically shadowless situation when the sky is completely overcast.

Besides reflection and refraction, another important, but less noticeable behavioral property of light is its polarization.

It is necessary to go through a few fundamental facts about light before one tries to understand polarization.

What is light? What is it made of? A beam of light can be visualized as a pack of rays, emitted from the source and passing through space to fall somewhere.

But what are those individual rays made of? Particles? If they are particles, overlapping of two different particles should always create more energy. After all that is what one expects when one canon ball strikes another to give more energy to the last one in the row for a greater impact.

However, such interference of light creates bands of darker and brighter lights. Brighter light is a commonsense expectation if light is mixed. But darker? That makes no sense.


Such an interference pattern makes perfect sense if light is visualized as series of waves. When opposite waves cancel each other out, the effect visible is darkness.

However, light visualized as wave cannot satisfactorily explain why light fails to turn around opaque objects.

Human beings have been studying light for the last two millennia, or more. But, only in the last century, a break through to this question came.

Light is dual in nature. When it travels in space it is mostly like wave. But, the moment it interacts with matter it behaves like particle.

No one really knows exactly how light is. But the approximate knowledge gathered so far is interesting to take a lifetime of study.

Coming back to polarization, this property of light deals with its wave nature. Light is the visible spectrum of electromagnetic radiation. The full spectrum contains cosmic rays, gamma rays, x-rays and ultra-violet rays on the more energetic side, and infra-red rays (associated with heat waves), mobile waves and radio waves of different types on the other.

In between, a miniscule portion, seen by the human eye, is called light.


A light wave can be visualized like a sine wave, and it is multi-dimensional in reality unlike a sea-wave. For the practical purpose, one can imagine a light wave bloated all around like a sphere.


In diagrammatic representation like above, the distance between the two highest energy level (both in the positive and negative, or up and down directions) is known as wavelength. In physical manifestation, this denotes the light’s color. How high is the energy level from a zero position, is known as the wave’s amplitude. That denotes the light’s brightness.

From the diagram above, it can be seen the wavelength is different for red, green and blue light each. The shorter the wave length the more energy is packed in that light.


Light rays travel in space in such waves. However, the wave is not a unidimensional, linear one as mentioned above. Besides, each wave has two wave-components perpendicular to each other.

There are many natural and synthetic materials, like cloud, glass and plastic, that reflect or transmit one wave blocking the other completely or partially. This phenomenon can be used very creatively for cinematographic purpose, when an already polarized light is blocked by putting another polarizer material on the camera lens, thus making only a portion of the cinematographic frame darker.


Image without polarizer Image with polarizer

There are many other interesting sides to light. As said earlier, a lifetime is not enough just to churn through the superficial layers of light’s behavior.

Van Gogh wanted to paint the ultimate source of all earthlight – Sun. He staked his life at this inhuman pursuit. He succeeded.

A cinematographer keeps studying about light and in the course knows more about his art and himself, throughout his life.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Eisenstein 1

I hated Eisenstein while undergoing the Masters course in Film Studies. I had no interest in watching the age-old footage of the Odessa steps, or the metonymic mechanical Peacock in October.

After teaching cinema for five years, shooting a few feature-length documentaries and ad films and editing more than two hundred student exercises, I bow down before him. Sixty Six years after he passed away, Eisenstein is still the baap (ie, the godfather) of the mafia cult called  cinema.

But why so?

In this series of essays, I am trying to see how we grow up following the simple steps of feeding the mind with images - video and audio. We may say we are not influenced by anyone, these images are our own. But, we cannot forget we come out of the womb of an already established culture. The messages which shape our minds and our personalities are socially constructed. If we really want to break out of them we must know their sources, and who control them. For that, we have to go back to where it all began.

And Eisenstein holds an Emperor's position in that quest. He was the first filmmaker who consciously examined the psychological and political backdrop of his cinema and its appreciation. He saw patterns in influencing a group of spectators coming from a specific psycho-social background. Based on that pattern and his observations of culture and human psychology, he postulated further steps - almost like English grammar or stylistics, and applied them back to his next film.

He was the first filmmaker-theorist, the finest of teachers and the only guy in cinema history who attempted a poetics of cinema, almost like Aristotle's Poetics. Unfortunately he died young, aged fifty, in 1948. But, his observations and applications bring fresh air, till date, to modern filmmakers like Godard and Brian De Palma.

Enough of accolades. What did Eisenstein do actually?

Eisenstein is popularly known as the father of the montage theory. His contribution stuck there permanently for most film students and filmmakers. However, if we keep in mind that shots (in the sense of changes in point-of-view/subjectivity and a continuous power position) are all about cinema, and montage is merely an understanding of shots, then we can easily see Eisenstein's montage meant everything about cinema, from its conception in mind to its reception (again in minds).

In the early years of the 20th Century, when Pavlov carried out his classical experiements with mice, dogs, monkeys and other primates, the results were in accord with the prevailing world view in the communist Russia. Constructivism, as opposed to Romanticism and naturalism, was already in the air. Hormones were to be discovered soon. Pavlov's explanation of emotions and instincts through reflex arcs were just the thing many practitioners of performing arts needed to train themselves.

Eisenstein's guru,  Vsevolod Meyerhold, came out with a system of stage acting which put reflex and conditioning as the actor's preparation. He named the system bio-mechanics. During his first job at the Moscow Art Theatre, Meyerhold felt the need for a school of acting that would train one to express the inner self - emotions and instincts. He wanted to tap the source of reality, thus producing a reality on stage more powerful that cheap imitation of objective reality.  

He classified five elements - movement, gesture, rhythm, space and music. An actor was to undergo training in these. Meyerhold professed, a director's role was the creation of movements of patterns, lines, shapes and color - different arrangements set to a musical score and a rhythm. Human heartbeat was the basis of the rhythm. Lines, shapes, juxtapositions of geometries and colors were to generate the same mood in the audience which the dramatist has in mind.

In a nutshell, Meyerhold wanted a device to connect the audience directly through emotional elements, relegating the story and reality to just a pretext.

Since 1867, Impressionist painters were trying the same in painting. Mozart tried the same in music a hundred years ago. 

In a way, this has been the holy grail for creative expression since ages. If two, or more, minds can be connected at the elemental emotional level, the ecstasy they can sense would be more powerful than hundred sexual orgasms. That has been the goal for any artist anywhere in the world, through the human history.

You see, Meyerhold hit the crux of the matter. Apparently it was mechanical. He called it bio-mechanics. But, this mechanism was organic at another level. His actors trained totally with their body - movements and gestures in rhythm set to situations, set to musical scores. Each and every movement were so finely defined from static energy, recoil, stay and finish. They were exactly like an oriental martial artist's movements, or a Russian ballet dancer's movements. 

In the first days of practice, they were mechanical. But, with living through the movements they became the actor himself - they became spontaneous. It was exactly like learning to sing, or even better, learning to talk. They became natural!

This extremely rigorous practice was necessary to create the base. The actor changed through the process. She became an artist. She became a creator whose material was her own body.

A given character in a given mental and physical situation in the context of a story - the play - was no more of a challenge to the actor at the acting level. Just like life itself, the actor could focus on the philosophy of the performance.

And the newly found Soviet Russia was a lot about philosophy.

The artist was a creator in this society. But, his creation was not an individual accomplishment. It sprang up from the society, and the individual artist's dealings with his circle.

Eisenstein was trained in this school, this gharana.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Ritwik Ghatak

Ritwik Ghatak is our cinematic father. An overused sentence? A cliché? So what? Life itself is the biggest cliché.

Raoul Coutard once remarked, "François (Truffaut) makes films, but Godard makes cinema." That reminds me of Ritwik.

Cinema was never the end for Ritwik. It was the weapon, the tool for his quest. The pen for his expression. He would always say, "I don't love cinema. If there is something better, I'll kick cinema away to embrace the new medium."

Yet, Ritwik loved cinema. Just like me, like many of us, Ritwik feared to declare his love for cinema. 

He loved cinema. Yet, cinema was just a pretext. He loved human beings. He loved this civilization. In his later years, he moved away from the mainstream Marxist practice to find his own roots in the Indian civilization.

Yet, he was a loyal communist until his last breath. He lived and died a communist.

Ritwik was full of contradictions, and inconsistencies, just like this civilization. He had a clear goal, however. He searched for the answer until death. We do not know if he got the answer.

He tried to make the same film, whole life. He came closer with each attempt - Nagarik, Meghe Dhaka Tara to Jukti Takko aar Gappo. Probably, he never met success.

Yet, everybody in the Indian sub-continent owes something to him.

Everyone who has something to do with any visual art, not only cinema. 

And when I feel an inner urge to write about Ritwik finally, at the time of an extreme personal crisis and deep internal struggle, I want to know what I got from his works - how I can use them.

I first came to know about Ritwik from Meghe Dhaka Tara (1959). 

Conventionally reacting, I was bowled over the cheap sentimentality Ritwik had to use in this film for commercial reasons.

At the same time, even though I was in late teens, his powerful female protagonists, an almost obsession for the fertility cult and mother archetype and a quest for the purpose of civilization did not evade my notice.

In my teenage, Ritwik was a name associated with anti-Ray semi-intellectual polemism, communist party, partition and Bengal.

For me, the name had no other association besides Meghe Dhaka Tara.

By the time I was seventeen, I had seen almost all films by Ray multiple times, both on the screen and on TV. These included Ray's documentaries and short films too.

I liked two films most. Pather Panchali and The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha

I never enjoyed his most well-made film - Charulata - with the same passion. That film always felt too designed, lacking spontaneity somewhere. It was good as a text book. It was not magic.

Coming from a middle class family from Calcutta (lower middle class in the standards of any richer State in India), the goal of life was never clear to us. 

Making money was anathema. Serving people was impractical. Clerical job was same as a dog's life. Teaching was considered a noble profession. But, when we saw a teacher was neither respected nor well-off, it was another dog's life to us.

In a nutshell, life was already closed for us when we were in our teens. 

For the few milliion Bengalis of my cusp generation, life itself was a curse. And we learnt this from our parents, our teachers and every neighbor we would meet.

The only escape was flying abroad, or joining the Naxalites. Some of us took to the first; and a few the second. But, that is another story.

In such tumultuous growing years, Ritwik reappeared in my life. As part of the Film Studies subsidiary program, in JU, Kolkata, I watched his other films.

Watching films for free, or for a minimal cost, was never a big issue in Kolkata. 

I rediscovered Ritwik, like many of my peers, in Ajantrik, Komal Gandhar, Subarnarekha, Titas and Jukti Takko aar Gappo , his last release where he played his own apparition.

I watched Nagarik, his first complete film. 

I did not like it. It was stiff, full of theatricality. It was not free from the Cinematic tradition from Barua to Bimal Roy. Had it been released in time, it could not have influenced history the way Pather Panchali did.

Yet, this was the first film where Ritwik began his quest in Cinema. 

The associative sound space, the power position of camera. A break from the Hollywood and German imitations that Tollygunge studios practiced those days. A return to the Eisensteinian approach, coupled with Ritwik's language of theatre.

Ramananda Sengupta, the Cinematographer, still reminisces, Ritwik rarely placed the camera at eye level. It was always Low or high. Sometimes following the Shot-Reverse shot eyeline match, sometimes subverting that. A clear Eisensteinian legacy.

The experiment was half-baked, in Ritwik's own opinion.

Bari theke paliye was never enjoyable as a children's film the way Goopy Gayne was enjoyable. Yet, a different side of Ritwik's face could be seen in this film. A side that is hidden in his other works.

I lost focus in my late teens. I had no meaning in life. Ritwik Ghatak brought the meaning back.

How did that happen?

That is my story with Ritwik.

The story starts before my birth. 1948. A few months after the partition of India. Both my parents' families had to shift to this side. There was fear in the air. My grandfather was attacked.

The marginal! The converted. 

We kept them below the margin. We forced them to accept an Arab religion. It was inevitable. Rabindranath predicted this long back in Durbhaga Desh.

We lost something. Someone else gained. My childhood is inextricably linked to this. My lost focus, impaired education, anger, illusion resulted from this. History shaped me.

Ritwik began here too. At the same cross-points in history. Coming from the same élite North-Bengal brahmin lineage, he was from the same cultural and family tree.

He was much more adventurous than me, however. I only had wishful thinking. But, he ran away from home. Probably because there was an other city in his reality - Kolkata. For me, there was no such destination. I was already in Kolkata. 

He ran away further, to Kanpur. He joined a textile mill, as a child worker. The life of factory workers would not be an imagination for him, in the future. He was one of them.

Family influence brought him to the cultural circles of Kolkata, in his early youth. In the aftermath of army supply in the WWII, famine and blackmarket struck Bengal again.

How many famines were there since the Brits took over? Since the 1769 famine in which two-third population of Bengal died? In Wikipedia, I see the number moderated. But, even there it is clearly mentioned how the big gangetic plain, including the gangetic delta, was depopulated in stretches.

Famiciated population, and the survivors relegated to jungle. Long stretches of Birbhum were depopulated. Bengal did not mean today's Bengal. Much of Bihar, Jharkhand and Odisha was included.

Bankim Chandra wrote a somewhat diluted report of this in Anandamath. And of the aftermath in Debi Choudhurani.

A series of famines followed. Famine would strike Bengal at least thrice in big ways (1873-74, 1896-97, 1899-1900) before the large-scale occurrence in 1943. There were many intermittent small-scale famines in between.

In spite of that, a Bengal renaissance shined in Calcutta, fifty years after the 1769-74 famine. From large-scale and pocket revolutions in other parts of Bengal, I can guess how myopic was the Calcutta based renaissance.

On the immediate background of this exploitation, economic imbalance, multiple histories in the same geographical territory, Ritwik Ghatak joined IPTA and began his search for the answer.

On going through his writings, cinema and theatrical perfomance (I could hear only the audio of Jwala, from an Akashvani program), I sense how his quest formed.

It began before partition. Ritwik was well-read, interested in history and how that affects human expression, when he joined the cultural front of the Marxist Party.

With time, I see, his quest change to an observation - Human civilization and progress are always the result of a series of evictions. Eviction of human property, eviction of tradition, eviction of values.

This is a common sociological approach, almost by putting Darwinian Natural Selection to the history of man.

But, Ritwik could never accept this. In his last two films, he seems to have accepted defeat to the natural Law. But, there is dissonance in that acceptance.

That was his tragedy.

That was my tragedy.

The tragedy in the win of positive economics. Over the normative.

Sometimes, in fact many a time, our obstinacy presents a real danger in the face of our experience (I am not really saying reason.)

From Eisenstein to Shaji S Karun, many filmmakers emphasized the universality of human expression. The debate is at large. All individuals belonging to the same species must react alike when presented the same stimulus. This is the theory.

However, that cannot be totally true. The environmental backdrop for each individual is different. No two human beings can share the same space-time. They are always two different observers.

That difference may not be nominal at times. Yet we communicate.

The differences in communication is popularized by the word ego, by psychologists. Indeed ego is a synonym for personality in Freudian psychology.

Ritwik wanted to see how ego interacts with the cultural memory which Jung located as the universal memory in all human beings. Jung's famous Collective Unconscious.

In personal life, Ritwik was like a Buddhist monk who wanted to know and to give. The few months he was the Vice Principal in FTII, he tried to spark off this wisdom in his students.

That initiated a new wave in Indian cinema which Satyajit Ray questioned. It was the IPTA legacy. Ritwik was never merely a filmmaker. He was a social worker who wanted to see how sociological forces work.

That legacy continued in John Abraham. It continues, in some way, through what is known as the Indian parallel cinema. It continues in the nexus between filmmakers, artists and social activists - people whom the corporates do not like.

But, to me Ritwik will always remain as the father, who showed how to dare outside the norm.

I remember him more today, on the day of Tagore's birth.

We cannot separate Ritwik from Tagore. It was a revelation, just like Tagore's revelation on the Sudder Street Verandah, to see Ritwik's approach to the same wonder.

I had never felt Tagore's songs were so power-packed.

I never felt the same wonder eversince.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Lighting Part 2

Lighting design for motion picture can be controlled by controlling just five factors.

They are

(1)            Direction/Angle/Position from where light is coming
(2)            Intensity/Brightness of light
(3)            Color – is the light White, blue or yellowish?
(4)            Quality of the shadow – hard, cut out or soft, fuzzy?

(5)            Texture of light – is it continuous, drab or patchy?

Below are given some representations of each.

                           Light coming from different directions

    Light coming from the same Direction
    But of different Color

Light on the character’s face changes in Intensity. Notice that the Background light is unchanged

Light coming from the same direction and of the same intensity. But it creates Hard and Soft shadows. Light glitters differently on the Appy bottle, giving it a different look. That is part of the light’s texture.

Out of these five factors, the texture of the light is the most difficult to describe in words, and even the most difficult to visualize. This is why text books on lighting avoid this.

Direction/Angle/Position of light

The whole structure looks like half a wall clock. The five light positions are the basic positions around the face.

First time photographers, almost always, place the light next to the camera.
If a single light is available, that common sense choice is actually the ultimate wrong choice.

Light travels in straight line. And lighting design is for producing pleasant contrast between the grounds (Fore, Middle and the Backgrounds) for the story.

To produce contrast, separate lights are needed for separate grounds.

When light is next to camera, at 6:00 position of the clock, no contrast can be produced. The same light would fall on both the human face and the background.

Gerald Millerson, in Lighting for Television & Film, has described this in great detail.

At 7:30 position of the light, the face would get a pleasant modelling. On the frame left, the human face would be lit up. 

On the dark side of the face, there would be a patch of light, Depending on the height of the light, that patch would be above or under the eye.

When light comes from the left side of the frame, and such a patch is created under the eye, on the dark side of the face, it is known as Rembrandt light.

The 17th Century Dutch painter Rembrandt created such light patches in darkness to build up a Classical style of human portrait.

When in confusion, it is wise to set the character light to 7:30 position (or its opposite 4:30). This direction of lighting seems to be natural for almost all types of moods.

The next basic position of the light is 9:00. When light comes from that direction, it divides the face into lit up and fully dark.

A character in confusion, indecision or dilemma may be lit up like this.
So may be a character caught up between good and evil, or life and death.

Light position from 6:00 to 9:00, which are near camera positions, are known as the downstage positions. Specifically 7:30 – 6:00 – 4:30 are known as the downstage ranges.

These positions do not create too much contrast.

On the other hand, upstage lighting creates a lot of contrast. Hence, for very typical night scenes, or very dark mood, upstage lighting is preferred.

When light comes from 10:30 position, it automatically looks like night. Many people see the white light as blue, when light comes from this direction. That is an illusion. But, that happens.

This position of light is known as Kicker. When the Kicker is more like a rim, specially on long lean faces, it is known like a Rimlight.

Going more upstage, from 10:30 to 11:00, or 11:30, makes the Kicker more Rimlight for the same face.

When the light is directly behind the character’s face, the character hides the light from the camera. This happens at 12:00 position.

The character is presented as an outline in the darkness, for this light position.

If the light is taken to a height above the character’s head, it produces a halo around the face.

This light is known as backlight, to painters and photographers.

D W Griffith’s Cameraman Billy Bitzer started using this light for Lilian Gish. 

Slowly everyone took to this light, for giving a glamor look to the hero, or heroine. At the same time, this helped in separating the character from the background.

Things are pretty same on the other side of the clock. 7:30’s opposite look is produced by 4:30. Similarly, 3:00 divides the face into halves just like 9:00; and 1:30 produces a Kicker effect like 10:30.

Position of the light is the most important memory for a photographer. It is easy to identify the position of the character light in any other photographer’s, or painter’s, work.

Once a photographer knows the emotion or mood produced by a certain light position, s/he can make a note of it. Such notes or diagrams come very handy in reproducing any light situation very quickly, and precisely.

A Director of Photography may create such lighting diagrams scene by scene. S/he then hands them over to the gaffer and the assistant.

They can light up perfectly using the diagrams as a kind of notation, in the DP’s absence.

That makes work easy and much quicker.

Half light modified. Note both the eyes are visible.

(To be Continued)