Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Origin(ator) of SF

After writing few short-stories and screenplays in under-graduation and graduation days, I decided to start filming a small project – but how, I had no idea. Hari Shankar is my college mate who is interested in films and made a few short films. I heard really cool things about his films and his filming style from his friends.

It was the Annual day celebrations of our college in March 2007: It was one of the life-changing days of my life… Hari was making arrangements to screen his short film ‘SERVING HANDS ARE BETTER THAN PRAYING LIPS’ for which he won the second place at IIT (Madras) Saarang Short Film Festival. I was one of the anchors for the celebrations; after I did my part, I came down and sat a little away from the side screen where the short film began to play. How often do you get a chance to see a film which is made by the person whom you see regularly? Not quite.

The short film was for just few minutes. Although it was made only in few hours, I could see various camera angles, depth of characterization, dream-logic, emotion, hear good music and most importantly, it made many think for a while that ‘serving hands are better than praying lips’. I never knew that there is so much hidden talent in Hari; it was something I could not see in most of the recent Indian film-makers.

There is one particular shot – where the young man sees a beggar (whom he had earlier seen in his dream); I particularly liked the way the camera shows only the reaction of the young man and then it pans slowly revealing the beggar whom he saw in his dream, and then it goes back to fully reveal the dream sequence which happens in reality to the young man. I was so much impressed with that shot that at that instant; I decided to work with Hari to make a film.

A snapshot from his short film

After both of us got selected to a Multi National Company through Campus Interviews, I called up Hari and told of my plans of making a movie together. He came down to an ice-cream parlour near my home, Frosty Ice Cream parlour, which is the place where I started many interesting things in my graduation. He told me about how he was inspired by movies, how much passion and liking he has towards making films. His understanding and analysis of movies is far beyond his age… He was like a book of world cinema to me! Even today, I see movies suggested by him and wonder how he could capture the intent of any film’s director at such a young age. From that meeting onwards, he is like a mini Ram Gopal Varma for me!

Even I discussed my stories with Hari; and he liked the originality and imagination that goes into writing them. I briefly narrated him one of my stories (the working title was ‘Eesa Qyun?’ – a horror, suspense drama based on a love story); even he was impressed by the way the story was structured, how the characters were designed, and how the suspense was carried and built all through the story. It was not like the usual horror movies which we generally see these days. Even today, I consider the suspense scenes in that script as the best scenes I have ever written – they are very original and very intriguing. I used shadows and curtains and many delicate materials like heroine’s dupatta, her hair in a very innovative way to drive the suspense in the story. Hari was very very impressed with that story – he could see how well I could make the viewers involve in the story. Anyways, that film (EQ) will be made after many years.

We never had any guides or gurus, we just happened like what we are through self-learning, observation and analysis. Artists are born out of nowhere you know!

Now that we came to know about our latent talents, I put a proposal that we will make two films – one film which will be directed by Hari and written by me, and the other film it will be otherwise. (That idea was inspired by an article in the Hindu Newspaper where I read that Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson are sharing director/producer roles for ‘The Tintin Trilogy’). Hari agreed for that, saying that the first will be directed by me and written by Hari.

He told me four stories; all four of them were very good. I wanted a story which could be told with minimal usage of sets, minimal usage of cranes and dollies for the camera setup; and also, I wanted something which people of our age could relate to. So I chose the story about two friends who share a very special bond, get separated due to unknown reasons, and how they re-unite or not forms the rest of the story. He tentatively titled it as ‘Caste Away’, as it deals with the still prevalent caste biases in colleges and families. I thought it has a strong social message that all men are equal, and which is told through a very simple story of two good friends. In a fraction of second, I said to him that this is going to be my film.

It was actually decided to be a short film (of about 10-15 mins), but as I started visualizing the story, I started getting beautiful ideas and I developed it my own style (with the permission of Hari) and the outline was ready for the film with an estimated running time of about 100 minutes.

From the fundamental story which Hari gave, characters started coming up, events started transpiring; scenes, sequences, and then the final story was ready in my mind – well, about 60% of what you can see now was in my mind by then. Hari came to my home this time and I narrated him the developed story. He initially had doubts whether such a project of large scale can be pulled off or not; I simply said ‘yes, I can do it’. By that time, I had already met Satish Anna and discussed with him about the project. It was quite natural for him to express doubt because I never had any experience in films or film-making, and making a movie out of a complex story structure will be very tough. Rabi Kisku of IIT Madras could make a 75 minute feature film ‘Silicon Jungle’ without much filmmaking experience. If some Indian engineering student could do it, why can’t I do it? That was my gut feeling, which convinced Hari give to give the green signal.

After reading the first draft of the screenplay Hari was very happy with the way it came out. He was convinced that the story was neatly made into a screenplay with more characters, events and situations.

Hari gave advice to me during the development of the film, like how to shoot various actors, locations; how the lighting should be set up; and how the camera should move. I had basic ideas of all those things, still I listened to him patiently and improvised them. Even today, I consult him on how to execute a good idea – after all, he is my first Guru in films whom I could meet in person and take advice or suggestions.

The exterior cricket scene was directed by Hari and co-directed by me. In the above pic, Hari (standing, extreme right) and I are asking some player to move to a different location to be captured by the camera. I think we are thinking in sync during those moments; both of us are in similar positions in the pic J

I actually wanted Hari to direct the church scene where I act in a small role. Due to some problems, the shoot in the church was postponed, and we managed to shoot the cricket scene that afternoon. I particularly wanted Hari to direct the scene where I act – I thought that would be a great idea - a director directing another director! During the actual shooting of the church scene, he was busy with an exam and I had to do the direction myself. I think this will be a wish left from me which should be fulfilled in some of my later works.

After watching the rough cut of the movie, we sat and discussed about the music of the film. In fact it was Hari who referred Guru Prakash’s name to me, and Guru later became the film’s music composer. He said that there is a hidden genius in Guru who can compose tunes just as you like. We decided upon few themes songs (using various instruments), and a few recurring tunes which suit the various emotions in the story. Even after the final cut of the movie was over, he gave me suggestions over where to do the brightness, colour and saturation corrections. I used ideas given by Hari (in almost all departments of film-making) as cues and worked as required.

All in all, he was there all through the development and making of the film. If I was able to convincingly make the film so well, it was all because of the knowledge, guidance, inspiration and enlightenment given by the originator of Special Friend film: Hari Shankar Naidu!


P.S. 1: When Hari and I went to meet Rabi Kisku at his home in Bangalore, Hari went through the collection of movies at Kisku’s TV and started talking about old Hollywood classics and how much they influenced world cinema. Kisku was surprised how he knew all these things without any formal training in films. My personal belief is that Hari is an uncut and unpolished gem; with proper cutting and polishing, he will surely reach great heights in his life! He is now cutting and polishing his talents to show the world the real gem in him… Watch out for more about him in the future.

P.S. 2: The plans for the second film, as per the proposal, are not yet concrete – but it will be made someday. Our friendly relationship and discussion about movies and movie-making continue even till day. After all, I hope that our combination will stay remarkable in the field we would like to enter in the future.

P.S. 3: I am posting here two of the short films made by Hari few years ago. Mark the sensibility, voice of film, taking, music and visuals captured in the shorts.

Serving Hands are better than Praying Lips

Celebrating Diversity

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Who can bring out the coherent voice of a film? The Editor.

Film editing is part of the post-production process of filmmaking. It involves the selection and combination of shots into sequences, and ultimately creating a finished motion picture. It is an art of storytelling. (from Wikipedia)

Mr. Satish, the editor of the film, is the third person with whom I discussed to make a feature film out of a simple story (Satish happens to be my cousin, hence I call him 'Satish Anna'). I haven’t even planned the outline of the full-story by then. We met in a small ice-cream parlour near my home and I told him about my plans; he gave a word to me that he would provide all assistance I need in the making of the film. After I finished the first draft of the screenplay, about five months after the first meeting, he brought Murthy Garu (who later became the cameraman of the movie) at an open lawn on the Beach Road of Visakhapatnam. I showed them the production sheets, which I’ve already prepared giving them a pre-view of how I would schedule the shoot, what locations I need, what properties I need, how many people I require for production, their roles and responsibilities – and to they were surprised at the amount of pre-planning that went into the film even before any production member got involved in the film. Something which they could not found new and exciting…

Then we went to our home and I narrated the entire story both the editor (Satish Anna) and cameraman (Murthy Garu). I found not much change in their expressions while I was narrating the story; there was a sense of feeling that the story isn’t interesting to them, which loomed larger slowly and slowly. After I finished narrating the last sequence of the movie, they told the reason for being so expressionless throughout the narration – it seems they were totally involved in the drama and the depth of characterization that is present in the story written by a hitherto unknown film-maker, and instantly agreed to work with me. I was relieved from tension then, and felt very very happy because I’ve got two very talented people to work for the small film – the editor and the cameraman. Both of them have worked previously for many projects; and more importantly, they are very good friends – so either of them know the other’s working style and can shoot/edit which suits the film (Collaboration personified!).

Quite often Satish Anna used to suggest me not to plan in a large way, because the budget of the film is very less. I honestly followed his suggestions; nevertheless, I could shoot as expansively as required for the shoot within the limited budget – the college seminar, the large serene beach, hill-top (kailashgiri) overlooking the city, bringing in an astronomical telescope from Hyderabad, doing the visual effects for starry-sky scenes.

As we used digital media to shoot the film, and the actors were not-experienced; the cameraman and I decided to shoot as many takes as possible, and in various camera angles to bring out professionalism in the footage. So, we shot very very extensively. Well, well, well, it was good that we shot extensively in 30 days; but when it came to the editing table – I was in a fix, there is so much footage; how do I put it together?

I sat with the editor, and copied all ‘OK’ and nearly ‘OK takes’ from tape to the computer system. This was done in parts, according to the sequences in the movie. For the first few days, Satish Anna used to follow the script and put all the ‘OK’ takes – cut them wherever required – and edit the scene very neatly. I had thought that if we worked at that pace, it is going to take too much time to edit the entire film. I learnt a little about editing, and decided to work as Raw-Editor; I used to see all the captured footage; make graphical notes on the screenplay; see, see and see the takes again, again and again – until I could get a clear, coherent picture of what could be the best shots which could be put together and from which frame to which frame… and prepare raw-editing notes to Satish Anna, and with those notes he was able to work faster than before… It worked so well that I came to know of many faults which a director should not do while shooting.

I was very surprised at the way Satish Anna used to quickly identify the mistake in a particular shot; immediately find an alternative good shot (in same or different angle); and rectify it. It was very much surprising that the problem gets fixed even before I realize what the problem is!!! His hands work on the computer keyboard so fast like a tabla wizard, whose consciousness and fingers create thousands of musical emotions in just few seconds. [By the way, Satish Anna knows how to play piano as well; multi-talented, you see J ]

He used to suggest me how better some important scenes can be shot, how a different angle could increase interest in the audience, and many many many things which improved my knowledge on shot division and taking skills. Working with him gave me tons of wisdom and guts that, yes; I can turn myself to be a good film-maker.

How to judge if a film is well-edited? You go to a cinema, and see the visual movie (I am not telling about the emotional impact of the movie; it is just the visuals) very comfortably… then it’s edited well, with not much confusion. Film editing is often referred to as the "invisible art" because when it is well-practiced, the viewer can become so engaged that he or she is not even aware of the editor's work (from Wikipedia). And SF provides you very good editing.

Satish Anna (right) while we were preparing for a night-shoot of pre-climax scene. He is a strong technical asset of the film.

The cuts, the dissolves, the fades, the jump-cuts, the legends, the flashes… all were meticulously done by the editor to match the imagination of the director and the essence of the plot/screenplay to help tell the story to the audience. Satish Anna understood the concept of the story very well, applied it to putting the shots together into sequences, and then into the final cut-movie. At the end, I could see the final coherent voice of the film; not just the way I had in my imagination when I finalized the shooting script; it was much much much better and clearer. Had the editing not been so very aptly done, we could not have achieved the enhanced real feel of the movie.

Even the title designing (which was later improvised by the visual effects people in Hyderabad), with the stars shining from the words ‘Special Friend’ which was used in the mini-trailers, was considered awesome by everyone who watched them.

I cannot describe editing in the form of pictures; you have to see while watching the movie. Those set of shots are some of my favourites in the film; there is three-quarter angling to the actors, which is heightened by the gate, and the camera is inside Akash’s house. According to story, Deepak comes to meet his long-lost friend Akash where he meets Pradeep. There is a sense of mystery of why Akash left Deepak many years ago. The camera placement inside the house and the discussion between the actors going outside the gate concealing conveys the inner story – a metaphor for separation and mystique. You can understand it in detail when you see the complete scene. There are many things in the movie which ‘concealing convey’ the inner story. That can be published in a different article after the movie is watched by the public.