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Rafey Mehmood - “Ankhon Dekhi multiplex screens makes me unhappy”

Cinema Projections belies high level of cinematography in India.

“We need a game-changer”: An interview with unconventional cinematographer of Bollywood – Rafey Mahmood, the cinematographer of Ankhon Dekhi, reveals that for now the industry really needs to focus on cinema projection rather than image capture. He recently experienced Cannon’s C-700 declaring this towline model worthy of serious attention.

Recently there was a Canon camera trial launch in the city of their latest Digital Cinema camera – the C700. Can you throw in some lights about the event?

The trial was conducted by me and Mr. Piyush Shah, a senior DOP of this industry along with 6-8 young, and promising cinematographers. The test was done over a days time and was more like an objective comparative study. I decided to go for a camera which I was very familiar with( for the parameters of judgment )– the ARRI Alexa. Also, Alexa, I would say, is more like a default camera of this industry – a safe bet!

Results produced by the C700 were surprisingly good – almost all the features were pretty close to the ARRI Alexa. I don’t think I would be mistaken if I dare to conclude that this camera has the potential to be used as a mainstream ‘A’ camera for Bollywood movies. One of the biggest advantages of this camera is that it can be used with Canon cine lenses which opens up a whole new range of options for DOPs to work with and experiment more. Also, a combination of this camera plus Canon Cine lenses gives you another budget and technical package which can be a very viable B segment. These Canon Cine lenses are really good, plus you can add other still camera Canon lenses to have a great range of optical options. But for our comparative test we used a double set of Master Primes because Alexa doesn’t take the EF mount and we wanted to create a material to be shared with known variables. Actually the Test is more like an educational resource where we have tried to be as objective as possible.

What, according to you would be the hot favorite trend-setting cameras of the industry right now?

The cameras which are currently trending would be ARRI Alexa and to some extent RED I would say. The introduction of Helium technology in the RED cameras seems to be working out– though Alexa I still think kind of monopolises the market in Bombay.

Why do you think ARRI has this kind of monopoly over this industry?

There's a safety net with ARRI. You are assured that what you will have a high technical competence. Secondly, ease of usage. These 2 factors are very important – quality assurance and ease of functionality of the technicalities. Thirdly, a very important factor is that the camera doesn’t keep changing their system. Everything has a slow incremental change. The sensor has remained the same for the last 6-7 years so it is a stable platform. It is also a very simple piece of equipment to use. You are dealing with so many things you don’t want to concentrate on things which are very technical with the camera itself. But then, that’s entirely subjective – every DOP has their own style or way of working.

Red is more extensive with their interfaces and allows you to explore with the equipment to a greater extent while ARRI is simple and reliable. Since many of us are trained on film background, ARRI being the common link has eased the process. It’s also what the market is driven by. If you have 30 ARRIs and 2 Sonys, it will always be easier for you to hire and negotiate for an Alexa. ARRI is well spread out with the vendors - not only with cameras but also with the camera attendants. And at the end of the day, what is selling will sell more.

What would be your personal favorite camera?

Would say ARRI Alexa for all the reasons stated above. The image created is very beautiful and that would be the primary reason for preference. One may add that it’s the most expensive option. I believe they are in the drivers’ seat right now and can command the price. The ease of use, quality assurance and reliability factor might justify the price.

People also like ARRI Alexa for its organic feel. You see, the moment we had moved out of films, images became very hard and attained a certain plasticity. Though it's difficult for audience to discern these differences, to a practitioner the difference may appear huge. ARRI Alexa has made images look organic by giving a relatively textured image and a smooth roll off from highlights to shadows which is closer to the film look. We humans like seeing slight changes in colour and gradation. Plasticity in a way means reduction. To hold a good image the camera needs to hold together subtle and sometimes vast differences together.

Can C700 be a game-changer Camera at this point of time?

An important feature of C700 which can turn in its favor is that it can run up to 200 frames per second (though it loses something there.) Also, it comes at a lesser price than ARRI Alexa SXT. C700 with its compatible Cine lenses give you a lesser budget package option. The fact that Canon is giving an assured quality but at a lesser price can be a real big game changer.

Another model of C700 comes with a global shutter. Global Shutter takes out the motion artifacts. If you capture a fast moving object of a loose shape in cameras which have the rolling shutter, things tend to lose their shape. This can be avoided by using cameras with global shutter. See, I trust Canon like I trust ARRI. I like their interface, I like what they have given in the menus and viewfinders - things which assist the DOP to make good exposures. It is easy to use and I am kind of familiar with it. In fact, I use Canon C300 as a B Camera for my features.

What would be the biggest challenge the cinematography in India is currently facing?

I think we are making great strides in Cinematographic work. Currently, the biggest challenge to my mind is that we are not concentrating on standardising the display systems - we can have very poor cinema display systems amidst some good ones. It’s not only about what we have installed in the theatres but also how it's maintained. People are going to such expensive theatres but they can end up seeing very poor quality images ‘coz there are no reliable systems for quality check. The producers and directors are spending such grand amounts of money and effort in making a good image but the point at which it is delivered can be disappointing. It’s a massive loss. The ‘Wow’ factor of screens have reduced significantly. On the other hand, the phones, TV screens, laptop screens – their displays are so bright and colorful, and the images are so good-looking that people tend to choose then over dull theatre screens as unconscious preferences. As a part of Cinematographers Combine, I have been involved a lot in checking cinema projections and I have come to the conclusion that it is not allowing the DOPs and directors to express with images which are truly visual in nature. As a result, we are still dependant on people who are performing and people who are performing in bright light. We have a limitation in taking long shots, shooting deeply dark images or nuanced images and so we depend on doing brightly lit faces. We are forced to make safe choices to adjust to this lack of implementing SMPTE Projection standards on our Theatre chains. The audience needs a certain minimum brightness to fire the brain neurons and set in the feel good factor!

This, I feel is a serious limiting factor to the growth of cinema as a story telling medium. In the long run it is bad business as well- the audience doesn’t know what is turning them away. Though the Projection light has been a chronic issue yet any Cinema image had a magnetic pull a decade back, but now the shine is dulled relative to other screens. Theatres have to raise the bar on daily technical checks to retain Cinema’s place as premium entertainment avenue for people.

What comes to your mind before selecting a camera for a specific project?

Honestly, I don’t go by brands but specific cameras. I like to have options and play around with cameras – move out of my comfort zone and experiment a bit! That’s one of the reasons why I am very interested in Canon or for that matter any other new camera. Though I like ARRI , as a creative person, I want more options. Arri is a reliable tool for me yet it's such a known image - everybody is using ARRI and I have used ARRI for so long. It's like a known palette now. So I want something to be introduced which throws at us something which is new. I believe we should never stop to create new images. As much as reliability is a strong point, giving us new options is also essential.

I was hoping that C700 would open up a new pathway to me. Though it’s slightly different but honestly, it has not given me a new image. So what I am waiting is for something which gives me a new image and still has a wow factor. When ARRI Alexa came, it was a new image with a wow factor. So a lot of people transited from film to digital. Images of the RED camera also have an X-factor. Now Sony has also announced a new camera and its trailer looks stunning. At this point of time, we are in dire need of something which will change the whole ball game!