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Shooting a Period Film on Tighter Budgets, This Man has answers!

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The number of period films getting released in Hollywood lately has been escalating. The partial reason behind this phenomenon is the plausibility in effective usage of Visual effects to recreate past environments. The boon of green-screens and advanced vfx technologies has not only solved production difficulties but also enhanced the look of the period films by giving more detail and visceral appeal. However, irrespective of the production choice of adhering to sets or greenscreens or even a hybrid approach, the financial cost involved in bringing history alive through films is always huge. Recently an aspiring director approached ‘Student Filmer’ and shared his experiences and observations on how difficult and challenging it is to make a period film in the contemporary Tamil film Industry. Starting from the scratch it demands a lot of research and pre-visualizations. From storyboarding to location hunting and production designing, the making of a period film is exhausting work. These impediments in making a period movie put us to thinking.

What are the wise strategies followed while shooting a period film to cut down on the cost?

Contemporary Tamil film Industry might not be a big fan of period movies. The last two period films that got released – Aravaan and Paradesi were both not performing well at the box office and received mixed reviews from the critics. However, the meticulous making of those films with a restrained budget does involve huge work that went unnoticed. Since the most striking aspect of a period film is the look of the film, we set out to unlock some production stories from Mr.Siddharth Ramaswamy , The man behind the unmistakable cinematography of ‘Aravaan’.

sidd ramasamy

Cinematographer Siddharth Ramaswamy

Mr.Ramswamy had previously worked on some remarkable films such as ‘Yaradi Nee mohini’ and ‘Nala thamayanthi’. Mr.Siddharth shared with us his experiences and perspectives on various streams. We started off with inquiring about the pre-production aspect before shooting ‘Aravaan’. He recollected how they went about the project intuitively. “We shot the film in digital. It was the start of the digital phase in Tamil Cinema. For, period films every Cinematographer would like to go for the ‘Film look’. But, we shot it on RED.” The reason for going digital was flexibility, he explained.“We could shoot a little more and also save some production cost. We also had some shots planned in CGI, so using the digital platform has a certain level of leniency” The project was the first period film for the director as well as the Cinematographer. They decided to do it in an explore-and-innovate strategy rather than sticking to a perfectly charted plan. One of the biggest challenges for the crew was to find the ideal locations. The location scouting for the period film was focused on spotting rural landscapes with no electric poles or cables or any other hint of modernity. It almost took them 6 months before they finalized on some locations in Andhra, Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

The movie, based on the award winning book ‘Kaaval Kottam’ was a chronicle of tribal thieves in 18th century. The Cinematographer revealed that they initially wanted to shoot the film on allocation in Madhya Pradesh for getting the barren look. But due to budget constraints they resolved to settle in for shooting in the outskirts of Madurai. When we queried the cinematographer to tell us about the challenges he had faced while shooting, he replied that there have been two films in his career that challenged him the most. “But without those films, I’m not what I am today” He quickly added. The first film was ‘Mumbai Express’, the first commercial movie to be shot using a Digital Camera in India. “I was working with Kamal Hassan Sir and I was 26 at that time. The Digital format was unknown to anyone in the Industry at that time” The digital Color grading and the digital projection proved to be challenging for the crew. The cinematographer recalled how they couldn’t achieve perfection at ‘Mumbai Express’ .Yet he affirmed that the film gave him such a good grounding on cinematography and the digital format. “Now, the entire film Industry is Digitalized. ‘Mumbai Industry’ was the starting point, and I’m happy to be a part of that”

mumbai express

From the movie Mumbai Express

The second most challenging movie in his carrier he stated was ‘Aravaan’. The production of the film was huge and intense. The cinematographer has shot in the most difficult conditions, without light, without generators, without proper equipment. Contrastingly, there were also times when he had everything conditioned. Shooting in such situations gives you the confidence of shooting with whatever you have, Mr.Siddharth said. On replying to a question of how they compromised and shot the film with a limiting budget, the cinematographer clarified. “The film had no palaces like ‘Bahubali’ and doesn’t talk about Kings or Queens. It was about a Tribe. Fortunately that aspect saved us a lot on financial matters. We needed good, beautiful outdoor landscapes and that was it. But, yeah we cut down on the budget by reducing our spending on Visual effects, reducing the number of our working days and roping in fairly popular artists.” The cinematographer agreed upon that period films tend to go overboard on the budget but told us that it can be brought under control. He illustrated his point by mentioning how the entire war sequence of the magnum-opus period film ‘Bahubali’ was shot only at the Ramoji Film City – the enclosed shooting grounds near Hyderabad using green screens.

arvaan 3

From the movie Aravaan

The cinematographer Mr.Siddharth went on to reminiscence his earliest artistic influence. “When I was studying, Santhosh Sivan shot the movie ‘Iruvar’ on the same Film Institute campus. For three days I just watched and observed the shooting” .He remembered that there wasn’t much grandeur or complicated equipments at the shooting of the film as one might expect. It was at that triggering moment that the cinematographer realized that the role of the cinematographer was to provide a unique look to the film much more than anything else. Mr.Siddharth reflected on the decision to shoot some night sequences in ‘Arvaan’ at day time and color grade the shots into a night temperature.“If I had to light up the whole place, I would have needed at least 20 generators and an extensive set of lights. Keeping in mind the budget we decided to retort by shooting at day and color correcting the shots to a night tone with a bluish tinge”

The discussion also further extended into how certain shots were shot using a fish eye lens to give a panoramic viewpoint to build up the impact. The ultimate experience the cinematographer gained from working on ‘Aravaan’ was full of managing fluctuating uncertainty. There were instances when it would rain suddenly and elephants would demolish sets while shooting in Wild locations. The chaotic production urged the cinematographer to experiment. It came quite surprising to us when he revealed that there was initially a plan to shoot a sequel for the film ‘Aravaan’. The budget limitations confined the director Vasanthabalan to compress the epical story into a single movie. In a conclusive thought, the cinematographer verbalized the magic of cinema “What you show to the audience is what they see and what they believe. It is creating an Illusion” He shared with us the tricks of Cinematography that he had gained through his experiences. Be it using the focus as a tool for attention and guerilla shooting a montage with concealed cameras, it shows the craftiness of the cinematographer, he finally elucidated. The discussion with the inspiring cinematographer left us contemplating the scope of wise and efficient cinematography in visualizing a film. It was when we began seeing certain period films with the eyes of a cinematographer, we marveled at the cleverness.

One such clever trick we noted repeatedly on period films is the judicious use of framing. Low angles are effective at capturing existing historical monuments and heritage sites and incorporate them into the period film’s narrative while also aesthetically depicting their grandness. The modernity of the streets with the traffic and people on the pavements could be entirely cut off from the frame by using the low angle. Let’s suppose that we are set out to shoot a period film set in the British Madras. The low angled shots of historical buildings like the Central Railway Station and other forts and government buildings would definitely prove helpful in bringing naturalness at minimal cost. Other places without the hint of modernity could also be judiciously framed to serve as the realistic canvasses of period movies. Think about the present day Chennai with all its remnants from the Madras era. The colleges built at the British period, the vintage houses of Mylapore and Triplicane , the Government buildings such as the Ripon Building and the unchanged religious places like churches and Temples could all be potential relics for a period filmmaker. It’s not just about the Low angles. If the characters and their movement could be staged in such a way that we could make use of the existing historical places, it is possible to skillfully bring about the time- transcending effect of a period film. Sepia-toning the entire look of the film has been the most cost conservative trick in making period films. The availability of costumes, the exhausting perfection in research and staging of production unit spaces might always pose as problems in the making period films.

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Essential Tips:

1) Finding out Unmodified vintage locations and properties are a boon.
2) Staging and framing is the next key to cut down on cost while upgrading originality when utilizing such locations or expensive sets.
3) Alternatively VFX could smartly replace sets while also being much creatively independent and experimental
4) Finally, when the story itself takes place in a limited and simplified atmosphere with a small set of characters, achieving the perfect period look becomes more plausible.
5) Explore more low budgeted period films to begin getting insights

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