Thursday, June 7, 2012

Digital immigrant - 35mm to 5D

"Ram, will you teach me how to load a 35 mm magazine in the camera?", I asked the camera attendant.

He looked at me. I was a rookie assistant to a cameraman. He didn't pay much attention and continued his work. He was completely justified in doing so. Maybe we do not understand this in today's world of affordable and easy to use digital equipments. But before Y2K hit us, film camera and people dealing with it were treated like the bowl of divine nectar and Gods. Cinematography had its lesser Gods too (technicians handling ARRI 2C, ARRI 3 and 16mm cameras etc.) but to be able to even touch the 35 mm camera (ARRI 435, ARRI 535) was a feat in itself. Anyone who was allowed to peep through the viewfinder was to give a 'beer treat' to the whole crew.

Loading a film roll for the moving camera was like reading Braille and playing Aurifi on iphone at the same time. You had to do it practically blindfolded with a very keen sense of sound for any click-clack. 400 feet of raw film stock rolled in a light-tight two-chambered magazine was to be changed/loaded inside a sealed changing bag. The changing bag has space just enought for the rolls and two glove like extensions from where you operate it. One had to know the inside out of it to do it perfectly. One ray of light in the bag and you could ruin the whole day's shoot footage or the new roll which was almost INR 9,000/- per stock at that time.

Not to forget the Formula 1 pit stop situation just as a loaded film roll was coming to an end while shooting. Spotless communication between the cameraman's assistants would indicate when it was coming to an end to make sure the attendants were in position right next to the camera to take over the used one and hand over a fresh magazine thus wasting no time in reloading. Trying to be extremely efficient while labeling it was the glorious task rookies like me performed by taking pride in knowing the stock codes, emulsion & serial numbers. If it was a multi camera set up or a hi-speed film shoot, we assistants would be in cinematographic heaven.

Ram saying 'no' under these conditions was perfectly all right for me.

We would meet at various shoots when providence made sure that the producer hired the camera from Rao's and my boss Sameer Sabnis as the cameraman for it. Almost one year later, Ram asked me to meet him after lunch on the sets. I went there. He had a small roll of 35 mm stock. A used 'NG' roll. Simply known as 'not good'. Of no use to anyone. He asked me, "Do you want to learn how to load a film magazine"? I felt like I had arrived.

He taught me how to change a roll. First without a changing bag and then in a changing bag. I wasn't officially allowed to change a fresh one but I was glad I got to learn it.

Then came the focus pulling incident. Using a tele lens means constantly pulling focus to keep a sharp image when the subject is moving away from or approaching the camera. More tele, more difficult the focus to pull.

We were shooting a bulls race in a village. The bulls ran the racing distance only 4 times in a day so we had to be perfect and gets all our shot in those 4 takes. It was a multi camera set up.

I was given the job to pull focus on a 600 tele which concentrated only on pin of the axle and wheel of the cart which was to come off sometime during the race. The director walked up to the camera and saw me getting ready for take.

He asked "are you going to pull focus?"
"Yes", said I.
He smiled and asked, "Where are you from?"
Not wanting to give my totally mixed up background, I simply answered, "Lucknow".
"If you don't get this right then I hope you know that you are going back straight to Lucknow and me to Calcutta". Everyone around me laughed while I got even more tensed.

We would not know the result of the shoot until the film was processed, sent in for telecine (film to video transfer for colour correction and editing purposes) and seen on a big monitor. Of course there was a video assist (a VHS output which gives you a rough idea of the shoot) but as everyone said, "Oh it's just the video assist, you can't judge colour or sharpness by it". This was our smart alec reply to all those ad. agency executives who wanted to make their two-bit contribution by commenting on the colours.

God was kind. The whole take was sharp and in focus.

Once you do this, gradually you get adept at measuring distances just by looking at it. You are generally right in your estimate. Feet, inches, centimeters mean nothing but just the travel time your eyes take to cover a distance.

Then came the lighting experience. It was like climbing a ladder one step after the other.

We were shooting Gabbar Mix. A music video. They were a rage - the music videos.

Dino Morea stood atop a rickety plank attached to a wobbly wooden staircase. There were to be some pyrotechnics and it was to blast. Sameer, my boss, asked me to go check the light on Dino and come back. I took the light meter, climbed those swaying stairs, took a reading and came back.

"You took only the key-light reading, I want the fill light too", said Sameer..

I climbed it again. The stairs creaking louder. I took the reading again.

"You got only the fill-light reading, what about back-light?", he reminded gently once I was down. This was his subtle way of teaching me to be thorough on the job.

I climbed those 'ready to crumble' stairs again and came back with a reading. Cursing him in my heart. Why couldn't he just shout from downstairs that he wanted the key, fill and back light readings. I am sure those curses never harmed him because my heart was also blessing him for making me go so close to Dino so many times :)

After that I never took a single reading again. One, two, click click. I always took all the light readings available on location. Sameer told me later that we were the 'new generation' who needed a light-meter to figure out the light readings. Veterans like Ashok Mehta hardly used a meter and could tell the reading by just looking at the light. "Wow", I wondered in amazement at him and his predecessors.

Technical, Focus, Lighting, Camera Operation etc. are various sub-departments of a Camera team. I tried learning it all. But somewhere I failed. I learnt them well singularly but could never assimilate the collective knowledge to feel in command of the subject. I had a good teacher. He taught me well but there is only so much a teacher can do. The general joke going around in film circles it, "Those who cannot excel in one specialized field go and become the directors". I took it as my guiding light and moved towards direction.

16mm shoot in Venice
Electronics were for the those scraping the bottom of the barrel with Hi-8 or DV cameras for home videos. Digital HD was unheard of for most and those who did hear of it, rubbished it saying, "HD is good but can never replace film as it is too sharp, harsh and too detailed for creative aesthetics". Good TV serials and documentaries were shot on film too, before the Beta & Digibeta Cameras hit the market.

We were willing to carry our own bulky cameras, film stock and crew while shooting abroad than hire from there. I remember almost fighting with the German Visa authorities when the visa issuing lady asked why we wanted to take attendants from here and not hire locals for it. She would have never understood the relationship a camera attendant shares with the film camera he doesn't own but just takes care of. It is like his baby.

Then something happened.

A marriage. A marriage of the Giants!

It was as if ARRI/Panavision (rulers of film) married Sony/Panasonic (rulers of the electronic handycam market) and gave birth to a whole range of cameras that now rule the film scene.

Alexa, Red, Viper, Canon 5 D Mark III etc. are the children of this marriage. Never mind the brand names but you know what I mean...right?

film is film is film - even though its days are numbered
I am an immigrant. I moved from film stock to HD. I can never be like the digital natives. I can never disregard the beauty, hard work and charm of the 35 mm. The need of the hour is digital, so I have adapted, but my heart still wants 35mm.

I still want my senses to drive my judgement. Tell light & distance readings by looking at it. Tell when the magazine will end by just hearing its grumble. To sit at huge Telecine machines and try out all crazy 'passes'. Go for a reverse telecine for cinema prints.

Digital immigrant - with the recent buy, 5D Mark III
Every time I think how all this is phasing out slowly, I can see a day it will be all gone. It brings tears to my eyes. Why are digital cameras so easy to use, less bulky, cheaper and have such good low-light compatibility? Why are they so good that they make film look like a cumbersome ancestor? I might have moved on but I still want film to live.

But as Sant Kabir says

Taruvar paat se yo kahe, Suno paat ek baat | 
Ya ghar ki yahi reet hai, Ek aavat ek jaat

For the old to make way for the new is the tradition. To move with times keeps us alive.


  1. You write so well. Chuck the camera, you can do wonders with the pen.

  2. thanks Ashwini :)glad you liked the post.


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