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  • Writer's pictureMuraleedharan CK

Portrait of an artist as a DoP

When I joined the film industry around three decades back, my title was “Cameraman”. A decade later it became ‘Cinematographer’. Then a decade ago it became ‘Director of Photography’. Very often people ask me what’s the difference between these titles. I normally say they are all the same. But I believe there is a reason for this metamorphosis.

Three decades back good camera operation was considered as good cinematography. Few good grey tones would be an added feather in his cap.

As films became colour, he became responsible for the colours and colour scheme.

Once the scenario changed from analogue to digital, colours became more and more complicated. It's not just the adjustments of Red, Green and Blue anymore. It became the manipulation of hundreds of Reds, Greens and Blues. That’s where the ‘Cameraman’ became ‘Director of Photography’ or ‘DoP’. Today he is concerned about a lot many things along with camera movement and lights.

That's when DI came in, Digital Intermediate. The source which is shot in analogue (Film emulsion) was transferred to digital, colour corrected and then transferred back to analogue (Film emulsion) for theatre release. That’s how the term Digital intermediate came in.

Everything is digital now. Source is digital, the process is digital, and the end is digital. There’s no Intermediate anymore. But we still call it DI.

Couple of years back, while I was starting a film shoot, the director came and sat beside me. He had this look on his face. I knew he wanted to talk to me.

Ok... Go ahead..

I prefer the images to be truthful.

Ohhhh... Me too..

I mean, whatever you want to do, please do it in camera... When we are shooting.

Seeing the blank look on my face he decided to elaborate.

You use whatever filters you want to use, decide the time you want to shoot..

Ohhhh.. Thanks.

(I was pleasantly surprised. Normally directors ask me, “Please do it fast, don't worry, we will fix it in the post!!”)

Let's keep the purity of the image you create in the camera. I don't want you to disturb that purity in DI.


Meaning... No LUTs, no windows, no chroma keys... Like that..

But... Then... How do you create the image?

Whatever image you create while shooting... we can see the true image on the onboard monitor... right? We will keep that without changing it later.

I realised what the issue is.

I started my learning with analogue, with B&W and then to colour and then to digital. Every stage I had to relearn almost everything. It was not easy. But it had to be done to stay in business. In the process I learned one thing.

There's creativity in everything.

As technology progressed, one got more and more tools to work with. I had to put more time in learning to understand and use these tools creatively. Instead of running away I decided to go with it. Instead of becoming a slave to the technology I know, I decided to explore further and master it. For someone who is experienced in analogue, to make this transition into digital in a couple of months is not easy. I need to explain a few things.

But where do I start? I decided to go slow.

Yea.. sure.. We will keep discussing it.


He had a look of satisfaction on his face.

Later in the day I made him sit in front of the onboard monitor and showed him a shot we canned that day with Rec709 colour space.

He was very happy.

Ya… this is good. We will keep it that way.

I changed the lut.

Why are you changing the colours?

I changed the lut again.

Oh god, I prefer the original.

All these are originals.

The first one was the original right?

No. All these are Lut's, like the first one. I will show you the original now.

I showed him the Raw image.

This doesn't look like anything.

Yes we have to create our original from this one. You and I have to decide what's our original. For that we will take the help of our colourist. That will be our interpretation of the Raw image you are watching now and we will call that our Original, our pure image.

Our interpretation….?

Yes... Our interpretation is the original. That's the advantage of going digital. Your image is your creative interpretation, Digital Interpretation.

Wow... What did I just say?

Digital Interpretation!!! DI.

So it's not an outdated name anymore. It's a beautiful name for that process.

Concept of beauty is an ever changing one. From the ‘all equal tone pics’ to monochromatic or bleached out pics, the fashion magazine covers changed over the time. The way paintings changed from realism, photography also changed its concept of ‘Good photography’ over the years.

Film makers experimented with chemical processes like ‘Bleach bypass’ ( to create a different look. As cinema moved from B&W to colour and to digital, we got more tools, Colours and it's unlimited hues, to narrate the story in a better way.

It’s not just time which changed the look of photography in cinema. The concept or theme of a script also became the determining factor for a ‘Photographic Look’ in a film. That’s why ‘American Beauty’ and ‘Road to Perdition’, both directed by Sam Mendes and photographed by Conrad Hall don’t look the same.

The concept and theme of a story is interpreted by the cinematographer in a particular way, however the deciding factor of how the film should look is not just the cinematographer. It’s a collective decision by the core team, Producer, Director, DoP, Production designer, Costume designer, Action choreographer etc, etc. Because each one has a substantial contribution in creating the ‘look’. Without the contribution of these people it’s not possible to create the ‘intended’ look successfully.

‘Intended’? What's that?

Yes. That's how you do it. You decide the look before you start shooting. That's how each one gets to contribute into the film, the colours of costume, the colours and texture of locations, the style of action choreography, the shot breakdown etc, etc. It's not an accident or a miracle happening in the post production house. It's a predetermined path. You just polish it or make it better than what you had in the beginning. That’s where you play with those hundreds of hues. That’s where a colourist’s contribution comes in. But you need to have something to begin with, something common for all the key departments to begin with, so that you reach the ‘Intended look’.

I have always hated when people call me a ‘technician’. Yes, I work with technology. I may understand technology more than many people on the set. But I don’t come to the set with a set of screw drivers, or hammers. I don’t repair anything. I come with my mind with creative ideas, I create images on a set, I am an artist.

Most of the films we make, use the technicians but not the artists we are.That’s why most of our films look the same, even if they deal with different themes. They all look the same- colourful and bright. You will not see a conceptual treatment of colours in most of our films. When I look back into my career, mostly I have received the same request from my directors and producers- ‘Please make it bright and colourful’.

​Our films still follow a very theatrical concept. Most of the time the script I receive is a dialogue script. Every decision is made based on those dialogues. Movement of camera or artist, shot breakdown, sound design, editing etc, everything depended on those dialogues.

Sound and picture are the two most important factors of cinema. Here, sound is used to make the dialogues ‘heard’ and the picture is used to make the person who speaks the dialogues ‘seen’. There’s no other function for the two in 90% of our cinema.

The possible reason for this may be that our cinema started as an extension of popular song and dance theatre. Our early cinema tried to replicate and replace popular theatre as an entertainment medium. So they heavily borrowed tools from this theatre. Filled up the screen with dialogue and filled up the rest of the time with music. Songs and dance naturally became a part of it. The attempt to compete and copy the theatre, formed our cinema into ‘2D theatre’. Camera became an ‘Observer’ and the sound became a ‘Recorder’. We refused to move away from those practices.

Acting stayed as loud performance to reach the last bench audience in a theatre. The first lesson we teach an acting student is - ‘Camera is your audience, face it when you act’. That’s why even today the actors turn to the camera, away from the co-actor when they give a punchline. Many a times they walk all the way towards the camera, far far away from the co-actor with whom he is having a conversation. He is walking to the front stage closer to the audience as in the drama theatre.

Editing became a tool to reduce the ‘wasted’ time between dialogues. Sound design became a tool to manipulate the silences between dialogues and music. Special effects are used as a tool to show magic. Darkness and silence became unbearable as in theatre. Loudness became a norm of everything as in popular theatre. All efforts of standardizations of sound level, picture brightness level, theatre screen brightness level etc stayed in theory and were not followed even by the best of the theatre chains.

Ultimately the way we judge a film became its story and nothing else. That's why our so called film critics write only about the story and nothing else. I have always laughed at the lines they come up on cinematography in a film review,

‘The cinematography is fluid’,

‘The Dop did justice to the locations’

‘The camera work is eye candy’........

In ‘Film India’, the film magazine of the fifties, a film review was of many pages. One whole page was dedicated to write about cinematography. They even wrote about the quality of lab processing. By and by all other departments other than story, actors and music disappeared from film magazines, the way technical awards disappeared from film award functions. Academy awards earlier decision to not to telecast tech awards was the last blow.

Some time back I remember requesting a well known film critic to write about a famous cinematographer for a publication I was compiling. The article I received had the bio data of the cinematographer in the first paragraph. The rest of the article was all about the directors he worked with and actors who acted in those films. There was nothing about the cinematographer’s work. He had no idea about the much celebrated cinematographer’s contribution.

I have heard people saying, we don't have good technicians in our country. I hope one day they will educate themselves that it’s not technicians but the ‘Artists’ inside the Producer, Director, Dop, Production designer, Costume designer etc...etc create those wonderful works.

Let there be light!!!!

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