Johnny Gaddaar train sequence
In the age of ‘Gravity’ and ‘Life of Pi’ what I am about to write may sound very simple and old fashioned. More than the technology, what I would like you to read in this article is about the thinking behind achieving the mood of the scene.
Sriram and I had lot of discussions and arguments over this scene during pre production. This was probably the most discussed scene in the film which finally turned out to be one of the most interesting one also.
During the pre-production I had suggested to make a train set instead of shooting in an actual train, Sriram was never convinced about the set and our budget didn’t allow us to plan a massive set. Later we decided to shoot in a real train.
Though it was one of the key scenes in the film, it was written with very few dialogues. I kept thinking about how to give an edgy feeling to the scene.
I started thinking about my lengthy train travels during my student days and later. After a long train travel what stays with you is the movement of the train. Even when you sleep at home, after the journey, you feel the bed is moving as if you are still in the train. I wanted the audience to get that feeling while watching the film, but couldn’t figure out how to get that movement within the frame.
If I put the camera on a tripod in the train, I knew I would not get that movement within the frame because the camera will be moving along with the train in sync and I will not be able to perceive the movement.
During the recce, I was standing next to the vestibule and I could see the movement of the next bogie. It looked scary to me. I could perceive the movement because I was in a different bogie. That means that I needed to separate the camera from the floor of the train. That’s when I started thinking about hanging the camera, which lead me into designing a rig and use bungee ropes to hang the camera so that I can add my own movements to simulate the train movement.
Since the train was traveling at night, the only place where you could see movement was when you see lights passing outside, like a station, small town or street lamps. In the rest of the shoot it didn’t matter whether the train is moving or not, if I could simulate the train movement with my rig. I could control the movement depending upon the lens and frame elements like foreground etc.
My assistants Ramani, Rajesh, Vikram,key grip Bhaskar and I set out to make this rig. I had measured the width of the train corridor during my recce. I made a design of two ‘A’ frames connected together with a square frame at the bottom and a rod at top. The entire rig was constructed with slotted angles so that I could hook anything anywhere. Then I got Bhaskar to make a cheese plate to lock the camera (Arri435). We hung the cheese plate with bungee ropes. Four hooks at the four corners of the plate helped me to hang the camera at any height. Thin bungee ropes where used to adjust the tension of the main bungees or to balance the level of the camera. These ropes helped me to control the movement of the camera also. This mechanism could be placed anywhere in the train corridor.
I had to make another rig to take shots from inside the cabins. That was made by adding a second plate below the low base with springs of varied tension. This rig made movements similar to the big rig but milder ones.
On the cold night of 5th January 2007 we gathered at Mumbai central station to board our train, which comprised of an engine and four bogies. The train would travel to Vadodara, stay parked during the day there and travel back to Mumbai the next night. We had two nights to shoot the whole scene. By the time we left Mumbai it was 1am. We knew we would not be able to cover too much in the limited time. I decided to shoot all the shots in which we see the exterior through the window first. We had two cameras. I placed one in the engine room from where we could shoot stations approaching. I had told Rajesh, who was operating the second camera to shoot at 6 frames and 12 frames whenever he saw any lit area like stations or townships passing by. They would inform us through the radio about the approaching lit areas and we would quickly set up a shot with a window or door in frame. All the shots were shot with my movements through the rig.
At one point we figured out a way to open the side panel of one of the toilets. Our set department immediately opened the panel and I got an access for the camera into the toilet. The rig was put up outside the toilet with the camera lens peeping into the toilet.
Neil sneaks into the compartment and hides in the toilet. He places the chloroform bottle on a small platform we made below the lens. I wanted the feeling of the train starting from the station. But the train was parked at some station for some regular service train to pass and we didn’t know when we would resume our journey. We had no time to waste. On the rig I moved the camera with a jerk, which looked like the train starting its movement. The camera continued swinging like the train is in motion. By that time we had figured out that we don’t need the train to move to shoot most of our scene.
We couldn’t finish the whole scene in that trip. We managed to get one more night at the yard with one stationary bogie to shoot the rest of the scene. We had learned our tricks and we didn’t require the train to run anymore.
Actually the entire portion where Niel dumps the body outside the train was shot with a stationary train in the yard. I simulated the headlight of the passing train with a 5K on a track. Biju.D and his team who was handling the fx added the passing train later.
Pooja edited the opening of the sequence into an energetic beginning with the footage from second camera. Madhu Apsara and Dwarak Warrior did an outstanding sound design. The scene comes alive into a memorable sequence with all the elements of a thriller.
And figure out which are the shots done in stationary train…. Don’t ask me, I don’t remember.