You’re an independent filmmaker. With some sort of a vision, but not the resources. What is that one thing every ‘arrived’ filmmaker will tell you?
“If you want to make a film, just go out and make it. Today you can shoot a film on your mobile phone!”
Yes, that’s true, feature films are being made on the iPhone. And we can all agree that if the story and the actors and their performances look good (as they were in many of the black and white films which we still watch), the film looks good. In fact, great acting can compensate for every other shortcoming of a film; it would still be worth the watch. (The reason I’m not saying great story + great acting is because great acting is not possible without a great story.)
My unique problem was that my two lead actors were two porcelain figurines. But my real problem was that I actually did not have much resources.
So I didn’t really have an option but to look at my iPhone and decide to shoot with it. And I’m glad that technological democratisation has come this far, at least it is allowing someone like me to tell a story.
I also realized that I’d have to shoot the indoor parts in my own house, because that’s the only location where I can just park myself and wait for the right kind of rain.
My equipment, my location, my actors; it was quite clear to me that I’d have to shoot this film myself as well. I have a decent visual sense but I still had to learn how to use the equipment – the iPhone, the videogrpahy app and the lenses.
So for the next few days, I took a sleeping bag and went inside the Internet. I knew everything that there was to know about iPhone videography. I can safely tell you that there is a lot one can do if you think of it as a phone camera. But there’s a lot you can’t do if you think of it as a movie camera. If one keeps the shots simple, it’s manageable.
Unfortunately I was shooting a dialogueless, completely visual love story starring a Salt Shaker and a Pepper Shaker. This kind of a visual narrative demands aesthetically high-quality imaging.
The iPhone camera had a huge limitation for this particular project – the main subject matter was porcelain, no matter which lens I used, there would be a focus issue when I get closer to the subject. Unless, of course, I get really close with a macro lens.
Sometimes slightly-out-of-focus looks nice and aesthetic with the colours softly bleeding into each other just a bit. But this wasn’t one of those.
I’ve tried to work around this problem but I don’t think I fully succeeded. There are bits which could have been better had I been more trained. But I’m happy about the few times when I turned this focus-problem on its head by going completely off focus in key moments and making it add to the drama of the shot.
What I lacked in knowledge, I tried to compensate with hard work. I’ve shot this film over 3 months. And I shot every day. Each day, trying to be better than yesterday.
It’s quite difficult for the same person to be the director as well as the cinematographer. Because you can either focus on the communication of the shot or the aesthetics of it. How do you split one mind into two different thinking channels, at the same time?
As a director I was already dealing with the limitation of my actors’ expressions – they just had just one. Happy, sad, angry, melancholic, romantic, excited – same expression.
These were porcelain figurines. And I was attempting a live action film. No VFX. No tricks.
(That’s why now I realise that as a cinematographer I must have done a sub-optimal job. And that’s why cinema is best made with creative collaboration – it’s definitely about the exact professional skill set another talented person brings to the table, but it is also one more intelligent mind as a sounding board; one person cannot see all of it while making. Or at least I can’t.)
While doing the test shots, I realized that it may not be a bad idea to shoot the indoor shots in my apartment, with the way things are. This automatically made me realise that I cannot collaborate with another Production Designer. And that meant that I’d have to be the Production Designer myself, and source everything else that were to be needed, myself.
I’m not a big fan of shopping. But I managed.
I also found the perfect outdoor locations – the best greens that beautiful Mumbai monsoon had to offer.
This being a love story that I was shooting in the monsoon, inspired by the rains in Goa, I had incorporated Rain as a character in the screenplay (Rain has a big role to play in the narrative). And I didn’t have the luxury of controlled environment and equipment. I had to shoot with natural rain, whenever it happened.
Most parts of this shooting was actually about waiting. Just for the right kind of rain, at the right times. There was a time when there were 10 days of heavy night rain and two-minute day drizzles. Just giving me just the time to be hopeful and rush to set up my equipment, only to be let down once ready.
Remember the iPhone camera focus limitations? Sometimes I’d get the best rain-shots and they would look fabolous on phone. But later when I would transfer the files and project them on my TV screen, I’d see focus problems in the foreground or light jumps. (When you’re shooting with an iPhone there’s no focus puller.)
When I was shooting outdoors, in the middle of heavy rain, wearing raincoat and guarding my equipment with an umbrella, I would keep shooting the same thing for hours, again and again. I had no way to check footage quality on a larger screen.
Sometimes I’d make mistakes that I wouldn’t notice on the phone screen. Like Exposure Control. And I wouldn’t be able to use those shots.
I’m not dramatizing when I say this, the shots I got were quite literally what God allowed me to have.
For my part, I just showed up. I was always on standby mode.
Between July and October I was continuously shooting, plugging in my iPhone, checking what I shot, figuring most shots were unusable, finding some good, getting greedy and shooting again.
A month down the line I saw the results and decided to change the Production Design. Reshoot. Again.
The location for the outdoor Rain sequences was 23 kilometres away in Mumbai monsoon traffic. And I could go only during the weekends because that’d be when my friends would be available. I would go every weekend and wait for rain. It wouldn’t rain. Or it wouldn’t rain as much. Or worse, it would rain as much all through the night.
I remember when I got almost all the outdoor rain sequence shots as per my shoot plan, i realised that I needed a filler shot. And I had to travel for 2 weeks for that one 5 second shot because of rain-continuity. I needed puddles. And the area where I was shooting, is next to the forest. The ground soaks up the water very fast. Puddles would only happen after hours of rain. I had to go up and down and wait for 2 weeks to just match the puddle.
Along with the shooting was the editing – I needed to know what my shots meant in the construct of the narrative. And it’s not about ‘it’s working’. When you’re shooting a film with a camera that’s not a film camera in a location that’s not the world’s best and with two actors who look exactly the same stoic self in each shot, you can’t go with ‘it’s working’. You have to go the distance and reach ‘looks beautiful’ in each shot, unless, of course, the shot/sequence demands a mundane approach.
So now I also applied for the post of the editor. I taught myself FCP X and I really had fun stitching the pieces together. That moment when you’re playing with the shots and something is coming to shape, that’s just priceless for any filmmaker.
Encore is a love story, but it’s also quite spiritual in its texture. So the music needed to capture this. In fact, the music needed to be the life of this wordless narrative. Fortunately I found an excellent duo to do the music. They are spiritual and they are also highly technical, they play with their sound and they have already arrived. Without a doubt I can tell you that R&A are going to go places with their sound. While everyone has ProTools, they have something special – a Divinity Encoder.
I owe them a serious debt of gratitude.
After a moody-monsoon grading and sound mix when I did the onlne and titles I saw the entire thing coming together, just quite the way I had imagined. Whoever saw the film in the studios connected with the figurines and cared for them.
I am really happy to tell you that I’ve been able to make two inanimate porcelain figurines come to life through cinema.
It’s called Encore. It’s an example of D.I.Y. Filmmaking.
And it looks like this: