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  • The Role of the Cinematographer, Part I: Lighting
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  • The Role of the Cinematographer, Part 2: Composition
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  • Death of the Auteur: The Vanishing Tradition of European Arthouse Cinema in Summer Hours and The Father of My Children
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The Role of the Cinematographer, Part 2: Composition

 | Interview |

  BY Govind Nihalani and Celluloid Chapter

Govind Nihalani; The Role of a Cinematographer

If lighting is thus an important factor in cinematography, composition is another factor. Composition is essentially the organization of space; where you place your actor, your furniture, or how you place the actors in relations to one another. The lens you choose determines the perspective that you give to the composition. The angle, whether you are at top or flat against me, or below my eyeline, gives you yet another element in the composition. But what ultimately makes you decide on a particular lens or a particular angle and a particular arrangement within the frame, is the attitude that comes to be reflected in the frame, For a drama does not just present information to you. When I show a man facing a crowd, I tell you how, with whom my sympathies lie, who I think dominates the situation. If you have a cinemascope frame for example, on one side you see one man, and on the other twenty men, with a lot of space between them, there is a tremendous tension, a tremendous sense of confrontation between the two. But if in the same frame you have a big close-up of a man in profile at one edge and on the other edge another man in profile, there is a different kind of confrontation again. In yet another shot, if you have one man facing another, the latter in suggestion, the situation is almost like normal, one talking to the other. What I’ve been giving you are very primary examples of how a placing within the frame, the facing of the actor/ actress, the space between actors, the angle at which you shoot them can give the attitude of the director towards a particular character, a particular situation, or a particular moment.

There was a very interesting film, The Ipcress File (1965). I’m sure most of you have seen it. Now there for the first time, or maybe after a long time they started giving a different kind of composition. When two people are talking in a frame, the one who dominated occupied a huge space in the frame, and the other person, who was being dominated, was usually given a little corner in the frame, so in a shot you saw just a part of the head, a huge shoulder with the jacket on it, and at the corner you saw the face of the opposite party- a very graphic example of how a composition can be used to frame your attitude towards the information that is being conveyed to you, in this case, the information being that this second person is in danger, with the other person dominating the frame monstrously. Without saying it in so many words, I can convey that information to you, through the composition.

Then, of course, there is the use of lenses. Of the lenses in use now, the most important one for at least an Indian filmmaker is the zoom lens. It is so easy to use, because with a simple turn of a ring the zoom lens changes the focal length from very wide to fairly close, so that it tends to become a shortcut for a trolley, where the camera on a trolley moves physically close to the character, whereas with the zoom you just turn the ring and you get a larger size.

There is a disctinct difference however between a trolley shot and zoom shot, for the perspective is essentially a relationship between the viewer, the subject and the background. Now, when you change only the focal length from one fixed position, the position between the viewer, viz. the camera, the subject, viz. the actor, and the background does not change, the distance remains constant, only the size changes. But when you move the trolley, the distance changes, the subject comes nearer; the background changes, perhaps the angle too changes. Hence there is a greater sense of involvement. You feel as if you have really moved closer to the subject.

There are two basic ways of camera movement. In one of these ways you emphasize the movement. Somebody says something, and as a reaction you rush the camera on to his face, using the camera movement itself as a dramatic element in telling the story; telling the audience, ‘Look, this is a very important moment and I must rush to see what his or her expression is or what he or she is trying to say.’ You rush towards the sight for a purely dramatic reason. The other way, the simpler way, is to follow the character. When the characters run through the jungle in Rashomon (1950), the camera follows them. It is pure and simple following the action.

There is a third way of doing it, a much more sophisticated way, where you combine the movement of the characters within the frame with the movement of the camera, so that at any given point the director is constantly changing the relationships and not only giving you the correct information, but also giving you the correct angle and the correct attitude towards the situation. In such cases, most of the time you are not aware of the camera movement; and that is the most accomplished way, as far as I can go by my own experience. For then the movement that is not obvious, that has taken place and you are not even aware of the fact that it has taken place, becomes part of the overall mise-en-scène, the overall movement pattern of the actors and the camera within a shot.

Now if you are looking particularly at the work of the cameraman in the film, these are the things you should be looking for, viz. the lighting, the composition, and the camera movement.

The fourth factor, of course, is colour. But before we take up colour, let me remind you once again that whether it is colour, or movements of lighting, or really anything at all, it is not the cameraman who accomplishes it by himself. The cameraman is one of the most important members of a team. He naturally needs to be supported by the art director, the costume designer, and above all, the director, because he has to function constantly within the framework provided by the director. It always helps if the director and the cameraman are in perfect harmony. Suppose, as a director I conceive of a static shot, and the cameraman comes and says ‘Use a trolley here, because what you want to achieve by a static shot I think you can achieve better by using a trolley,’ I should be able to see his point and use it. So the cameraman comes in as somebody who contributes in terms of achieving what I as a director want to achieve. His input enhances my vision.

The cameraman on his own does not do anything gin terms of the film. Lighting is the only factor where he exercises the maximum amount of independence. Composition, camera movement and camera angle have to be decided upon in collaboration with the director. Having said all this, I would like you to see a film which I have made recently[1]-Rukmavati ki Haveli (1991). Whatever points I have made so far have been covered quite well in this film, as you will see for yourselves.

It is not a very long film- about two hours ten minutes. It is based on a Spanish play: Federico Garcia Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba. The initial situation is: in a house in a Christian village, the man of the house has died, and the women are in mourning. In Spain most of the walls are whitewashed with lime. So they are white. The play has been often described as one of blacks and whites- black-clad women in mourning against white walls.

I set my version in Rajasthan and sought to use a similar kind of pattern, not exactly blacks and whites, but grey, black and maroon. The entire play takes place in the enclosure of the four walls of a mansion, half of it happens in the courtyard where there is no direct access to sunlight. So the light comes from top, and is a diffused light. It is the claustrophobia that is the most important factor in the play. So I felt that I would avoid sunlight even in the courtyard where it could come, because as an external element it could convey the sense of some open space somewhere, which I didn’t want to emphasize at all.

I have used sunlight inside the room where it is filtered through the windows in small patterns, so that you feel that there is a world outside, but you are trapped within. The sunlight, in fact, creates the pattern of a grill, and you know that there is no escape. And then, of course, there is a night scene in which lamps provide the source of light. On the walls we have used a very light yellow kind of shade, emphasizing the presence of the solid walls, and at the same time a very eerie atmosphere, both together constantly reminding you that these women are trapped.

Working in my double role as director and cinematographer, I identified the essence of the work as the projection of a play, and the projection of a social system, the value structure of which gives only secondary importance to the basic human needs and aspirations that come second to values like Honour, Family, Khaandaan[2],  ‘Hum to Suryavansh se hain’[3], all that sort of thing- and the tragedy it can cause. But above all the text suggested that however strong the system be, it cannot suppress the human spirit. In other words, one cannot just keep the human spirit tied up in a system like this. As you will see, the characterization and the situation in the play add up to something of an extreme kind. In the original play, the period of mourning is supposed to continue for eight years. I have reduced it to five, because in the Indian context eight years is far too much. Normally we would observe mourning for a year or two. In the situation I had in the play, everything has been pushed to the extreme, almost touching the fringes of melodrama. It was my job to avoid reaching that point where you could start feeling it melodramatic. I felt that the situation in itself has sufficient strength, and I knew I wouldn’t need anything else if I could get credible individualization of characters and good performance. I left it to the characters to decide, to work from the inner states of mind, because my film is about suppression, and the suppression is felt mentally, not physically. So the inner tension of the characters should determine the rhythm of the film. The film, you will see, has an outwardly even kind of rhythm, without a flurry of curs, coming down to very long, silent pauses. I was determined to avoid obvious rhythms of that kind. Emotional intensities, claustrophobia, and all that feel, I decided, must be conveyed as effectively as possible, and whatever rhythm it demanded should emerge from the performances. The shot divisions and camera movements and the photography will just help that sort of a feel and not impose their own presence on the scenes. Therefore, I decided I won’t have any flamboyantly dramatic lighting. Particularly on the face of Rukmavati-Bernarda I devised a lighting pattern, in which most of the light was coming bounced from the top, so that whenever she raised her head slightly up, you could see a very light wash of light on the face, giving it a very peculiar quality, even as you had a feeling that there was an opening on the top, but no opening on the sides- as if it were a well.

I had decided not to go out of the house. So the walls became important for me. But you can’t have just the walls, you needed the realistic details like the murals, the arches etc. But we designed the texture of the stone that you see over there - to emphasize the bricks of tone. We decided: Let it have the strong feel of rought stone, with no gimmicky highlighting.

In theatre a certain amount of stylization is accepted. But cinema demands a certain amount of realism. My walls, for example, are not exactly white, but grey. The stone was aged a little; it was whitewashed, but then allowed to go a little grey. In cinema, the way I see it, the human face must always dominate; whereas, in photography, whenever you light up a white thing, or anything of a light colour, say, light blue or light green, it immediately draws attention. Unlike Indian miniature painting, which is evenly lit, European Renaissance painting, which has affected our way of seeing so substantially, followed the conention- the face was always lighter and brighter than the rest. We still follow that tradition, and it works for us, for if you are dealing with human beings and human experiences, the human being must dominate. The only other way of doing it is to make your backgrounds brighter and keep the human faces in silhouette. But you cannot hope to hold a frame of that kind for too long. We all want to see the face.


1. Please note this recording happened on 28th October, 1991.

2. Hindi word meaning 'Family' or 'Clan.'

3. Meaning 'Clan of the Sun', the members of this lineage are considered to be high class in the stae of Rajasthan.