Cinematography is the simplest of all languages- Interview with Cinematographer Ramji

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Once upon a time, there was a master. He is still a master to many but not everyone gets an opportunity to work alongside him. There was a boy who luckily got a chance to receive his mentorship. He had neither a portfolio nor proper study to back him. But the master saw something in him and readily absorbed him in his school of thought. P.C Sreeram being the master and his mentee being Ramji.

Ramji is certainly not the usual DOP you would find elsewhere. In today’s competitive scenario, when it is mandatory for an artist to do one film in every six months, so as to keep their faces intact in the audience minds, here was a man who DOPs films hardly once in two years, or three years, But when he does, he does it with style, with such audacity and authenticity that people can’t forget him.

Student Filmer is proud to bring out an exclusive interview with the cinematographer of many landmark films like Aayirathil Oruvan, Parutheeveeran, Ram, Irandam Ulagam and the recent blockbuster Thani Oruvan. Ramji was equally excited to share his childhood, his days with his master, his philosophy, technique and his approach towards the art.

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The Master and his Mentee – the upbringing

I had 17 years of basketball, but one day I decided to quit the game for that one factor which stood against my nature. There is huge partiality in the game and I just couldn’t tolerate it. I am a rather straightforward person, and I thought basketball won’t workout for my life. During those times I used to watch a lot of cinema but never thought about getting behind the camera and working towards making one. It all happened that one fine day with a suggestion from my friend and an initial bit of hesitation. I should say I was very lucky to meet P.C Sir. I told him that I had not come to make drastic changes but would rather stay, learn the nuances and techniques and do some meaningful work in photography. He readily accepted this offer of mine and soon I was behind the camera, working under P.C Sir. I realised that I was learning little. I couldn’t understand the technical side of creativity. It was so tough to comprehend his approach to work. One day I called KV. Anand and told him that I would quit. He looked at me and said, “Look, there are hundred who are dying to get this opportunity to work under Sir. Since, you have got it with ease, you don’t understand the worth of this opportunity.” Soon the other assistants Anand, Jeeva, Prabhu, and Thiru decided to help me brush up my concepts and strengthen my basics.

Two incidents were really memorable for me. Once P.C Sir called me and inquired about the recent movies that I had watched and soon I was talking about things I found interesting and he patiently listened to what I said and then towards the end he asked me to go to the corner of the street, to a tea shop and told me to observe the lights that fall on the people and the place. I rushed to the platform, sat around and started observing. I saw the light that fell on the face of the tea vendor, and lights that rushed and sat on the sleeping rickshawwala. This observation helped me a great deal in my career later. I would listen to what the directors said about their story, would listen to how they said it and intuitively, I would get a feeling of how the whole movie is about to be. I would come to my house and would think in detail about how the narrative would actually be realized.

Another memorable incident was when Sir told me that Devar Magan would be my last film under his mentorship and that I should approach things on my own. I still was lacking in experience. When i told him this, he was insistent and believed that I was equipped enough to go out and explore.

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As long as the image is good for the eyes, it is well and good. Screen is not a place to exhibit your talent.

Cinematography is the simplest of all languages – My philosophy

As long as you are an outsider, the affair would seem complicated but once you are drawn into the world of cinematography, you try to appreciate its essence and would understand the simplicity in it. My master used to say, “As long as the image is good for the eyes, it is well and good. Screen is not a place to exhibit your talent. It is a place where the audience should receive convincing images. Learn to break the rules that you find in the book.” He emphasised a lot on backlight and used just one thermocol as key and fill. He would place the subject in the dark and light the vessel in the background. People liked it. If you ask them, they would not be able to explain what PC sir did behind the screen but they would still clap for it. That is cinematography for you.

A language with absolutely no barriers.

Being flexible comes only with experience I see youngsters trying to make short films and get into the big league. I see nothing wrong in that, but working under someone would give you the ability to play with your creativity as per the budget demands. I could work in a Vijay Film, say of around 70 crores, spend lavishly on lights, and at the same time, I could also get along working in a Malayalam film of 2 crores. When you don’t have a solid understanding in terms of handling the unit, the script, the director and the artist, there is a lot of chance you would stumble in the middle.

Film camera would bridge the distance between the viewer and the screen. Digital is foreign. I would not say that since there have been significant advancements in digital space. But still the relationship between the cameraman and the film corresponds to that of a mother-son relationship. From whatever films I have worked in, the scripts which I was approached with, there was lot of scope for natural light and my belief is that artificial cinematic lighting would increase the distance between the screen and the audience. I would not have got the accolades for Paruthiveeran, if I would have done it in digital. Even in Irandam Ulagam, I try to play with serial lights to show the unreal world. In digital camera, at those times, you did not find that detail and depth and hence the edges would burn and you try to cover it up. All this naturally hampered creativity. But in film, there is a lot of scope to play with shadows and blacks and you have the latitude to experiment and all these would help place the viewer close to the screen and the film. But I think that is a transitional period. Just like people were immersed in Ilayaraja’s classics and then Deva came with his gaana followed by a disruption in the form of A. R. Rahman and now, there is this new genre called kuthu paatu. People have already adapted to digital cinema.

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I did not want to light the artist even if it was Nayanthara, and I went around playing with silhouettes and semi-silhouettes.

Thani Oruvan – a period of change

Yes, there was pressure from media and public that I should come out of my comfort zone and start working in commercial films. I thought that I should not be tagged under a genre so I decided to go for Raja’s Thani Oruvan. Initially I assumed that this would be a family drama sort of script but when I listened to the narration, I realized the scope in it. I suggested to Raja, that this would mark a real change for both of us. Unlike the wide shots that you find in his previous films, Thani Oruvan had close-ups and would not have frames with more than six or seven characters inside. Raja was a bit hesitant. I also experimented with half lights and convinced Raja that it would give the required feel. It was a great experience.

Four challenges- Ramji’s supreme technique in action

I would like to talk about the four challenges that really challenged the cinematographer in me. One was during the shooting of Ram. The opening shot of the film was 3 minutes and 20 seconds. The shot was the introduction of the protagoist and pyscho in the film. We had shot it in a hill station. I was very particular with the timing and the shoot went for around 3 days. There were a lot of obstacles. The rain dampened the set, and only on the third night, we got the one we wanted and I was satisfied in the end.

Paruthiveeran was happening in a hot village. You need to convey that heat to your audience. How would you do it? Karthi, the hero would get ready for the shot and his face would be well lit.Being the hero in a crude hot village, his eyes were supposed to reflect the same and one way of making that happen was to make your eyes naturally shrink. I placed a reflector to hamper his vision and his eyes shrank, just the way we wanted. The director was a bit hesitant but the experiment was fruitful.

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On the Sets of Ayirathil Oruvan

The second half of Aayirathil Oruvan was mostly shot in a cave. The set was open at the top and people were painted in black. I decided to go a night for day format. The shoot was happening continuously at a stretch for about 90 days. General theory would suggest that if an artist is 4 to 5 feet, you should keep the light at an altitude of 5 and a 1/2 feet. But my rationale was that in a cave, there is only one light source, from the top, barring the fire source on the ground. Hence, we decided to place the light source at a height of 40 feet. There was initial reluctance. The subjects were black, the background was black, the shoot was during the night and it was exciting during the shoot. Eventually, it all went well and our efforts were spoken of and applauded.

In Thani Oruvan, for the song with Nayanthara and Ravi, I decided to go digital but opted for a reverse treatment of the artists. I could have brightly lit the artist as anyone would expect but again, I wanted to engage blacks. I did not want to light the artist even if it was nayanthara, and I went around playing with silhouettes and semi-silhouettes.

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Kill the lethargy – broaden your outlook

I should say our industry is in good hands. A lot of talent continues to emerge, fresh with perspectives and approach and I believe in due course of time, we would be able to cross borders, not just with our films but also with our artists and technicians. But there is one concern that continues to bother me. Today’s technicians are keen on making a film, shooting a film in 6 months time and go for the next. Let’s say, after 6 years, when people watch your stuff, they should be able to appreciate it. Also let me quote this, CG is a bit overrated now. Scripts are written with CG kept in mind. Gone are the days when CG was employed to do stuff what normal photography cannot do. These days, if you did not do something right, it is taken care of later. That’s not healthy. That will not create quality output in the long run.
Technical specifications

I used Arri Alexa 435 extreme in Thani Oruvan, ultra-prime lenses, went for Kodak vision 3 50D as against 250 D in outdoors for superior contrast and black levels.

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